Conservatives and Marxists

I was recently talking to Dennis Glover who told me of his October op ed equating the right commentariat with old style Marxists, making the pretty obvious point that most of them began as Marxists. I’d missed it when it appeared. It’s makes a large number of good points so it seems to me. No doubt it’s been discussed a fair bit in the blogosphere already – ‘Eric Blair’ over at LP says that “If you actually go back to the work of the classical Marxists (and I include Lenin and Trotsky in this group), it becomes clear that human rights are at the core of the socialist project.” Somehow I don’t remember all that concern about human rights from Lenin – but I digress.

Anyway, the article reminded me of the great piece John Quiggin’s did for Policy Magazine (yes Policy Magazine under the editorship of Michael James) equating public choice with Leninism.

If there’s some ultimate explanation for this it seems to me a temperamental one. As Heinz Arndt was perspicacious and self-critical enough to observe about his own trajectory from left to right it, is surely fitting that such a transition lead the subject of it to some humility about what they know. Here’s how Arndt put it in a passage my father who drifted from the left to the left of centre regarded as priceless.

In my own case, these political prejudices (if not, I would like to think, the moral convictions) underwent great changes over half a century, from a brief youthful Marxist phase to decades of Fabian-Keynesian views which gradually gave way to … a sceptical – monetarist near-libertarian position … It might be thought that such an odyssey would induce a decent humility: if I could be so completely wrong earlier what grounds of confidence have I that I am right now? I can only shamefacedly report that this has not been my experience.

I guess the thing I dislike about a lot of the right commentariat is the tone of self assurance and of lecturing others. (I’m applying this to people from the right commentariat today, not Heinz Arndt who did not produce any published work that I know of with the hectoring tone I’m talking about – and indeed his shamefacedness above seems like a pretty redeeming virtue above.

In any event, in my little psycho portrait of what the right hectorers of the world are on about, the explanation for where they were and where they are now is that had a deep need to lecture others, to find them wanting, and for there to be One True Way. They just did a 180 and swapped what the One True Way was and then went on with the lecture. The tone of voice never changed.

Still it’s also true that there were plenty of things that were wrong with the left – which many of us appreciate now.

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13 Responses to Conservatives and Marxists

  1. JC says:

    All sides preach trying convince people the other side is horrible and dangerous.

    Albert Gore couldn’t even win his own state because people found him a preachy and sanctimonious twot. He’s still doing it on film, just to remind us he’s around as well as scaring the kids.

    The right wing radio hosts in the US are making millions preaching. Pick up Terry lane each Sunday and you’ll quickly realize all he’s done is stop preaching in a church.

    In any event if as they say the tone hasn’t changed all that much the leftovers must still be preaching.

  2. Nick – Political temperament aside, I don’t think a on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-side-that tone really works for columnists; after all they are on the opinion page. Therefore successful practitioners of the opinion-page medium will have a ‘self-assured’ style, regardless of ideology. For some reason, there are more successful columnists on the right than the left (possibly due to the displacement effects discussed before), but speaking as editor of a right-wing magazine (Policy) I often have authors who are not pushing the argument as far as they could.

  3. meika says:

    I think the common thread in the Trot (violent world revolutionists) to Neo-Con pathway is violence. Much of the left since Vietnam has renounced violent revolution (thus allowing all sorts of soft targets for shock jocks and yobbos to pick on)(though Catalaxy folk seem to like baggging the left for Stalin still in some sort of act of retro cheek.)(Stalin Bad mmmmkay?)
    Recent Neo-Con adventures in Iraq prove that they remain consistent through their lives on the use of violence and that the attraction of the far right is that the right lacks any critique on violence (see Donald Rumsfeld’s moral bankruptcy on torture).

    Basically those of the left who move to the far right (I guess I am one who moved to the middle) are consistent egotistic adventurists, addicted to the deed rather than the everyday, and for which one must make dasdardly enemies (gooks, towelheads, papists, jews, tutsis) to be heroes over.

  4. Rafe Champion says:

    Loose talk of left and right obscures all the distinctions that really matter. Andrew Norton disagrees with my line on this, in fact I think he announced that he is bored with it and he is quite happy to describe Policy as rightwing.

    Possibly the most useful single tract on the differences that matter is Hayek’s “Why I am not a conservative” which is on line. Speaking as a non-socialist liberal or “Old whig” he noted that the willingness to coerce and to use violence is the ugly face of the radical and conservative groups from which he distanced himself.

    Writing in 1963 he noted how easy it was for people to change sides from radical left to authoritarian conservative. Apparently that is the path of many US neoconservatives – “left liberals mugged by reality”. It may be the case with some of the non-left commentators in Australia. However it does not have to be the case.

    Like Nicholas, I like to think of myself in the centre, but it is a radical centre, not a wishy washy midpoint between two poles. Hayek pointed out that we need to think of a triangle, not a straight line, so his position and mine is not just an average between the two extremes but it points in a different direction, while we form common cause with others of quite different orientation on particular issues.

  5. Andrew, I wasn’t really after people going for boring ‘on the one hand this’ type of analysis especially as you say in an op ed. One can do crisp forceful opinion without being too preachy or self righteous. On the right I think Michael Duffy often does this. Though I’m sure lots would disagree, I think Robert Manne does this quite well. Lots would say he’s preachy, but I think he’s scrupulous with his facts, gives you the sense that he’s prepared to listen to reason and he proceeds to lay some pretty heavy blows against his opponents by juxtaposing their words and their deeds or their words and the state of scholarly research.

    Rafe, you may have lots of disagreements with various right wingers, and pigeon-holing can be pretty annoying if you’re the pigeon, but like Andrew, I think your right wing. I think anyone who wants to cut swathes through the welfare state and is sceptical of the role of the state in redistributing income to anyone but the desperately poor is right wing – at least relatively speaking in the contemporary Australian context. I say that as someone who doesn’t think ‘right wing’ (or left wing I hasten to add) is a dirty expression. (I hope I’ve provided a fair summary of your views, but I may be wrong in summarising your views thus).

  6. ‘Right wing’ really only means ‘not an egalitarian’, so it is very imprecise terminology, but not meaningless.

    As for Manne, his column this week shows the limits of the man. In Alan Ramsey mode, most of it is just a paraphrasing of Rudd’s recent statements – which as I have pointed out, along with other bloggers, provide a highly inaccurate statement of Howard’s beleifs and record.

    The column finishes by essentially saying that whether Rudd is right or not hardly matters:

    “For those who long to see Australia change direction, Rudd deserves, in my opinion, not the customary carping of the intelligentsia but our wholehearted support.”

    It’s fair enough that most of the intelligentsia would prefer Bill Hayden’s drover’s dog to Howard, but at the price of indifference to truth and abandonment of criticism?

  7. Andrew I guess I wouldn’t express it as strongly as you but I agree with you. I think Manne had a few years of good column writing in him – very few people have more. I’ve not been too impressed by his stuff for a while.

    I hear Manne might feel this himself – he’s limiting his appearances.

    I think he’s doing a good job at the Monthly – but more in his editing and I presume facilitating and networking role than as contributor. His lengthy essay on Australia and the US was desperately in need of a major pruning.

  8. whyisitso says:

    The latest issue of Quadrant (December) has more than one article that I would consider tending left-of-centre. I’d be interested to hear Rafe’s and Andrew’s opinions on this (I assume they’ve read it by now.)

    I wonder if Paddy’s pendulum has begun to swing back a little.

  9. Chris says:

    Andrew Norton is quite right to point out that the opinion piece is not a medium that lends it’s self particularly well to nuanced debate. The point Glover is making in his article, however, is that certain commentators on the right tend to preach a sort of divisive and class-based hatred not altogether dissimilar to that of Marxists. His op-ed piece says:

    “But the really surprising similarity between the Australian Right and old-style Marxists is their consistent pursuit of class warfare”

  10. Rafe Champion says:

    I think Paddy is just allowing for the wide spread of opinion that Quadrant has usually carried from day One. He has his own agenda and it is quite appropriate for that to be visible but the magazine is supposed to be a forum, not just a propaganda sheet.

    http://www.the-rathouse.com/McAuley_20quadrants.html

  11. Gadget says:

    I would agree and disagree with Norton above, where he speaks of egalitarianism and right-wingers. I would consider myself at this stage a righty, but for nationalistic reasons. The terms here need to be re-worked, and not re-stated

    The problem i see, is the interpretation of what are and arent the facts of matchpolitick in Australia. Both sides of politics benefit from this terminological vacuum.

    However, we are at a point where the federation as we know it, may not continue. Part of the problem is the sullied debate, and the leading edge practitioners of post-modernity who have a monopoly on newspeak, and a very clever and incisive domain of secret knowledge. Sometimes it is called academia. Sometimes not, perhaps technocrat or intelligentsia or something. But very lately, cyberoids

    Point is, the ‘nuanced’ debate being thrashed out in the hidden corners of society, is biffing the nation from all directions. Not only dont we know what Amercan political culture is really all about, and that it is not anything like our own, but a great many affected by the debate, but not part of it, dont know Australian political notions either.

    Because it is all in flux. Dangerous, now.

    The Leftist influence inside the intelligentsia has a monopoly, and jealously guards it. It even assumes that it has actuall ‘enemies’; i call it Marxology, it and the practitioners. The too few inside the political commentariat, are way off beam in their gross over-assumptions of what is happening in matchpolitick.

    I do agree, however, that something stong and affirmative needs to take place politically. To turn around our lean to the Left.

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