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These reflections concern Carl Trueman’s Republocrat, Chapter 1. (For notes on the foreword and introduction, see A Serialized Review). Two questions were on my mind as I approached Chapter 1: (a) Is Trueman really a political liberal? (b) Does he accurately understand the conservatism he left behind?
Two themes comprise Chapter 1. Theme 1 is expressed in the chapter title, “Left Behind”: how those of “Old Left” (Trueman’s term) political views are now homeless because liberalism has been “hijacked by special interest groups” (p. 14). Theme 2 makes the first interesting: how Left thought about oppression developed from the 19th century to the present.
The chapter is divided into eight sections.
The “New Left” train wreck
The final four sections of the chapter most closely match my own views. Trueman aptly skewers present-day political liberalism (his “New Left”). His central complaint is that the present-day Left is at the mercy of the weather of public sentiment and pressure groups because it has no proper conception of oppression.
“Mr. Marx Meets Dr. Freud” traces the Left’s shift in thinking regarding oppression. In Trueman’s analysis, the Frankfurt School eventually underwent a fusion of Marxist and Freudian ideas (ick squared, I say!).
Simply put, oppression ceases to be something that can be assessed empirically in terms of external economic conditions and relations, and becomes something rather more difficult to see, i.e., a matter of the psychology of social relations. (p. 9)
“How Authenticity Made the Left Inauthentic” argues that the idea of oppression drifted further in the decades after Marx-Freud due to an emphasis on “authenticity.” He observes, “Cynically, one might say that oppression becomes whatever the Left intellectuals say it is or whatever the lobby groups decide to campaign against” (p. 12).
The result of this shift was that the Left ended up embracing causes “that once would have been antithetical to its philosophy” (p. 9), such as the gay rights agenda which “working-class” people have most vigorously opposed historically. Similarly, Trueman complains that “while the Left in origin was supposed to provide a voice to the voiceless,” its current love affair with “women’s rights” has silenced the most voiceless of all—our unborn—on a massive scale.
He characterizes these changes as “a betrayal of the Old Left” (p. 13).
A statement regarding Rick Warren’s opposition to gay marriage is too well put to omit.
[S]o a man who has helped to feed the hungry and clothe the naked is still regarded as a callous, right-wing head case by a grooup of middle-class commentators and activitsts, simply because he is opposed to allowing middle-class homosexuals and lesbians to achieve middle-class respectability. It is a strange world where well-fed television hosts, dressed in Armani suits, Vera Wang dresses, and Jimmy Choo shoes, trash a man with an exemplary record on poverty, simply because he cannot support a middle-class lobby group. (p. 14-15)
In the section on “Evangelicals and the New Left,” Trueman exposes the “Aren’t I naughty?” smugness of many evangelicals who are ostentatiously supportive of Democrats. But most of his ire is aimed at the “Aren’t I morally superior?” breed of evangelical lefties. His comments on the evangelical left’s outcry over Wheaton College’s hiring of Philip Ryken as president (how dare they hire a whilte male?) reveal his talent for high-potency criticism.
Most of the cries, of course, came as usual from—ahem—middle-class white intellectuals, with quite a few male representatives among them; but not one of those intellectuals was, as far as I know, resigning his own job in order to make way for a minority candidate and to help with the ending of oppression. Thus the self-righteous outrage was as self-contradictory as it was predictable—a typical display of New Left concerns that cost the whiners nothing and were therefore worth nothing. They meweled and they puked, but they did not hold themselves to the same standard to which they wished to hold the Wheaton board and Dr. Ryken. (p.16)
The Old Left view of oppression
As much as Trueman’s late-chapter observations resonate with me, even these reveal the central problem with his analysis—a problem that is more apparent in the first half of the chapter. Though Trueman rightly complains that the Left of today has an incorrect conception of oppression and justice (to the degree has a conception at all), he fails to recognize that the Left was confused about oppression to begin with. The sharp discontinuity he sees between Old Left and New is illusory because today’s Left is really a pretty natural progression from the Old.
The first four sections of the chapter chronicle the rise of the “Old Left” in Brittain during the Industrial Revolution. Laws empowered labor unions and expanded the franchise in an effort to relieve what the Left saw as the oppression of poor workers. These sections summarize the rise of Marxism, the various inffective implementations of it, and the 20th century intellectuals’ fascination with it. In the process, Trueman reveals his own understanding of oppression.
Of the Old Left era (1800s-1960s) as a whole, he writes:
The analysis of the situation varied, as did the proposed solutions, but they all had one basic thing in common: they saw oppression as primarily an economic issue, something empirically observable. Some people possessed more than others, and some did not enjoy either the material goods or the working conditions to alow them to live with any quality of life. This was the problem the various movements on the Left wished to address. (p.5)
For Marx, oppression is inherent in unequal levels of prosperity and especially in unequal control of wealth and the means of production. Trueman accepts that analysis.
I noted above how the Left, for all its diversity on economic issues, originally exhibited a consensus on what constituted the primary form of oppression: it was economic, and involved some people possessing control over things important to quality of life that others lacked. For example, John Doe had fresh running water but fenced off his spring so that Fred Bloggs and his family could not get access to it; Pete Smith insisted on selling his apples at a price that most poor people could not afford. (p.8)
(Here I have to resist the urge to explain why John, Fred, and Pete almost never behave this way in a secure, good-faith, free market. But I think subsequent chapters in the book will provide more opportunities.)
The paragraphs quoted above illustrate the flaw in Trueman’s analysis. He overlooks the fact that the view of oppression that characterized what he calls the Old Left arose out of ideas about equality birthed by an older left that was itself new and radical in the 18th century. (To me, the leftism articulated by 18th century thinkers like Rousseau, Godwin and Condorcet is the New Left, and “Old Left” might describe, say, Montesquieu or Hobbes.)
But nomenclature aside, it’s clear that the revolutionary thinkers of the 18th century defined oppression and justice in terms of equality of outcomes—equality of control (a.k.a. power) and property. Trueman’s “Old Left” leaders began with this view and advanced it. The post-1960 “New Left” leaders mostly took it further on the same trajectory. There is no logical place for the pursuit of equality-for-it’s-own-sake to end. Though the unequal-outcomes seen as “oppression” shifted from the material to the psychological and then to the pretty much arbitrary, the Left has been equal-outcome-focused from day one.
And that’s the mistake. In Scripture (and I’m pretty sure in Western thought generally prior to the 18th century), oppression is not a set of conditions but something people do to other people. It’s cheating in the marketplace, robbing, beating, enslaving. Scripture recognizes that poverty (unequal wealth at the low end) can be the result of natural disaster, disease, dislocation and personal laziness. Scripture never identifies the phenomenon of inequality itself (whether of wealth or of power) as unjust.
In any case, this chapter doesn’t explain why inequality of wealth and control should be seen as inherently oppressive or unjust. Perhaps Trueman will make a case for this later in the book. Until then, this view of oppression is likely to serve as an assumed premise in arguments against conservatism (as he understands it) in future chapters.
So then, (a) is Trueman really a political liberal? (b) Does he accurately understand the conservatism he supposedly left behind? On the second question, the jury’s still out. On the first, this much is clear: he does accept the Left’s basic approach to defining oppression and justice.