The Left Is Not Always Right

Tom Flynn

[A]ll of the philosophers present regarded themselves as humanists, but it was startling to observe how great the differences were among the humanists.

—Sidney Hook1

Humanist philosopher Sidney Hook (1902–1989) was a principal mentor of FREE INQUIRY founder Paul Kurtz. Hook was also among the earliest American intellectuals to break with Marxism. That’s saying a lot: Marxist revolutionary thought held enormous sway over American intellectuals during much of the twentieth century. In the 1930s, many U.S. academics believed the Great Depression was capitalism’s final crisis, after which it would almost surely be replaced by some form of socialism. In this turbulent atmosphere, Marxism first failed Hook’s “sniff test.”

By 1933, Hook realized that he’d judged “capitalism by its works and socialism by its literature”—“that workers could be exploited in a collectivist economy as well as in a free market economy.” In that year, he denounced the Comintern (Soviet Communism’s international arm) and sharply criticized Stalin, whom many American leftists still admired. Eventually, Hook abandoned Marxism altogether.

The break culminated at a 1949 philosophical conference at the Sorbonne attended by Continental luminaries including Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre (Albert Camus was a no-show). Hook delivered a two-part speech. In its second part, he voiced support for the Marshall Plan, the American program to rebuild the economies of Europe along broadly capitalist lines. Sartre found this outrageous, withdrew from the conference, and proclaimed his commitment to Stalinism. After this, Hook “was denounced as a counterrevolutionary reptile by the Communist press.” He fared little better among his American peers.

Still, by the time the Berlin Wall had fallen, most American thinkers recognized that Sidney Hook had been ahead of his time.

This historical digression carries a lesson for contemporary secular humanists. Over the decades, unbelievers have often leaned Left-liberal on a broad range of issues—often, but not always. Sometimes secularist opinion follows Hook’s example and tacks to the right.

If that seems incredible, consider some examples.

  • Islam. Many (though not all) seculars view so-called “political Islamism,” even Islam itself, as threats to humanist values. (See the articles by Madeline Weld and James Snell in our previous issue.) This has made them the ultimate “strange bedfellows” on this issue with many conservatives. Meanwhile, leftists accuse both camps of Islamophobia.
  • Overpopulation, long an emblematic secularist concern, was originally a cause of the Left. One by one, liberal-leaning champions (the Rockefeller Foundation, the Sierra Club) abandoned the issue. Today, population concerns are articulated mostly from the Right, largely because contemporary population-activism leans conservative on immigration policy. Secularists are divided. Some argue (with progressives) that open immigration benefits the nation and that fairness demands a path toward citizenship for the millions who entered the United States illegally. Others worry that given typical American consumption patterns, the nation’s population is already unsustainable. Since immigration is now the principal engine of U.S. population growth, they support strict immigration policies solely as a population curb. (Full disclosure: I’m in this camp, as is Council for Secular Humanism Chair Eddie Tabash. FREE INQUIRY’s most recent overpopulation cover features [August/September 2004 and April/May 2009] show that we’re not alone.)
  • The libertarian-progressive divide among secularists is of course long-standing—as new as the dueling essays by Glade Ross and Dan Davis in our next issue and as venerable as a Fall 1989 cover feature and a memorable libertarian-altruist debate at the Council’s 1990 conference.

The Council’s 2012 conference in Orlando focused on our movement’s political diversity. Participants included progressive legislator Patricia Schroeder, radical-Left blogger Greg Laden, libertarian author Ron Bailey, and secular conservative Razib Khan. (Highlights appeared in our October/November 2012 cover feature, “Does Secular Humanism Have a Political Agenda?”)

So while unbelievers often lean left,2 secular humanism clearly has no necessary link between it and any particular social, economic, or political policy prescription. For us, the Left isn’t always right.

Still, there’s no denying that for about a century and a quarter—starting with the rise of mass-movement abolitionism and the earliest woman’s rights conventions and lasting well into the 1970s—the Left was repeatedly vindicated on issues such as race and gender. Many unbelievers feel that this momentum has continued.

But other secularists and skeptics discern currents in more recent social-justice activism that fail their sniff tests. In my view, if you’re modernist, not postmodernist, if you still revere the Enlightenment, if you understand science as universal across cultures and morality as objective—core secular humanist positions, all—then some of the ideas that shaped social-justice movements during the last four decades may excite your skepticism.

What do I mean? Buckle in while I squash a surfeit of intellectual history into a few paragraphs. I return to Hook’s 1949 speech at the Sorbonne, the speech whose second part (about the Marshall Plan) so angered Sartre. In his autobiography, Hook recounts what he contended in its first part:

I took as my foil a sentence from a recent issue of the Soviet official journal, Problems of Philosophy, that declared: “Marxism-Leninism shatters into bits the cosmopolitan fictions concerning supra-class, non-national ‘universal’ science, and definitely proves that science, like all culture in modern society, is national in form and class in content.” I argued that the statement was false, based on a misconception of the nature of science and on confusions concerning the meanings of class and truth. Further, I maintained that the most serious consequence of this doctrine was that it made the quest for objectivity altogether impossible.

Let’s translate that Soviet-speak into more contemporary terms. Hook attacked the view that neither science nor any other branch of knowledge could be universal, objectively true, or above the influence of cultural norms. For the Marxists, science and “all culture”—by extension, truth itself—were subordinate to the ideologies characteristic of each nation or class. One truth for Soviets, a different truth for Americans; one truth for workers, another for capitalists; and so on.

In other words, Hook had identified in Marxist-Leninist writings of the 1940s a seed of what the late twentieth century would come to know as postmodernism.3 (Exasperated after arguing with people who throw up their hands at an outrage like female genital mutilation in the Muslim world and say “Who are we to judge?” Thank a postmodernist.)

Between the object of Hook’s criticism and the relativistic fad that swept the humanities and social sciences in the eighties and nineties, here’s a very brief sketch of how postmodernist thinking evolved. Sartre’s sympathies have been noted; he influenced the Marxist psychiatrist/philosopher Frantz Fanon, whose seminal anticolonial book The Wretched of the Earth (1961) justified the brutality of Algerian guerrillas battling the French, arguing that the guerrillas’ actions must be morally evaluated on a scale applicable solely to them. (At least, that’s how Fanon was understood after his book appeared in English translation in 1963 with a militant introduction by—you guessed it—Sartre.)

Fanon’s legacy influenced revolutionary movements around the world. Meanwhile, it underwent further elaboration, especially by three French thinkers: psychiatrist Jacques Lacan (1901–1981), who also influenced Fanon; literary theorist Jean-François Lyotard (1924–1998); and philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984). By the late 1970s, the label “postmodern” had become attached to a cluster of ideologies that repudiated the Enlightenment, rejected the possibility of universal knowledge not colored by ideological or class biases, advanced an idiosyncratic understanding of power relations among social groups, promoted a divisive model of identity politics, and lionized an approach to multiculturalism that would disempower any one group to form legitimate judgments about another’s traditions. This conceptual stew would simmer yet further among political, literary, cultural, and feminist theorists. To name one, feminist philosopher Nancy Hartsock helped to develop standpoint theory, the basis of contemporary rhetoric about “privilege,” from Marxist ideas about the unique social perspective of the proletariat—the very notion that Sidney Hook had reproached in 1949.

Postmodernism did a lot of damage. Among other things, it reduced much of literary theory and broad swaths of sociology to pseudoscience. Fortunately, since its faddish height, its influence has declined greatly. Unfortunately, one of the arenas where it has remained influential is in social-justice activism.

With this background in mind, it’s easier to understand another deep Left-Right divide among unbelievers: the divide over how much (if at all) their life-stance organizations should commit themselves formally to various social-justice agendas. Some unbelievers passionately embrace social-justice causes as a direct component of their secularist activism.

Others recoil from the postmodern elements inflecting today’s social-justice movements. Conspicuous among these are the vocabulary of “othering” (appropriated directly from Lacan and Foucault), a sweeping multiculturalism that denies the possibility of objective values, pseudoscientific convictions that certain oppressed groups have special or demonstrably superior “ways of knowing,” and a radical interpretation of “privilege” that claims to empower the oppressed to silence their oppressors.4

To take an example from gender activism, it’s possible to greatly admire first- and second-wave feminism—and to revile religion’s innumerable offenses against the rights and dignity of women—yet decline on principle to embrace all that third-wave feminism has become. (Full disclosure: here I stand.) Similar disagreements divide secularists in domains ranging from racial justice and economic equality to, say, the rights of higher primates and the use of genetically modified organisms. The larger questions are, first, if contemporary justice movements rely so heavily on “woo,” how far can unbelievers committed to the Enlightenment support them? And second, how much can movements shot through with pseudoscience and relativistic cant truly benefit the disadvantaged groups on whose behalf they campaign?

All of this, of course, is hugely controversial among unbelievers, but that’s the point. Sincere unbelievers are all over the map on these matters. That’s why, on balance, I think it is unwise for humanist, secular humanist, atheist, or freethought organizations to blend specific social-justice commitments directly into their core missions (other than those inseparable from their stances on religion). Doing so pressures their supporters to line up on just one side of a roster of issues about which those supporters may hold wildly diverse views.

On my view, the wisest—indeed, the most secular—course is for unbeliever organizations to commit themselves solely to “life-stance–central” issues (nontheism, free critique of all religions, church-state separation, civil rights of unbelievers, and the like). Membership in a humanist or atheist group addresses one’s life stance; it was never meant to define one’s whole life. National organizations need to understand that their members will hold diverse positions on other issues and pursue other civic, cultural, political, and economic commitments based on their individual preferences. Some will send checks to the World Federalist Society, others to the Cato Institute; some to Negative Population Growth, others to the Immi-grant Solidarity Network. Some will volunteer at soup kitchens while others will support projects designed to make the poor less reliant on charity, and so on. Those decisions properly belong in their personal lives.

Let’s all acknowledge our diversity, then learn from the debates that are sure to follow—after we concede that being secular humanists doesn’t mean that you and I have to agree about everything.

  1. Sidney Hook, Out of Step (New York: Harper & Row, 1987). Hook was recalling the Tenth International Congress of Philosophy at Amsterdam, August 11–18, 1948. All Hook quotes in this essay are from this volume.
  2. In a 2010 telephone survey, 75 percent of responding FREE INQUIRY subscribers described themselves as liberal, progressive, or socialist. (Still, 25 percent claimed labels including moderate, centrist, libertarian, or conservative.)
  3. FREE INQUIRY consistently opposed postmodernism. Paul Kurtz famously debated Dutch philosopher Fons Elders on the topic at the 1993 Congress of the European Humanist Federation in Berlin. In FI’s Fall 1998 issue, then-editor Lewis Vaughn presented a muscular cover feature rebuking principal postmodernist claims.
  4. If this even could be done, who would be oppressing whom?

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).

Sidney Hook was among the earliest American intellectuals to break with Marxism. That’s saying a lot: Marxist revolutionary thought held enormous sway over American intellectuals during much of the twentieth century.

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