In the twentieth century there were several attempts to define “left” and “right” in their political sense, as poles governing the political spectrum. Such attempts by their very nature were misleading as they required the reduction of complex political views to something so simple that it could be plotted on a chart. Thus the effort tended to be self-defeating, producing confusion where clarity was intended.
An example of these oversimplified spectrums was that of individualism v. collectivism with individualism being the right pole and collectivism being the left pole. As I pointed out in my last essay, my own political outlook of Toryism – the classical conservatism that upholds royal and ecclesiastical authority for the common good of the whole society – does not chart well on this spectrum because it is both individualist and collectivist, but individualist in a different sense than the classical liberal and collectivist in a different sense than the contemporary leftist. I then explained the difference between Tory individualism and classical liberal individualism. In this essay I intend to explain the difference between Tory collectivism and leftist collectivism.
Collectivism, in a general sense of the word, is a way of thinking in which the emphasis is placed on the group rather than the individual. In the context of economics it ordinarily suggests some form of socialism or communism, which is one of the reasons for the association between collectivism and the left. Toryism, however, can also be legitimately described as collectivist. When Naim Attallah asked Enoch Powell what it means to be a Tory in a 1998 interview, in his answer, the famous Tory statesman remarked that a Tory “reposes the ultimate authority in institutions – he is an example of collective man.” (1)
Note that Powell spoke of institutions – plural – rather than “an institution” – singular. In this, the most fundamental difference between Tory collectivism and leftist collectivism can be seen. The Tory believes in a plurality of collectives, each with its own sphere of influence, starting at the local level with examples such as the family, the local neighborhood, and the church parish. We could call this the horizontal plurality of collectives. The Tory also believes in a vertical plurality of collectives, which means that at the higher level of the national society he sees collectives of collectives, rather than merely collectives of individuals.
The Anglican Church, at one time known as the “Tory Party at prayer”, is a good illustration of what I mean. At the national level, in my country, you have the Anglican Church of Canada. Within that there are four ecclesiastical provinces. Each of these consists of several dioceses, which in turn are made up of multiple parishes. Each parish is a collective, within a collective, within a collective, within a collective – and you could extend the number of collectives further since the Anglican Church of Canada is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which in turn is part of the larger Christian Church.
When we enter the realm of politics, the Parliament that writes Her Majesty’s laws for us in Ottawa, writes them, for better or for worse, for the entire country of Canada, which includes ten provinces and three territories with governments of their own, which in turn consist of several cities, townships, and rural municipalities with local governments.
The Tory places a great deal of emphasis upon the importance of both the horizontal and the vertical plurality of collectives. Society, for him, is not and should not be a mere aggregation of equal individuals who just happen to live in the same place, at the same time, under the same government, but is a living thing, in which individuals and groups, join together in different ways and at different levels to form an organic whole.
Leftist collectivism is not like this. It is very much about a single collective, which it calls “the people”. This collective, has but a single institutional expression, that of the state. The Tory and the leftist both believe in an institution they call “the state.” Both would say that the state is the institution that passes laws for the common good of the society, but this is where the coincidence of their views of the state ends. The Tory holds to a classical view of the state, grounded in the thought of the ancients, whereas the lefist holds to a modern view of the state, that can be traced to the eighteenth century philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The difference is sufficiently large to justify the assetion that the Tory and the leftist are talking about two different institutions.
The Tory sees the state as one of many institutions, albeit the highest in any given society, vested, as Enoch Powell said, with authority. More specifically, the Tory sees the highest authority in society (2) as vested in the royal sovereign, and the state as the institution (3) that excercises that authority. The left’s ideal, on the other hand, is the democratic state, an institution that is the voice of the people, expressing what Rousseau called their “volonté générale”. Such a state, is the embodiment of power rather than authority, a fact openly acknowledged by the left in their oft-heard slogan “power to the people”. The difference between authority and power is that authority is the right to command, whereas power is the strength to coerce. All government must have a degree of power backing its authority to ensure its stability but civilized government does not rely upon this power except in cases of necessity because the overuse of power undermines authority. In the left’s ideal state, where the people and government are one, power is everything, specifically the strength of the numbers which is the force of the mob.
The left, to reiterate, cares about one collective, the people, and one institution, the state, and its goal is to make the latter the full political expression of the voice and collective will of the former. Who do the left mean when they speak of the people?
In the early days of the left, when it was the party of revolution seeking to overthrow the ancient, classical, and Christian order, the people were the governed as opposed to the established authorities. In the nineteenth century, a specific political phenomenon known as nationalism sprung from the roots of Rousseau’s philosophy and the French Revolution. We don’t often think of nationalism as being leftist today, but it was recognizably so then, and in this stage of the left, the people were the nation, that is, an ethnic group defined by a common racial ancestry, language, religion, and other cultural markers. The leftist nationalists sought to overthrow the royal houses and the Catholic Church to establish the democratic nation-state, embodying the voice of their particular nation. In the twentieth century, the left moved on from the nation, and began to speak of the people in international terms and on a global scale. This evolution of leftist thought is quite in keeping with the left’s avowed progressivism, when we consider Canadian Tory philosopher George Grant’s description of progress as the movement of history towards a “universal and homogeneous state”.
Nineteenth century leftist nationalism, in its attempt to create democratic nation-states, was suspicious of the other collectives and other institutions that had claims on people’s loyalties and affections, and insisted that one’s loyalty to the nation-state be undivided and come before all other loyalties. Today this is what leftists insist upon such loyalty to all of humanity and perhaps to a future democratic world state that will embody the voice of this global scale people. It is here that the leftist collectivist and the liberal individualist approach each other, in their mutual distrust of the plurality of traditional, organic, collective institutions that share claims on our loyalties. From different starting points, the leftist and liberal arrive at mass society, the single large collective, first on a national scale now growing internationally to the global scale, that is an aggregate of equal, undifferentiated, individuals rather than a many-layered organism.
Nothing could be further from Tory collectivism than this.
(2) The authority of God is higher, but that is an authority that transcends society, rather than an authority within society.
(3) NB, that the state in the Tory view, is a collective institution, made up of several institutions of which the two Houses of Parliament, the various ministries, and the Courts are examples.
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca