In my editorial from April 14th, I wrote of the American left’s favorite political strategy: accusing their opposition of a deep-seated prejudice against racial minorities, women, young people, old people, lower income people, etc., and, when one accusation fails to stick (as they all have) they simply move on to the next in a cyclical fashion. Throughout it all, though, one thing is certain: the left is convinced that its opposition sees the world in purely demographic terms. Not because conservative commentators and politicians explain their positions in such terms (they don’t) but because leftists themselves view the world in such terms and cannot relate to a perspective that does otherwise.
To the left, politics is not to be discussed at the level of individuals but rather must be viewed as a contest between long-cemented social categories whose wellbeing is separate and distinct from that of their constituent individuals and must be achieved at the expense of some other group. The irony of this perspective is that despite their professed commitment to ‘equality’ and opposition to prejudice of any kind, the left’s fundamentally collectivist framework prevents them from ever letting go of the concepts of race, gender, age, ethnicity, class, etc. By choosing to view individuals as mere pieces of a greater whole and the collective as the primary unit of political consideration, the left shares the same epistemological premise of the bigotry that they seek to oppose.
To illustrate this point, I will begin by clarifying my terms. Put simply, collectivism is the mystical belief that the social whole is greater than the sum of its parts (individuals) and that the good of the collective always trumps that of the individual in political life. As Leonard Peikoff puts it in The Ominous Parallels, “Collectivism holds that, in human affairs, the collective—society, the community, the nation, the proletariat, the race, etc.—is the unit of reality and the standard of value. On this view, the individual has reality only as part of the group, and value only insofar as he serves it” (p. 17).
Collectivism pervades all aspects of leftist politics. It is the basis of the economic policies of socialism and the welfare state. It underlies everything from Affirmative Action laws to entitlement programs to antitrust law and our self-sacrificial foreign policy (not to pardon the American right, often displaying their own brand of collectivism, for their role in supporting any of those policies).
What of the relationship between collectivism and, say, racism? It is merely a genus-type distinction. As Ayn Rand wrote in her essay ‘Racism’ (the most thorough philosophical condemnation of that doctrine ever written),
“Racism is the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism. It is the notion of ascribing moral, social or political significance to a man’s genetic lineage — the notion that a man’s intellectual and characterological traits are produced and transmitted by his internal body chemistry. Which means, in practice, that a man is to be judged, not by his own character and actions, but by the characters and actions of a collective of ancestors. Racism claims that the content of a man’s mind (not his cognitive apparatus, but its content) is inherited; that a man’s convictions, values and character are determined before he is born, by physical forces beyond his control.”
All manifestations of collectivism have a certain standard of what constitutes belonging to the group: ethnicity, nationality, class, etc. Racism is merely collectivism that upholds race as that standard and judges all individuals by their belonging to a certain racial classification. However, as a mystic doctrine, all forms of collectivism are as arbitrary as all others. Once one has decided to uphold any form of collectivism, no choice of standard can redeem that already irrational belief. Racism isn’t more valid than nationalism, classism, ethnicism, etc., because all are undercut by the logically prior assumption that an individual can be judged by his belonging to any one of those groups.
Is this to suggest that all leftists must hold a racist, ethnicist, nationalist, or other such particular belief? Not at all. Marxists (classists) rejected race as politically arbitrary. Many devout ethnicists and racists pay little heed to class. And many modern ‘progressives’ are, no doubt, genuine in their condemnation of racial prejudice. However, the point to be drawn from this is that such leftists will never be able to end or even effectively argue against these bigotries, as the only true antithesis to them is a confident and principled defense of individualism, the conviction that
“regards man—every man—as an independent, sovereign entity who possesses an inalienable right to his own life, a right derived from his nature as a rational being. Individualism holds that a civilized society, or any form of association, cooperation or peaceful coexistence among men, can be achieved only on the basis of the recognition of individual rights—and that a group, as such, has no rights other than the individual rights of its members” (Ayn Rand, ‘Racism’).
So are leftists doomed to impotence in opposing bigotry? Qua collectivists, yes. However, individuals among them (particularly young ones not steeped in a lifetime of the same patterns of thought) are more than capable of looking critically at their basic premises, working to understand and absolve themselves of the collectivist premises that they might inadvertently share with the bigots they condemn, and, should they have the intellectual honesty to do so, ask whether those same collectivist premises they reject in those forms makes any more sense when applied to the political and economic life of our society at large.