This book I’m working on now is a novel about the revolution of 1848 in Prague. This was famously a failed revolution, but it was a presagement of the successfulrevolutions, communist and fascist, that occurred in the twentieth century. Here we first see communism, the active enmity between workers and the owners of property. Here we first see the kind of florid “racial” nationalism that would lead to two world wars. Here we first see in action the class-based divide between constitutional reformers and revolutionary dreamers. And here too we see the emergence of nationalistic and class (as opposed to mainly religious) opposition to the Jews. So it’s an interesting era and I suppose it may shed some light on our current politics as well.
Our concepts of left and right come, of course, from the French Revolution. The left wanted a complete reordering of society down to its roots, while the right, having got rid of the aristocrats, was mainly interested in stability and security of property. One of the strange things about 1848 was that the individuals involved often had mixed and incommensurable desires. There were, for example, German speakers who wanted a constitutional regime in the Hapsburg lands, others who wanted all German speakers to be part of a pan-German Union. Many of the people who spoke for freedom had no interest in the freedom from German domination desired by the Italian, Hungarian, Polish, or Croat subjects of the empire. There were Czech speakers who wanted the same kind of constitutional government, but based on Czech nationality. There were pan-slavs, who wanted a union of all Slavic peoples, and who looked to Russia (not considered a bastion of freedom) for support. There were anarchists who wanted the whole system brought down and there were communists in both Czech and German flavors. Thus divided, they were easily crushed by reactionary forces.
Working on this got me thinking about how we describe political factions today. I am no political scientist, which is probably why the current political scene seems so incomprehensible to me. This post is therefore an effort to make sense of what is probably essential crazy. Poor us.
We start with a view of the world. Barbara Tuchman once remarked that as you looked over the historical eras and the great civilizations of the past, you noticed that they had one thing in common. Despite their great achievements in industry, invention, architecture, art and literature, they all did one thing terribly and stupidly, and that was governing themselves. In every age with few exceptions we may observe in human governance a machinery of greed, corruption, oppression, violence and fear; and the question is, always, what is to be done? The search for an answer forms the substance of political discourse, and the answer chosen identifies a person’s political orientation.
One group of people sees the machinery of greed, corruption, oppression, violence and fear, and believes that the general solution lies in constitutional government, with the full array of civil liberties and civil rights—universal citizenship, equality before the law, universal suffrage and the like. Such people believe in a strong government to protect rights and, to an extent, in a strong central government, this being considered less liable to corruption and the local influence of powerful interests. These people were called liberals in 1848 and are called so today. Liberals in 1848 were also all for untrammeled capitalism, which they saw as a counterforce against the ancien regime. Today, however, the kings having departed, they see corporate potentates as the great danger to their ideal of a just society.
Another group believes in constitutional government, but also believes that it is not nearly the whole solution to the problem of greed, corruption, oppression, violence and fear, nor even the most important part, necessary as it is. They believe that society is composed of much more than merely the rulers and the ruled, but is complex organism, with many relationships—family, church, community, property—that are just as important as the relationships defined by legal rights and that they should be preserved, and if necessary shielded from the power of the state. They believe that personal qualities are indispensable to a decent commonweath and to the success of individuals and tend to attribute the inequalties observed in all societies to these more than to oppression. With liberals, they believe that everyone should have a vote, but they object to restricting the franchise to the living. The dead should have a say as well, in that institutions cherished in the past should not be lightly changed or disregarded. In 1848, they were suspicious of capitalism because they feared its destructive force, but have since come to terms with it and grown to regard private enterprise as the foundationstone of a decent society. These people are conservatives.
A third group sees the machinery of greed, corruption, oppression, violence and fear, and rejects it entirely. They believe it is rotten at the core because it is based on the domination that is the inevitable result of the ownership of private property. Society must therefor be broken down to its roots and all existing institutions abolished. Class enemies must be extinguished and not given a place in the coming order. This accomplished, a new and better society can then be built according to some plan. These are radicals. For a number of historic reasons they have never constituted a political force in United States, but have, of course, changed the course of nations elsewhere.
Finally there are those who see the machinery of greed, corruption, oppression, violence and fear, and reject it utterly as the radicals do, but believe that things were not like that in the past, not before They took control. The They varies among cases, but the paranoid style is as prominent with them as it is with the radicals. If They could be eliminated or rendered impotent then the natural goodness of the nation would re-emerge, as it was before They did their mischief. The past is glorified here in just the same way that the future is glorified among the radicals, and the degree of reaction depends on the date chosen for the supposed existence of the golden age. It could be 1950 or 1890 or the Middle Ages, and the political program espoused will vary accordingly. These people are reactionaries.
I find it interesting that the current political discourse is entirely devoted to describing the conflict between liberals and conservatives. There is no such conflict, because while the liberals remain liberals, the “conservatives” are not conservatives, but reactionaries. As a political force, actual conservatism is nearly extinct in the United States, except in newspaper columns and academic journals. And yet, for some odd reason, you never see reactionaries called so in the press. People are called radicals, but this is typically a meaningless curse-word, like “commie,” but no one is called a reactionary in the mainstream press, and certainly reactionaries never call themselves anything but conservative, even though they propose to tear up the work of many previous generations. This is something no conservative ever would do. Why this is so and why conservatism failed in the United States is a fascinating study, but one for another post. I just wanted to straighten the terms out in my own mind and offer the definitions for anyone interested in political language.