In July-August 2001, Kenneth D. Whitehead, R.I.P., a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, was a writer living in Falls Church, Virginia, and a Contributing Editor of the NOR. His latest book was One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic: The Early Church Was the Catholic Church (Ignatius, 2000).
Ed. Note: Throughout 2017, in commemoration of our fortieth year of publication, we are featuring one article per issue from the NOR’s past. This article originally appeared in our July-August 2001 issue (volume LXVIII, number 7) and is presented here unabridged. Copyright © 2001.
Ideological slogans might not always seem to be very important. Sometimes, however, they can reveal basic and persistent mindsets. This is the case with the slogan that originated in the French Revolution, “No enemies to the Left.” Students of European politics will recognize that this slogan has persisted, and that the ideas behind it still apply to today’s politics.
In his 1928 classic, The French Revolution: A Monarchist History, Pierre Gaxotte describes the inexorable logic of revolutionary “progress”:
The revolutionary period was characterized by allowing successive avant-garde parties or factions to take political power while riots and disturbances in the streets dictated the actual government policies that were adopted. Against the royal court and the privileged classes, the members of the National Assembly appealed to the turbulent sectors of the capital. Even while privately deploring the excesses committed from July 13 on, they closed their eyes to them because they wanted to hold in reserve the power of the clubs and of the streets. Thus they became prisoners of the alliance they had made; they became prisoners of the formula “no enemies to the left” (pas d’ennemis à gauche).The relative moderates initially responsible for getting the Estates General convoked in order to deal with the financial crisis of the French monarchy were very soon shunted aside by the more radical elements, who quickly resorted to extra-legal means to convert the Estates General into a National Assembly. These revolutionaries in the Assembly soon fell from power, however, giving way to yet more radical elements. Each successive party or faction that came to power faced the same ongoing, volatile revolutionary situation.
Continuing agitation in the country at large, but especially in Paris, kept the streets, the press, the factions, and the clubs in constant ferment. What was taken to be public opinion marched relentlessly forward. Yesterday’s impossible, unthinkable measure became today’s “idea whose time has come”; yesterday’s progressive Assembly member became today’s reactionary, if not traitor to the cause. The revolutionary mechanism ground mercilessly on.
Gaxotte correctly identifies one of the reasons why the more radical revolutionary elements were repeatedly able to displace the successively outmoded “progressives”: In a revolutionary climate, where events are thought to be leading ineluctably to human “liberation,” a “better world,” and the perfecting of the human condition, the more radical forces not only exhibit more consistency and determination toward attaining these ends, they also come to occupy the perceived moral high ground — they are the ones who appear truly dedicated to the cause, and thereby usually gain at least short-term popular support. Meanwhile, those who are more moderate and potentially more reasonable become awed or intimidated by the zeal of the zealots and tend to yield to them.
If, by definition, the Revolution is going to usher in freedom, eliminate oppression and injustice, and create a better world, then those who are more committed, energetic, and intolerant of any kind of compromise with injustice and oppression acquire a considerable psychological and moral advantage — while those who are or have become more lukewarm about the cause, or who, at the very least, have become concerned about their jobs or careers, can no longer effectively oppose the zealots and the true believers.
It is true that power relationships and the abilities and opportunities of individuals, as well as a host of other factors, play important roles in how a particular revolutionary situation develops; but if the whole aim of the Revolution is to clear away the obstacles on the road to human liberation, progress, and a better world, then those least deterred by moral or other considerations in the face of the obstacles encountered will be out in front of others who might have second thoughts, or even scruples, or who are otherwise deterred by various obstacles.
These are among the reasons why, in a revolutionary situation, there are “no enemies to the Left.” For it is the Left, after all, that by definition represents where the Revolution is supposed to go.
First formulated in the French Revolution, the No-enemies-to-the-Left slogan has persisted to this day. Many examples of the phenomenon can be readily gathered in the nearly 75-year history of world communism. And in an important sense, we are still living in “revolutionary” times. Our contemporary culture remains broadly leftist, stemming as it does in so many ways from the French Revolution and its key ideas. Many things continue to be almost automatically viewed from a leftist perspective today. The logic of this key revolutionary slogan continues to drive “progress” and progressive movements generally — although, needless to say, hardly with the same speed and violence as was the case in France between 1789 and 1794.
Large numbers of our contemporaries still go on believing, even if only half consciously, that there are no enemies to the Left, and they often express this belief in such common phrases as “nobody thinks (or does) that anymore” or “we can’t turn the clock back.”
Conversely, in our culture, it is usually on the Right that “enemies” are thought to be present. No comparable slogan — “No enemies to the Right” (pas d’ennemis à droite) — exists. On the contrary, many on the Right do see enemies to the Right of themselves; all too often conservatives feel it necessary to soft-pedal their own basic message, trying not to alienate anybody, and to bill themselves as conservatives who are “compassionate” or “moderate” or “pragmatic” or some such thing. “Militant” or “fighting” are adjectives that most conservatives go to great lengths to avoid (whereas most liberals are proud to be designated as “militant” or “fighting” liberals).
Unlike their liberal counterparts, conservatives of various stripes are often found distancing or disassociating themselves from one another. Conservative advocacy organizations frequently eschew contact with other organizations that have the same declared aims but are seen as too “extreme.” Sometimes they even join the Left in deploring or excoriating those further to the Right than themselves, seeking thereby to validate or rescue their credibility in the public mind. This phenomenon is yet one more instance of how conservatives often concede (at least tacitly) that “extremism” is generally found on the Right.
One of the reasons why liberals and leftists tend to be proud of their positions while conservatives tend to be apologetic about theirs is that our culture has generally managed to tag rightists or conservatives as “extremists” by definition! Extremism is seen largely as a rightist or conservative phenomenon, and the Right is thus strongly identified in the public mind as such.
We need only think, for example, of the common expressions “far Right” or “extreme Right.” We hear these phrases so often — and they are so often applied indiscriminately to practically anyone who is not obviously a leftist — that they have practically become fixed expressions in the language. We hear little about “the Right,” but lots about “the far Right” or “the extreme Right.”
The same thing is decidedly not true of the Left. We almost never hear the expressions “far Left” or “extreme Left” (except from the mouths of conservatives already antecedently discredited in the popular mind as themselves “extremists”). Certainly no mainstream pundit or television talking head would ever speak about the far or extreme Left; in their circles, there is no longer thought to be any such thing, especially since the fall of communism — but even then it was rarely conceded that communism was extremist.
As Judge Robert Bork remarked, no doubt ruefully, about the rejection of his nomination to the Supreme Court by a Senate influenced by these same attitudes, “If you can make people believe that the Center is actually the extreme Right then you can get them to think that the Left must be the Center.”
Moreover, conservatives, living as they do in our prevailing liberal or leftist culture, often tend in a certain measure and in various ways to accept the widespread popular judgment that they are the extremists, or at least that they lean toward or tolerate extremism — or, at the very least, that those to the Right of them can be conceded to be extremists. Conservatives thus often find it difficult to be forthright about their own conservatism; this is especially true when they are dealing with what the culture has decided to label “controversial issues.”
Why is this so? One reason is because of the still potent myth of the Revolution. Just as the very concepts of “Left” and “Right” came out of the French Revolution, so the myth persists that freedom and progress and goodness and even virtue stem from the Revolution, and thus are found on the Left. The very idea of progress itself goes back to the myth of the Revolution. And this particular myth, of course, persists in the face of all of the abundant evidence that liberation, progress, and a better world are decidedly not the automatic results of any revolution. On the contrary, it is well known that reigns of terror, guillotines, firing squads, purges, dictatorships, gulags, expropriations, and, in short, new tyrannies and oppressions of all kinds have commonly accompanied or followed successful revolutions — and still do.
Nevertheless, the myth of the Revolution — what Pierre Gaxotte called “the legends, the phraseology, and the romanticism” of the Revolution — persists anyway. This myth persists because many of the original aims and hopes that inspired the Revolution in the first place persist — and also because enough of these same aims and hopes have been realized in the course of various revolutionary movements (e.g., the abolition of social privileges and the institution of various democratic processes such as elections) so that the revolutionary myth continues to kindle hopes in the discontented.
There are always going to be plenty of discontented people, so there are bound to be many for whom the myth of the Revolution and the promises of the Left still make sense. Even normal politics in our society have come to be seen by many as an instrument to realize the myth of the Revolution and its principal aspirations. Hence the logic of “No enemies to the Left” continues to operate in modern politics.
Let’s take the politics of abortion. By adopting, out of a perverse and evil genius, “choice” as its byword, and given the attendant implications — a form of the liberation originally promised by the Revolution — the pro-abortionists have succeeded in framing the whole abortion debate on their own (revolutionary) terms. The liberation of women from a perceived form of oppression has become the main issue; the child whose life is taken has simply been left out of consideration.
So all-pervasive is this one-sided view that the major media never speak merely about “abortion,” but always about “abortion rights” — and this despite the fact that no such rights are to be found in the Constitution. Nevertheless, the phrase “abortion rights” is now strictly required by the style books of the major newspapers, news magazines, and TV news networks, just as these same style books insist that “partial-birth abortion” must always be referred to as “a form of late-term abortion which opponents call ‘partial-birth abortion.’”
Pro-abortion politicians proudly trumpet their advocacy of freedom and choice, their progressivism, while most pro-life politicians nervously fumble for words and often simply falter when trying to explain that they are neither anti-freedom nor anti-women, nor “harsh” or uncaring or unprogressive. The best most pro-life politicians usually manage to say is that they are “pro-life”; rarely are they able to actually argue the pro-life case.
And since it is also part of the myth of the Revolution that “we can’t turn the clock back,” the pro-abortion politicians are smugly confident that they are not only right, they are riding the wave of the future. Meanwhile, pro-life politicians — except for those acknowledged reactionaries already typed as belonging to the far Right — are again apologetic about seeming to oppose the great idea whose time has come: legalized abortion.
In such a “revolutionary” atmosphere so patently disadvantageous to the pro-life cause, we can see the same dynamic at work in those current laws aimed exclusively at demonstrators outside abortion clinics, but not at any other kind of demonstrators. How this kind of blatant discrimination can prevail in a society that is supposed to abhor “discrimination” of any kind, and in which the status of any other kind of demonstrator is practically sacrosanct, is a question that surely must give us considerable pause. Where abortion clinics are concerned, it is the pro-lifers who are almost automatically perceived as “violent” (while the violence of abortion itself goes unremarked). Evidently, pro-lifers, by virtue of the position they take, do not enjoy the same First Amendment rights as everybody else. It is considered perfectly legitimate to curtail their rights, just as the original revolutionaries considered it legitimate to curtail the rights of the aristocrats, the priests, the bourgeois, the kulaks, et al.
The logic of “No enemies to the Left” is at work in all of this. In the U.S. today, courtesy of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, we have the most extreme abortion regime possible, one that has proved almost impossible to oppose effectively. We have virtually unlimited access to abortions, for any reason or for no reason. Nearly 30 years of massive and unceasing pro-life efforts have simply not had the same effect as would have been the case for almost any other cause (provided it is a leftist cause). Pro-lifers have turned out tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators on the mall in Washington, D.C., for the January 22 anniversary of Roe v. Wade every year since that unfortunate decision was handed down, and yet these massive demonstrations, year after year, seem to have very little effect; the media generally give a dozen feminists demonstrating in front of the Supreme Court equal time.
All of these pro-life efforts, in fact, have succeeded only in getting legal abortion regulated a little bit around the edges through the enactment of laws requiring waiting periods, parental consent, and the like. As often as not, though, these laws regularly get thrown out by the courts.
More than a few observers have remarked how we in the U.S. continue to accept what is a shockingly extreme abortion regime; some of these observers wonder why we cannot arrive at a “reasonable compromise” on this “controversial question.” The fact is, though, that “reasonable” standards — however construed — no longer apply to the abortion phenomenon. Many of the major institutions of our society — the courts, the media, the universities, medical and other professional societies, even a president of the United States [Bill Clinton] — have all solidly come out in favor of our present ghastly abortion regime, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Even many Catholics are irritated that the Pope [John Paul II] and the bishops place so much stress on opposing abortion. And it is only with the utmost difficulty that anyone can oppose our pro-abortion zealots on the Left, who work so tenaciously against any move whatsoever toward “reasonableness” or even moderation on the issue.
Even many declared pro-life politicians seem to be privately convinced, in accordance with our existing wave-of-the-future revolutionary logic, that “we can’t turn the clock back.” In practice, some pro-life politicians seem to do little more than pay lip service to the pro-life movement, which in their view still harbors its “unrealistic” idea that human beings at all stages of life ought to enjoy the right to life and to equal protection of the laws that the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to our Constitution are supposed to guarantee to everybody.
All of these factors and attitudes were on prominent display in the hearings on the confirmation of John Ashcroft for Attorney General. Democratic senators were free to excoriate the Missourian’s pro-life views in the harshest and most insulting terms. Hardly anyone saw this relentless brow-beating as intemperate or “extremist”; once again, the Left proved immune to such charges. We might have thought, for example, that Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts had reached some kind of absolute zero in his slanderous characterization of the views of Judge Robert Bork more than a decade ago. But no: He did a reprise and then some in the case of Ashcroft. Meanwhile, the stigma of “extremism” stuck only with Ashcroft in the media reporting of the hearings. The logic of the day regularly dictates that those who favor the unrestricted killing of the unborn are “moderates,” while those who oppose this are the “extremists.”
And, once again, instead of presenting the overwhelming legal and constitutional case for overturning Roe v. Wade, President George W. Bush’s choice for Attorney General seemed to have been spooked by this logic and evidently felt obliged to downplay and soft-pedal his own well-known views — the very views for which he was presumably nominated by President Bush and for which he was being relentlessly opposed. He felt obliged, in other words, to “pledge” against what must be his own conscientious convictions that neither he nor the Bush Administration would attempt to overturn Roe, that it is “settled” law.
The truth is that few issues in American life are less “settled” than Roe and the abortion issue, and John Ashcroft presumably knows this. Nor did he have any compelling reason to mute his views. He was not likely to gain any votes for his confirmation thereby, nor did he appear to do so. Moreover, by trying to appease his enemies, he succeeded only in appearing either to be abandoning the principles for which he was being chosen in the first place — or to be someone prepared to resort to equivocation, if not dishonesty, in order to get confirmed.
One of the things strongly at work here, of course, was the old idea that there are no enemies to the Left. The pro-abortion zealots on the Left, as usual, were able to get away with saying the most outrageous things about Ashcroft, indeed, practically anything they wanted, and nobody thought much about it. At the same time, a pro-life aspirant to high office felt obliged — or thought he was obliged — to obfuscate his positions in order not to be tagged as an extremist. But he was tagged as an extremist anyway. These are the current rules of the game. Revolutionary progress such as the legalization of abortion is something thought to be irreversible in the same vein as the old Brezhnev Doctrine in international affairs: “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is negotiable.” The movement of the Revolution only proceeds in one direction — toward the Left.
If we were to analyze some of our other current social pathologies, such as radical feminism, assisted suicide, euthanasia, unethical biomedical experimentation, or “gay rights” — and, since the fall of communism, these are precisely the things the revolutionary Left works for most diligently — and examine them in the light of the myth of the Revolution, we see the same thing we have seen in the case of abortion politics. Ideas that were once unthinkable are now the stuff of everyday politics and society, and it is the opponents of these ideas who are now seen as the “extremists” in the revolutionary atmosphere that continues to prevail in contemporary society.
What we see in all these cases is a situation in which the extreme and the immoral have become accepted and are considered mainstream while quondam normal and rational positions are considered extreme. Meanwhile, the continuing agitation goes on, especially from our elites, to push on to yet further extremes. This is more than merely “defining deviancy down”; it is a “permanent Revolution,” and in a form few ever imagined back in 1789.
We will not be able to successfully counter this omnipresent modern phenomenon until we figure out how to neutralize the still potent myth of the Revolution.
The foregoing article, "'No Enemies on the Left' -- Still!" was originally published in the May 2017 issue of the New Oxford Review and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.