Around the middle of the last century, American conservatives came to regard “relativism” as an essential characteristic of the Left.
Political theorist and onetime Yale professor Willmoore Kendall, who had been the teacher of William F. Buckley, was the best-known exponent of this position. Kendall was particularly concerned that liberals in post-World War II America were unwilling to stand up to communist infiltration and Soviet aggression, at least not in the decisive manner that he and his student, who became the animating spirit of the conservatism of that age, would have desired.
Kendall’s explanation, which others echoed and, in some cases, anticipated, was that many intellectuals believed “in an unlimited right to think and say what you please, with impunity and without let or hindrance.” Particularly in the face of the communist threat, Kendall thought that Americans would have to give up the idea of an “open society.” They would have to grasp that “any viable society has an orthodoxy—a set of fundamental beliefs, implicit in its way of life, that it cannot, should not, and, in any case, will not submit to the vicissitudes of the marketplace.”
Kendall viewed English democrat and feminist John Stuart Mill as a particularly dangerous thinker on political questions. He was convinced Mill’s best-known work, On Liberty, had gone too far in advocating an “open society.”
Mill set out to defend the right of totally free inquiry but, according to Kendall, landed squarely on relativism. In The Conservative Affirmation (1963), Kendall traced the non-judgmentalism of many Americans when faced by the communist threat to Mill’s willingness to consider all views and opinions. According to Kendall, Mill helped create America’s “national religion of skepticism” and made it increasingly difficult for Americans to hold on to what was left of a traditional society. Mill also dealt with moral issues by encouraging the pursuit of truth without accepting “truth itself with all its accumulated riches to date.”
In a moving tribute to Kendall, Tom Woodlief, writing recently at The American Conservative, declared that “this outcast Yale professor predicted 2020 better than his erstwhile colleagues.” Kendall had warned against “the suicidal pact with relativism,” which is now driving the antifascist Left. According to him, “the doyens of the suicidal society will feel an irresistible compulsion to silence the voices insisting that there is truth, even Truth, and that therefore many other beliefs are in error.”
Please note that I fully share Mr. Woodlief’s admiration for Kendall and especially for his writings on the formation of American constitutional government and his perceptive reading of the political theory of John Locke. Where I must part company is in Kendall’s attribution to the Left of a fixation with an “open society.” Equally open to question is Kendall’s treatment of Mill’s On Liberty, a work that Maurice Cowling, Linda Rader, and Joseph Hamburger have all interpreted differently from Kendall. These scholars have documented that Mill was far less interested in open discussion than he was in other ends. Above all, he was trying to build a secular society based on a consensus centered on scientific truth. Mill was an explicit 19th-century progressive who believed that open inquiry would advance his teleological goals.
Moreover, with due respect to Woodlief and Kendall, those who support Antifa and Black Lives Matter have hardly failed to recognize that there is “Truth” in the world. They simply reject the moral right of their enemies to express other views. This is a moral stand, hardly a relativistic one, and it is a political-existential one, in the sense in which Carl Schmitt understood “the Concept of the Political” as the most intensely antagonistic of human relationships. It is unimaginable that the more fervent and more activist side in our culture wars is not driven by its own morality, which expresses itself in rage.
One might also question whether the Left has ever believed consistently in something called “moral relativism” or whether it has merely appealed to it as a tactic to disarm opponents. Certainly the pro-communist leftists with whom Kendall debated were not likely to “relativize” Nazism or even the Francoist regime in Spain or South African Apartheid the way they did Soviet tyranny.
Russell Kirk liked to tell the story of a leftist acquaintance who claimed to have a perfectly open mind. When Kirk asked his interlocutor who was morally superior, “Jesus of Nazareth or Stalin,” this fellow seemed unable to rate those figures by the required standard. But when he was asked who was worse, Hitler or Stalin, Kirk’s acquaintance would immediately respond “Hitler.” I had similar experiences with advocates of the “open society” before the Left gave up its facade of universal tolerance. It may be that dishonesty, not relativism, was the problem with how the Left has presented itself.
If one were to ask what exactly the Left has believed about morality over the decades, I would begin by pointing out that the most important concept is equality. The Left has never denied this and I see no reason to question that commitment. What seems to me striking is the Left’s preoccupation with equality to the neglect of other values that seem at least as much deserving of respect, such as deference to elders, respect for the achievements of one’s civilization, piety, freedom, and so on. We might also question how the Left understands its highest value, which is clearly different from the way non-leftists might approach it. For example, some may think that equality before the law is enough; others may want equal voting rights, and still others may believe it is the duty of the state to reduce its citizens or subjects to the same living conditions.
The present Left also seems interested in imposing equality of esteem for those whom it designates as historical victims. This is certainly not an expression of relativism but an attempt to carry a highest value one step beyond where it was carried in the past. The drive toward a more total equality brings with it a host of human problems, anarcho-tyranny as seen in cities like Seattle right now being the most obvious. But the belief that all values are relative does not in any way seem to have influenced this course of events.
Another curious characteristic of the Left is how furiously it reacts to Western failures to meet its fastidious standards of equality. The existence of economic disparities in Western countries drove generations of leftists to look for answers in communism, or at least to treat communist governments as efforts to create more “just” or more “scientifically run” societies. The enemy then and afterwards was “fascism” and it remained so long after the Second World War. Fascism has been defined as a chronic Western disease, arising out of specifically Western cultural and religious attitudes rooted in bigotry. Fascism used to be explained with reference to those who controlled the means of production. It was an ideological tool for oppressing the poor and maintaining colonial empires. In its more contemporary form, fascism has become whatever the intersectional Left considers to be morally reprehensible. Since the list of fascist offenses continues to grow by the minute, the only moral way to deal with this right-wing pestilence is by “canceling culture.” Only by getting rid of all reminders of a traditional Western society can we protect ourselves from the pervasive fascist menace.
Yet somehow the evils we are supposed to combat never appear anywhere outside the West. Other societies live in a perpetual state of grace as victims of the West or as examples of what we might become with the proper reeducation. The late Paul Hollander wrote a voluminous study on “political pilgrims” who visited “progressive” or Marxist societies, where they hoped to find human perfection. Hollander’s “pilgrims” were hardly relativists. They were fixated on a highest value, usually equality, but equality combined with scientific management, which they imagined was being realized in some distant place but not in their own country.
Where Kendall was correct was in grasping that the Left was destroying traditional human attachments, where people are integrated into families and communities. There, morality operates in an inherited social context, and not in the pursuit of highest values. Although one may be skeptical about the portentous importance that Kendall ascribed to relativism, his description of a society without shared premises descending into “ever-deepening differences of opinion” is accurate. So was his prediction that such a society would descend “into the abandonment of the discussion process and the arbitrament of public questions by violence and civil war.”
Paul Gottfried is the editor-in-chief of Chronicles. He is also Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for 25 years, a Guggenheim recipient, and a Yale Ph.D. He is the author of 13 books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents.