The First Leftist

This essay appeared in Essays on Liberty, (volume 1, 1952).

The first leftist would not be popular in America today. That is true because the original leftists wanted to abolish government controls over industry, trade, and the professions. They wanted wages, prices, and profits to be determined by competition in a free market, and not by government decree. They were pledged to free their economy from government planning, and to remove the government-guaranteed special privileges of guilds, unions, and associations whose members were banded together to use the law to set the price of their labor or capital or product above what it would be in a free market.

    Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727–1781) $15     $12    

The first leftists were a group of newly elected representatives to the National Constituent Assembly at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789. They were labeled "leftists" merely because they happened to sit on the left side in the French Assembly.

The legislators who sat on the right side were referred to as the party of the Right, or rightists. The rightists or "reactionaries" stood for a highly centralized national government, special laws and privileges for unions and various other groups and classes, government economic monopolies in various necessities of life, and a continuation of government controls over prices, production, and distribution.

Early American Ideals

The ideals of the party of the Left were based largely on the spirit and principles of our own American Constitution. Those first French leftists stood for individual freedom of choice and personal responsibility for one’s own welfare. Their goal was a peaceful and legal limitation of the powers of the central government, a restoration of local self-government, an independent judiciary, and the abolition of special privileges.

Those leftists, holding a slim majority in the two years’ existence of the National Constituent Assembly, did a remarkable job. They limited the extreme powers of the central government. They removed special privileges that the government had granted to various groups and persons. Their idea of personal liberty with absolute equality before the law for all persons was rapidly becoming a reality. But before the program of those first leftists was completed, a violent minority from their own ranks – the revolutionary Jacobins – grasped the power of government and began their reign of terror and tyranny.

  Claude Frdric Bastiat (1801–1850) $15     $12      

That development seems to have risen from this little-understood and dangerously deceptive arrangement: two groups of persons with entirely different motives may sometimes find themselves allied in what appears to be a common cause. As proof that this danger is not understood even today, we need only examine the results of our own "common cause" alliances with various dictators against various other dictators. So it was among the leftists in France in 1789. The larger faction wanted to limit the powers of government; the leaders of the other group wanted to overthrow the existing rulers and grasp the power themselves.

Separation Of Powers

The majority of the original party of the Left had been opposed to concentrated power regardless of who exercised it. But the violent revolutionists in their midst, led by Robespierre, Danton, and Marat, were opposed to concentrated power only so long as someone else exercised it. Robespierre, who represented himself as spokesman for the people, first said that the division of the powers of government was a good thing when it diminished the authority of the king. But when Robespierre himself became the leader, he claimed that the division of the powers of government would be a bad thing now that the power belonged "to the people."

Thus, in the name of the people, the ideas of the original leftists were rejected. For all practical purposes, local self-government disappeared completely, the independence of the judiciary was destroyed, and the new leaders became supreme. The program of the first party of the Left was dead.

Most of the original leftists protested. So they too were soon repudiated in the general terror that was called liberty. But since the name leftist had become identified with the struggle of the individual against the tyranny of government, the new tyrants continued to use that good name for their own purposes. This was a complete perversion of its former meaning. Thus was born what should properly be called the new and second Left.

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May 29, 2009