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The end of left and right

Andrew Kenny says that the only purpose political labels serve is to allow fools to argue furiously Is Osama bin Laden left-wing or right-wing? How about Robert Mugabe? Who has a more left-wing approach to women’s sexuality: Pope John Paul or Hustler magazine? Consider Fidel Castro. He persecutes homosexuals, crushes trade unions, forbids democratic elections, executes opponents and criminals, is a billionaire in a country of very poor people and has decreed that a member of his family shall succeed him in power. Is Castro left-wing or right-wing? Explain your answer.

The great intellectual curse of the French Revolution, which has crippled political thought for more than two centuries, was the reduction of all discourse into ‘left’ and ‘right’. From the beginning it was an infantile notion that replaced rational argument with a playground division into two gangs who understood nothing clearly except how much they hated each other. Despite the fact that nobody has ever been able to define the beliefs of ‘left’ and ‘right’ or the differences between them, this has not stopped political humanity joining these sides and facing each other with all the fury of Lilliput and Blefuscu fighting over whether to break eggs at the big end or small end. The resulting feuding has been sterile and idiotic. It has stymied political philosophy. It must end if we are to progress with rational politics, and I believe the only way this can happen is if some major actor enters the world stage with such gigantic contradictions that he throws political analysis into confusion and breaks the moulds of ‘left’ and ‘right’. I believe this saviour has now arrived.

Before announcing him, I should like to spend a paragraph or two grinding out the illogic of ‘left’ and ‘right’. Take the notions of privilege and equality. Is rule by a privileged elite right-wing? If so, communism, which always results in rule by a tiny governing group that has exclusive power and privilege quite unknown to the rulers in capitalist countries, must be very rightwing. Is the proletariat more left-wing than the aristocracy and bourgeoisie? For example, are the views of a London taxi-driver on immigration and homosexual marriage more left-wing than those of Prince Charles?

What is the meaning of ‘He is to the right of Attila the Hun’? Was Attila rightwing because he was violent and cruel? Lenin was more violent and cruel. Is Lenin to the right of Attila the Hun?

Some owl, from the Economist, I think, wrote, ‘The right believe in economic freedom, the left in personal freedom.’ Very well, a key economic freedom is free movement of labour and a key personal freedom is the right to own a firearm. So, does a right-wing Englishman believe people from Africa should have unlimited right to enter Britain looking for work, and does a leftwing Englishman believe all Britons should have the right to carry revolvers?

What about the free market and state control? Are regimes left-wing or rightwing when the economy is heavily controlled by the state, such as the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Castro’s Cuba and apartheid South Africa? Is it left-wing or right-wing to believe in free trade, like Adam Smith and Karl Marx? When the movement of citizens within a country is controlled by internal passports, such as in the Soviet Union and apartheid South Africa, is this a measure of the left or the right? Is it left-wing or right-wing to hate capitalism, like Hitler, Lenin and the fathers of apartheid?

Is internationalism more right-wing than nationalism? Internationalist people and organisations include Adam Smith, Coca Cola, Karl Marx, McDonald’s, Trotsky, Microsoft, the United Nations, Toyota and the World Trade Organisation. Those opposed to internationalism include Hitler, the anti-globalisation demonstrators, Verwoerd, Stalin and Naomi Klein. I was in England for the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should stay in Europe. On the No side were Enoch Powell, Tony Benn, Ian Paisley, Michael Foot, the Communist party and the National Front. On the Yes side were Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and grandees from the Labour and Conservative parties. Which was the left-wing side?

How about attitudes towards the weak and the strong? Does the left or the right protect the strong but not the weak? Take the extreme examples of each — an unborn baby and an adult murderer. Is it very rightwing to allow the killing of the innocent baby but not the killing of the guilty adult?

Would you classify as left or right the Englishman in the last century who urged a massive increase in public spending and made the most radical proposal for a national health scheme that Britain had ever seen? I refer, of course, to Oswald Mosley, the fascist leader.

Is racism left-wing or right-wing? Pol Pot established an extreme version of communism in Cambodia and proceeded to slaughter the minority races, including the Vietnamese. His genocide was proportionally on a par with Hitler’s. Was he an extreme left-winger? Was Hitler too? Is it left-wing or right-wing to legislate to reduce the representation of a minority race in the professions, as was done by Hitler in Germany against the Jews and by the ANC in South Africa against the whites? The 1922 slogan of the Communist party in South Africa was ‘Workers of the World Unite, and Fight for a White South Africa!’ Was this a left-wing slogan?

When the forces of radical change meet the forces of ancient privilege, which side is left and which side is right? The most revolutionary British prime minister of the 20th century was Margaret Thatcher, who brought sweeping changes and confronted forces of tradition, the trade unions, that had privileges going back to the Middle Ages. Who was left-wing — Thatcher or the unions?

Is it left-wing or right-wing to rebel against imperialism? Was Paul Kruger, who led the most serious armed rebellion against the British empire, a left-winger? Consider personal habits. Is it left-wing or right-wing to be a vegetarian, teetotaller and animal lover (Hitler)? To enjoy boxing and shooting animals (Nelson Mandela)? What about authority versus permissiveness? Nazis and communists love ‘discipline’. Is this an attitude of the right or the left? What about censorship versus free speech? Is it left-wing or right-wing to believe strongly in censorship; say, wanting to prevent publication of a report that suggests that certain races have higher IQs than others?

I could go on and on. The fact is that the terms ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ are meaningless. When people fail to define these terms, they sometimes resort to the foolish argument, ‘You cannot define an elephant but you know one when you see one.’ Of course you can define an elephant: an elephant is a mammal with a trunk and an average adult weight of over three tons. People can neither define ‘left’ and ‘right’ nor recognise left-wing or right-wing philosophies when they see them, because they never see them. They do not exist.

All that exists is a bogus division into two groups who lay aside the effort of thought for the lazy indulgence of hatred. The terms of abuse each side hurls at the other are the same, and so are the terms of affection each side reserves for itself. ‘I’m a right-wing bastard’ means exactly the same as ‘I’m a left-wing bastard’. It means, ‘I’m an adorable brute.’ There seems to be some inherent flaw in the human brain that encourages people to fissure into two groups who loathe each other. Almost any argument in politics, religion or science soon results in two warring parties accusing each other of heresy, apostasy, false belief, treachery and being rotters. This is destructive to progress and knowledge. There are practical reasons why physical organisations such as political parties might have to separate into mutually hostile groups, but there is no reason why thought and philosophy should do the same. ‘Left’ and ‘right’ must end, and I believe the agent of their demise has arrived.

He is, of course, George Bush. President Bush the Second is so magnificently paradoxical that he could smash the silly consensus of political division. He stands for limited government but has greatly increased government spending. His party favours free trade but he has introduced firm protectionist measures for American steel and agriculture. His tradition is a balanced budget and honest money but under him the American deficit has increased enormously and the dollar is sinking like a stone. Above all, his absurd war in Iraq cuts right across political philosophies.

It was clear from the start that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, had nothing to do with September 11 and posed no direct threat to America or its treaty allies. The war was for one reason only: to do good in the world. This is an extremely dangerous and unsound reason for going to war. It belongs to thinkers such as Leon Trotsky and J.F. Kennedy, who until now were thought of as belonging to quite different camps from Bush. The war has caused ‘left’ and ‘right’ to be both for it and against it.

In the short term, Bush has caused more polarisation than ever, with two groups of voters in America being moved mainly by how much they dislike each other. Personally, I should have voted for Kerry but I must admit that the sight of Michael Moore’s unctuous face might have driven me towards Bush. However, when the people of America and the world really look at Bush and what he is doing, it surely must break up the existing political consensus and existing political divisions.

It would be so fruitful if we could scrap phoney political divisions and look at real ones. The most important real one is between those who believe in a lot of state control and those who believe in a little. An accurate term for the former is ‘socialist’. On one socialist extreme are the communists and National Socialists (Tweedledum and Tweedledee). On the other are the Social Democrats, such as the British Labour party. An accurate term for those who believe in minimal state control is ‘liberal’. Liberals put liberty as the highest political good and believe in equal opportunities and limited government. Liberals are suspicious of power; socialists admire it. (In America, ‘liberal’ means ‘socialist’.) The term ‘conservative’ is much more complicated and deserves thoughtful investigation.

Differences between people are many and various and seldom mutually inclusive. Personally I support capitalism, reject socialism, like cats, dislike dogs, love quiet and hate pounding pop music. I should rather live next to a socialist with a cat than a capitalist with a dog; and much, much rather a socialist with a dog who was silent than a capitalist with a cat who played rap music. As for whether either called himself ‘left’ or ‘right’, I could not give a row of beans.