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Chapter 6: What to Call Yourself

Although it seems sad that intelligent creatures can be so childish, I believe that the wish to be called radical and regarded as belonging to “the Left” is a further cause of the treachery to civilization of many liberals. It is not concrete goods or values they are defending, but a name, and a status corresponding to it, in the hierarchy of political emotions. They fail to realize, or do not wish to, a fact which Thucydides remarked upon two thousand years ago: that in times of revolutionary upheaval words are forced to change their meanings.1 In discussing this, and other more bloody violences committed by revolutionists, Thucydides lays the worst blame upon “men who entered the struggle not in a class, but in a party spirit.” The remark is peculiarly relevant in our times because the first and most fundamental violence against language committed by the Marxian revolutionists was to make class mean party. Marx with his cryptic remark that “philosophers” instead of understanding the world ought to change it, and Lenin with his more lucid assertion that the workers can not of themselves arrive at a socialist consciousness, it has to be brought to them by “bourgeois intellectuals,” prepared the ground for this operation. The term “working class” was detached from the actual workers and attached to a party of believers in the Marxian theory about what the workers were going to do. This innocent-looking maneuver set the style for such etymological atrocities as calling it “liberation” when the Red Army marches in and arrests, jails, rapes, deports or shoots 30 percent of a nation’s population, and pinning upon the resulting perfect tyranny the name of “People’s Democracy.”

These crude tricks of demagogues can, with a trifle of ingenuity, be seen through. But they are only an artful exaggeration of natural tendencies that are more slow-moving, more subtle, and more dangerous to the life of truth. The word “left” has, over the last hundred years, gone through a change quite as complete as that suffered by “liberation” and “democracy” between Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station and Stalin’s extension of power to Eastern Europe and Asia. In its beginnings, in the democratic revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this word designated the people and groups who stood for the individual and his liberties as against the “constituted authorities.” In the French National Assembly of 1789, the nobles still commanded enough respect to receive places of honor at the right of the speaker, and the radicals naturally drew off as far as possible to the other side. Seats in the center remained for those having temperate views and emotions. In many European parliaments the precedent thus established was continued, and a distinction which had been specific and ceremonial became universal and political. The nobles were soon outside the building, but still on the right. The absolutists of individual freedom, the anarchists, were outside too, but they were the “extreme left.”

Whatever may have been the individual exceptions, there was little doubt about the meaning of these two terms. In Europe especially their connotations were extensive and very rich. The “man of the Right” was characterized in general by a taste for uniforms, badges, and emblems of hierarchical distinction. The “man of the Left” liked a plain suit of clothes, and the farther left the plainer and simpler, until you reached the soft collar and cap and loose flowing tie of the Bohemian rebel. The man of the Right liked titles and ceremonies; he addressed people with careful regard for the distance between them. He revered personages and looked down on mere human beings. The man of the Left shook hands and said hello to everybody, and why not? The man of the Right was for law and order as good in themselves. The man of the Left was for law primarily as a defense of the rights of the citizen and his liberties. The man of the Right was conventional and inclined to respect accepted opinions. The man of the Left was ready to kick over the conventions, and go in for independent inquiry on any subject. All these traits enriched the connotation of left and right, but most of all, and at the bottom of all, the attitude to the constituted authorities, to the state. “The individual on one side, the state on the other, that is the underlying substance of this contrast,” says J. Pera in an engaging essay on this subject.2

Now it is clear that not only in their underlying substance, but in all their essential implications, these words left and right have exactly changed places. In America, and I think in all Western countries, a “leftist” is a man unhorrified by the Soviet tyranny and acquiescent in the gigantic overgrowth of the state at home. The restoration in Russia of epaulettes, salutes, emblems, and attitudes of rank, the transformation of “comrade Stalin” first into “Marshal” and then “Generalissimo”—even the adoption of the goosestep in the Red Army—did not disturb his feelings. The reverence for a personage passing almost into obeisance before a god was not revolting to him. He accepted, or found excuses for, a system of law which, instead of defending men’s liberties, was focused upon suppressing them, and where it failed of that could be replaced by administrative decrees, or mere decisions of the state police. Conventions made rigid; opinions handed down by infallible authorities; value judgments made obligatory in every field of endeavor; a fixed hierarchy of caste and imposed status in civil and industrial as well as military and political life—all these things were meekly swallowed down. In short, every judgment and choice, every trait and mode of behavior, that once had given meaning to the word “right” is now supported or condoned by those whom all agree in calling “left” or “leftist.”

This would not matter so much if it were clearly and generally understood. But so much of the original magnetism still inheres in the term “left”—some suggestion, at least, of readiness for idealistic adventure—that to have it pinned on them, many once stout-hearted liberals are now actually willing to kneel down at the feet of the unqualified tyrants enthroned in the Kremlin. The thing is intelligible to me because, having been all my life a man of the Left, and having experienced no inner change or conversion, I find it almost organically painful when someone alludes to my present political opinions as “rightist” or as representing “the Right.” This makes the problem what to do about the reversed meaning of these key terms an acute one to me personally, but I think it is also of public importance. There ought to be some etymological device by which a person still bent on defending the free individual against the encroachments of a morbidly proliferating state can outmaneuver this trick that language and history, without any evil intention, have played upon him. Perhaps if we think out the manner in which the thing came to pass, some such device will occur to us. At any rate I am going to describe, as it appears to me, the process by which in the last hundred-odd years—that is, since the democratic revolution—the word left has come to mean right and the word right, left.

Modern democracy arose and has gone forward under a banner inscribed with two ideals: liberty and equality. They were combined in our Declaration of Independence. They were combined in the fighting slogan of the French Revolution, which became the motto of the French Republic. They are combined in all properly constituted Fourth of July orations. The phrase “free and equal” has been almost as current in America as the word democracy itself.3

To our forebears these two words had much the same meaning. Freedom meant electing your own government by popular vote; equality meant that each citizen has one vote. Freedom meant the rule of law; equality meant that all men are equal before the law. Freedom meant that there should be no publicly recognized social barriers; equality meant the same thing. There was no confusion here because life was simple, the earth roomy, and the talk mainly about politics. But when life became complex, crowded, industrialized, and we began to think in terms of economics, an inherent conflict between these two ideas emerged. It is quite obvious that if men are economically free, even in no absolute sense, inequalities will develop among them. And conversely, they can not be held to economic equality, or anything approaching it, without forcible restraints.

It was the Socialists who brought in the idea of extending democratic ideals to the economic relations of men, and it was Marx who made this idea look practical, and indeed inherent in the natural development of economic relations. He proposed to make equality economic by abolishing the competitive market and having all wealth produced and distributed by the state. Freedom, he promised, would follow of itself. After a transitional period of dictatorship, the state would, in fact, “wither away.”

With that notion of a “transition” to the withering away of the state, he concealed the inescapable head-on conflict between liberty and equality. He concealed the fact that, as between the two, he had chosen equality, not liberty—a classless society, to use his term—and was prepared to let the state do what had to be done to bring it into being. He concealed from the Left, or at least a major part of it, that he was a man of the Right—a Hegelian state-worshipper in his training, and in his instincts, as Bakunin described him, “a bourgeois through and through.”

I do not mean to imply that Marx consciously concealed these facts, or that he was hypocritical about the withering away of the state. He believed in his wishful thought system with all the ardor of the typical German metaphysician. Lenin also believed in it. No one can read his pamphlet, State and Revolution, published on the eve of the October revolution, and his “program address” to the Soviets six months after it,4 and have any doubt of his sincere faith in the promises of the dialectic universe. But he too was by temperament, except in his social habits, a man of the Right, a zealot of centralized authority and allegiance to it. In the heroic days of the seizure of power he rallied to his banner of transitional dictatorship the Left Social Revolutionaries, and even a few anarchists. But they soon saw what an instrument of regimentation, and what a regimented instrument, his party was. They withdrew and watched with dismay—those of them who were not imprisoned or executed—while he laid the foundations of a party-state which should become more meticulously authoritarian, and more contemptuous of the individual man and his freedoms, than any other regime in history.

I am, of course, greatly simplifying a complex ideological development. The thought of the Marxists was that political freedom meant freedom only for the exploiting classes, and their motive was to make all men equally free. But while this resolves in abstract logic the conflict between the two ideals, in practical action it resolves nothing, for the base of all freedom as now conceived is economic. It is economic equality—equality in relation to the all-determining enterprise of wealth-production—that is to “set the proletariat and therewith all society free.” And this equality, as events have a thousand times proven, can not be established or maintained without newly devised, widespread, and violent restraints. With all the metaphysical casuistics, dialectic incantations, and earnest economic lucubrations he brought to the support of it, Marx’s “society of the free and equal” is a contradiction in terms. In no conceivable society can men be in the economic sense both equal and free.

The gradual ascent into prominence of this submerged fact is the principal cause, I think, of the automatic change that has taken place in the meaning of such terms as left and right. No serious person outside Russia believes any longer in the withering away of the state. But the shift of attention from freedom to equality that was accomplished by that mythical invention, continues to prevail among our extreme democrats. They still wish, in varying degrees, to extend democracy into the field of economic relations, and they still take it for granted that democracy implies freedom as well as equality. No one of them has made a conscious choice between the two directive ideas: freedom from state control, and equality enforced by a controlling state. But unconsciously they have—partly under the influence of Marxism, partly of a new secular humanitarianism which replaces the churchly religion—plumped without reservation for the latter alternative. They are still to their own thought on “the Left,” but their tolerance of centralized authority, of state rule over the will of the individual, exceeds, in many cases, that of the extreme right in the days when those terms first acquired a political meaning.

This poses a problem for all who prefer freedom to equality as a guiding idea, or who realize that economic freedom is essential to the maintenance of a high level of life. How shall they distinguish themselves in everyday parlance from their opponents on what used to be the Right? The word “left” is lost to them completely. Their natural recourse would be to the term “liberal,” which when used historically designates correctly enough the heart of their position, its emphasis on free trade and a free market economy. But in political parlance this good word too is sliding over to the other side. Instead of meaning open-minded toward individual variation and disposed to curb authoritarian interference with it, “liberal,” when not modified by a dexterously chosen adjective now means much the same thing as left. It most emphatically does not mean on guard against the spread of collectivist ideas and against state interference with a free market economy.5

A principal reason for this second change, it seems to me, is the optimism about progress prevailing in the nineteenth century and after. The liberals did not fall for the socialist panacea or bother with the myths of dialectic materialism, but they were confident in a less cerebral way that the world was traveling in their direction. Even so analytical a thinker as John Stuart Mill could remark that “a Liberal is a man who looks forward for his principles of government; a Tory looks backward.” So it is not surprising that the average man, or at least the voluble man who moulds language, came to think of liberals as open-minded toward the future rather than committed to any present conception of life. To him, in the general atmosphere of optimism, the word meant “ready and eager to fall in with the march of Progress.” Indeed the word liberal was at times abandoned—explicitly by the New Republic, I remember—and “progressive” adopted in its place.

But now this blind Victorian giant, “Progress,” has led us into a tunnel with a black end, and those thoughtfully concerned about liberties have the hard task of turning around and finding the way back for a new start in the light. That is the simple and sorrowful truth. And meanwhile to the above average talker it still seems “liberal,” as well as “progressive,” to plunge on into the darkness.

Several attempts have been made to find an adjective capable of rescuing this precious word liberal and bringing it back toward its old meaning. Wilhelm Roepke describes the position taken in his admirable book, The Social Crisis of Our Time, as “liberal conservatism.” In another passage he proposes “constructive” or “revisionist” liberalism; in still another, to distinguish his view from the old narrowly economic one, “sociological liberalism.” Granville Hicks has deftly employed the phrase “critical liberalism,” but this has a literary quality that will hardly do in politics. In a pamphlet which reaches me from Paris,6 M. Berger-Perrin calls himself a “spiritual liberal” (libéral-spiritualiste) adopting a position akin to that of the publishers of Faith And Freedom in Los Angeles. It is not logical or wise, however, in gathering recruits for an economic and political order that will permit individual variation in all phases of life, to impose an opinion about other than economic and political topics. Other terms employed by M. Berger-Perrin, “realist liberalism,” “humanist liberalism,” seem to me also, though in lesser degree, to suffer from this defect.

The term “scientific liberalism,” which I find myself employing in conversation with certain sorts of people, is perhaps also subject to this criticism. For me it implies a rejection, not only of the collectivist program, but of the pretense of Marxists that their system of wishful metaphysics is “scientific” as opposed to “utopian” socialism—a hoax that deluded four whole generations of radical idealists. It also conveys, or should convey, the notion of a developing hypothesis rather than a fixed and venerated doctrine. And it states what is certainly true, that man’s hopes as a social animal rest in the advancing methods and gradually arriving results of science, not in any new doctrinal obsession or panacea gospel that will start another stampede. However, its technical and laboratorial flavor unfits it for the task we have in mind. To many it would seem, even more than libéralisme spiritualiste, to suggest a sect rather than a sensible understanding of things.7

There are, according to a recent calculation, “some two hundred influential personalities in various countries—economists, sociologists, historians, philosophers of civilization, publicists, and statesmen,” who stand for “a renaissance of liberal principles.”8 I have not searched their writings through, but it would appear that no single term or convenient phrase has emerged which would distinguish them in popular parlance from Soviet sympathizers or enthusiasts of the New Deal or the British planned economy state.

“True Liberalism,” a phrase used by Ludwig von Mises, seems to suggest, although it ought not to, something fixed in the past, to be adhered to rather than developed. And “the New Liberalism,” while most natural as an abstract noun, provides no personal designation. A man can not very well call himself a New Liberal—especially since he will probably be old, and so will the New Liberalism, before he gets anywhere near his goal.

Of all the current ways of rebaptizing the world, liberal Roepke’s term “liberal conservative,” once applied to the followers of Robert Peel, seems to me the most adroit. The noun is a frank admission that civilization is on the defensive; to be “progressive” in the direction the world is going is to be wrong. The central effort of the free market economists is to conserve what they perceive to have been the indispensable frame and instrument of our progress in the past. And yet what they are conserving was associated in its earlier phase with the term liberalism, and its defenders were called liberals. The combination of these two honest words might put up quite a stout resistance, I should think, both to the atrocities of demagogues and the more subtle corruptions practiced upon language by history.


When this chapter was first published in the Freeman magazine in August 1953, the editor suggested that I had failed to consider the term “libertarian.” I did consider it and pass it over, not only because it has too long a tail, but because it has been taken up by people having a sort of irresponsibility to the practical terms in which problems present themselves to the race of man. These people have a disposition to lock themselves in a closet with the abstract truth. Or rather, perhaps, they set themselves aloft on a pedestal, issuing pronunciamentos from the standpoint of a supernal rationality rather than an anxious consideration of what it may be possible, things and people being what they are, to do. The hero and archetype of this Smart Aleck School of thought was Albert J. Nock, who designated himself, correctly, I think, and for this reason, “a superfluous man.” Wisdom requires, it seems to me, that we regard ourselves as members of the human race, sharing those basic characteristics which give rise to the problems we are attempting to solve. And I have the impression that, by and large, those who call themselves libertarians fail to remember this somewhat humiliating but indubitable truth. They inherit the arrogance and irresponsibility, if not quite the dash and high spirits, of the once formidable anarchists.

My own principal reflection since publishing the essay is that “liberal conservative” has an arm-chairish flavor that is inappropriate to the fight we are in. The term “radical conservative,” employed in a recent article by E. Merrill Root, sounds better. And it is more in accord with the suggestions made in this book. The Distributive State as an ultimate ideal, while it would conserve the values already achieved, is as radical as socialism was. A program of more goods and fewer people is far at least from reactionary. And to maintain an equilibrium of conflicting forces, cutting down any one whatever that tends to dominate society, is certainly a radical approach to the defense of freedom. I think “radical conservative” will meet the needs at least of the present situation.

  • 1. The Peloponnesian War, Chapter X.
  • 2. Études Matérialistes, No. XIV, September 1947.
  • 3. See “Notes on the use of the word ‘Democracy’” by R. R. Palmer, Political Science Quarterly, June 1953.
  • 4. I referred to this pamphlet on page 10 also.
  • 5. “To lay the ghost at the outset and to dismiss semantics, a liberal is here defined as one who believes in utilizing the full force of government for the advancement of social, political and economic justice at the municipal, state, national and international levels.” Joseph S. Clark Jr., Mayor of Philadelphia, in the Atlantic Monthly, July 1953.
  • 6. “Vitalité Libérale: Physionomie et avenir du Libéralisme renaissant.” Editions SEDIF, Paris.
  • 7. There is considerable reaction these days against what is called “scientism” in the study of man. It means a pretentious imitation in dealing with social problems of the ways and methods of the physical sciences. The term is unfortunate, for science is nothing but the persistent and skilled use of the mind, and the stores of human knowledge, about any problem. If its findings are to be valid, they require in every field the same discipline—the discipline of suspended judgment, elimination of the personal factor, patience in the effort to be consistent, a serene passion for verification. The methodological differences are only those dictated by the subject matter. For that reason, after you have classified certain sociological false pretenses as “scientism,” you have to undo the work by proceeding to explain that scientism itself “is unscientific in the true sense of the word” (Hayek, “Scientism and the Study of Society,” Economica, February 1944). It would be better to avoid in the first place that extravagant adulation of mathematical physics out of which the whole difficulty arose. As I read their glib and changeful pronouncements about the size, shape and behavior of “the universe,” I feel that there is about as much “scientism” among the physicists as among the rest of us.
  • 8. Dr. Muller-Armack in the Bulletin of the University of Kiel, 1950, cited by Berger-Perrin in the above-mentioned pamphlet.
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