Left or right – is that the question?

(Das deutsche Original, publiziert in EuroKalypse Now? (Metropolis 2014) unter dem Titel Rechts oder Links – das ist die Frage, kann ich nur in englischer Übersetzung auf meine Website reproduzieren)

Franz-Josef Strauß, once a man of power, but perhaps not of great thoughts, made a cryptic statement when he said that the purpose of preservation is non-preservation. Of course, he expressed himself in a somewhat different way, in order to be fully understood by everybody. „To be conservative means not to look backwards, but to march at the head of progress“.*1* After such an oracle-like revelation, the clouds shrouding the mystery of how to distinguish the Left from the Right have become even thicker. Nevertheless, there is nobody who denies that both camps are fighting each other as two opposing blocks. So there must be some line dividing them – even if one does not necessarily get an illuminating answer from men like Franz-Josef Strauß.

Let’s try to make things as easy as possible

I am aware that everyone who expresses his own opinion on this rather elusive subject, is venturing on a smooth floor where he might easily slip. So I would like to confess to a daredevilry: namely that I will consciously play the role of the ‘terrible simplifier’. This perspective offers at least one advantage: many unbelievable trees disappear – among them the essence of conservativeness said to be progress. Instead we see the wood which opens beyond the trees. As soon as we lift the problem of Right versus Left to a more philosophical level, we find ourselves face to face with a clearly structured vista that more than indemnifies us for such simplification.

Moral versus mechanics

Right and Left – so my first thesis – embark on different ways in the choice of their means. The core point of the left-wing worldview is the transformation of social institutions, so that man and society may achieve their best development. Material structures such as the distribution of economic and political power or simply the distribution of wealth are its main focus. The right world view, on the other hand, tends to regard institutions merely as external manifestations of the moral constitution of society and individuals. Therefore, it emphasizes social values. If human beings and society would only commit themselves to the right values, the institutions will all of themselves assume the right shape.

Compressing this difference into a simple, almost primitive formula, one could say that the Left is primarily concerned with social matter, while the right focuses on the spirit beyond such matter. For this reason, the Left, since its genesis in the French Revolution, has been accused of a materialistic spirit, while the right-wing camp always aroused the suspicion that, with its emphasis on spirit and values, it only wanted to distract from the fact that it held its protecting arms over the privileges of birth and wealth.

Up to the present day, there has been little change in the hostile vocabulary with which the two camps are fighting each other. Leftists are still abused as flat materialists, who tend to pursue a rabid egalitarianism along rigid ideological lines. Rightists for their part must accept the suspicion of class egoism and class domination. Their talk of morality and values, so their opponents maintain, ​aims at no other purpose than to permanently secure the existing division of rich and poor, rulers and ruled against all possible change.

Cum grano salis

Of course, such discussions are likely to be rife with all types of prejudice and one-sidedness. But they, nevertheless, tend to enclose more than just a grain of truth. Anyone who even superficially deals with left-wing programs feels amazed at the idealism of theorists who believe that the well-being of society just depends on the realization of one or two formulas of their world improvement programs. Resolute rationalists are at work, whose approach resembles that of engineers or physicists, though they apply their formulas not to dead and defenseless things, but to the living body of a society. They examine the problem, then calculate theoretical solutions until finally turning to the technical implementation. In their perspective society resembles a mechanical clockwork, whose individual cogs and wheels only need to be adjusted correctly, so that the whole clock functions correctly. As little as any physicist reckons with morality and values when adjusting a clockwork, do these social engineers take these into account. From a strictly rationalist point of view, morals and values represent unscientific entities beyond their horizon. If only they succeed in finding the right formula to act on the social matter, then a new spirit – a new morality and new values – will follow suit as a matter of course. The prototype of all social engineers is to this day the author of ‘Das Kapital’.

The rationalism of the leftist world view

From the outset, the left world view is characterized by its emphasis on rational thinking. Here we find one of the reasons why it exerts so powerful an attraction on intellectuals. On the other hand, the right-wing world-view has to fight against the accusation of obscurantism. Do values ​​and morals not belong to a thoroughly irrational sphere? Every historically educated person can not possibly close his eyes to the fact that morals and values, as to be found in one society, may be considered immoral aberrations in some other. For this reason, many immigrants from the Near East react with extreme distrust to the values they encounter in their new German or English homelands. Sometimes the resulting shocks follow each other in quick succession. While at the middle of the eighteenth century the French nobility and its values were still surrounded by a halo of superhuman splendor, a few decades later they ended on the lanterns and guillotines of the republic.

The left world view remains untroubled by this relativism, because it resolutely renounces morality and values ​​in its social therapy. Even if leftists often act like naive social plumbers and hardcore materialists, their philosophy seems after all to be in alliance with reason.

The Universalism of the Left

This is also shown by the fact that only the theories of the Left have received a worldwide response. Like human rationality itself, they are universal by nature. For a time, Marxism has succeeded in spreading over large parts of the globe. One could be a Chinese, a Russian, a Mexican or a member of some tribal people in Africa and believe in the social promises of Marx, Lenin or Mao despite of different historical and cultural conditions. If there really exists a science of society, which finds its laws in the social sphere just as do the natural sciences in the sphere of matter, then universalism must apply to nature and society alike.

This is opposed to the localism of the Right

The right camp has never been able to counteract this universalism with anything similar. How could it possibly do so? Those who defend French culture – whether the French themselves or their admirers – do not want its singular aspects to disappear in some universal facelessness. What they conceive as precious is the uniqueness, all the infinite particularities of this culture, whether in language, literature or art – all the customs and traditions of the „France profonde“ or of French gastronomy and its refined conviviality. And so it is with all other great cultures. Anyone who sees in Indian, Tibetan or Chinese culture the unique manifestations of human creativity does not want them to be sacrificed for a single formula either of „the“ human being or „the“ society. Those of the Right defend human diversity, in contrast to universalism, which they blame for its deliberate destruction of such diversity and the catastrophic impoverishment it produces. Here we find the deeper cause for why there is and can be no global movement of the Right. To be sure, right extremists – the Bossis, Le Pens, Haiders, and Straches – look for allies beyond national borders, but they do so merely for the purpose of political expediency to form a closed front against the left camp.

The discriminated and tormented choose the universalist doctrine

It goes without saying that people discriminated and persecuted because they belong to different cultures rarely feel any sympathy for right wing doctrines. Just think of the Jews. Many among them, alienated from their own faith, saw no sense in taking over a new faith, such as Christianity, instead of the religion they had abandoned. Nor did they want to become Aryans after they had consciously renounced their Jewry – they simply wanted to be humans. To them the universalism of left-wing teachings, especially Marxism, offered a peculiar attraction. Here they encountered a seemingly universal teaching, which united people regardless of their descent. Here, they only had to listen to the voice that is common to all human beings: the voice of reason.

Political parties and the breaking lines of European intellectual history

But let us probe somewhat deeper into this reason and the universalism it proclaims. Historically speaking, the Right and the Left are rooted in mere contingency, namely, the distribution of seats in the French National Convention at the time of the Revolution. But history is hardly ever blind. Mostly it obeys a hidden choreography from a historical background rooted deeper in the past. The actors of that time were, like iron filings aligned by a powerful magnet: European intellectual history. This had created a philosophical line of rupture between the two camps, which was to give its historic depth to the superficial arrangement of seats. The fracture is still recognizable today. Just listen and you will still find the same significant contrast. While right-wingers like to talk about freedom, this word is regarded with a good deal of suspicion within in the left-wing camp.

It is at this point that we encounter the link, which connects everyday political skirmishes to the deeper lying strata of Western thought. The great rationalists, from Descartes to Voltaire to Karl Marx and Bertrand Russell, have denied freedom either indirectly or even expressly.*2* They had to do this because the social world can only be changed at will analogously to nature, when reason avails itself of the same strict laws in the human sphere as in outward nature. This belief in the rule of reason, not only with regard to dead things but with regard to individuals and society, is characteristic of the world view of the left camp. And it is precisely this belief that explains why freedom is a concept not particularly cherished by the Left.

On the other hand, skeptics of predominantly right-wing provenance have fought violently against the denial of freedom and against the universal claim of that sort of reason which governs our dealing with nature. It is no coincidence that the right-wing camp often raised freedom to the rank of an ideal. This basic dividing line in the history of the European mind must be fully understood if one wants to penetrate deeper into the fundamental opposition separating the Right from the Left.

Creation – the outstanding feature of the cultural sphere

For here we get the decisive point: Only if the social sphere is governed by laws in the same way as is true for non-human nature, may the claim of reason for universality be accepted. Only if social theorists and physicians actually resemble physicists and engineers, they may manipulate man as they manipulate nature. Like the latter they would be able to turn two or three screws in the clock work of human societies in order to achieve the desired effects. This claim, however, does not bear up against either historical or logical analysis. In reality, the social world stands out as a sphere created by freedom, which means that it manifests itself in its own peculiar form in every epoch and on every continent. Apart from conceptual abstraction, universal human beings have no more real existence than universal societies. Or rather such an abstraction applies only inasmuch as humans share their basic needs with all other animals being subject to the same basic desires for food, drink, sex and social communication. But even at the level of his most basic means of expression man by using language enters the sphere of freedom. Each specific language results from acts of pure creation, that is why it manifests itself in potentially infinite variants. Obviously, there are no intrinsic limits set to our freedom of linguistic creation. Reason searches in vain for laws from which it could derive the concrete form of a language. And in vain it searches for laws from which to derive all the remaining aspects of culture for which language just serves as the most basic example.

The mistrust of the leftist social theorists with regard to the cultural sphere

For language represents but the foundation of human creativity. If we replace this notion with art, tradition, religion, we are led to understand why a right-wing world view comes near to a truth, which the left-wing camp always tended to overlook – a truth, which the mainstream of social sciences too regards with suspicion. Rationalist know nothing about creation.*3*

From the point of view of science, which originally dealt only with outward nature (hence its name ‘natural’ sciences), culture belongs to the sphere of the arbitrary and the accidental. Heavenly bodies are eternal, as are the laws of the orbits on which they move. On the other hand, languages, customs, laws, and theories of God, whether they are encountered among Indians, Egyptians, Aztecs, or modern US citizens, bear the stain of the ephemeral. They are as temporary, as transient and changeable as their origin: the societies where they evolved. Science and the leftist social theories built upon it want to find laws as solid and eternal as those of natural science they do not want to bother with the transient, accidental and arbitrary. For this reason, they are led to regard the sphere of the cultural inferior in comparison to the universal order of nature. In this respect, the rationalists of the left-wing camp prove to be the legitimate heirs and typical representatives of European mentality as it came into being three hundred years ago.

The revolution of the 17th century

This new mentality represents nothing less than one of the most severe spiritual upheavals in man’s history. For until then, man had believed the very opposite. He had regarded the material sphere of his own existence, in other words, the sphere of necessities to which he had to submit like all other living beings, as of minor importance. But he imparted the very highest rank to all that he created himself above this sphere. To him the freely created universe of his own making was the most precious, the truly human, the spiritual, if not the god-given part of his existence. With few exceptions such as Lukrez, the Stoa, and a few other thinkers and intellectual movements of the Greco-Roman interludium, the eternal order was up to the seventeenth century represented not by the laws of the physical world but by the moral laws and social structure, which God or the Gods, the spirits, or fate had given to man. In the European modern age the concept of ‚law‘ came to be applied to the phenomena of nature, but before that time laws were almost uniquely found in the hands of gods and human rulers. And it was material nature which in view of its constant changes was held to be accidental, ephemeral, and transitory. Only the spiritual sphere, rising above it, was thought to embody what was everlasting and therefore unchangeable.

The spiritual was changed into a mere superstructure

Modern Europe, represented by modern science, has given a blow to this world view – even if not really the death blow. It recognized the relativity of morals, values, and the different conceptions of God – a relativity which could even turn into most hostile contradictions. Many of the most bloody wars and persecutions were based on futile differences of religious dogma. Science, therefore, sought to find only those truths which are unconnected to human prejudice and convictions. These it discovered in natural laws, i.e. in the constant patterns of outside material nature. In comparison, art, religion, politics, and cultural phenomena in general appeared to be arbitrary and therefore uninteresting – a mere ‘superstructure’. If leftist rationalists had to deal with it, they did so in order to prove that it was precisely the underlying material sphere – that is, the economy and the basic needs of human beings – that ultimately control and condition the cultural ‘overlay’.

The impossible reduction

However, all attempts to reduce the spiritual sphere to the material were doomed to fail. We can not derive languages from our diet, the means of production, or the distribution of wealth. The same applies to music, painting, poetry, forms of socializing, but even to mathematics.*4* It is true, of course, that each society, in its elementary needs, is in contact with nature, and at this point is at the mercy of its constraints and laws, but beyond these physical constraints, it establishes its own realm of freedom. Expressed in a poetical way, society is much more akin to music. It is the creator of its own being.

Religion is no exception

This also applies to the sphere so often interwoven with the interests of power: religion. Whether a people or an epoch resorts to an animistic, poly- or monotheistic view of the world, or to mysticism can not be deduced from material conditions. Any rational interpretation seeking for laws misconceives the very essence of the cultural sphere as it is blind to the freedom of individuals and societies. It is blind to the fact that the human faculty to build new worlds beyond material constraints, that is, to create worlds according to its own free will, constitutes the real core of human existence. To these creations belong all those customs, rituals, moral concepts, legislation and institutions born in the millennial course of human history. Single-minded rationalists – from Descartes to Bertrand Russell and the mainstream of the sciences – were able to successfully stamp their outlook on successive generations, but in a way they have impoverished our understanding because they all but overlooked this most important capacity of man. Nor does the left camp recognize freedom, as it sets definite limits to its efforts to manipulate man and society. To be sure, society can be manipulated in a mechanical way inasmuch as it behaves like a machine, but it withstands all such manipulation if and to the extent that it is subject to its own creative will.

Arbitrariness of the cultural sphere – a justified accusation?

The trauma is, once again, due to that fatal apple, more precisely, to that fatal bite which leads to knowledge. Since the end of the fifteenth century, people looked beyond the borders of their own city, their country, even beyond the European continent – and what they discovered was a variety of values ​​and moral ideas that seemed to mutually annihilate and destroy each other. This had an unsettling, mentally disorienting effect. Taking refuge with the sciences of nature, as did Francis Bacon at the beginning of the seventeenth century, may therefore be understood as a sort of escape. Resorting to the so-called eternal laws of nature offered itself as a salvation from a world of disturbing instability. The Middle Ages had hardly been shaken by comparisons with other cultures, but now the radically alien became part of the collective consciousness. This situation is similar to our own, it has even been further intensified. Nowadays people, even when living in some secluded village, are constantly bombarded with the secrets and horrors of the rest of the world. Their own convictions ​​are easily shaken when confronted with those of other cultures and peoples who by their mere existence prove them to be anything but self-evident.

But what to think of the basic suspicion that all culture is founded on arbitrariness? Let us, for a moment, return to language. It is true that the acoustic signs, with which men designate conceptual contents in their respective idioms, are fundamentally arbitrary.*5* Each language creates its peculiar acoustic marks (words) and grammatical conventions. No language as such exists, which reason might invent without resorting to such basic arbitrariness.*6* If we want to communicate at all, we have to renounce universal reason and make use of some language, which is necessarily arbitrary in its concreteness.

This very condition does, however, apply equally to the whole cultural sphere of symbols, rituals, beliefs, and the myths of religion (unless they are believed to have fallen from heaven). A religion as such does no more exist than any language as such.

Yet religion is a basic necessity of man. When he tries to speak of ​​the fundamental enigma of his existence, he can do so only by using concrete images, which remain provisional and interchangeable. Without ever attaining to the ultimate truth, they still point to a truth that man throughout history approaches with ever new efforts. Rationalists chose too easy a way when mocking these images, for they simply overlook the truth hidden behind them. Of course, it is never the speechless notions, it is those concrete images as they become expressed in language and culture, notions, which are saturated with feelings, sensual associations, passions, hopes, as well as depressions that are the substance of human life. What the rationalist rejects as arbitrary: those concrete images belonging to the freely created cultural sphere, are, in truth, the fundamental substance for all spiritual and emotional being. Insights of this kind we will rather find in the right camp, not with left universalists. Pascal knew more of it than Descartes,*7* Herder and Kant more than Leibniz.

The German middle way

If the Left appeals to laws, while the Right likes to evoke freedom, there is much more to it than mere political infighting. In the background we may see a philosophical confrontation that goes back to the 17th century and culminated in the Enlightenment of the 18th century. For the 18th century was at the same time the epoch of Voltaire, and that of Herder and Kant. With dogmatic insistence, Voltaire had subjected man and society to the laws of nature. Without any proviso, he adopted the standpoint of the natural sciences which started their victorious course in his time. But the one-sidedness of this approach did not go unchallenged. Herder drew public attention to the creations of culture and thus to the freedom of man. This was a different kind of enlightenment – enlightenment about reality beyond what natural sciences may reveal. Herder has not really been able to justify creative freedom, that freedom which even science has to acknowledge as a prerequisite*8*, but in a practical way he demonstrated its existence.

No thinker has embarked on the path of reconciliation between the two opposites more resolutely than Immanuel Kant. As a German he may have felt particularly attracted to such mediation, because his country is itself placed in a geographical center. The very title of Kant’s principal work ‘The Critique of pure Reason’ testifies to his intention to mediate between the extremes. This critique is at the same time an exploration of reason and – as shown in the aporias – a delimitation of its legitimate sphere. Later, in the ‘Critique of Practical Reason’, Kant will even deal with those spheres which the rationalists had banished as inferior from their field of vision.

Left or right – this is not the main question

So far I have considered the political orientations of both camps as serious statements of how to deal with man and society, pointing to their deeper opposition as it came to manifest itself in the three hundred years of discourse on freedom and necessity. I completely ignored the more trivial or cynical aspects – which are nevertheless often the predominant ones. Obviously, right-wing doctrines often serve to build a barrier around existing privileges, while the Left strives to acquire those privileges for its own followers. Likewise, it is hard to deny that religion often served as opium for the people, even if most times it could not at all be reduced to such a simple formula. I preferred to refrain from dwelling on the dangerous degenerations of both directions. As a matter of fact, leftist reason and right-wing voluntarism may be used to the benefit as well as to the detriment of societies. Reason can indeed bear monsters, as Goya knew (La razon produce monstruos). Where reason is believed to be embodied in the absolute rule of some nomenclature possessing the ultimate truth, it easily changes into terror and passes brutally over corpses. Throughout the entire range of testified history societies tended to regard their own way of life, that is, their views, dogmas, customs, and their respective religious conviction as such ultimate truths, while they declared other peoples to be barbarians, their language to be nothing but pitiful babble, and their views nothing but devil’s work. The uniqueness of their own cultural ‘self-design’ led them to defame all other manifestations of human existence as worthless. If this self-exaltation turned biological, so that people placed their own ‘race’ at the head of humanity, then they even felt justified to destroy other people. Hannah Arendt rightly placed left and right totalitarianism side by side. Both were proved to be equally devastating.

Deliberately, I refrained from talking about such extremes as there is absolutely no idea that may not be and has not actually been misused. I consider it much more important to note that the divergent views of both political directions may each be right and, at times, even necessary. Left wing reason can be used like a surgeon’s knife with which to remove rotten or cancerous tissue. Each society harbors internal contradictions which, in the course of time, endanger its equilibrium. Often these can only be removed by way of painful interventions. Modern property society, for instance, is especially at risk of facilitating a progressive accumulation of income and wealth in the hands of a minority. It is in danger of breaking apart if this trend continues unabated.

But apart from times of crisis, society mainly consists of healthy tissue that requires preservation and protection. After all, even the most single-minded innovators ultimately aim at establishing some stable and lasting order. For this reason, I regard the divergent forces of preservation and progress as complementary forces.*9* Cold reason is required when institutions and social rules obviously no longer serve the needs of society. Then the knife may be necessary, with which the forces of reform surgically remove the diseased tissue. But once their work has been done and the social balance restored, the social organism must again be preserved. Seen in this way, left and right do not appear to be irreconcilable.

1 Speech at election time on March 1st 1978 in Neustadt near Coburg.

2 Descartes: René Descartes, the modern father of rationalism, described animals as automata and even compared man to a machine: „I wish therefore that all the functions which I have attributed to this human organism /like the digestion of meat, the beating of the heart … the perception of light …, the impressions of the memory .. the external movements of the limbs ..; I would like to say that these functions are conceived in such a way that they arise in a natural way from the arrangement of the organs, just as the movements of a watch or of another automaton are based on the arrangement of weights and wheels” (Descartes, R. (1953), Oeuvres. (1660) Paris: Edition de la Pléiade. P. 873 (my translation). Descartes, did, however, not dare to be logically consistent, placing human beings too among automata. Knowing well that he would have exposed himself to the persecution by an all-powerful Inquisition, he chose to place human freedom in an almost unknown, almost fictitious organ: the pineal gland.

See the commentary by Henri Bergson. „Cartesianism clearly shows the shifting between mechanical determinateness and creative development. On the one hand, Descartes postulates a universal determinism: … Past, present, and future must be predetermined from eternity. On the other hand, … Descartes believes in the free will of man. On top of the determinism of physical phenomena he puts the indeterminism of human actions. Thus, he proceeded in two opposing directions, reluctant to pursue any of them to the end. The first of these ways would have led him to deny the free will of man and an effective will of God … „(Bergson: L’évolution créatrice, Paris, 1945.

Voltaire: The eighteenth century star of Enlightenment was no longer in danger of ending on the stake of mischievous priests. So he could relinquish human freedom without further ado. „It would be quite astonishing,“ wrote Voltaire, „if all the stars were subject to eternal laws, while only an inconspicuous beast five feet high may freely neglect them, just as his whims dictate to him. Then man would obey chance, but everyone knows that chance does not exist. We have invented this word merely to describe the known effect of an unknown cause „(Voltaire: Traité de métaphysique, 1734).

Karl Marx: The German social philosopher continued this line of reasoning. Karl Popper, wrongly condemned as a positivist, raised against Marx the accusation of historicism, which in fact means just this: the denial of freedom. Marx believed that the method of natural science may be equally applied to man and society because there we find the same kind of eternal and inexorable laws as in the field of inanimate things. Hence his apodictic prophecy concerning the birth of a classless society. On the basis of economic laws, he believed to have found, Marx believed that this birth was subject to the same necessity as an eclipse of the moon.

Bertrand Russell: One of the great rationalists of modern history, outstanding in style, intellectual rigor, and wit, was even more outspoken in the denial of freedom than his predecessors: „We do not know in what way they /living organisms/ developed, but their formation is no more mysterious than that of helium atoms. There is no reason to suppose that living matter is subject to laws different from those to which the non-living obeys. And there are good reasons to suppose that theoretically everything in the behavior of living beings can be explained in the terms of physics and chemistry“ (Russell (1953): Human Knowledge. Part I, Chap. 4. My italics).

3 One of the few exceptions is Konrad Lorenz who, with his concept of fulguration, introduced freedom right into the theory of evolution. See Konrad Lorenz: Die Rückseite des Spiegels (English: The back of the mirror. dtv 1977; S. 58ff.

4 Bertrand Russell expressly states that the evolution of mathematics follows its own course dictated by inherent problems – it cannot be derived from outward conditions.

5 Fernand de Saussure (1975): Cours de linguistique général. (1916) Paris. See my work Principles of Language.

6 An artificial language with a universal claim such as Esperanto is necessarily conventional (arbitrary) in its creation of concrete signs.

7 Pascal alludes to this contrast when he confronts the ‘Esprit de la géométrie’ with what he calls the ‘Esprit de la finesse’.

8 The philosophical problem of freedom I treated extensively in a book published by Metropolis in 2014 ‘Die Macht der Träume und die Ohnmacht der Vernunft – eine Philosophie der Freiheit (English: Doubt and Dogma – a Philosophy of Freedom).

9 In all doctrines of salvation, including those of the left kind, change is followed by conservatism – a remarkable Coincidentia Oppositorum. For as soon as mankind has successfully been redeemed from some evil, e.g. because the proletariat finally takes up its dictatorship, all previously practiced revolutionary change comes to an end and society turns into a fossil: the goal is achieved, there is nothing more to improve and to change. It is for this reasons that most former states confessing ‘real socialism’ turned out to be more conservative than those of the Western capitalist camp.