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Is the journey from radical lefty to conservative a trip of convenience?

By Roland Stephens - posted Thursday, 13 March 2003

If you're not a socialist at age 20, you have no heart. If you're still a socialist at age 40, you have no brain.

This hackneyed line (or variations of it) has been ascribed to no less than Disraeli, Woodrow Wilson, George Bernard Shaw, Bismarck and Bertrand Russell, but is most popularly attributed to Winston Churchill. Similar statements of expiation have probably been grunted by former radicals long before any of these men made their mark on history. But for the sake of simplicity and in deference to Churchill's zigzagging politics we will call this explanation for ideologically nomadic behaviour the theory of Churchillian conversion.

Many prominent conservatives have made the journey from far left to hard right and many of the current federal government's most unquestioning media supporters were, in their youth, strident left-wingers. A catalogue of their prior political leanings, which range from anarchism to support for the Khmer Rouge, is semi-regularly aired in public.


Many of these media conservatives view their own ideological journey as qualifying them to comment with confidence on an inexhaustibly wide range of issues. They share a remarkable uniformity of opinion across these issues and engage in a phoney war in the opinion pages of the daily papers with the equally politically generic members of the post-material left. The public is largely disinterested in this dance and it sometimes appears the two sides exist primarily for the benefit of each other. Yet these faux battles are followed by the people who direct the course of the Nation and so the collective motives of those participating in them are of significant interest.

The motives of those on the left have been picked over ad infinitum by those on the right. They are bleeding hearts more interested in assuaging their own guilt than in thinking practically. They are indulgent and pick their politics in the unthinkingly trendy way that one might pick out a jacket or a pair of shoes. Many of these criticisms are valid.

But the collective motives of the ex-lefty conservatives are seldom questioned. After all, they did not have to lurch from one end of the spectrum to the other - there are plenty of perfectly respectable and defendable positions in the middle. An examination of the Pauline phenomenon of ideological conversion among conservative commentators is long overdue and may go some way to explaining the collective motives of conservative cheerleaders in general.

One thing that separates right-wing polemicists from left-wing polemicists is the attempt by those on the right to claim that they are somehow defenders of, or even part of, the voiceless mob. The absurdity of people who fill acres of column space pleading voicelessness is lost on most of them and particularly those who migrated across from the left. Are they as pompous and humourless as the people they lampoon?

Many seemed to have retained the same priggish know-it-all stance of the foot-stamping undergraduate leftist. They find "establishment" straw men to attack (usually involving accusations of "conspiracy" or "a stifling orthodoxy"), are prone to a herd mentality, usually go for the polemic over an exploration of life's infinite shades of grey and are vituperative in their criticism of anyone who refuses to accept the totality of their wisdom.

The ideological conversion of so many conservative commentators may help to explain why they behave in much the same manner as those they attack. So why did they convert? There is the theory of Churchillian conversion - that a young person should be idealistic and an older person wary and conservative. But this doesn't explain why radicalism does not take hold among those young people who make do without a tertiary education. It also fails to account for the many university-educated middle-aged people who refuse to relinquish much of the silliness embodied in hard-left politics. Most tellingly, this theory does not explain why ex-lefties like to paint themselves as radicals, storming the establishment citadel of political correctness and attacking the Evil Keating Government, which (someone forgot to tell them) was defeated way back in 1996 by a man whose star they worship.


I would suggest that many commentators on public policy move from the left of the ideological spectrum to the right because it is the socially and economically convenient. Any politically active person who passes through a university will have an easier time of it if they are on the radical left. Those seduced by the absolutism of the hard left find a ready-made community with an in-built orthodoxy that is eager to reaffirm their views. This commune is held together by the notion that they are being persecuted by a power elite. They relentlessly pursue their own interests while depicting themselves as selfless and squabble over institutions alien to the experience of the average Australian (like student unions).

A good many of these university lefties progress into business, the professions, community groups, academia and public policy circles. In many of these places there is a ready-made support group for anyone who subscribes to the conservative point of view on any given issue. Those seduced by the absolutism of this blanket view find a ready-made community with an in-built orthodoxy that is eager to reaffirm their views. This commune is held together by the notion that they are being persecuted by a power elite. They relentlessly pursue their own interests while depicting themselves as selfless and squabble over institutions alien to the experience of the average Australian (like Quadrant).

It's not hard to see how a person might slip effortlessly from one group to the other.

The theory of Churchillian conversion is limited in its capacity to explain many prominent conversions from left to right. In fact, if someone is interested in the way the world works rather than just being interested in their own economic interests or social standing, they will usually start out somewhat conservative, believing with youthful optimism and arrogance that people are the authors of their own destiny and deserve what they get. They may then tend to become mildly left-leaning when they realise that the accident of birth really is the main determinant of where a person ends up in life.

Any young person contemplating left-wing politics of the sloganeering, doctrinaire undergraduate variety should accept the following advice. Read the CVs of any number of Australia's most bellicose conservatives, read some of their columns and reflect, ironically, on the words of Robert Frost:

I never dared to be radical when young
For fear it would make me conservative when old.

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About the Author

Roland Stephens is a Sydney-based lawyer.

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