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A defense of the right

By Gennady Stolyarov II
web posted October 24, 2005

In his recent response to my article, "On Old-Fashioned Progress," Mr. Martin Kraegel III raises objections to my classification of libertarians and minarchists under the expansive umbrella of the Right. Instead, Mr. Kraegel asserts that the "Right" is comprised of advocates of the pre-Enlightenment, pre-capitalistic Ancien Regime, who have historically reacted against progress, free markets, and individual freedom. I beg to differ. Here, I shall illustrate that, in fact, the Right and the Ancien Regime are opposed to one another, and that the Right has always upheld Enlightenment ideals of reason, progress, and economic liberty. The Left, however, originated as a reaction against the Enlightenment and progress. Mr. Kraegel mistakenly equates the Right with conservatism; while these two terms are mutually compatible today, they have not always been.

While the terms "conservative" and "liberal" have switched meanings multiple times throughout history, the terms "Right" and "Left" have consistently referred to the same ideological standpoints. The latter designations originated during the radical stage of the French Revolution, when the National Convention was divided into two irreconcilably antagonistic factions. One was the Gironde, whose members sat on the right side of the Convention's meeting hall. The Gironde was a progressive movement opposed to absolute monarchy and seeking to implement the Enlightenment ideals of reason, progress, liberty, and toleration in France. The Girondins advocated economic laissez-faire and limited government. Rightly fearful of unrestrained majority rule, they supported a highly diminished constitutional monarchy supplemented by an elected legislature. Among the Girondins were such notable advocates of liberty and progress as Lafayette, Condorcet, and Germaine de Stael; they also received extensive ideological endorsement from Thomas Jefferson in America. The Gironde's historical influences included such champions of the Enlightenment as Locke, Voltaire, and Montesquieu.

On the left side of the convention sat the foes of the Gironde and sworn enemies of the Enlightenment, the members of the "Mountain." The Mountain derived its primary intellectual influence from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a reactionary against the Enlightenment and advocate of unlimited majority rule in the form of the collective "general will," religious intolerance, and all-encompassing government. Viewing human technology, art, and free markets as corrupting influences, Rousseau wanted collectivist government to return man to the more "dignified" state of the "noble savage." Like their ideological progenitor, the members of the Mountain were proto-socialist. They supported, among other interventionist measures, government redistribution of food and resources to the Parisian mobs, universal military mobilization, a state-imposed religious cult, and the infamous Reign of Terror-a systematic government persecution of ideological dissenters from the Mountain's policies. Members of the Mountain-who first slaughtered many Girondins and then turned on each other-included demagogues and cutthroats such as Marat, Hebert, Danton, and the eventual de facto dictator of the French Republic, Robespierre.

Today's Right, derived from the Gironde, still advocates the principles of reason, progress, liberty, and free markets as it did in 1793. The statism, stagnation, tyranny, and intolerance of the Ancien Regime have their intellectual heirs in the Left, which, from the time of the Mountain onward, was a reaction movement against the Enlightenment. Influenced by the counter-Enlightenment duo of Rousseau and Kant, the 19th century Left philosophers-Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, Comte, and Marx-fully developed the socialist and statist ideologies put into practice in the bloodbaths of the 20th century. Their enemies, the Classical Liberals of the 19th century, as well as the Austrian Economists of the 20th-whom Mr. Kraegel rightly praises-in fact belong firmly to the Right, since they upheld the same essential Enlightenment principles as the Gironde. Libertarians and minarchists, intellectual heirs of the Classical Liberals, must, then, also be inextricably part of the Right.

The term "conservative" did not always identify the Right. During the 19th century, the "conservatives" advocated a return to absolute monarchy and its accompanying feudal, theocratic, and big-government institutions-as embodied in Prince Klemens von Metternich's Concert of Europe. Otto von Bismarck, the founder of the first massive modern social welfare program, was, too, an admitted 19th century conservative. Furthermore, the Tories-the "conservative" party of Britain-introduced and supported economic regulations and redistributionist policies that helped facilitate Britain's early transition to socialism. Not surprisingly, Metternich's absolutism, Bismarck's welfare statism, and the Tories' advocacy of government intervention were eagerly endorsed by the Germanic school of philosophy-the same one that laid the foundations for the 20th century Left.

Odd as it might seem considering present political circumstances, 19th century liberals belonged to the Right whereas 19th century conservatives belonged to the Left. Which of these the present Bush administration belongs to is yet unclear, though the rampant spending, growth of government, rising national debt, and intrusions on civil liberties lead me to surmise that those in power-even if they call themselves Republicans-are in fact moving steadily toward the Left. However, this does not imply that the constituency that facilitated Bush's election is statist or reactionary in principle. Many of those who supported Bush are themselves consistent Rightists whose principles the Bush administration has betrayed. These Rightists should rethink their approach to voting and activism.

From its earliest origins, the Right has encompassed all those who perpetuate and actualize the legacies of the Enlightenment, while the Left has consisted of reactionaries against the Enlightenment. No matter how its specific composition might shift, the Right will by definition continue to stand for progress, since the Enlightenment is inherently progressive. The Left, no matter what its incarnations-the Ancien Regime, the Reign of Terror, 19th century conservatism, or 20th century socialism-will always continue to resist the Enlightenment and offer obstacles to progress.

G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to The Autonomist, Le Quebecois Libre, and The Liberal Institute. He is also Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator , a magazine championing the Western principles of reason, rights, and progress. Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's newest science fiction novel, Eden against the Colossus, here  and his newest non-fiction treatise, A Rational Cosmology, here . Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at gennadystolyarovii@yahoo.com.

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