Why I Am a Conservative Leftist
[The May/June issue of The American Conservative featured Jonathan Bronitsky’s review of Daniel Oppenheimer’s new book Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. This article is the first in an exchange between Bronitsky, Oppenheimer, and Samuel Goldman. Be sure not to miss Bronitsky’s “Who Are the Ex-Conservatives?” and Goldman’s “The End of Political Conversions?”]
Before I respond directly to your thoughtful review of my book, I want to begin by recognizing the possibility that I may someday look back on this exchange as my very own entry into that small genre of essays written by soon-to-be-ex-leftists just before they decisively break from the left.
These essays tend to be anxious productions, with affection mixed uneasily with notes of aggression, betrayal, and loss. If only the left could change in these ways, it would deserve my continued loyalty. If only it would ‘fess up to its past mistakes. If only it would temper its utopianism with a pinch of pragmatism. If only, if only.
David Horowitz wrote a classic essay of this type in The Nation in December of 1979, as he was on his way out of the left. Max Eastman wrote many such pieces before finally letting go of the left. The one I write about in my book is “Russia and the Socialist Ideal,” which Harper’s published in 1938. It made leading Trotskyist intellectual James Burnham so angry, and uneasy, that he wrote “Max Eastman As Scientist,” which was both a really nasty attack on Eastman and also, it became apparent in retrospect, evidence of his own increasing ambivalence. Two years later Burnham would publish a parting letter to Trotsky, “Science and Style,” that’s one of the more fascinating documents of socialist disillusionment.
Christopher Hitchens never wrote an essay that pleaded with the left to reform itself so that he could remain loyal. He wasn’t much on pleading. He did, however, write two of the canonical “Goodbye to All That” essays, another type I’ve recently identified and begun cataloguing. These pieces are published just after the decisive break, and tend to be rather nasty.
The first of these from Hitchens was published in the Washington Post, in late October 2002. In it, just to give one of many tart examples, he wrote of how much he “despise[d] a Left that thinks of Osama bin Laden as a slightly misguided anti-imperialist.”
A few weeks later, in an exchange in The Nation with Katha Pollitt, he went on:
I am against aggressive totalitarian states and I am resolutely opposed to religious fanaticism. I am also sickened by any attempt to call these hideous things by other names. Most especially in its horrible elicitation of readers’ letters on the anniversary of September 11, The Nation joined the amoral side. It’s the customers I want to demoralize, not just the poor editors. I say that they stand for neutralism where no such thing is possible or desirable, and I say the hell with it.
I don’t think I’m on my way out of the left, but I would be a sorry chronicler of the left-to-right journey if I didn’t point out that what I’m about to do, which is articulate some of the ways I’m not comfortable on the left, seems like the kind of thing people do when they’re working themselves up to leaving the left.
Also, and this is what I really want to engage, your review makes the case that my whole book, unbeknownst to me, is an argument about the dangers of utopian left illusions. You write that it “radiates the core philosophical thrust of the right, a solemn warning about the audacity of schemes that endeavor to recreate heaven, in all its perfection, here on earth.”
I’m not sure if that’s the core message of the book, or that I was entirely unaware of the currents of conservative subtext in my writing, but you’re on to something. As I was researching and writing, and going as deep as I possibly could into the minds of my subjects, I became more viscerally persuaded of the genuine dangers of the utopian imagination. I developed a real disgust for the Soviet Union, and a greater frustration with the left’s recurring bouts of sympathy for totalitarians and authoritarians who espouse the right Marxist principles. I tried to put myself, imaginatively, in those moments and places when the left’s actions and ideas seemed to most warrant that “solemn warning about the audacity of schemes that endeavor to recreate heaven, in all its perfection, here on earth.”
What would I do? Would I turn? Would I stay in line, out of fear of alienating friends and comrades? Would I chart a more idiosyncratic course, like some of the early neoconservatives like Sidney Hook and Daniel Bell, who parted ways with the Marxist left but never really became conservatives?
I honestly don’t know, but in trying to answer those questions I also came to reflect on some of the ways in which I’m temperamentally fairly conservative. On a gut level I care a lot more about my friends and family than I do about the masses. I view with skepticism people who want to preach to me, from on their high horse, what I should be thinking and doing in the name of justice. I see our political system as being, on balance, one of the more half-decent ones that history has produced, and I’m somewhat horrified by radicals who think that its very real and deep flaws and sins justify tearing it all down. I think human societies, like human beings, are flawed, imperfect, frail things, and as such deserve both idealistic prods to be better than they are and some measure of tolerance and compassion for the many ways in which they’ll inevitably fail.
These are all perspectives that fit comfortably under the rubric of “conservative.” Yet my overt politics are democratic socialist.
At the most conscious, explicit level I would like for the U.S. to move (democratically, with moral urgency but not haste) in the direction of those lovely Scandinavian countries, or at least my fantasy of them, where a vibrant market economy co-exists with high taxes, a generous welfare state, strong unions, tough but well-engineered regulations, appropriate urgency about climate change, egalitarian views about sexuality and gender, and a general aversion to war and imperialism.
One question this raises is whether there’s an internal inconsistency between those explicit policy preferences and my more conservative instincts and dispositions, and if so, is the tension great enough that it may one day resolve itself in political conversion? Am I holding on to a political identity, in other words, that doesn’t fit anymore?
I don’t think so. What it seems to me, and I think this is another core argument of the book, is that our basic disposition doesn’t pre-determine our political identity. What it does, instead, is shape the way in which we inhabit the political identity that we end up choosing, or that ends up choosing us. And it does so in conversation with all sorts of other dynamic factors, including the lessons of experience, other theoretical frameworks and insights we acquire, our assessment of the current political balance of forces, and so on.
For me, right now, that all adds up to being what one might call a conservative leftist, or what the great critic George Scialabba once called a “25th century utopian,” someone who’s hopeful that someday as a species, if we don’t screw things up, we may acquire the wisdom and structures to live in a genuinely beautiful and just world, and that not screwing things up entails both the cultivation of a utopian vision and caution that we’re not too reckless in our rush toward it.
I’m attracted to progress, but wary of too much disruption. I’m attracted to a more equitable society in no small part because it seems like one that would bring more stability and social harmony than our current economic arrangement does. I like unions because although I believe that a certain amount of hierarchy and authority is natural and ethical in human arrangements, I resent the often unchecked tyranny of the workplace. Unions seem like a good, democratic means of enabling more dignity and autonomy in the workplace.
I’m also just someone, viscerally, who is averse to certain types of political personae that populate the left and right to differing degrees. I don’t like a certain type of unreflective campus radical (score one for the right). I don’t like a certain type of corporate/finance type who thinks his expertise in the business world translates to a universal wisdom about politics and history (score one for the left). I don’t like people who think that politics just needs to be rationalized (take that, libertarians and neoliberals).
I could go on, but the point I’m trying to make isn’t that you should adopt my politics and peccadilloes, but rather that if Exit Right is indeed a warning about the dangers of the utopian imagination, I hope it’s also an argument about how incredibly difficult it is, as a human being, over the course of a lifetime, to keep all of these impulses, insights, and considerations in proper perspective and in fruitful conversation with each other.
By ending most of my chapters when my subjects left the left, and not spending much time with them as fully developed conservatives, I may have left certain more obvious examples of this point on the table. The focus was on the delusions and flaws of the left. But just to be clear about it, I think some of my subjects massively overlearned the lessons of their misspent leftist youths. Their political imaginations became so consumed by their critiques of the left that they became unable to see how complex the American left can be, how many different currents and types of people it can contain, and how can it change over time. You say it rather wonderfully in the review:
Howling about the Democratic Party’s ‘socialist’ policies more and more resembles Aesop’s boy who cried wolf. Social welfare has been around for decades in America, and a gulag archipelago has yet to manifest in the Alaskan icebox. Further muddying the situation, a significant swath of self-professed conservatives back jacking up taxes on the rich and expanding public programs. Plus, while radicalism was once scary, it’s so downright goofy today it’s almost adorable. Credit for that goes entirely to its foremost champion, Bernie Sanders, a wobbly, wild-haired altacocker from sleepy Vermont for whom, as Triumph the Insult Comic Dog put it, a ‘Super Tuesday’ is having to visit the bathroom only once in the middle of the night.
This 21st century American left, which I suspect is on the rise, and will wield more influence over the next few decades than it has in the past few decades, is one I feel comfortable supporting. I think it’s a far better bet, in terms of humanizing and stabilizing American society, than the right, and felt that way even before the right attached itself to Donald Trump, who truly scares the bejesus out of my conservative self. I can imagine a future in which the left becomes powerful enough, and indulges its worst instincts enough, that I’d turn against it, but to my eyes that isn’t now. As we go forward I’ll just have to do my best to remain flexible enough in my thinking, and secure enough in myself, that I can ally with the right side, whatever that side is.
What do you think, though? What is the challenge the current moment poses to conservatives, in terms of reconciling all the warring parts of the conservative soul. You end your review with a fascinating sentence that I’m not totally sure I understand. After pointing out that socialism is no longer an enemy worthy of conservatives’ full intellectual attention and assault, you write: “Lacking a blatantly dangerous target to explode, the task before us is rediscovering not what we stand against—that’s obvious—but why exactly we’re opposed to what we stand against.”
What is the obvious thing that you should stand against? And can you elaborate on what you mean with that closing question? What is the task of rediscovering what you’re opposed to what you stand against? I feel like you’re on to something really profound, but I’m not yet sure what it is.
Daniel Oppenheimer, the author of Exit Right, is a writer and short documentary filmmaker. His articles and videos have been featured in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet, and Salon.com.