Right, Left, Forward, or Back? Or Why I Am Neither Left Nor Right

by John Francis Nieto

1.  The following remarks propose to explain why I have no expectation of political gains from either right or left and why rather I distrust both movements, at least in so far as they are political movements arising within modern political theory.  Nonetheless, several things I am not claiming should be made clear in the beginning.

2.  First, I am not claiming that either the left or the right is simply speaking one movement.  Each has many elements and I have no intention of speaking to what is proper to these elements.  Rather my comments concern groups or individuals only insofar as they assent to the political principles that have formed right and left as distinct ‘sides’ or ‘factions’ in the modern political system.

3.  Second, I am not claiming there is no difference between right and left.  I shall argue that both sides work to advance things they hold in common more than those things proper to them.  These common principles (in my opinion) are or should be reprehensible to the most earnest partisans of either side.  And I do think each side has some who work with the intention of bringing about a greater good, however much I may disagree with them.

4.  Third, I therefore am not denying the need to work with one side rather than another in particular political battles.  I note however that in doing so the political battle becomes distorted insofar as the principles at hand must be conformed to those commonly accepted.  Hence, the fight against abortion becomes for the right a question of a personal right to life, since ‘rights’ are the commonly received political principle.  More fundamental in abortion is the destruction of the common good attained in sexual union.  But our political culture is too corrupt to recognize the horror of such destruction.  Again, concern for the land we live on and encouragement of small-scale farming have their champions on the left.  But this must be pursued within the exploitative, industrial conception of man’s relation to the earth that defines our political debates.  We have lost any sense that the earth provides for our needs.  Rather, we seek from it satisfaction of desires.

5.  Fourth, I do not propose these remarks with any suggestion of demonstrative certainty insofar as they contain judgments of particular political movements.  I am not surprised that I, when young, or that other young people maintain political positions with great certainty and vehemence.  I was so determined that I was willing to incite revolution, if given a chance.  But it does surprise me that many who have the air of political wisdom pronounce in the same fashion as the young.

6.  Political matters involve all the complexity of any moral judgment.  Hence, questions of motives and circumstance, concerns about consequences, dangers of misstatement and misapprehension crowd about political acts.  Further, political judgments involve the assumption of wisdom not demanded by the moral life.  Everyone must live the moral life and attempt to attain to some measure of happiness.  To go beyond the most general political truths and begin to judge in this realm is to suggest that one possesses the good attained in morality and politics in a manner sufficient to help others do so.  Even the wise must fear such a step.  (Of course, in saying this I have already opposed some principles common to both right and left.)

7.  Hence, although, in the following remarks, I will propose some things which I believe to be of complete certainty, though difficult to articulate, such things are of a general and fundamental character.  What I say against particular factions assumes that they reject, most often implicitly, these foundations of political order.  They may well assume the same things at one time or another, insofar as they lack the consistency of well conceived political opinions.  But nowhere do I claim more that a probable, reasonable certitude in judging particular political opinions or actions.  Only God can grasp these things with perfect clarity and determination.  Any partisan who claims to understand these matters without any admixture of error fools himself; as likely, he is a liar, most likely a petit-demagogue.

8.  What I propose therefore in the following remarks about particulars is incomplete, overstated somewhere, poorly substantiated elsewhere.  I would have no one agree with me by the fact that I have said it.  Rather, I urge each to reflect upon his moral and political experience, to confirm his understanding of true political principles, to judge political opinions and actions to the extent that true principles make them intelligible, and to refrain from opinions and judgments beyond these.  To the young I particularly recommend moderation.  To form political judgments is as much a burden as it is a privilege.

9.  Now to take up this burden myself.  I will first make clear in a schematic way my own associations with right and left. (10-12)  Next I will state my distrust of these movements in a general manner.  (13) Then, I will propose the political principles most necessary to true political order.  (14-26)  Finally, I will state in a specific manner how right and left reject these principles in common. (27-52)

10.  For several years, from sixteen to twenty-two, I consciously considered myself a member of the political left.  I first identified myself as a communist and a Marxist, then distinctly a Maoist—to my shame a deceived admirer of the Chinese cultural revolution—, and finally, for nearly four years, an anarchist.  As an anarchist I would have allowed myself to be called socialist or communist, so long as these terms were not taken in a particular, narrow sense.

11.  Near my twenty-second birthday I began to question various of my political principles and after several months I recognized that several were wrong, though I did not claim to know the correct principles.  Several things I never questioned: my distrust of the political influence of wealth, my sympathy with workers, my contempt for the ugliness and inhumanity of technology, my sense that man has been estranged from nature, and thus from his own nature, and so on.  This re-haul of my political thought led to a moral reevaluation and thus to my return to the Catholic faith.  But the political reevaluation came first.

12.  Returning to Catholicism, I was determined to hold to the faith in its purity.  I believed, for a short while, that this demanded I align myself with the right.  Yet I could never champion capitalism, at least insofar as the word refers to industrial or high-finance capitalism.  While I rejected the near-pacifist position central to my anarchism, I could not find enthusiasm for any of the military engagements so readily supported by the right.  And thus, for many years, since my early thirties, I failed to feel any deep sympathy with left or right.  Further, I have come to reject the distinction of right and left as an appropriate approach to political order.

13.  My sense that the distinction and opposition of left and right do not arise from the principles proper to political order coincided with the sense that left and right agree on much that each side takes for granted.  More and more it became clear to me that they take for granted an opposition to the principles that make real political order possible.  Some of these principles are found explicitly in traditional teachings about politics, especially in traditional Catholic social teaching, although others are found there only implicitly.  In effect, left and right, to my mind, are in general agreement with modern political and economic thought and disagree with how that thought should play out.

14.  To make the principles where left and right agree more clear, I shall first discuss some of the principles I understand to be central to traditional political thought.  None is more fundamental than the notion that according the very nature of man the common good gives rise to the political order.

15.  The common good insofar as it is good is a final cause.  Thus, victory is the purpose and cause of an army, and polyphonic music is the purpose and cause of a choir.  Insofar as it is common, the common good brings many into a community and orders the members of the community to it and to one another.  The nature of polyphonic music, for example, brings those capable of singing it together and makes a soprano of one, an alto of another, and so on.

16.  By means of this order to the good and to one another a society becomes one agent pursuing the good common to them.  This is to say that the common good makes the many members of the community a single agent in pursuing that good.  The common good as final cause brings into being a city as an agent cause that pursues that good.

17.  This common good must be some one thing belonging to all the members of the community.  Nonetheless it belongs to the various members in distinct ways and some share more in this good and others share less.  In the political order, the common good is nothing other than the common life lived by citizens.  This life has many elements and is conceived in many ways.  It is called ‘peace’, ‘prosperity’, ‘justice’, insofar as we pay attention to one or another of its various aspects or elements.

18.  To be a citizen, not in name alone but in reality, is nothing other than to pursue and possess this good by loving it and by sharing the power to bring it about and maintain it.  Some make laws, some enforce them, some judge those who are subject to laws, some elect those who make laws, and so on.  Each pursues and maintains the common good according to his share in political power.  But every citizen as such must love the good not merely as it belongs to himself but also as it is a whole belonging to the entire community.  Thus, he loves the common good as his own good, yet as a good greater than any private good belonging to him as an individual.  So the soldier offers his own share in the common good from love for this good as it belongs to the whole.  Likewise, Saint Paul says,

I am speaking the truth, in Christ, I am not lying, and my conscience in the Holy Spirit bears me witness: there is great sorrow and incessant pain in my heart.  I could have wished to be outcast from the Christ myself for the sake of my brothers, who are my blood kindred.

19.  While the common good belongs to the entire community of citizens, some part of the community must be dedicated to pursue and maintain this good for the whole.  This is the government, which in its very nature is ordered to the good of the whole community.  Though the government rules the community and thus some men are subject to any government, many, if not most, of those subject to government are themselves citizens.  Thus government must rule citizens not for the good of the government, but for the good of the whole citizen body insofar as they form a community possessed of a common life.

20.  Now there are many aspects of political life that must be found in all political communities: murder and stealing, for example, are wrong everywhere.  Nevertheless, since the common good is nothing other than the community’s common life, it must be determined in time and place.  Where a people lives determines many aspects of its common life: the balance of agriculture and commerce in its economy, the kinds of food cultivated, and so on.  Again, the particular history of a people influences that life.  For example, the experience of a regime particularly good or evil affects the future attitude toward that kind of regime.

21.  Two attributes of the common good demand particular attention.  The common good must be attained in a manner that is stable and self-sufficient.  These are rooted in the relation of the common good to the community that pursues it.  If it is not stable, retaining more or less the same character over time, it will not really be common to the members of the community over time.  Grandparents will not share political life with their grandchildren, or even parents with their children, but mere biological life.  If the common life is not self-sufficient, the members will depend upon other communities with which they will form a larger community.  This larger political community will possess its own life, less distinct and less in the control of the original community.

22.  Above I claimed that by his nature man is inclined to the common good.  This can be seen in many ways, but most obviously insofar as man is inclined to happiness, which cannot in fact be attained by oneself.  Man cannot be born or grow up without others.  Nor can he attain to language, knowledge, or virtue in a sufficient way without the help of others.

23.  But man cannot attain happiness, taken as perfecting himself alone or as perfecting the community, merely by means of his natural powers.  The principal cause of this lies in his passions.  Man’s sensitive desires, arising from the concupiscible and irascible appetites, respond immediately to the sensible objects that appear by the exterior senses and the imagination.  Nor are they wholly subject to reason.

24.  Hence, man needs habits in these appetites and in his will, by which he will follow the good perceived by reason, even when the sensible appetites incline toward another good.  Again, by these habits the sensible appetites will themselves incline in a manner appropriate to them toward the good perceived by reason.  Traditional political thought therefore proposes the necessity of virtue for sound political order: temperance in the concupiscible appetite, bravery in the irascible appetite, justice in the will, and prudence (which knows the good for man) in the intellect.

25.  For this reason, because the cardinal virtues are necessary in pursuing and maintaining the common good, traditional political thought suggests that good government is something rare, not to be expected everywhere, not likely to last a long time.  This is not to say that men should not aim at good government.  But they should not be surprised that good government is so difficult to bring about and they should cherish the institutions that do so, if such institutions should be hit upon.

26.  Let me underscore one point here.  No loss in political thought is greater than the loss of the understanding that happiness, whether for one man or for a community, depends upon possession of the cardinal virtues.  However bad society became in ancient and medieval times, anyone influenced by the great civilizations, such as the Greek or the Chinese, would have heard that these virtues are necessary for happiness.  A bad man might scoff at such a position, but at least he was aware of it.  And if this position is true, it is in some way a principle of action to anyone who becomes happy.  In our day few come to know of this truth and, of course, even fewer have any share in happiness.

27.  In describing the opposition to these principles common to the political right and left (at least insofar as they are movements), I shall first discuss the notion of social contract, which is at the heart of modern political theory. (28-41)  Next, I shall propose that the political thought of right and left is founded on the social contract. (42-45)  Then, I shall propose the manner in which right and left are themselves opposed while agreeing in the notion of a social contract. (46-48)  Finally, I shall make some remarks about the United States in particular: where it stands regarding this theory. (49-52)

28.  As stated above, modern political theory in common establishes political order on what is called the social contract.  These thinkers do recognize that any society works toward some kind of good.  They display various defects in their understanding of the common good.  But all these thinkers reject the natural inclination to the common good.  The common good is not a final cause by nature.  Rather, it must be established as the good of the community by some community or some part of a community, as by an agent cause.  But, as stated, these thinker hold that that agent cause cannot come into existence through the natural inclination to the common good.

29.  Instead, the modern political theorists propose that the community comes into existence through the inclination of its members to their own private good.  Each man about to enter into community recognizes that he will attain to some private good through association with others.  This agreement constitutes a contract, generally implicit, by which the city or state is constituted.[1]  So constituted the community determines some part to serve as a government and this government pursues the good of the city or state.

30.  The relation between the good of the community to the individual citizen is not described in the same way by the various philosophers.  Nonetheless, the manner of establishing the community implies that this good belongs to the government more or less as the private good of the member, the good that prompted him to enter into society, belongs to that member.  The government becomes more or less another individual pursuing its own private good, as is said most clearly by Hobbes.

31.  There results an opposition between the good of the state and the good of the citizen.  For the citizen enters into society for the sake of his own private good.  But his participation in the state and consequent enjoyment of this private good demand subordination to the good of the state.  The state will only work so as to bring about his private good insofar as citizens work toward the good of the state.  But the good of the state is not properly the citizen’s good.  Rather it is a good proper to the government.

32.  Insofar as modern governments are totalitarian, they assume supremacy to the good of the state, mistakenly understood to be a common good.  Insofar as these governments partake in ‘Western liberalism’ (which has nothing to do with ‘liberal vs. conservative’) they recognize a citizen’s ‘rights’.  Such rights are here understood to constitute a reservation of some private good against the claims of other citizens, but more profoundly, against the claims of the state.

33.  Citizens do not live in such a social order for a common life, but each lives for his own sake a life he conceives as properly his own.  He orders his action to his own success and prosperity, to his own pleasure, perhaps a bit beyond this to his family.  He sees the political order as useful to these purposes of his own.  He does not find in it an opportunity to participate in government, whether by legislating, ruling, counseling, judging, or even electing.  If he shares in any of these, he looks to his own ends.

34.  The government likewise looks to its existence and flourishing as an institution.  Those who belong to it work to maintain themselves in power and see individual citizens either as an instrument or as a threat to that power.  The citizen is promised his private good in exchange for the maintaining the government.

35.  There is nonetheless a kind of balance that can be found, at least for a time.  The exchange of private goods allows the government to pursue its power as a private good and the citizen to pursue whatever life pleases him as his private good.  They may recognize the other’s intentions; they may flatter and deceive each other.  In either way such a system can last for some time.

36.  But this is not government or politics in the ancient sense, which demands that a people organize themselves so as to pursue a common life.  Rather, the social contract introduces a system of management by which the government offers the various elements of a satisfactory private life to citizens in exchange for its own power.

37.  Those who developed the theory of social contract were certainly proponents of virtue.  Nonetheless such a system has no need of virtue.  The citizens support the government through their inclination to their own private good.  No one needs virtue to desire this in a stable and vehement manner.  The passions incline us sufficiently to what is in one way or another our own.  In a system of ‘human management’ the passions can be counted on by a government to keep citizens satisfied with various pleasures and excitements, while it strengthens its own place in the world.

38.  Virtue may, however, be necessary to distinguish and desire what is truly good from what appears to be good.  For this reason, virtue may be an impediment to such a system.  If virtue allows someone to recognize that a truly common life, a stable and self-sufficient life shared with others in one place and through time, is more desirable than the satisfaction of passions, he becomes an impediment to such government as management.

39.  Let me briefly point out some reasons such a conception of government is incompatible with the stability and self-sufficiency that are attributes of the common good.  Since what is provided to citizens is not a common life but the satisfaction of passions, which each works out in his own way, a system of human management must provide new and various satisfactions to its citizens.  Food, sex, violence, wealth become central to any system like this.  But they must have the increase and variety that keeps the senses and the passions alert and excited.  Hence the life of citizens demands constant changes and this can be supplied at least in part by import.  This alone is reason against stability and self-sufficiency.

40.  But the government also seeks to augment its own power and security.  This will always suggest further control and regulation of the citizen’s life, which will demand change of one sort or another.  But it also tempts a government to interest itself in the doings of other governments.  Greater interdependence among such governments means greater power and security, at least for the government that does the most successful meddling.

41.  Now, when government is viewed as mere management of individual satisfactions, a system that does not demand the attainment of any virtue, good government will not seem to be something rare and difficult to maintain.  Rather, it will be thought to flow according to some kind of formula from mere power and will.  Good government will bring about ‘happiness’ by managing men and goods as they already are, by ingeniously shifting them about, while traditional political theory assumed that men must become good to become happy, especially insofar as they are in community.

42.  Now I do not think it difficult to see that the political right and left, at least in our times, both accept the conception of government as a social contract.  We see both pandering to the citizen’s desires for his private good.  More and more each conceives of the political order as arising from and serving individuals and not families, neighborhoods and towns.

43.  Generally speaking, both right and left conceive or propose themselves as the true defenders of the citizen’s rights.  Both conceive the opposite side as more or less totalitarian.  And each side has some justice, since totalitarian governments have at times been on the right and at times been on the left.  In fact the opposition of totalitarianism and Western liberalism is woven into the principles of government accepted by both sides.

44.  Hence, whatever their long-term dreams and utopias, each side proposes that good government is synonymous with its own establishment in power.  Right and left each propose to solve society’s problems on the condition that it becomes the government, while the other side is destroyed or fades away into ignominy and then obscurity.  For me this makes clear that neither side can ever be successful.  Even granted that each of them changes, perhaps even to become more and more like each other, neither side can bring about what they aim at, because they cannot get rid of one another.

45.  For this reason, I believe that right and left are both proceeding ‘forward’ toward a more and more perfect system of human management.  This demands global government, a fluid worldwide economy, a thorough-going leveling of individuals through society, so that no one can remain outside the reaches of this management and thus a danger to its integrity.  Everyone can enjoy his pri­vate satisfaction so long as he submits to the system, so long as he is ‘with the program’, as it is vulgarly put.

46.  Where then do right and left differ, if they are in fundamental agreement about the social contract?  I think there are many illusions lurking here and do not have time to consider them.  Let me merely propose for the moment that the fundamental difference is this: the left holds that the original formation of society is a system of oppression and must be superseded by a true social contract, while the right accepts this original formation as a binding contract.

47.  The position of the left, described in the Second Discourse of Rousseau, holds that the conditions of man when he first ‘found’ himself in nature encouraged him to establish a system of property, racism, sexism, and so on, by which he used others for his private good.  This system must be replaced by a true social contract that orders men and wealth to bring about the private good of all society’s members.  For example, the left holds that American slavery was part of the American system at its founding.  The undoing of that slavery introduced a new element of a true social contract.

48.  The right claims that the systems in place at the time the doctrine of social contract arose were more or less sufficient to bring about that good.  They may hold at one time or another that the contract has been insufficiently fulfilled, as, for example, in American slavery, but that the principles in the American social contract are sound and capable.

49.  This leads me to speak a moment about the United States.  I speak as someone who has always looked at his own country from within and from without.  From my childhood I recognized the good that I have received and share in through the American system of government.  But I have also seen this system as belonging, at least temperamentally, to the Anglo-American race, more than to my own.  I say this merely to avoid any dissembling.

50.  I believe that any true government must be founded on true political thought.  I think that there is evidence in American history of such a foundation.  In fact, one part of this is the claim in the Federalist papers, that the members of the proposed union have the same language, culture, and political institutions.  At the same time the founders used the language of the times to explain their foundation.  Some believed it fervently; others may not have.  The people themselves, I expect, conceived the political order more or less as they had when they began to live in this country.

51.  Over time, however, we have come to live more and more by the principles enunciated in our foundation.  One of the most impressive facts about American political life, one paid only the slightest attention, is that it has in fact proceeded more or less according to the words and formulas used in its institution.  I do not deny that these have been used with more and less precision and with changes in meaning.  Nonetheless, our government has in fact gone forward more or less according to these ‘instructions’.  This is something very rare.

52.  As we have stuck to these principles, we are therefore living more and more according to the contract theory embedded by the founder’s in their account of the foundation.  Hence, we have lived more and more for the rights of individuals and we have established the government more and more as an entity that serves its own ends in opposition to our own.  As we continue forward, however much we imagine that we go right or left, we will be furthering a system of government that consists in human management.  The only true direction is back, not back in time, but back to the true principles of human political order.


[1] Editor’s note: The author is somewhat simplifying matters. There are certainly modern political theorists who do not conceive of the state as being constituted by a contract. Hegel, for example, rejects the idea of a social contract (for example in Philosophy of Right, § 75). But all modern political theorists propose something other than a natural inclination to the common good as the foundation politics. Thus, Hegel replaces the natural inclination to the common good with history. The dialectic of history brings about the political community, and this dialectic is certainly driven by “desire” for private goods, but the coming into being of the community is not based on an implicit agreement between already existing individuals (contract)— rather it is only in the community that desire becomes self-conscious and individual subjectivity comes into being. Nevertheless, the result is similar to that of social contract theory; natural inclination to the common good is excluded. — Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist.

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