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How the Left Got Lost

common possession was already familiar to the peasants: rural communities had rights to share and use common lands.6 Before the Enlightenment, European radicals often made reference to Chris- tian scriptures as grounding for their claims. Ball skilfully used the creation story in Genesis to argue against permanent inequality of status. The Peasants’ Revolt called for the abolition of serfdom, but deployed rather than challenged the authority of religion. Religion was the ideological centre of feudal life. Even after the decline of classical feudalism in England


A c k n o w l e d g m e n t s In our decade-long collaboration, we have incurred many debts. The idea to write this history arose in the context of the Re-Enlightenment Project at New York University, which was cofounded by Kevin and Cliff Siskin, with Mary, Peter de Bolla, Lisa Gitelman, David Marshall, William St. Clair, William Warner, and Robert Young as early members. One or both of us subsequently gave papers based on this work at the Re-Enlightenment Project Conference, held at the New York Public Library, Duke University, Cambridge University, the


is shown that the very meaning of ‘Left’ has shifted radically from its origins in the French Revolu- tion. Today, the term ‘Left’ is associated with state intervention and public ownership, which is remote from its meaning in 1789. We are not obliged to follow the doctrines of the original Left, but it is important to understand how strains of Left thinking have twisted and turned from their original source. This book argues that the Left must rediscover its roots in the Enlightenment, and re- adopt vital Enlightenment values that it has abandoned. Much of

mutilation or even Mayan human sacrifice, as long as the victims consented to their ordeal? A problem with the criterion of voluntariness is that people can be duped or pressured into an agreement. Only a reckless version of libertarianism would ignore the problem of unwar- ranted consent and overlook the need to protect children, the brainwashed or the less competent from being victims of their own misguided approval. It is far better to stick to Enlightenment principles here and uphold inalien- able rights and basic needs that cannot be traded away, even when there

directly, rather than talking in Enlightenment style only of an allegedly universal, and singular, maxim. “It would be a great betterment,” wrote Anscombe, “if, instead of ‘morally wrong,’ one always named a genus such as ‘untruthful,’ ‘unchaste,’ ‘unjust.’ ”4 But where do you stop in listing the virtues of truthfulness, chastity, jus- tice, and the like? A list of 170 virtues would be so detailed as to be useless. Some virtue ethicists after 1958 appear to have had no definite list in mind, or an unhelpfully long one. An instance is the inchoate listing of capabili

Owen (1771– 1858). But neither Saint- Simon nor Fourier described their doctrines as socialist: that term was adopted by Owen. As children of the Enlightenment, these thinkers followed science and rea- son. But they looked back to an imagined past, as well as forward to the future. Amid growing industrialization, they wanted to reverse the process of urban- ization. Like most previous socialist or communist proposals, theirs outlined their wish to return to small- scale communities, set out on rigid lines.1 Today’s large- scale, dynamic, complex and innovative

C h a p t e r 9 Final Full Turn: The Left Condones Reactionary Religion As religious beliefs are deeply held and religious culture produces much of value, many liberal- minded people are wary about having arguments with the religious. They have forgotten what the men and women of the Enlightenment knew. All faiths in their ex- treme form carry the possibility of tyranny because they place the revealed word of whatever god or gods they happen to worship above the democratic will of electorates. Nick Cohen, What’s Left (2007) Intelligence Squared is an

d o m o f s p e e c h Step by step, the Left abandoned core principles of the Enlightenment. In 1989 a fatwa was proclaimed against Salman Rushdie, for his allegedly blas- phemous depiction of the Prophet Mohammed in his novel The Satanic Verses. The fatwa was issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran. He called upon other Muslims to kill Rushdie, along with his editors and publishers, ‘without delay’. Across the world, many Muslims demonstrated and agitated for Rushdie’s murder. Many on the Left were critical of Rushdie, for stirring up

ruminations around the North Sea— embodied literally, I have noted, in the novel as against the romance— affirming as the transcendent telos of an economy an ordinary instead of a heroic or holy life. It was, in another of Charles Taylor’s labels for it, “the sanctification of ordinary life.”4 Margaret Jacob argues that the 1680s was the hinge. The Anglo- Dutch re- action to absolutism was the “catalyst for what we call Enlightenment.” En- lightenment comes, she is saying, from the reaction to Catholic absolutism in England under late Charles II and his brother James II