Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Beyond Left and Right

On Sunday I blogged about Daniel Hannan's article on the abuse of the term "Right wing".

Today, Gerald Warner weighed in:

The debate between Damian Thompson and Daniel Hannan over whether the BNP should be designated a Left- or Right-wing party has raised some interesting points; but it has not addressed the more important issue – that we must abandon this increasingly misleading terminology, based on the seating arrangements in the French National Assembly of 1789, as its irrational straitjacketing has reduced political discourse to fatuity. I have already advanced that argument here, last September.

In 1789, in the Assembly, the increasingly alarmed partisans of the ancien régime sat on the right-hand side (Côté Droit) of the president, the revolutionaries on his left-hand side (Côté Gauche). This terminology was first made familiar to the English-speaking world by Thomas Carlyle, in Volume I of “The French Revolution”: “Rudiments of Methods disclose themselves; rudiments of Parties. There is a Right Side (Cote Droit), a Left Side (Cote Gauche); sitting on M. le President’s right hand, or on his left: the Cote Droit conservative; the Cote Gauche destructive.”

That recognition of the character of so-called progressive forces as “destructive” was a valuable insight; the reviving of the memory of the Left/Right alignment, however, was less beneficial. Yet this terminology did not gain popular currency until as late as 1897, when the psychologist William James disseminated the phrase “left wing”. By the 1930s it was all-pervasive. Today it has infantilised politics (and the BBC) to the extent that mutinous Russian armoured columns advancing on Moscow to restore Marxism-Leninism were described as “Right-wing”.

For Warner, the key distinction is traditionalists and reformers:
The correct terminology for those who futilely seek to improve the world through some innovatory creed such as socialism is “radical”, “liberal” or, preferably, “progressive”, since that places some onus on them to explain to what destination they imagine they are progressing. In the more extreme cases they may be described as “revolutionary”.

Their opponents should not hesitate to reclaim the currently pejorative term “reactionary”. It describes a coherent process: an examination of a failed innovation leading to a determination to return to the status quo ante; it is what a scientist does in the laboratory when an experiment fails.
I'd love to know exactly which century Mr Warner would have us return to. Sane people recognise that not all "innovatory creeds" are bad. Indeed there has been steady moral progress in Western Europe to accompany our scientific and technological progress. As our knowledge has grown, old fears and prejudices have crumbled. As we have become wealthier, charity and compassion have become easier. The problem is that in recent decades we have stopped becoming freer; indeed, on this most important point, we have actually regressed.

Here's what I wrote in the comments section of Warner's Telegraph article:
Mr Warner, you are right that the Left-Right terminology has infantalised politics, and that we must move away from it. You're also right that the "progressive" vs "reactionary" distinction is an important one. But not everything about the past is worth preserving. The most important distinction is between libertarians and authoritarians.

As Disraeli said,

"I am a Conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad. I seek to preserve property and to respect order, and I equally decry the appeal to the passions of the many or the prejudices of the few."


Although it immediately struck me as plausible, I was intrigued by Warner's suggestion that "mutinous Russian armoured columns advancing on Moscow to restore Marxism-Leninism were described as “Right-wing”". Could this really be true?

A bit of digging turned up a BBC retrospective from 15 August, 2001: Three days that shook the world:
It was a summer's day in 1991 when the Soviet Union's diehard communists decided they could take no more of perestroika.
In a moment of drama which sealed his place as a hero of the people, Yeltsin climbed onto one of the "friendly" tanks and appealed for resistance and a nationwide strike.

"We are dealing with a right-wing, reactionary, anti-constitutional coup," he said.
It seems likely that Yeltsin was being deliberately misleading, but it's interesting that the BBC article makes no attempt to correct or explain the obvious inconsistency.

A New York Times article from April 23, 2007, commemorating Yeltsin's death, was even worse:
The Yeltsin era effectively began in August, 1991, when Mr. Yeltsin clambered atop a tank to rally Muscovites to put down a right-wing coup against Mr. Gorbachev, a heroic moment etched in the minds of the Russian people and television viewers all over the world.
There you have it! They weren't just right-wingers according to Boris Yeltsin, they were right-wingers according to the New York Times! On the second page (of ten!) the article provides the "right-wing" claim from the horse's mouth, but their narrative reaffirms the veracity of Yeltsin's categorisation:

Mr. Yeltsin became etched in the minds of the Russian people and, indeed, became a world figure, with one act of extraordinary bravery on the day in August 1991 when he clambered atop a Red Army tank and faced down the right-wing forces who were threatening to overthrow Mr. Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader.

Long a thorn in Mr. Gorbachev’s side and soon to become his most powerful rival, Mr. Yeltsin on that day was Mr. Gorbachev’s most powerful and effective ally.

“Citizens of Russia,” he declared. “We are dealing with a right-wing, reactionary, anti-constitutional coup d’etat. We appeal to citizens of Russia to give an appropriate rebuff to the putschists.”

On the fifth page of the article, the author helpfully reminds us what sort of coup it was:
It was two months later, in August 1991, that Mr. Yeltsin strode from his office in the Russian republic’s headquarters, an office building known as the White House, to thwart the right-wing coup, an act of heroism that saved Mr. Gorbachev from overthrow but also sealed the Soviet Union’s doom.
Convinced yet? Nasty right-wingers!

It's only fair to mention that a contemporaneous article from The Guardian gave a more truthful account of the coup:
He came to prominence in the west during an attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev by hardline communist sympathisers in August 1991, responding by rallying his supporters with a dramatic speech delivered from the top of a tank.
PBS had coverage shortly after the event, with this perspective from Dr. Henry Kissinger:
I fear very much that if the right wing coup prevails ... we will then be back to a cold war type situation
And if you can't trust Kissinger, who can you trust?

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