The rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders seems to pit Old Left against New Left, some say. But are there any real differences between the two ideologies? And are either New Left or Old Left actually even ideologies at all?
Philosopher Greg Salmieri answers the question in talking about the similarities and differences between the so-called “Free Speech movement and the campus riots of the 60s, and the “Occupy” movement and its “safe spaces” of today.
Asked by The Undercurrent what Ayn Rand took to be the essence of that earlier movement, he answers:
Dr. Salmieri: She saw the events at Berkeley and, later, on other campuses, as an attempt to erase the distinction between speech and action and to intimidate others into adopting their political positions. The students objected to Berkeley’s policies concerning what political activities were permitted on parts of the campus, so they seized control of the campus and did things like turning over police cars and using them as rostrums. The students could have worked to persuade the administration that their preferred policies were right. If that didn’t work, they could have withdrawn and gone to another school—or, since Berkeley is a public university, they could have attempted to persuade the legislators or the voters who elected them. This is the peaceful, civilized way to settle disputes. Instead, the students resorted to force. In effect, they said: “You must grant our demands, because we’re a big gang who can physically bar your way, disrupt campus life, and destroy property.” We’ve seen a reprise of this in the “Occupy” movement, and more recently in the spectacle of student groups occupying quads and administrators’ offices and seizing control of forums to read lists of demands.
The students at Berkeley were outraged that the existing policy prohibited certain sorts of speech on campus property, and some of the current student groups are outraged that campus policies don’t prohibit certain types of speech that they think is offensive. So in this narrow respect they could be seen as opposite, but the groups are the same in that they are trying to impose their preferred policies by physical force and intimidation, rather than by persuasion. The recent groups are more consistent, because the whole idea of free speech, which the ‘60’s students claimed to be for, rests on the distinction between speech and action. If “speech” extends to trespass and physical intimidation, then of course it cannot be free, since the “speech” of some will amount to violence against others.
This blurring of the line between speech and action was part of a broader development that Rand thought was going on in the 1960’s. She called it “anti-ideology”—the attempt to undermine the concepts and principles that people need to think rationally about political issues. Without such concepts, a nation is reduced to the status of warring gangs each of which is united, not by any shared convictions, but by factors such as race, locality, profession, or income. Anti-ideology is popular when people are acting on motives that they are unwilling to admit (to themselves or others), and Rand thought that this was the case across the political spectrum in the ‘60’s.
For decades, the political left had been pushing for ever greater government control over individuals’ lives. The only consistent implementation of their ideas is totalitarianism, of which communism and fascism are both variants, and the horrors of that system were obvious to any honest observer in the aftermath of World War II. So the leftists didn’t want to admit what they stood for. But their opponents on the political right were unwilling to embrace the opposite system, capitalism, because it was seen as “selfish” and “materialistic.” So both sides sought to evade the fundamental issue at stake between them and to focus on narrow policy questions, without reference to the principles needed to understand them or rationally evaluate them.
As a result, American politics was reduced to pressure group warfare. Without recourse to the principle of individual rights, which enables people to live together in non-sacrificial harmony, factions multiplied and formed uneasy alliances that enabled momentary majorities to use elections as an opportunity to sacrifice minorities. Rand saw what the students at Berkeley were doing as a more naked version of this same pressure group warfare. Instead of imposing mob power at the ballot box, as their parents were doing, the students were trying to impose it in crudely physical terms, out on the streets.
The source of the anti-ideology, in Rand’s view, was intellectuals—especially professors of philosophy and the humanities—and it seeped out into the culture from the universities. So she didn’t see it as any surprise that violence erupted first on campuses. That’s where young people go to find the ideas that will enable them to make sense of the world and chart their course through life. Instead, their professors gave them an anti-ideology that was a rationalization for imposing their whims by brute force. Of course, the professors of today include many members of the ‘60’s student movement, many of whom are teaching variants of these same doctrines. We can see their influence in some of the current groups occupying campuses. . .
… and also podiums and voting booths.