Philosophy for Laymen: Second Thoughts About Left and Right

March 1, 2021 Updated: March 10, 2021


In a 1946 essay on the subject of “Philosophy for Laymen,” the late British philosopher Bertrand Russell noted that, throughout the history of civilization, human beings have faced two different kinds of problems.

On the one hand, said Russell, mankind had to acquire the practical knowledge and techniques needed to sustain life in our natural environment. In that regard, we have enhanced the quality of our lives through the methods of science. To accomplish this, we have trained large numbers of capable specialists in rather narrow technical fields.

Our second problem, Russell cautioned, has been mistakenly regarded as less important. It’s the question of how best to employ science and technology in the best interests of individuals and society. For Russell, this included such “burning issues as democracy versus dictatorship, capitalism versus socialism, international government versus international anarchy, free speculation versus authoritarian dogma.”

An Absence of Philosophical Guidance

On issues such as these, science provides no decisive guidance. The kind of knowledge that helps us deal with this “second problem” is provided by a wide survey of human history and a fuller understanding of the sources of misery or contentment as they have appeared over time.

Advanced skills and techniques in agriculture, manufacturing, transportation, and communication have not in themselves guaranteed human happiness or wellbeing. Knowledge and skills can be used for either good or evil. As Russell points out, the same men who tamed the horse to pull a plow also employed the animal to make war and enslave peaceable populations.

The history of civilization has demonstrated that the development of “common sense” and “human wisdom” requires more than technical expertise. At the very least, shared exposure to subjects such as history, literature, philosophy, and religion is needed to develop a moral compass and to make informed choices about the best way to live our lives.

Over the last 100 years, “progressive” educators have denied young people access to the traditional intellectual tools required for sound philosophical development. The result of this, said Russell, is that the human race has become divided into “rival groups of fanatics, each group firmly persuaded that its own brand of nonsense is sacred truth, while the other side’s is damnable heresy.”

Our Bogus Political Spectrum

Writing in a 2014 edition of The Atlantic, American philosopher Crispin Sartwell pointed out that the West was more divided than ever by political ideology, and any hope for a return to civility in our political discourse appears to be a “pipe dream.” The last seven years have proven this view to be prophetic.

Among the reasons for our present division is a tendency to see the world through the lens of a bogus paradigm. Since World War II, most Westerners have come to view politics on a spectrum that lines up communism on the far left and fascism on the far right. Social democracy and reform liberalism are imagined to face classical liberalism and conservatism on opposite sides of the political center. Sartwell described this model as “conceptually confused, ideologically deceptive and historically contingent.”

Few among our “woke” illuminati recognize that the alleged opposites, communism and fascism, are remarkably similar in nature and origin. Both are grounded in Marxist ideology and ascended to power under tyrannous socialists such as Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and Mao Zedong. All destroyed the societies they captured and cost the lives of millions of innocent victims.

Left–Right Ambiguity

The words left and right first began to be used as political labels shortly after 1789 in the French National Assembly. Those who supported the monarchy sat to the right of the speaker. Those who believed all power should emanate from the people sat to the left. The center was occupied by those who sought a balance between the two positions.

Our contemporary notion of the left–right paradigm took on a more economic and cultural dimension as socialism assumed a prominent role in European politics. The term “left” was soon applied to those who favored the redistribution of wealth through political action. Socialists proposed to replace private property and the free market with public goods and state planning.

Significant ambiguities in the left–right lexicon arose from this double origin. For example, advocates of popular democracy over authoritarian oligarchy don’t necessarily favor socialist planning. Like those in Canada’s new Peoples’ Party or the U.S. MAGA movement, many remain convinced that the spirit of enterprise and free-market principles will, overall, be of greater benefit to ordinary working people.

In this sense, the ideas advanced by the so-called “right” are more like those of Canada’s first governing party, John A. MacDonald’s Liberal-Conservatives, who combined the principles of popular democracy with free-market economics and Anglo-American constitutional principles.

While the historical “left” began in opposition to aristocratic authority, it’s now highly uncertain that socialists will continue to support popular democracy unless electoral procedures can be permanently manipulated in their favor.

As was the case in the 2011 Canadian election when Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party won a parliamentary majority, and in the 2016 U.S. election when conservative Republicans took back Congress and the presidency, desires expressed by existing citizens through fair and honest elections threaten to reverse the plans of socialist administrations.

Therefore, the political left, who once championed the ideal of “power to the people,” has become an economic and cultural oligarchy that must employ top-down governance to enforce global, Beijing-inspired regulatory policies against the wishes of Western middle and working classes.

Ongoing Incoherence

Like Bertrand Russell, the aforementioned Crispin Sartwell proposed a more coherent, philosophical examination of our political divisions. “Transcending partisanship,” he wrote, “is going to require what seems beyond the capacities of either side: thinking about the left-right spectrum rather than from it.”

Sartwell contends that the least useful way of thinking about the nature of the present left–right divide is as a battle between “state” and “capital” or “public” versus “private” economic sectors. Since the development of the industrial revolution and multinational corporations, large-scale private resources have flowed toward political power, and political power has sought to control the flow of essential resources. The power of the socialist state and the corporation has become mutually reinforcing.

As the state’s power expands into the realm of business, capital becomes more concentrated and more capable of exercising a wide variety of powers. Witness the present powerful alliance between big media and socialist political administrations in the West, or the cozy relationships between the Chinese Communist Party, global corporations, and progressive politicians. Together they combine socialist principles with corporate capitalism to enrich one another and maintain the Beijing regime at the top of our world hierarchy.

Renewed Commitment to Independent Thought

In the decades following Russell’s lament about the disappearance of “wisdom” from Western culture, our progressive ruling class has proven to be anything but a meritocracy. As Sartwell pointed out: “The mainstream left is a technocratic elite, with a cult of science and expertise and an ear for the unanimous catchphrase.”

Instead of an increasingly incoherent and simplistic identity-politics-driven left-right framework for social analysis, more careful thought should be given to the troubling re-emergence of the same hierarchical wealth and power arrangements that dominated life in the European Dark Ages.

Common people sense the need for a bottom-up renewal of their fortunes. We need to begin assessing political and cultural movements according to whether they propose to dismantle hierarchy and renew opportunity rather than reinforcing the present iron alliance between Chinese communism and global corporatism.

For such an endeavor, we can no longer depend on established schools and universities. Today, ordinary citizens glean more about “human wisdom” and “common sense” from conversations between long-haul truck drivers and talk-radio hosts than they do from lectures on critical theory at Ivy League universities.

Since the early 1990s, multi-partisan cabals of globalists from all points on the political spectrum have claimed to be about furthering democracy and promoting the advantages of free market economics. But the means used to achieve these goals are impacting ordinary people in ways essentially similar to the tragic consequences of a Maoist revolution. Globalized economic and financial systems are paving the way for an ideological mutation that will put free people back on the road to serfdom.

In short, globalization has become a powerful tool for creating vertical power structures and separating ordinary people from their traditional cultures. Our last best hope for an antidote remains in the hearts and minds of free-thinking men and women. Only a renewed commitment to independent thought, work, faith, family, and nation can produce the energy and confidence required to see us through these tortured and uncertain times.

William Brooks is a writer and educator based in Montreal. He currently serves as editor of ”The Civil Conversation” for Canada’s Civitas Society and is an Epoch Times contributor.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the seating position of those who supported the monarchy in the French National Assembly.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.