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The moral basis of the Left

By Don Aitkin - posted Wednesday, 3 August 2016

This essay is a response to a commenter who wanted me to write on something like the topic as set out above. I’m not quite happy with ‘the Left’ as the all-inclusive term. It seems to me that we all use a series of equivalents, that really aren’t equivalents, in trying to describe intellectual and moral world-views — how we see things. So I could have used, in addition to ‘Left’, or alongside it, words like progressive, radical, liberal and reformist. The words means slightly different things, and mean different things to different people, and in different countries. The terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ come from the seating at the National Assembly in France in 1789, where the most revolutionary delegates sat on the left of the President of the Assembly and the more conservative on his right. The other words all come from Latin, and you can see the shifts in meaning when you know the Latin origins. ‘Progressive’, for example, means ‘going forward’. ‘Radical’ means something that is pulled up by the roots (radix). Liberal means ‘free’ (as in liberate, to set free). ‘Reform’ means to reshape, or renovate.

These are all somewhat different aspects of what I think is the central unifying theme for those whose sympathies are of or toward the Left, the notion of human history having meaning in itself. The long journey of the human species, at least over the 10,000 years where we have some evidence for settled societies, is what sort of story? For those on the Left, it is the story of human progress. For Marx, and those who follow his ideas, it is the journey of humanity through a series of stages, each one somewhat better than the previous one, until humanity is ‘one’, there are no rulers, no classes, no rich, no poor — all are equal. The journey is unstoppable, though it will have known pauses and apparent halts. Something like this is part of all Left views of the world, that people are naturally equal, and the task of a good society is to get them back there again (as though they once were, or at least ought to be).

For those more interested in the question of ruling — who rules, and who are ruled — it is the story of political changes, moving from chiefs, kings, dictators to the representative and responsible  sorts of democracies that we are familiar with. Again, there is some kind of engine, or dynamic, that embodies the story and drives it on. Radicals see the need to remove completely institutions and structures that impede the story of progress, while reformers, more gently, want to change the way these structures and institutions are shaped, for the same purpose. Those of a scientific or technological bent are likely to see the story of human progress as based on science and technology, the real fruits of the Enlightenment. The effects of technology are to liberate us — all of us — from drudgery, and enable us to have enjoyable, rewarding lives. I have a bob each way on that one, though along with the technological goodies come also the H-bomb and its capacity for dreadful destruction, nerve gas, and other horrors.


What is common is the notion of a journey that has meaning, is in some way necessary, and in the case of Marxists, is inevitable. The ‘inevitable’ aspect of the story tends to blur the distinction between what is actually happening and what some think ought to happen. You see it in the notion of ‘rights’, for example. It has other consequences as well. One is a tendency to judge what happened in the past, and who did what, in terms of what is happening now, even though those who were thus engaged in the past could have had no idea of where we are now, and did not see themselves and what they were doing as part of what we might see as the human journey. The ‘Whig interpretation of history’, as the historians call it, the story of human progress, is relatively new. It was popular in the 19th century, went into the doldrums in the 1930s, and has had something of a revival in the last fifty years.

Another consequence of a belief in the story of progress is an easy move to see figures from the past in terms of good and bad, as heroes and villains. In British history King John is a baddie and King Richard the Lion-Hearted a goodie. Look them up, and you’ll find it’s all a lot more complex, neither king appearing as white or as black as you once thought. In American history, Abraham Lincoln is always a hero, because of the stand he took about slavery. His decisions led to the Civil War, and a death toll of around 750,000. How do you balance that? From the progressive perspective, the Lincoln stand against the evil of slavery is the important thing, not the deaths, because slavery had to end if progress were to continue. There will be others who argue that a slower end to slavery might have meant no Civil War and no such deaths at all. It was going to happen, I suspect, even without Lincoln. Of course judgments are involved in any work of history, even if it is only what to mention and what not to mention. Nonetheless, the notion that human history is a story of progress is a most powerful one, and it underpins a great deal of our politics in Australia, which is full of heroes and villains.

If you incline to this view, then you are likely to see human history in causal terms. That is, every important event is ‘important’ because it was a cause of something else which you see as ‘important’ in the story of human progress. I learned my English history almost entirely in these terms. If you read the same period as set out in, say, a book of economic history you will get a quite different impression of what was important. Another problem is what is sometimes called ‘presentism’ — the view that everything leads inevitably to the present, the most important time of all. If events seem to have no connection to what troubles us at the moment, then they are seen to be inconsequential, of no real interest.

In my experience, most of those who see themselves on the Left, or as progressives, or as radicals or reformers, have no firm sense of the ground on which they make their judgement. They know what we ought to do without having a real understanding of why they think so. The idea that things are supposed to get better is so deeply embedded in us all that it hardly seems necessary to examine it closely. But it is. There is no evidence to show the inevitability of either a Marxist view of the world or a technological one. And we probably no longer see our own democratic system as representing the absolute end of the story of human political progress.

Karl Popper, about whom I have written before, wrote a fine book about such world-views, called The Poverty of Historicism. He argued in it that the notion that there is somehow a ‘Destiny’ in the story of human life is a fundamental misconception, in part because we do not and cannot know everything. Further, he  defined ‘historicism’ as the view that historical prediction was the task of the social sciences, which he opposed. Much as I like the thought (and agree) that human progress is evident in the last couple of hundred years, I cannot go on from there to argue that it must continue to do so in the future. I recognise that many people feel a need to see a purpose in the journey of human lives, but I am not one of them. It seems to me that building better societies is a difficult business, and there are often steps backwards as well as steps forward. No matter, we have to do the best we can. But I do my part without any sense of inevitability, and with often a worrying sense that there is too little recognition of what can go wrong, even in prosperous ‘democratic’ societies like our own.

There is much else that could be added to this analysis, such as the role of Christianity, the notion of fairness, and the guilt that many feel in wealthy societies when they consider (as is so  easy to do today) the lives of those in poor countries. I have some of the sympathies of the Left, and have always had them,because of my own family’s history and my sense of the need to build good societies — the social task that we all have who live in democracies. But that feeling is tempered by what others call ‘conservatism’, or the views of the Right.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, Hugh Flavus, Knight was published in 2020.

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