Social science and modern society. 2004, 41(4), 70-78


John Ray

I am told that a great hint for salesmen is that they Ishould start out with statements that everyone can agree on. I have some ideas to "sell" here so let me start out with just such a statement: The names of political parties can be pretty uninformative. As far as I know all parties that call themselves "communist" or "socialist" really are communist or socialist but that seems to be the only uniformity. For instance, very similar political parties in the United States, Britain and Australia are called respectively the "Republican" party, the "Con-servative" party and the "Liberal" party. I do not intend to explore exactly why that is so but perhaps I might note in passing that political party policies change as the world changes so maybe the names of political parties are more informative earlier in the life of the party concerned than in more recent times. If so, the fact that explicitly socialistic and communist parties are mostly a phenomenon of the last 100 years might explain why they are mostly accurately named.

What I do want to propose, however, is that there is far more uniformity in politics over time than party names would suggest. I want to suggest that the basic issues remain the same regardless of how the parties are named that advocate them. I want to submit, in fact, that the big controversy of the present about how much government should or should not do is a very ancient one, a very fundamental one and one that has been caus-ing heads to roll for hundreds of years. The people who have opposed the tyranny of big government range from such unlikely characters as Queen Elizabeth I of England and Oliver Cromwell to more familiar figures such as Barry Goldwater, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan but all have trusted the ordinary people and stood up to tyranny to preserve or extend the liberties of ordinary people.

None of them have been examples of what we now call "libertarianism". All governments and political movements throughout history have seen the need for some control over what people can be permitted to do. But the guiding presumption in deciding just what is and is not permitted has always shown a cleavage between those who want more government control and those who want less. What the protagonists on the two sides of the debate have been called has changed from time to time and their detailed policies have changed from time to time but the basic cleavage is always there.

In the Beginning:

For us English-speakers it all goes back to 1066 and the Norman conquest of England. Prior to that date the fiercely independent Germanic tribesmen we know as the original Anglo-Saxons had very weak central governments when they had such a thing at all and power was very much diffused throughout the land. And when governmental power was exercised, it depended heavily on consultation with "elders" and other influential figures in the community.

But the Norman conquest disrupted all that. William of Normandy was a very powerful king indeed and did pretty much as he pleased with the hapless Anglo-Saxons he had conquered. But the Normans were only a small band (some say only 50,000 Normans came across to live among 3 million Anglo-Saxons) and in a few generations England absorbed them. The traditional decentralized and competitive power structure of England that William had disrupted was back with a vengeance as early as the time of King John and Magna Carta. So although the Magna Carta is much celebrated as the beginning of English liberties, it might be better celebrated as an indication of their irrepressibility. And the ascendancy of Simon de Montfort not long after that also displayed the traditional English belief in the limited nature of central government power.

Tudor England:

No account of Englishness and English liberty can be complete without mention of England's great and transformative Tudor period. The period started out well with the cautious Henry VII giving England much-needed stability but his son, Henry VIII (1491 -1547), gradually evolved into a powerful and ruthless despot and so is undoubtedly in some ways a blot on the history of English liberty. But it must be noted that even in his reign there were still in England great and powerful regional Lords and many less powerful but numerous local notables representing local interests that the King had to take great care with. Even Tudor central government power was highly contingent, far from absolute and much dependent on the popularity of the ruler among ordinary English people. And Henry was undoubtedly popular.

But Henry's great deed for England was to let off the leash once and for all on that great religious expression of individualism-Protestantism --something that had been popular among the ordinary English people since Wycliffe (1330 - 1384).

It is however in the reign of Henry's brilliant daughter-Elizabeth I (1533 - 1603)-that we see best what has long distinguished the English from others. She is famous for her tolerance of individual differences as expressed in her well-known statement that she did not wish to make a "window into men's souls" and, even whilst still young, she reproached that great bureaucrat and religious tyrant, King Philip II of Spain, by asking him: "Why cannot Your Majesty let your subjects go to the Devil in their own way?" ("That Great Lucifer", Margaret Irwin) Perhaps most revealing of all about the English difference at that time, however, is Margaret Irwin's account of the conquest of Trinidad by Elizabeth's most enduring favorite-the enormously popular Sir Walter Ralegh:

"The Spaniard Berreo's initial attempt for the Golden City had been disastrously cut short; but he was still determined to find it. Ralegh was determined to find it first. He had sent out a reconnaissance party late in the previous year under his "most honest and valiant" Captain, Jacob Whiddon. It had never reached the mainland, for some of them were hospitably invited ashore at Trinidad by Berreo, and then murdered in cold blood. As England and Spain were still openly at war, he doubtless felt his treachery a justifiable hint to the English that they were not welcome.

Ralegh at once followed his unlucky forerunners. Undeterred by the fact that he had now only one other ship to support his own, he made a surprise attack on San Joseph, and took Berreo prisoner; with the characteristically laconic comment, "Which had I not done, I should have savored very much of the ass."

But there was no ill feeling or unpleasantness between them: Ralegh treated his prisoner as an honored guest and wrote charming compliments of him which show his extraordinary power of detachment, in view of Beneo's treatment of Captain Whiddon --and even more inhuman treatment of others, as Ralegh quickly discovered.... And Ralegh, with a tact equally friendly, refrained from assuring his guest that at least he would not assist his own failure by tying up five or six Indian chiefs together and leaving them to rot in a den underground. For this was one of the unpleasant discoveries he had made about his pleasant companion; and he had at once set free the wretched caciques whom he had found "almost dead with famine and wasted with torments."

Berreo had burned many alive and had caused some torn to pieces by dogs, a livelier form of sport, depicted in early prints of the Spaniards in South America. He might have recognized his mistake, if not his crime, for his cruelty had caused the Indians on the mainland to revolt against him, force him to evacuate Guiana, and so leave it clear of Spanish rule for Ralegh to advance upon it.

Ralegh was quick to improve upon Berreo's methods... Ralegh's appeal to the Indians was more positive and personal. He gathered all he could of the tribes together, and told them that he had been sent by his Cacique to set them free from the Spaniards, for he was "the servant of a Queen who was the great Cacique of the North, and a virgin, who had more caciques under her than there were trees in the island." The metaphor is the earliest instance of his quickness to understand the native mind. Already he saw how impossible it was for them to take in anything of actual numbers; time and space, as well as people, could not be measured, only suggested by some vivid pictorial image. The wise old Chief Topiawari whom he met later on the Orinoco, and who became Ralegh's true friend, could only explain hard facts by such imagery, which Ralegh delighted to note down for their natural poetry... (pp. 102-104)

So we see with crystal clarity there the English difference: A respect for others, for the individual and for individual liberty that is the very basis of democracy. And that example is not an isolated instance. Reading further on in the same history, we find Ralegh's account of the conquest of Cadiz-undertaken in alliance with a Flemish fleet:

"English sailors were being piped over side, and on board the enemy's. Like rats the St Philip's crew began to bolt from her on every side. They had run her aground and fire had broken out. At the peal of a trumpret, the English cut the anchor ropes of all the four great Apostolic galleons; they began to heel over on the mudbank, and from the St Philip there came 'tumbling into the sea heaps of soldiers, so thick as if coals had been poured out of a sack ... some drowned and some sticking in the mud.... The spectacle was very lamentable, for many drowned themselves; many, half burnt, leapt into the water; very many hanging by the ropes' ends by the ships sides, under the water even to the lips; many swimming with grievous wounds, stricken under water and put out of their pain; and withal so huge a fire and such tearing of ordnance in the great Philip and the rest, when the fire came to them as, if any man had a desire to see Hell itself, it was there most lively figured. Ourselves spared the lives of all, after the victory; but the Flemings, who did little or nothing in the fight, used merciless slaughter, till they were by myself, and afterward by my Lord Admiral, beaten off."

Sir Richard Grenville's Revenge was thus revenged, as Ralegh had sworn; but his own account shows little enjoyment in it. Horror and pity seem his strongest feelings at the 'very lamentable spectacle'; and it was his long-boats from the Warspite that were the first to be rowed through the flames and blinding black smoke from the kegs of powder exploding on the ruined galleons, to try and rescue such Spaniards as were yet alive (p. 123).

Tax cut

And in another very modern touch, Queen Elizabeth ended her reign by announcing a big tax cut (by abolishing government-granted monopolies)-to much popular acclaim (p. 158). Big tax-cutters such as Thatcher and Reagan thus have a most respected and successful predecessor in English history.


But the Tudors did not last forever and when the Stuarts, with their doctrine of "the divine right of Kings", ignored treasured English liberties and tried to turn the English monarchy into something more like a centralized Oriental despotism, off came the head of the Stuart King. And note that the attitude of the Scottish Stuarts towards the relationship between the individual and the State differed from traditional English views from the very outset. Note this report of an incident on the initial journey to London of James I: "He ordered a pickpocket to be hanged straight away without trial. The prudish English were too dainty for `Jedburgh justice', which hanged Border robbers out of hand. They muttered tiresome objections about their Common Law, and Sir John Harington, that privileged wag, proclaimed loudly: 'If the new King hangs a man before he is tried, will he then try a man before he has offended?'" ("That Great Lucifer", Margaret Irwin)

A Conservative Revolution:

The English parliamentarians who were responsible for beheading King Charles I in 1649 were perfectly articulate about why. They felt that Charles had attempted to destroy the ancient English governmental system or "constitution" and that he had tried to take away important rights and individual liberties that the English had always enjoyed-liberty from the arbitrary power of Kings, a right to representation in important decisions and a system of counterbalanced and competing powers rather than an all-powerful central government. It is to them that we can look for the first systematic statements of conservative ideals-ideals that persevere to this day. And they were both conservatives (wishing to conserve traditional rights and arrangements) and revolutionaries!

So right back in the 17th century we had the apparent paradox of "conservatives" (the parliamentary leaders --later to be referred to as "Whigs") being prepared to undertake most radical change (deposing monarchy) in order to restore treasured traditional rights and liberties and to rein in overweening governmental power. So Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were not at all breakaways from the conservatism of the past. They had very early and even more determined predecessors. The Reagan/Thatcher "revolution" should have surprised nobody who knew history.

It was in deliberate tribute to the parliamentarians of Cromwell's day and their immediate successors that two of the most influential conservative theorists prior to Reagan and Thatcher both described themselves as "Old Whigs"-Burke and Hayek. Hayek described Whig ideals as "the only set of ideals that has consistently opposed all arbitrary power". And it is not only conservative theorists who still see overweening government power as their bete noir. Even practical conservative politicians do. Note this excellent statement of the conservative mission from one of America's most notable conservative politicians in the second half of the 20th century:

"Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed. Their mistaken course stems from false notions of equality, ladies and gentlemen. Equality, rightly understood, as our founding fathers understood it, leads to liberty and to the emancipation of creative differences. Wrongly understood, as it has been so tragically in our time, it leads first to conformity and then to despotism.

Fellow Republicans, it is the cause of Republicanism to resist concentrations of power, private or public, which enforce such conformity and inflict such despotism. It is the cause of Republicanism to ensure that power remains in the hands of the people. And, so help us God, that is exactly what a Republican president will do with the help of a Republican Congress.

It is further the cause of Republicanism to restore a clear understanding of the tyranny of man over man in the world at large. It is our cause to dispel the foggy thinking which avoids hard decisions in the illusion that a world of conflict will somehow mysteriously resolve itself into a world of harmony, if we just don't rock the boat or irritate the forces of aggression - and this is hogwash".

And who said that? It is from the acceptance speech by Barry Goldwater at the 1964 Republican convention, which nominated him as its candidate for President. For over three centuries, the central values of conservatism --at least in the English-speaking world-- have remained the same. Just to reinforce the point, note this summary from a speechwriter for Richard Nixon:

"Richard Nixon kicked off his historic comeback in 1966 with a column on the South (by this writer) that declared we would build our Republican Party on a foundation of states' rights, human rights, small government, and a strong national defense, and leave it to the "party of Maddox, Mahoney, and Wallace to squeeze the last ounces of political juice out of the rotting fruit of racial injustice."

The words of another well-known American conservative, Patrick Buchanan. Mahoney and Wallace were of course Southern Democrats. And Nixon subsequently swept the polls for the Republicans with a 49 State landslide. His conservative policies were popular even if his subsequent Machiavellianism was not.

And another old warrior of American conservatism, W.F. Buckley says: "The conservative instinctively rejects collectivization."

Last but not least however, let us listen to the man who was arguably the most loved conservative of the 20th century, Ronald Reagan:

"Isn't our choice really not one of left or right, but of up or down? Down through the welfare state to statism, to more and more government largesse accompanied always by more government authority, less individual liberty and, ultimately. totalitarianism, always advanced as for our own good. The alternative is the dream conceived by our Founding Fathers, up to the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with an orderly society. We don't celebrate dependence day on the Fourth of July. We celebrate Independence Day."

From his 1984 speech accepting the Republican Presidential nomination. Individual liberty versus government authority was clearly the conservative message to the great conservative communicator.

Other Conservative Voices in History:

Showing a continuity that moves all the way from Cromwell to Nixon, Goldwater, and Reagan is surely impressive but it does leave out a great deal of history in between. Consider some of the intervening history. To quote one history (by Roberts) of the earliest English Tories (Conservative Party): "The principles of Tory paternalism do not lend themselves to effective legislation or improved administration. Coleridge, the most profound and influential of these theorists, looked to the moral regeneration of the individual, not to the reforming State, and he envisaged the Church of England as the head of a paternalistic society. He despised what he called 'act of Parliament reforms,' and he exalted the Church as much as he feared the State."

Again in Roberts we read of a slightly later period: "Only State aid to all voluntary schools could extend education, but the Tories would not tolerate State intervention in a sphere reserved for the Church. In a grandiloquent speech to the Commons, Disraeli played deftly on this deep jealousy of the State. He raised the specter of a centralized despotism comparable to those which oppressed China, Persia and Austria, and sombrely warned that the grant would force a return "to the system of a barbarous age, the system of a paternal government." Dislike of State intervention has long been a prominent theme (though not of course the only theme) among conservatives.

Nor do we have to go so far back in history to come up with instances of this sort. Two notable quotations that might be referred to for further reading are by the eminent British Conservative Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and by the noted Con-servative philosopher Michael Oakeshott (see p_ 139-141 and p. 154 in "How Conservatives Think" by Buck as a convenient reference for the texts of both statements).

Although both statements were made long before the Reagan/Thatcher/Gorbachev era, both stress how important to Conservatism is the limiting of State power and activity --though neither of course limits the concerns of Conservatives to that one theme. The following is taken from a pre-election radio broadcast by Winston Churchill on June 4th., 1945:

"My friends, I must tell you that a Socialist policy is abhorrent to the British ideas of freedom. Although it is now put forward in the main by people who have a good grounding in the Liberalism and Radicalism of the early part of this century, there can be no doubt that Socialism is inseparably interwoven with Totalitarianism and the abject worship of the State. It is not alone that property, in all its forms, is struck at; but that liberty, in all its forms, is challenged by the fundamental conceptions of Socialism."

Lenin did not really disagree. He said: "The scientific concept of dictatorship means nothing else but this: power without limit, resting directly upon force, restrained by no laws, absolutely unrestricted by rules." And Friedrich Engels had similar view: "Revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is the act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other part by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon".

And now for psychology

The rather obvious insight from Karl Marx's collaborator quoted above --which associates authoritarianism with Leftism --seems to have been totally overlooked by psychologists. This is rather surprising when we realize that the tradition of research into psychological authoritarianism traces back to that immensely influential book among psychologists, "The Authoritarian Personality" by Adorno, Frenkel-Brunswik, Levinson and Sanford. The leading author of the study, Theodor Adorno, was a prominent Marxist theoretician. One might have thought that a Marxist would have made Engels' quotation central to his discussion of authoritarianism.

Such overlooking of the obvious by the Adorno team was however symptomatic of their entire approach. Apparently, as committed Leftists, they wanted to explain Nazism and Fascism in a way that discredited Rightists rather than Leftists. But the theoretical convolutions required for that were from the outset truly heroic-considering that Hitler was a socialist rather than a conservative, considering that Mussolini was a prominent Marxist theoretician, considering that Stalin had been a willing ally of Hitler as long as Hitler wanted him and considering that Hitler's most unrelenting enemy was no Leftist but the arch-Conservative Winston Churchill.

Nazism was simply a racist form of Leftism. How can one make that harmful to conservatives? But the Adorno group managed their self-imposed and unlikely task after a fashion and the basic conclusions that they produced (that "authoritarianism" underlay Nazism, that authoritarianism also underlies conservatism and that authoritarianism is a "disease") were therefore hardly surprising. Only the generally Left-leaning orientation of social scientists, however, can explain why such a historically and theoretically ridiculous work turned out to be enormously popular and influential among social scientists generally.

Regrettably, we have known since Galileo that the popularity of a belief is no guarantee of its truth. And The Authoritarian Personality must hold some sort of record for the amount of criticism and disconfirmatory research that it has attracted. Various criticisms have repeatedly shown is that only the most trivially true contentions of the Adorno theory survive the encounter with empirical testing. The most basic postulates of the theory are just plain wrong.

It must be noted that I am speaking here only of research that sets out to test elements of the Adorno theory. Most research into the Adorno theory reported in the psychological literature assumes the truth of the theory and the authors concerned thus tend to fit whatever they find into the theory, by hook or by crook. And most writers who cite the Adorno work show little or no awareness that there have ever been any serious criticisms of it. How can an extensively disconfirmed theory still be widely accepted and referred to uncritically? The obvious answer is that psychologists are like people generally: They believe what they want to believe and what it suits them to believe. And facts that run counter to that belief are simply not seen.

What are Rightists?

Those who are called conservatives in modern times are the heirs and modern representatives of all those in the past who have stood for individual liberty against the power of big government. It has been shown that there is large historical precedent for the current conservative preoccupation with individual liberty and it is argued here that a love of personal liberty and its concomitant respect for the individual is a basic value for conservatives.

It is reasonable to ask, however, whether this is really fundamental to conservatism. Could there not be a deeper level of motivation that underlies a love of liberty and respect for the individual? We find one such proposal in the conclusions drawn by some historians of the British Conservative party, who find a certain realistic, practical, and pragmatic outlook as the main enduring characteristics of Conservative thought (e.g., Feiling, Gilmour, Norton & Aughey, Standish).

This is clearly a theory about the wellsprings of conservatism rather than a description of what conservatives have tended to stand for. And it is not at all difficult to see why a realistic view of the ham-fisted and restrictive things that governments characteristically do has led to doubt about the benefits of extending such activities. We might say that this proposal is that a certain style of thinking leads to a predictable content in thinking. Putting it very broadly, there is a conservative psychology that explains and underlies conservative political positions.

It may be asked whether the contention that realism, particularly about human nature, is basic to conservatism is consistent with my contention here that respect for the individual and a love of personal liberty are basic to conservatism. Which of the two really is basic-realism or love of liberty? The simple answer is of course that the two are intimately related. If you are realistic about the evil that people individually and people collectively (i.e. governments) often do to one-another, you will want the individual to be as free from outside attentions as possible. Putting it another way, liberty is what conservatives advocate and realism is why they advocate it.

But while the proposals of Feiling, Gilmour and others are perfectly reasonable, they do have a large philosophical problem: How do we define what is realistic, practical and pragmatic? Realism may be a large part of the psychology underlying a conservative stance (see the introduction to my book "Conservatism as Heresy"), but garnering evidence for its truth is a difficult task and certainly not one that I have found a way to investigate by the normal techniques of psychological research.

I do not think that this leads to any need for great vagueness about what conservatism is at the political level, and so I would reject the view noted by Owen Harries when he says:

"In introducing his anthology "The Conservative Tradition", R.J. White defensively (or perhaps smugly and archly) claims, "To put conservatism in a bottle with a label is like trying to liquefy the atmosphere or give an accurate description of the beliefs of a member of the Anglican Church. The difficulty arises from the nature of the thing. For conservatism is less a political doctrine than a habit of mind, a mode of feeling, a way of living."

One must obviously agree with White that the habits of mind and ways of feeling are prior and causative but I do not agree that the political positions they lead to are hard to define.

Another theory for the psychological origins of conservatism is related to the "realism" theory but is a lot less sweeping than it. It is one that is very often quoted and finds its principal exponents in Burke, Hayek and Oakeshott-though the two former thinkers in fact described themselves as "Whigs" rather than as conservatives. This theory also traces policy to a style of thought. The theory basically is that there is an underlying wariness and skepticism in conservatives (particularly about human nature) that makes them question any political policies whatever, including policies that call for change. Conservatives need good evidence that something will work and will have the intended consequences before they will support it. And for this reason conservatives prefer "the devil they know" and want any change to be of a gradual and evolutionary kind, progressing by small steps that can easily be reversed if the intended outcomes are not realized.

And there has never been any doubt that conservatives do indeed think that way. So cynicism and wariness is the motive of conservatives and advocacy of liberty is the political result. And it is this preference for "the devil they know" that has led to conservatives being caricaturized as wanting no change when in fact all that they insist on is careful change. From Cromwell on, conservatives have never been characterized by a rejection of change for its own sake. When a regime is clearly oppressive or an experiment has clearly failed (such as State ownership of industry) conservatives find no difficulty in abandoning it and changing to something else.

But this account of conservatism is insufficient by itself. It fails to ask what the criterion is in evaluating change. How do we evaluate whether a policy is beneficial or not? How do we define "beneficial"? And it is in answering that question that we come back to individual liberty as being a core value. Conservatism is a broad church and conservatives will of course use many criteria in evaluating the desirability or efficacy of particular political policies but, in making such evaluations, it is the high value that one gives to leaving the individual free to make his/her own decisions and obtain his/her own preferences that makes one a conservative. Rejection of change can be an instrument in protecting the individual but it is no more than that.

Why Leftist?

Why are people Leftists? What motivates people who love big government and want to use it to change and rule people's lives? That question can be answered on a number of levels. The normal answer given by Leftists themselves, of course, is that existing societies are unjust-where justice is defined as everybody getting more or less equal economic rewards and access to power regardless of anything that they might do or not do. This however just leads to the further questions of why the Leftist is concerned about justice and why defines justice in such a simplistic way? Generally speaking, the answer to that is a simple and obvious one: The Leftist voter is in a disadvantaged position relative to the society in which he lives and so would benefit from a more equal distribution of society's resources.

But not all Leftists are in that position. From Marx and Engels onwards, the more vocal and prominent Leftists have tended in fact to be from relatively privileged backgrounds. What motivates such "ideological" Leftists? It would be foolish to propose that only one thing could lead to a Leftist orientation so several theories are put forward with the view that any one or perhaps more than one could explain the orientation of any given individual.

Ego Need:

The theory that would seem to have the widest explanatory power is that Leftist advocacy serves ego needs. It is submitted here that the major psychological reason why Leftists so zealously criticize the existing order and advocate change is in order to feed a pressing need for self-inflation and ego-boosting --and ultimately for power, the greatest ego boost of all. They need public attention; they need to demonstrate outrage; they need to feel wiser and kinder and more righteous than most of their fellow man. They fancy for themselves the heroic role of David versus Goliath. They need to show that they are in the small club of the virtuous and the wise so that they can nobly instruct and order about their less wise and less virtuous fellow-citizens. Their need is a pressing need for attention, for self-advertise-ment and self-promotion, generally in the absence of any real claims in that direction. They are people who need to feel important and who are aggrieved at their lack of recognition and power. One is tempted to hypothesize that, when they were children, their mothers did not look when they said, "Mummy, look at me". This means that the "warm inner glow" that they obtain from their advocacy and agitation is greatly prized. So it is no wonder that inconvenient facts, such as scientific findings about the overwhelming influence of human heredity or historical truths about the brutality of all of the many Communist regimes the world had in the 20th century, are determinedly ignored.


People who desperately want power, attention and praise envy with a passion those who already have these things. Businessmen, "the establishment", rich people, upper class people, powerful politicians and anybody who helps perpetuate the existing order in any way are seen by the Leftist as obstacles to him having what he wants. They are all seen as automatically "unworthy" as compared to their own great virtues and claims on what they already have. "Why should they have ...?" is the Leftist's implicit cry --and those who share that angry cry have an understanding of one-another that no rational argument could achieve and that no outsider can ever share. The Leftist's passion for equality is really therefore only apparently a desire to lift the disadvantaged up. In reality it is a hatred of all those in society who are already in a superior or more powerful position to the Leftist and a desire to cut them down to size.

Envy is a very common thing and most of us have probably at some time envied someone. But for someone with the Leftist's strong ego needs, envy becomes a hatred and a consuming force that easily accounts for the ferocious brutality of Communist movements and the economically destructive policies (such as punitively high taxation, price controls and over-regulation generally) employed by Leftists in resolutely democratic societies. The economic destruction and general impoverishment typically brought about by Leftists is not as irrational as it at first seems. The Leftist actually WANTS that. Making others poorer is usually an infinitely higher priority for him than doing anybody any good. One suspects that most individual Leftists realize that no revolution or social transformation is ever going to put them personally into a position of wealth or power. The destruction of the wealth and power and satisfaction of those who already have it must then be the main thing they hope to get out of supporting Leftist politics.

Whether or not someone is important, rich, successful, famous, powerful etc., is however of course very much a matter of individual perception. This "relativity" of importance, prestige etc. would seem to explain why many active Leftists are in fact college or university professors. A college or university professorship is a generally high status occupation that provides an above-average income. On the face of it, it might be seen as already providing considerable recognition and praise. But if status is precisely why certain people have gone to the considerable trouble generally required to enter that occupation, it could well be that the ego need of that person is so big that even more recognition is then craved.

A college professorship may be prestigious but still be seen as providing far too little power, public exposure and opportunity for self-display. "Seeing I am so smart, I should be running the whole show." is an obvious line of thought for such people. Just some power and fame is still not enough power and fame for them. Such great egotism and hunger for power and attention does of course make a mockery of the Leftist's claim to be in favor of equality. Like the pigs in George Orwell's Animal Farm, the Leftist wants to be "more equal than others". He wants to rule or at least dominate. Beneath his deceptive rhetoric, he is the ultimate elitist. He actually despises most of his fellow men and thinks that only he and his clique are fit to run everything. The last thing he wants is to be lost in a sea of equal people.

And nothing above, of course, is meant to suggest that pressing ego needs, self-righteousness and the like are confined to Leftists. It is merely meant to say that Leftism is the principal political expression of such needs. Such needs can also be met by religion etc. and it must be noted that Communism was often described as a religion by its critics. Why people choose politics rather than some other means of meeting their ego needs would have to be the subject of a whole new enquiry. It seems possible that the potentially very broad exposure that politics provides to an individual might attract the people with the very highest ego needs.

This high level of ego need among Leftists would also explain the generally much greater political activism of the political Left compared to the generally rather somnolent political Right. It would also explain why Leftists so often have a "spare me the details" or "Don't worry about the facts" orientation. For most Leftists, it is the activism itself rather than what is advocated that is the main point of the exercise. As long as the cause advocated is both generally praiseworthy and disruptive to implement, that will suffice. If the Leftist cannot have power, praise and attention are the next best thing from a Leftist's point of view.

The need for self-display does however in most people tend to decline as they mature-which is part of the reason why graduates tend to be less radical than students and why older people tend to be much more conservative than young people. To slightly misquote Lenin, much of Leftism would appear to be "an infantile disorder".


Another psychological motivation for Leftism that is sometimes mentioned (e.g. Allan Levite) is one that seems on the face of it rather dubious: Guilt. The claim is that affluent people feel bad (guilty) when they see how poorly others are doing and want to rectify that by getting handouts for the disadvantaged (but not from their own pockets of course). This could be mere Leftist persiflage: Leftists may sometimes explain their motives in such a high-minded way but if they really felt guilty it would seem that there is plenty they could do to help others rather than agitating for higher taxes.

The undoubted fact that Left activists (from the Bolsheviks on) tend to come from affluent families does not necessarily point to guilt as their motive. It could show that those who have all that they want materially then seek other luxuries: such as excitement, self-righteousness, praise and power-particularly excitement in the case of "rich kid" Leftists. And if you can have praise and self-righteousness along with your excitement what a good deal it is! It is much the same motivation that causes self-made rich men (such as Microsoft's Bill Gates) to become highly philanthropic. Bill Gates has power and wealth so he now seeks praise and righteousness.

Other Causes of Leftism:

There are many other possible reasons for Leftism and not all can be mentioned here. But one more should be mentioned in passing: The Leftist may still be young and unaware of most of life's complexities so that the drastically simple "solutions" and mantras proffered by the Left simply seem reasonable. Leftism has the appeal of simplicity.

Two dimensions?

A big objection that many people will be spluttering to express by now is to say that I have vastly oversimplified matters by accepting the popular division of politics into a single Left/Right divide. For exactly that reason various authors in psychology have proposed that an adequate description of world politics really needs two dimensions. They propose, for example, that the Left-Right dimension be supplemented by an Authoritarian/Permissive dimension. So that democratic Leftists and Rightists are Permissive Leftists and Rightists whereas Communists and Fascists are Authoritarian Leftists and Rightists.

Although such proposals have considerable intuitive appeal, they do not, unfortunately, seem to coincide with how people's attitudes are in fact organized when we do surveys of public opinion. It is very easy to find people's attitudes polarizing on a Left/Right dimension but the psychological research has not yet managed to show in a satis-factory way any polarization of attitudes on the postulated second dimension.

The account of Left/Right attitudes given in this article suggests why this is so. For a start, the assumption that Fascists or Nazis are Right wing is false, as I have described above. Historically, the core of conservatism has always been a suspicion of government power and intervention-and conservatives therefore accept only the minimum amount of government that seems needed for a civil society to function. It is no wonder that there is no authoritarian version of conservative ideology. If it were authoritarian it could not be conservative. Leftism, on the other hand, is intrinsically authoritarian and power-loving and will always therefore tend in the direction of government domination. It is only non-authoritarian to the extent that it is thwarted by external influences (such as democracy) from achieving its aims. Leftists in democratic societies do of course commonly deny authoritarian motivations but that is just part of their "cover". Deeds speak louder than words.

The most influential work on political psychology is that by Adorno et al. -- "The Authoritarian Personality", which claims that conservatives are pro-authority whereas Leftists are anti-authority. That this vast and perverse oversimplification became widely accepted among psychologists is perhaps an understandable mistake given the characteristic opposition by Leftists in the modern "Western" democracies to the existing centers of authority and power in their countries and given the characteristic acceptance by conservatives of those same authorities.

Looking at history more broadly, we see that authoritarianism is central to Leftism and that Leftists are in fact dedicated practitioners of it. What Leftists oppose is not authority as such (or there would be no Lenin, Stalin, Pal Pot, Mao etc.) but only authorities that they do not control. What conservatives favor is not any and all authority but rather carefully limited authority --only that degree of central authority and power that is needed for a civil society to function. The biggest mistake that has been made by psychologists and others, however, is to identify conservative motivation with opposition to change. Obviously, from Cromwell to Reagan and Thatcher, change has never bothered "conservatives" one bit --but preservation of their rights and liberties from governments that would take those rights and liberties away always has. That is what has always made a "conservative", and it still does.

Leftists are great advocates of change, using this advocacy to advance their ego needs, in particular their search for power.

Psychological research has been summarized that gives some support to the contentions of this article but the value of all past psychological research into authoritarianism is greatly limited by its heavy reliance on questionnaires. Much of what has been said here calls into question the entire notion of using questionnaire methods to examine political values and attitudes. If it is true that the real motives of many Leftists are too grim to be normally admitted (perhaps in some cases too grim to be admitted even to oneself), the normal assumption of questionnaire research-that the respondent is giving a reasonably frank and accurate account of himself/herself will not be met. We must therefore be very cautious about any self-report data in that situation and do best to base our interpretations of motivation primarily on observed behavior. History is by far the most persuasive source of data on behavior.


Adorno,T.W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D.J. & Sanford, R.N. (1950) The authoritarian personality. New York: Harper.

Burke, E. (1790) Reflections on the revolution in France. Any edition.

Feiling, K. (1953) Principles of conservatism. Political Quarterly, 24, 129-133.

Gilmour, I.H.J.L. (1978) Inside right. London: Quartet.

Hayek, F.A. (1960) The Constitution of Liberty. Chicago: The University Chicago Press

Irwin, M. (1960) That Great Lucifer: A portrait of Sir Walter Ralegh. Bungay, Suffolk: Reprint Society.

Lenin, V.I. (1952) "Left-Wing" Communism, an Infantile Disorder. In: Selected Works, Vol. II, Part 2. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Levite, A. (1998) Guilt, Blame, and Politics. San Francisco: Stanyan Press. (Review here).

Norton, P. & Aughey, A. (1981) Conservatives and conservatism. London: Temple Smith

Oakeshott, M. (1975) On Human Conduct. Oxford: Clarendon Press

Ray, J.J. (1974) Conservatism as heresy Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co.

Standish, J.F. (1990) Whither conservatism? Contemporary Review 256, 299-301.

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