January 28, 2018 by John Bruce Leonard
Beyond the Spectrum
IT IS EVERYWHERE increasingly felt that there is something about the old left-right political dichotomy which does not quite “fit” our times. To name but the most celebrated example of its shortcomings: it fails to give consistent account for certain historical political phenomena, like National Socialism and Fascism. As these political forms appear to adopt elements of both sides of the traditional spectrum, they seem to defy being plotted upon it. The mere existence of this difficulty is already very telling, for it indicates that something has shifted in the historical ground beneath us which it would be well for us to comprehend. And such comprehension clearly cannot come from the artificial reworking of an inherently inadequate scheme.
Once one perceives the limitations of the traditional spectrum, the temptation arises to abandon it altogether as obsolete. This temptation should be resisted. Simply because the “left-right” spectrum is not universally applicable to all political forms and ideas does not mean it is wholly without merit. More specifically, analysis of its proper scope can be greatly informative for the true Right, for it can help us to account for numerous salient features of post-Enlightenment politics which are not always easy to explain. More than that, it can aid us in more thoroughly comprehending our own relation to those same politics.
Proper awareness of the origins of this spectrum must be the root of any attempt to comprehend it. It is generally believed that the terms “left” and “right” owe their genesis to nothing more than an historical accident: on the eve of the French Revolution, as the forces of subversion were gnawing at the very foot of the throne, it became the practice of those loyal to the King to gather at the right of the National Assembly. These were the same loyalists, it goes without saying, who were later exiled and massacred en masse during the Terror. That surely forms an inauspicious beginning for all subsequent adhesion to the “right,” and we shall have occasion to consider this fact in greater depth.
It is apparent that those who subsequently adopted the term “right,” or to whom that term was applied, were not supporters of the crown per se, for in most places there were no longer any crowns to support. The concept was slowly transformed; the “right” became synonymous with any attempt to preserve the “here and now” against the efforts of the left to upheave the same. The “right” has therefore from the first been associated with resistance—or, as it is commonly put, conservation—and the left with change—or, as it likes to call it, progress. For the same reason, one associates the right with “reaction” and the left with “revolution.” For any proponent of the true Right, the very term “conservation” in this connection is revelatory; for it supposes simple adherence to the status quo, however “progressed” that status quo might objectively be. The conventional conservative takes his bearings, not by any transcendent or super-historical values, but rather by some more or less provincial “tradition” which is arbitrarily posited as the standard. And because this entire process has historically emerged within modern political forms, we are necessarily speaking of an effort to conserve a given phase of Enlightenment development, which therefore contains within it the germ of the specifically Enlightenment disease of “progressiveness.”
The natural long-term consequences of this state of affairs become appallingly evident in retrospect. The modern “conservative” from the very first has yielded the principle to the left, and for that reason cannot in any legitimate way resist the rising tide. The left moves ever confidently forward toward its ideal; the right draws back in mere partial negation of the same. And as ever in the conflict between those who proceed out of an active disposition, and those who react merely out of resistance and mistrust, the overarching historical movement of the latest centuries has unambiguously favored the “affirmative” side, the left.
This permits us to understand several of the most notable features of the contemporary right. First of all, its stunning inability to resist, to hold its ground, to oppose change. This failure is not entirely due to the particular vices of our contemporary conservative politicasters (though we should be the last to deny their vices); it is in fact more fundamentally due to a contradiction inbuilt in the very concept of “conservation” in the modern era. The modern conservative is none other that man who voluntarily adopts modernity halfway, only to rest stupefied when others carry what to its natural conclusion.
More: it is a subject of continual marvelment amongst us that the left should be so much less divisive than the “right.” The communists are but seldom condemned by moderate leftists, while our more moderate conservative brethren show absolutely no scruples in denouncing us at every turn. But given the observations above, we at once perceive the reason for this. In truth, those are no “brethren” to us at all, for they are united to us at most in negation of the left, but never in affirmation of a positive political vision. We reject the very social and political forms which the “conservative” of the conventional right would like most to “conserve”; we aim at a society which would perforce supplant those forms. Far from belonging to the “same side as them,” as one is led to expect by the monodimensional left-right spectrum, we are in fact contestants for the same ground. It is no accident then that so much of our harshest critique should be directed against them, and it is not in the least surprising that they should so furiously resist us—as is indeed their modus operandi. The path to the true Right in the present day is not via conservation—but conversion.
Numerous attempts have been made to preserve the purportedly universal validity of the left-right spectrum by refurbishing or reinterpreting it. All such attempts neglect the historically relative nature of the spectrum, and for this reason most of them smack of blatant artificiality. One of the most effective of these attempts (because it keeps nearest the phenomena) comes by asserting that the root conflict between the the left and the right is over the question of equality: by this account, the left embraces human equality, and the right rejects it. This explains why Fascism and National Socialism, for instance, which evidently have nothing whatever in common with, say, American Republicans or European Social Democrats, are grouped together with these milder forms on a single side of the spectrum.
There is no doubt that this interpretation eliminates numerous difficulties. Nonetheless, it is much more valid as an explanation for the left than for the conventional right; for that right has always been, from any supra-Occidental vantage, a hodgepodge affair, irreducible to any single idea or principle. It is difficult if not impossible to say, for instance, how opposition to abortion, support for the freedom to bear arms, or insistence on equality before the law—all of which have been in various places and times strongly associated with the political right—have anything to do with hierarchy, or in any way challenge the doctrine of equality. In many definite cases the political right has based its ideas and its policies on nothing but the idea of a radical human equality à la Christianity. And indeed, the “far” or “extreme” right has often been associated with religious fundamentalism, which of course has nothing at all to do with Fascism or National Socialism. Thus even by this interpretation one must still explain why the right should be so heterogeneous compared to the left.
Account can be given for this, but only if we are willing to posit that the “left-right spectrum,” far from representing a universal scale of political thought, is in fact merely the description of specifically modern politics. The left is nothing but the continuation of Enlightenment currents, which are indeed fundamentally egalitarian. The conventional right on the other hand represents simple resistance to the left, and the forms of that resistance have naturally depended on historical and geographical contingencies. The conventional right therefore has never possessed any universally defining characteristic, if not the abstract and essentially variable principle of “conservation.” The conventional right cannot be said to embrace “hierarchy” or “anti-egalitarianism” save as these ideas happen to coincide with local traditions. This lack of overarching principle is indeed yet another reason the right has historically been weaker than the left, and why it has continued to cede ground to the same up to the present day.
If we see the “left” and the “right” as essentially modern terms which apply exclusively to modern political dynamics, we can easily explain why they are so utterly inadequate for comprehending the Fascists and the National Socialists. These last regimes are nothing if not the most anti-modern political forms ever to issue in the modern period. They confound the left-right spectrum at every point, because, in base and essence, they reject the Enlightenment presuppositions of that spectrum. Or put more completely: the points at which they coincide with Enlightenment schema are either accidental, or else are due to the hesitation or inconsistency of their practitioners and theoreticians. The same can be said for the true Right; the true Right is a political worldview which emerges from principles which are radically different from those embodied in the Enlightenment; it therefore represents a “positive rejection” of both progressivism and egalitarianism. For this reason one refers to it as the true Right; for it is the truest, deepest, and most consistent opponent of the left—but therefore also of most forms of the conventional “right.”
But if it it is in fact true that we do not belong to the “left-right spectrum” at all, must we then conclude that it is inaccurate, misleading, or undesirable for us to adopt the epithet “right” to our cause? Is it really merely an historical error which has given birth to the name “Right”?
On the contrary; this name is as significant as it is rhetorically efficacious. For reasons we cannot here consider, but which stem from the historical dynamics we have outlined in this essay, the modern right has entered a period of terminal crisis. The “progress” which the Enlightenment set into motion has achieved such success and has attained such a heightened tempo in our day that it has shown forth the poverty of the very notion of “conservation” in modernity and the inherent element of acquiescence in the soul of the conventional right. The right in consequence of these revelations is collapsing, and the most evident symptom of its collapse is the rising “populism” in our day, which almost everywhere associates itself with the “extreme right,” despite the fact that the rebellion of the people as “proletariat” was historically associated with the extreme left. The conventional right, which means nothing if it does not mean conservation, is today forced to become “progressive” and more and more to seek “change.” That is surest sign of its internal decay.
The collapse of the conventional right, quite beyond any of its wider ramifications, leaves a void within our contemporary politics; and indeed if it were not for this fact, our cause, the cause of the true Right, should certainly be doomed from the start. But there is the chance for us now to arise into the shell-like space which once housed the conventional right, and to inherit its failing realm. The use of the term “Right” to describe our politics has indispensable merit as an indicator and a lure to the best of the disillusioned “conservatives” who are even now becoming aware of the inevitably self-sabotaging inadequacies of their old ideology. The moniker “Right” serves as the upward road toward that higher view of the world which might induce an awakening, in souls prepared for such awakening, to the fact that modernity as modernity must be overcome, and that new positive political forms, proposed by a finally unified front of the true Right, are now urgently in order.
But there are reasons for the rightness of the name “Right” which extend well beyond this essentially pragmatic question. It is no accident that the word “right” in English carries a double meaning, signifying at once both a spacial relation, and also “correctness,” “justice,” “goodness.” The two concepts have eternally been wed to each other, and not only in English; English is simply fortunate enough to possess a single word for them both. The “right side” has always been the good side, the honest side, the virtuous side; the “left side” has always been the questionable, the suspicious, the dark. Our word “dexterity” comes from the Latin word for right, dexter, which derives in turn from the Ancient Greek; “sinister” comes from the identical Latin word for “left.” Even the loyalists to the doomed regime of Louis XVI did not place themselves arbitrarily at the right of the Assembly: prior to modernity, the “right hand” was always and everywhere associated with just power and fair rule. Iustitia and Themis, the Roman and Greek goddesses of Justice, are traditionally depicted as holding the scales in their left hands, and the sword in their right; the right hand thus was responsible for meting out justice. Christ himself was to sit at the right hand of the Father—the same position which was given to Athena by Zeus. The reasons for the link between these apparently unrelated concepts fall beyond our purview here, but it is enough for us to suppose that that link is not wholly arbitrary. And thus it can in all justice be said that we of the Right propose not merely a new “right” as against an old “left,” but rather a concept of right as such, an idea of justice and a sense precisely of “right and wrong” both in society and also in one’s own personal mores and manners. This concept draws from deep roots and traditions which long antedate the modern era. And so by its very nature it must utterly transcend the meager borders of the threadbare modern schema.
Given all of this, it becomes evident that the true Right can as little be located on the traditional left-right spectrum as the abstract idea of “legitimacy” can be plotted on the color scale; the two phenomena are simply incommensurable. From our vantage beyond that spectrum, we are capable of understanding its nature and limitations with a degree of perspicacity which is uncommon to those who dwell within it. That is our right place with respect to it. We must really cease making the fatal error of foisting Enlightenment notions upon ourselves. It is worn garb to these new limbs; it neither fits nor flatters us.