Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords readers the opportunity to join Christopher Dawson as he considers the perils of the left-right fallacy in politics and civil society. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
It is obvious today that we are faced with the prospect of a return to barbarism. The ancient tradition of Western Christendom, which was founded on three pillars of Faith and Freedom and Law, is withering away before our eyes, and in its place, there is a rising an enormously powerful but completely inhuman system of social organization, which is usually known as totalitarianism.
This system is destroying all the forms of civilized life and moral behavior which have been developed by a thousand years and more of continuous strenuous effort, and it is not only bringing back the old evils of barbarism—like slavery and massacre and torture—but also introducing new forms of organized evil and injustice which the old barbarisms could never have imagined or devised.
It is our duty, at the present time, to do all in our power to preserve every existing breakwater against this flood of barbarism.
This task far transcends politics; but it has its political side, and if we surrender our political judgment and allow ourselves to be hoodwinked and blinded by the political tactics of totalitarianism, we lessen our powers of resistance on still more important issues.
Now the traditional Western political order was founded on law and liberty. The common bond of loyalty to the state did not exclude all kinds of lesser loyalties and corporate rights through which the rich diversity of Western Culture was developed. And this two-fold tradition has been inherited by Western democracy, by which I understand not in abstract ideology, but simply be historic system of self–government by representing institutions and ministerial responsibility and free elections and free discussion, which has been worked out in this and other Western countries in modern times.
This system, like the older system from which it is derived, cannot work unless there is a common bond of loyalty and the will to cooperate in essentials, in spite of all disagreements and divergencies of interest. This agreement is essential to the existence of a free society and consequently it is the key point against which the totalitarian attack on Western Culture is directed.
The Totalitarian Tactic
The tactics of totalitarianism are to weld every difference of opinion and tradition and every conflict of economic interests into an absolute ideological opposition which disintegrates society into hostile factions bent on destroying one another.
In this campaign of disintegration the Right-Left mythology is a perfect god-send to the forces of destruction. It provides them with a crude and simple but highly effective instrument which can be applied to almost any situation and by which any number of different issues can be merged together in a mass of confusion and ideological clap-trap.
For example, there are Liberals and Conservatives, there are Republicans and Monarchists, there are anti-clericals and clericals, there are Communists and Fascists, there are Socialist and Individualists, there are Semites and anti-Semites. All of these are different oppositions, which have no necessary connection with one another, yet all of them are brought under the Left-Right headings and thus forced into ideological alliances which may be unnecessary and absurd. Moreover, when you have got your opponents all neatly ticketed you can then repeat the same process on any section of them—dividing the Socialists into Socialists of the Left Center in Socialists of the Extreme Left, or the Liberals into Moderates or Progressives, so as to submit them to the same process of confusion and disintegration.
Now the fault—or, if you like, the advantage, of the method of division is that it has no rational basis. It grades men and ideas according to their relation to a central point, which, as a rule, has no existence.
Yet in spite of this irrational character, Left and Right become the center of fierce ideological loyalties and enmities which overpower men’s reason and sense of judgment and drive them to acts of violence and inhumanity which would disgrace a tribe of cannibals.
The process of social disintegration by political faction has been spreading like an epidemic in modern society.
It is transforming Europe, the most highly civilized region in the world, the home of Christian culture, into an inferno of hatred and suspicions.
It can only be checked by a great moral effort on the part of all those who have not yet been dragged down into this whirlpool of destruction.
The obvious remedy for these evils is to be found in the old natural and political virtues which have been denied and discarded by the new barbarians: the virtues of justice and goodwill, the virtues of truth and patience, above all the virtue of prudence which Aristotle defines as the truly rational and practical state of mind in the field of human good and evil. It is only by the exercise of these virtues that it is possible to save society from the political disintegration that threatens it, and maintain an island of society amidst the rival barbarians of Left and Right.
For what we are faced with is not a false ideology which can be met with rational argument, but a kind of contagious social malady which may be deliberately encouraged by cold-blooded political schemes, but which is in itself a thoroughly irrational thing.
Source of the Left-Right Split
It is true that the Left-Right division existed long before the rise of modern totalitarianism, but from the beginning it was tainted with similar moral evils. For it originated in the French Revolution under the shadow of the guillotine in the reign of horror, at a time when politics were submerged in civil war and when the totalitarian techniques of purges and liquidation and single-party dictatorships were first evolved. Where such conditions exist, the irrational dualism of Left and Right is natural enough, since every man is forced to take one side or the other, and he stakes his neck on the victory of his party.
Today the whole thing has become infinitely more serious owing to the breakdown of Western civilization and the rapid spread of social disintegration in continental Europe. But this situation makes it all the more necessary that we should keep our heads and refuse to allow our own political vendetta of Left and Right. That way leads to destruction. The way of life is the way of justice which turns neither to the Right nor to the Left.
The political order of the Christian State was founded on the belief in the law of justice which did not depend on the right of the stronger or the will of the majority, but on the internal law to which kings and peoples alike were subject. In this belief in justice still survives today, though its spiritual foundations are often forgotten, so that “law and order” seem no more than a tiresome convenience that we take for granted.
Nevertheless it is the most precious thing we have, and there are countless thousands in Europe today who are perishing for lack of it. And so long as there are men who stand for justice and truth against the violence of party passion and the lies of party propaganda, there is still a hope for Europe and for Christian civilization.
This essay in our series of “Timeless Essays” was first published here in July 2014. Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Reprinted with the gracious permission of The Catholic Mind (April 1946).