Thursday 19 December 2013

What is the difference between the Old Left and the New Left? - Sex, again...


The Old Left were intellectual revolutionaries and traditionalists about sexual morality.

The New Left are intellectual revolutionaries and sexual revolutionaries.


(Well, that was how it started-out; but the Old Left became the New Left - and the New Left have dumped intellectual revolution whenever it comes into conflict with sex.)


The Old Left were quite often Christians - in England, especially, they were often strict and ascetic, often Nonconformist Protestants (e.g. Methodists and Quakers) - who eschewed luxurious living, were often teetotal and/ or non-smokers, worked hard, were strongly against gambling, were honest, and were altruistically public spirited.

This was the tradition of Christian Socialism and Ethical Socialism - people such as Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb (dishonest, however, when it came to the USSR), economist RH Tawney, Prime Minister Clement Attlee or social scientists such as my old friend Norman Dennis.

(Ex-Mormon) Philosopher Sterling McMurrin was of this type - a Liberal who served in the Kennedy Administration and supported the usual fashionable Lefty causes; his personal sexual life was apparently very traditional and maintained along strict Mormon lines.

An Old Leftist would preach and live intellectual revolution - he was a professional heretic; but would support laws and practices of traditional sexual and social morality - plain living, self-improvement, being useful.

But this kind of Old Leftist is now very rare, almost extinct - and has been replaced by the New Leftist.


The New Left (some of whom were around a long time ago) can be distinguished by their 'Bohemian'/ scoundrellish lives of sexual license - 'open' marriages with extra marital relationships, lovers and mistresses; multiple marriages; non-married partnerships; exploratory and non-heterosexual sex, and so on - including the likes of Bertrand Russell, Fabians such as HG Wells, Hubert Bland (mega-unfaithful husband of writer Edith Nesbit), Margaret Mead, Sartre, Foucault and pretty much all of the nineteen sixties and post-sixties counter culture leaders.

Such people preached sexual revolution, and they lived sexual revolution; and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they preached sexual revolution mostly because they personally wanted to live that way.

And they often strikingly dishonest, deceitful and exploitative in their personal lives - as inevitably seems to happen with people who focus their lives around quantities of extra-marital sex. They may get a pseudo-honest reputation for confessing their sexual adventures - but only because they are putting them forward as revolutionary virtues. 


In general, therefore, it is sex that distinguishes the Old and New Left.

If in doubt - look at the sexual behaviour, and you will see what kind of Leftist you are probably dealing-with.

In terms of motivation, it looks as if the Old Left were sincere in their intellectual revolution lived by it, put that first; and that is what they really wanted more than anything.

In terms of the New Left, it is apparently sex they are most sincere about; and for the New Left, politics is a vast rationalization of sex, and the revolutionary intellect is something which must be bound and muzzled whenever it threatens to constrain their sexual appetites and preferences.


Despicable as are the New Left compared with the Old, the Old Left as a whole did not emerge well from the sexual revolution. The Old Left simply became the New; and - while there were some who withstood sexual temptations - there were very few of the Old Left who remained anchored by their 'puritanical' principles when the tide of the sexual revolution began to rise about them.

Most of them pretty rapidly cut their chains and began to join in the carnivale of sexual subversion, boundary-transgression and inversion of morality as best they could - and to demonize anyone who raised any objections to the abolition of traditional morality.

When it came down to freedom of sexual expression versus freedom of intellectual expression on the Left - sex won; and with barely a struggle.


I suppose there must, somewhere, be an example of a prominent New Left political activist who has retained the traditional morality of the Old Left - A New Leftist who was or is, lived or lives, and publicly defends and advocates traditional marriage and family sexuality...

I just can't think of anyone offhand.



Thursday said...

This reminds me of Will Wilkinson's take on unionism:*

Leftism has come to be more and more pure.

*WW is in many ways the worst kind of libertarian, but he's also genuinely curious and thoughtful, so long as things don't run afoul of his take on certain issues.

MC said...

This is not directed at the main point of your post, but it's relevant to some of your prior articles:

I doubt Sterling McMurrin would ever have referred to himself as an "ex-Mormon." A "heretic Mormon" certainly, but we usually don't think of someone as being "ex-Mormon" unless they actually leave the Church or are kicked out, and McMurrin always had some relationship to the Church, however strained:

Bruce Charlton said...

@Th - Philosopher Richard Rorty wrote an interesting book Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America - in which he argued for Old Leftism, but without abandoning New Leftism and its 'personal is political' stance. Incoherent, of course, but it revealed his gnawing sense that modern Leftism was shallow, self-indulgent, trivial compared with the Labour Party of his youth.

WW is a typical libertarian - rigorous and idealistic until he got a sniff of power - then an instant sell-out.


@MC - Fair enough. I am currently reading a book of McMurrin interviews, called matters of conscience - and so I am aware of the complexity of his relationship with the LDS.

But if I had said 'Mormon Philosopher' then somebody else would have said that he *wasn't* a Mormon. The fact is that McMurrin's views did not add up, did not make sense, were grossly and self-confessedly incoherent - in the typical Old Left fashion. In other words, he simply could not justify his strong personal moral convictions in terms of his political convictions, and he says this quite explicitly. Yet this did not lead him to challenge his Leftism - his absorption into the badly formulated and badly-turning out issues of 'civil rights' and the rest of it. He simply would not make that tough decision that if the implications of Leftism were wrong, then Leftism is wrong - he was infatuated by the warm feelings of 'good intentions'.

I say this from a position of great respect for his work on Mormon theology/ philosophy - which was of critical and decisive importance to me.

In essence, McMurrin was a really great clarifier and explainer of other people's ideas. His own ideas and campaigns seem not to have been coherent, and were probably harmful in the long term; but he seems like a very decent man.

josh said...

Read it?

Adam G. said...

Not all of the conversion to the New Left was entirely successful.

There are plenty of eddies and byways of the sexual revolution that have a certain kind of awkward dutifulness bout them.

SFG said...

As I recall, while Paul Wellstone never criticized sexual immorality, he was personally spotless--never cheated, etc. National Review actually said he lived a conservative life when he died in the plane crash.

Jimmy Carter was, as I recall, a liberal Christian, and actually took it seriously.

Has Barack Obama ever been caught cheating, etc.?

Personally I know plenty of liberals with perfectly bourgeois lives--public figures have an outsize taste for attention (or they wouldn't be public figures) and a lot of women after them (if male) and hence tend to stray more often.

The problem with being a politician is that your political views have a much larger impact on the world than an average person--your average dentist can hold all sorts of unusual beliefs in theory and it really doesn't matter. If Hitler had actually gotten into art school or Stalin entered holy orders, would any of their views actually matter?

Bruce Charlton said...

@SFG - There are likely to be exceptions. But when looking at individuals, you need to take a time slice (and of course we do not known much of what public figures get up to - it is usually a lot worse than our worst nightmares). Wrt US Presidents, there have not been any people who ran on a New Left ticket so far - Carter was certainly Old Left/ traditional morality at the time of his administration - but so was BHO at the time he first got elected. A lot has changed in the past few years.

When a person makes the change from Old to New Left they sometimes do so as a rationalization - for example when a man wants to divorce his wife and take-up with a younger woman he may *discover* that Christian morality needs to change with the times, or that Christianity isn't true after all.

But equally, when someone embraces the New Morality, probably for reasons of career expediency - the matter does not stop there, but changes begin to work through their lives over the following months and years - suddenly new things become possible, acceptable, maybe even admirable - and old things lose their primacy, become optional.

When the incentives stack up - then the change of heart is revealed.

dbk_999 said...

I can think of one who comes close if not all the way there: Robert Christgau, a famous writer on Rock music here in the states. According to his public writings: he lives monogamously in marriage and urges everyone else to do the same, and has pointed out that the common-sensical disaproval of promiscuity is justified. What suprised me most though is his fond, loving references to his family life in some of his essays for the Village Voice, given how rare this is in cultural left writings.
However, none of this prevents him from being an enthusiastic supporter of gay rights, feminism, and other aspects of the sexual revolution. So there is a bit of cognitive dissonance there. (He's also a 'hard' old leftist on economic issues..)

jgress said...

I think you're right to focus on attitude towards sex as the distinguishing feature of the New Left. As the Revolution progressed in the West, it was soon noted that the more sexually repressive regimes were to be found East of the Iron Curtain.

You might even relate this insight to the different predictions George Orwell and Aldous Huxley made for future totalitarian attitudes to sex: Orwell looked at the Stalinist model and assumed the dictator needed to suppress human sexuality in order fully to control the human spirit, while Huxley, with greater intuition and foresight, saw that the way to control was by using sexuality to drug the people into acquiescence.

What's interesting is that, with respect to the other aspects of the hedonistic lifestyle you mention, the current Leftist orthodoxy is remarkably puritanical when it comes to things like smoking. The 1960s flirtation with bohemianism has mostly reverted to bourgeois docile conformism, with the single exception of sex, in which in continues to progress far beyond what even the 60s radicals envisioned.

jgress said...

I think also the description of New Left sexuality as completely unbridled is inaccurate, at least if we're going by what is promoted in the MSM. For example, certain traditional values are retained, such as being honest and not cheating. Adultery is still seen as wrong insofar as it involves lying to or cheating on your spouse.

The real difference lies in the reanalysis of the categories that traditional sexual morality was grounded in. In the traditional view, there are only two sexes, and only one way in which marriage can be contracted, namely between members of the opposite sex. Moreover, marriage was an indissoluble bond that the couple freely consented to but, crucially, could not freely consent to withdraw from.

New Left sexual morality puts "consent" at the head of every argument about sexuality, with "identity" a close second. There are no longer simply two sexes and one permissible sexual orientation, but there are as many sexes (or 'genders') or sexual orientations as one may possibly "identify" with.

In a similar way, "consent" now defines all aspects of the marriage contract. Not only do spouses consent to contract marriage, but they should now be free to withdraw from their promises (in fact, the consent of only party is needed for this). If both parties consent, adultery is permissible (called an 'open marriage'). And a couple need not be bound by traditional definitions of who gets to marry whom: anyone can marry anyone else, of any gender or orientation, provided only they both consent.

The remaining exceptions involve children, who are believed not to have the capacity to give consent, polygamy and incest. I'm not sure if or when the revolution will re-define traditional views on this. I guess we'll see.

Of course, this idolization of "consent" and "identity" assumes the liberal/libertarian fallacy of human nature as completely rational, and the utilitarian fallacy of morality as nothing more than maximizing happiness. Whatever I want to do, and whatever I believe about myself, I am completely in control and not at all subject to dark passions that may direct my will towards the irrational. And as long as people are happy, that's all we need, since everyone is rational and knows what's good for them and couldn't possibly be deceived by these same passions.

Of course, some people are smarter and more rational than others: such a moral system would be extremely useful for them to control the less intelligent.

Bruce Charlton said...

@jgress - Thanks for a thoughtful set of comments!

Just one clarification wrt "I think also the description of New Left sexuality as completely unbridled is inaccurate, at least if we're going by what is promoted in the MSM. For example, certain traditional values are retained, such as being honest and not cheating. Adultery is still seen as wrong insofar as it involves lying to or cheating on your spouse."

I agree not unbridled; but Leftism works by serial transgression; so today's absolute no-no may become compulsory very soon - it has happened several times already. And indeed in reverse - the Left got too far ahead of public opinion in the 60s with respect to openly advocating sex among and with children (several now famous and powerful people were involved, and some have been exposed/ imprisoned, others are excused), and has since back-pedalled... for a while.

"For example, certain traditional values are retained, such as being honest and not cheating." - In theory, yes; in practice this standard is only applied to men.

And formal, official, open polygamy is now officially tolerated in the UK among immigrants and 'minorities' - where state allowances are now provided to several wives and nothing whatsoever is done to enforce the law.

This is one of many laws which are differentially enforced in practice.

jgress said...

I forgot about how attitudes to pederasty had reversed; good call. I know the Green Party in Germany recently got into hot water when people were reminded that decriminalizing consensual adult-child sex was on their platform in the early 1980s.

The overall trend is definitely increasing liberalization of sexual restrictions; I completely agree on that. When you look at a smaller scale, you do see the current ebb as well as flow, e.g. with the AIDS scare the 1980s became more conservative than the 1970s and 60s.

And even outside of sex I think the trend is probably towards greater hedonism as you suggest. For instance, a very traditional Christian might see smoking as a vice, but principally because it is a needless self-indulgence, and only secondarily because it harms health; the modern leftist only cares about the health aspect, and if a similar method of pleasing oneself can be found without any adverse health consequences, he'll take it gladly.

In US cities recently there's been talk about the left-wing counterculture known as "hipsterism", and one of their defining features is love of tobacco, no doubt because adult authority figures keep telling them how bad it is for them.