Leftist vs. liberal

Note: The following is probably twaddle. I’ll think of five ways to say it better by Monday.

I’ve been thinking about writing this for a couple weeks, and in that time I think I’ve found several different angles on it. Let’s see what comes out when I write it down here and now.

What’s the difference between a liberal and a Leftist? It’s an important distinction, I think. I’ve been trying to avoid lambasting liberals for a while now, and targeting Leftists instead. Because there’s a distinction.

A lot of us conservatives call ourselves classical liberals, and I consider that an important point.

Leftism, I think, goes back to Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Swiss philosopher. (I’m not an expert on Rousseau, but he’s come up a lot in my reading – mostly in Allan Bloom and Paul Johnson.) Rousseau was one of those people who, regardless of their own merits, tipped the historical scales. After him, everything was different.

I used to help out with the History and Aims class at the seminary where I worked. And one point I always emphasized was that, regardless how conservative our church body is today, our denominational forebears started out as flaming liberals.

But liberalism was different back then.

What liberalism meant in the 19th Century, I told them, had nothing to do with sexual ethics (at least in the realm of Christian liberalism – secular liberalism was different, thanks in large part to Rousseau). Liberalism had nothing to do with one’s view of Scripture. It had nothing to do with the size of government.

Liberalism was about the place of the common people in society.

Conservatives back then believed in social class. There were the “better people” and the “common people.” The better people, the nobility and the higher clergy, were ordained by God to run the world. They were wise and educated, and deserved to call the shots. The common people should pray, pay, and obey.

Liberals, on the other hand, believed that the common people were every bit as good as their betters. All the common people needed was good moral and practical education.

America, as a social experiment, was based on that belief.

Rousseau was the guy who popularized that view. He differed from Christians in having his own myth of Creation and Fall. Originally, he said, Man was a Noble Savage, living in a State of Nature. He was virtuous without effort.

Then along came civilization. Civilization brought rules and laws and social differentiation. And somehow (he never explained how) Virtuous Savage Man became Corrupt Civilized Man. It was all the fault of the laws and customs that came with civilization. (The Greens hold a variety of this doctrine today.)

I’m not sure Rousseau was looking for the kind of revolutionary uses the French would make of his theories. The whole French Revolution was an attempt to tear down the old corrupt order and replace it with a new rational order, in which the virtue of the Noble Savage might flourish again.

They got the Savage part right.

As the Rousseauean experiment in liberalism made its bloody progress through history, there was also a parallel kind of liberalism. This was the liberalism of Evangelicalism.

John Wesley was its prophet in England. England (it has been argued, and I believe it) avoided a revolution like the French largely because of Wesley. The converted Methodists carried on a practical experiment in social advancement through virtue – and it worked. His followers gave up gambling and drinking and vice in general. They worked and saved. And they prospered. “I can’t keep these people poor,” Wesley is supposed to have complained.

For a long time, the Evangelicals and the Rousseaueans were able to work together, against a common enemy – the classist old order that wanted to keep the commoners down.

But as the commoners were liberated, and moved into the middle class, the two strains parted.

The Evangelicals and classical liberals believed that Man was created in the image of God. They believed (or learned) that liberty was a divine gift, and that government should be limited, because government is made of sinful men, and neither the people nor the rulers should be left unchecked.

The Rousseaueans believed that Man was a corrupted noble savage. All that was needed to restore the State of Nature was a rational reordering of society, so that Man’s natural virtue might blossom. The government that promoted this reordering would automatically be wise and virtuous. Therefore all power could be trusted to it. Marx was an apostle of this view.

The Rousseauans took a while to abandon their old belief in personal freedom – “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it,” as Voltaire didn’t say (but it’s commonly attributed to him).

But they found that personal freedom is like a monkey wrench thrown into the machinery of the Ideal State the Rousseueans envision. Individual thinkers are hard to regiment. So personal freedom has to go (as the Communists decided early on). As personal freedom has lost its appeal to them, the liberals have become Leftists.

And that’s what I mean when I criticize Leftists. I mean people who hold such faith in the potential of the State for good that they consider freedom too dangerous to permit.

Which leaves us in an odd reversal. The Left, which once championed freedom of thought, now promotes the criminalization of all unsanctioned views. And the Evangelicals, who have now stepped into the space formerly occupied by conservatives, are (generally) championing freedom of thought. Not perfectly, I’m sure, but far more than the Left.

And so genuine liberals need to re-evaluate the situation, and decide whether they will follow freedom of thought, even if it leads them to the Right.

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