Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost

Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost

by Geoffrey M. Hodgson


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The Left is in crisis. Despite global economic turbulence, left-wing political parties in many countries have failed to make progress in part because they have grown too ideologically fragmented. Today, the term Left is associated with state intervention and public ownership, but this has little in common with the original meaning of the term. What caused what we mean by the Left to change, and how has that hindered progress?

With Wrong-Turnings, Geoffrey M. Hodgson tracks changes in the meaning of the Left and offers suggestions for how the Left might reclaim some of its core values. The term Left originated during the French Revolution, when revolutionaries sought to abolish the monarchy and privilege and to introduce a new society based on liberty, equality, fraternity, and universal rights. Over time, however, the meaning radically changed, especially through the influence of socialism and collectivism. Hodgson argues that the Left must rediscover its roots in the Enlightenment and readopt Enlightenment values it has abandoned, such as those concerning democracy and universal human rights. Only then will it be prepared to address contemporary problems of inequality and the survival of democracy. Possible measures could include enhanced educational provisions, a guaranteed basic income, and a viable mechanism for fair distribution of wealth.

Wrong-Turnings is a truly pathbreaking work from one of our most prolific and respected institutional theorists. It will change our understanding of how the left got lost.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226505886
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/03/2018
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Geoffrey M. Hodgson is research professor at Hertfordshire Business School, University of Hertfordshire, England, and the author or coauthor of over a dozen books.

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Progressive Radicalism before the Left

When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?

JOHN BALL, 1381 Sermon to the People

For millions of years, our ancestors have lived in tribal units of hunter-gatherers, rarely numbering more than two hundred individuals. For group survival, we evolved propensities to cooperate with each other. Relying on emotions and facial expressions, we developed sophisticated social mechanisms to engender trust and cooperation, and to enforce social rules. Everyone knew everyone else within the tribe, and rule-breaking was punished by shaming, mocking, shunning or sometimes more severe sanctions. Tribal groups were relatively egalitarian, but still structured by gender and status, and governed by custom.

Conflict between tribal groups was sometimes lethal. Groups that sustained internal cooperation, reciprocity and other solidaristic behaviour would act more cohesively and could be more successful against other groups. This provided an evolutionary selection mechanism for advancing cooperation in human cultures.

Much of this changed with the rise of civilizations and large-scale urban settlements. About fourteen thousand years ago in the Levant in the Middle East, there emerged the first large permanent settlements in human history (even before the development of agriculture). Civilizations in Egypt, Sumer, the Indus, China and elsewhere spawned even larger communities with powerful elites, stratified social orders and highly sophisticated divisions of labour.

While it continued to play a major role in these civilizations (and it is still vital even in modern societies), custom alone cannot regulate any complex, large-scale system. It is impossible to know everyone else in the community; hence, individual reputation is a less useful device for the enforcement of rules. Instead of custom, humans had to develop fuller notions of law and property to deal with the allocation and exchange of resources. Political and legal authority ceased to be entirely customary, and became codified and more institutionalized.

The emergence of human civilization with permanent, large-scale settlements (numbering in the thousands or more) and complex institutions meant that humans faced new problems concerning governance and the legitimation of political and legal authority. How could powerful, unelected rulers justify their authority over many thousands of others? What gave them the right to make those decrees and rules?

Complex societies have often been stabilized through force and despotic rule. But to endure and work on human minds, hierarchy and authority have also to be ideologically legitimated in some way. Hierarchy and authority had to be sanctioned by ideology as well as defended by force.

Formerly, for millions of years of human history, questions of authority and legitimacy were largely resolved by custom and religious ritual. Then, from fourteen thousand years ago — a small fraction of the lifetime of the human species — the problems of governance, authority and legitimacy were compounded by the rise of large-scale communities, located in cities. This was a major change, requiring new institutions to organize production and distribution, and prompting new questions concerning the righteousness of government or law. To sustain the government of large-scale communities, the innocence of custom had to be subjugated to institutionalized authority. But how could such authority be justified?

In ancient civilizations, religion was used to legitimate authority. Accordingly, there was a priesthood of some kind, as well as a bureaucracy and an army. Religious ceremonies and rituals legitimized the ruling elite. Since then, in many societies, religion has continued to play this important role.

Once open discussion became possible, justice and authority became central topics of political analysis and debate. Ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato considered the nature of justice and the rationale of the ideal state. But in practice, religious and mythological beliefs were still used to buttress authority.

Then, in the eighteenth century, the precursors of the original Left challenged the religious legitimation of authority. Instead they proposed that valid political authority derives ultimately from the people. The role of religion was not, and still is not, a marginal issue. It is central to an appreciation of the rise and meanings of Left and Right.

Varieties of radicalism and progressive thinking are recorded in the earliest of literatures, from Plato to the Bible. We focus here on dissident and reforming ideas in the four centuries that preceded the French Revolution of 1789. Hence this chapter is a selective rather than a comprehensive account of pre-1789 radical thought.


The English Peasants' Revolt of 1381 targeted the great feudal inequalities of status and wealth. An attempt to collect poll taxes in Brentwood in Essex led to a violent confrontation, which rapidly spread across the south-east of England and into East Anglia. Many rose up in protest, burning court records and opening the local gaols. The rebels sought a reduction in taxation, an end to serfdom and the removal of the King's senior officials.

In addition, the radical priest John Ball called for the levelling of wealth and status and argued that things would not go well 'till everything be made in common ... we shall all be united together, and the lords shall be no greater masters than ourselves'. Note the themes of equality and unity, as well as of common ownership.

After the rebels entered London, King Richard II temporarily acceded to most of their demands. Violence broke out at an open meeting with the rebels, and the rebel leader Wat Tyler was killed. Richard gathered his forces and expelled the rebels from London. After several days, most of the rebels were tracked down and executed.

Ball was hanged, drawn and quartered in his birthplace of St Albans in Hertfordshire. While his ideas were revolutionary at the time, he drew from tradition as well as from the Bible. A form of common possession was already familiar to the peasants: rural communities had rights to share and use common lands.

Before the Enlightenment, European radicals often made reference to Christian scriptures as grounding for their claims. Ball skilfully used the creation story in Genesis to argue against permanent inequality of status. The Peasants' Revolt called for the abolition of serfdom, but deployed rather than challenged the authority of religion. Religion was the ideological centre of feudal life. Even after the decline of classical feudalism in England, the role of religion remained pivotal for centuries.

Ball was aligned to the dissident Lollard sect, which called for religious and political reform. The Lollards upheld that the Catholic Church had been corrupted by greed and power; expensive church ornament had diverted funds from the needy. In 1394 a group of Lollards marched on London and presented a petition to the English Parliament. Eleven of its twelve demands called for the reform of religious institutions. The twelfth preached against 'unnecessary trades' as 'the occasion of pride and luxury'.

The Lollards were precursors of Protestant reformers. The sixteenth century in England saw the Protestant Reformation of Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. There were increasing enclosures of common lands. These seismic changes provoked a number of ill-fated popular rebellions.

The division of a population between Protestants and Catholics meant that there were rival sources of allegiance and rival religious justifications of authority. Europe was plunged into successions of religious revolts and wars, where the legitimation of royal authority depended on the imposition of the monarch's religion. Hence the rivalry between Protestants and Catholics meant political as well as ecclesiastical turmoil.

In the Peasants' War of 1524–1525 in Germany, the radical Protestant Thomas Müntzer was one of the peasant leaders. He proposed a biblically inspired communism. In France the Wars of Religion lasted from 1562 to 1598, and were followed in the seventeenth century by several Protestant rebellions. There were eighty years of religiously motivated war in the Low Countries, from 1568 to 1648. In England, major Catholic revolts erupted in 1536 and 1569.

Sir Thomas More was a devout Catholic. He tortured and burned Protestant dissidents, and was executed for failing to endorse Henry VIII's divorce from his first wife. But his famous 1516 book Utopia has been an inspiration for radical thinkers. In this work he criticized the dividing and enclosure of common lands and attacked the greed of the rich. Set in the context of a mostly rural economy, Utopia proposed taking everything into common ownership and abolishing internal trade. People would receive goods on the basis of their needs. The working day would be limited to six hours. There would be institutions for the care of the sick and the elderly. A hierarchy of elected officials would determine needs and allocate labour and goods. Contrary to More's own practices, there would be toleration in matters of religion: people would be free to worship as they wished. But women would be subordinate to men. Slavery would be a form of punishment for disobeying some laws or the elected authorities. Utopia is a sermon against greed and waste, grounded on a Christian faith that humankind can abandon these sins. Its religious tolerance meant that there would be no one theological justification for authority and power. It hinted at the idea that the legitimacy of government could be founded on a limited form of democracy.

By suggesting the democratic legitimation of power, Utopia signalled a new radical discourse for the modern era. This underdeveloped feature was just as important as its advocacy of common ownership. After all, the English peasantry was long familiar with allocated common land, and its shared use and management. The democratic legitimation of authority was much more radical, and even more pertinent for future, larger-scale, urban-based societies.

Other revolts in England from 1500 to 1640 were less about religion and more in protest against enclosures and other encroachments upon common land. Often they would appeal for justice to the King or other authorities, rather than challenge their legitimacy or right to rule. This was the case in the Kett Rebellion in Norfolk in 1549 and the Midland Revolt of 1607. Notwithstanding their communal sentiments, these uprisings appealed for the preservation of existing arrangements in rural communities, rather than envisioning a new world.


The English Civil War erupted in 1642, as a conflict of authority between the King and Parliament. King Charles I claimed to rule by divine right, deriving his sovereignty from religion. By contrast, Parliament professed to represent the will of the people. But only a small minority of males had the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Women had no vote.

Parliamentarians and Royalists warred throughout Britain until the defeat and execution of Charles I in 1649 and the installation of a republic under Oliver Cromwell. The Civil War stimulated seminal debates concerning power and authority. There was a growth of dissident Protestant groups, who saw the established Protestant Church of England as too hierarchical and conservative. In religious terms, Britain became deeply divided between followers of the established church, various types of Nonconformist and Catholics. These ongoing schisms forced the question of the legitimation of government authority onto the immediate agenda.

Prompted by debates over what to do with the monarchy and the King after his defeat, a major political movement developed within the Parliamentarian army. Participants in the anti-enclosure uprising in the Midlands in 1607 had been called 'levellers' because they levelled hedges and fences. The Levellers of the 1640s were given this nickname by their enemies, and they repeatedly repudiated the description. They often protested that they were not promoting the 'levelling' of landed estates or any general redistribution of property. Their leader John Lilburne explained in 1647 that the term Leveller applied to him and his party only in the sense of equality under the law, namely their 'desire that all alike may be levelled to, and bound by the Law'. But much later their socialist admirers assumed that they wished to 'level' all property as well. There is no basis for this supposition in their writings.

The Levellers emphasized popular sovereignty, an extended male franchise, equality before the law and religious tolerance. They believed in natural and inalienable rights, bestowed by God. The inalienability of these rights put limits on the powers of any majority in Parliament, because democracy cannot stifle inalienable rights. But otherwise they were strong supporters of democracy. While they defended private property, they railed against undemocratic tyranny. Hence their position was different from some modern libertarians such as Ludwig von Mises or Friedrich Hayek, who, while generally supporting liberty, argued on occasions that if private property rights were threatened, then democracy might justifiably be replaced by temporary dictatorship.

From 1647 to 1649 the Levellers published a series of manifestos entitled the Agreement of the People. William Walwyn — a Christian freethinker and one of their leaders — echoed Thomas More in his pleas for religious tolerance. John Milton in his Areopagitica of 1644 had already made an eloquent appeal for freedom of expression. The Levellers were the first political movement in Europe to call for the separation of church and state and for a secular republic.

The Levellers were influential in Cromwell's army. At a rendezvous near Ware in Hertfordshire on 15 November 1647, two regiments carried copies of the Agreement of the People and stuck pieces of paper in their hatbands with the Leveller slogan 'England's Freedom, Soldiers' Rights'. With swords drawn, Cromwell and some of his officers rode into their ranks and ordered them to take the papers from their hats. One of the soldiers was swiftly executed for mutiny.

The Levellers argued for a constitution based on an extended manhood suffrage and biennial Parliaments. Authority would be vested in the House of Commons rather than in the King or the House of Lords. Specified 'native rights' were declared sacrosanct for all Englishmen: freedom of conscience, freedom of worship, freedom from impressment into the armed forces and equality before the law.

Lilburne, the Leveller leader, came from County Durham. He was originally a Puritan and he later converted to Quakerism. Arrested in 1637 for circulating unlicensed pamphlets, he was fined £500, whipped, pilloried and imprisoned. During the Civil War he served as an officer in the Parliamentarian army. For his agitation against the Cromwellian authorities he spent several more years in prison. Lilburne coined the term freeborn rights, defining them as rights with which every human being is born, as opposed to rights bestowed by government or by its laws. He advocated an extended male suffrage, equality under the law and religious tolerance.

The Levellers declared that rights to liberty and property were innate to every person. Individuals had rights over their thoughts and bodies, without molestation or coercion, and everyone had the natural right to own private property. The Levellers did not promote common ownership, except when it resulted from the voluntary pooling of the property of everyone involved.

By the 1640s, much of the formerly common lands in England were already enclosed, and the Levellers did not wish to return this land to its previous state. They did not write much about land reform. In one 1647 pamphlet, the Leveller Richard Overton briefly suggested that 'ancient' enclosures should be made accessible for the common use of the poor. But generally the Leveller leaders did not campaign against the enclosure of common lands. Instead they upheld legally acquired rights of property. The Marxist historian Christopher Hill pointed out that the Levellers 'sharply differentiated themselves from the Diggers who advocated a communist programme'.

A defence of private property and a rebuttal of 'levelling' appears in the final, May 1649 version of the Leveller Agreement of the People, in a passage addressed to Members of Parliament: 'We therefore agree and declare, That it shall not be in the power of any Representative ... [to] level men's Estates, destroy Propriety, or make all things Common'. Even if representatives in the legislature were democratically elected, they did not have the right to overturn individual rights to property.


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Table of Contents



1          Progressive Radicalism before the Left
2          The French Revolution and the Original Left
3          Thomas Paine and the Rights of Man
4          Socialism’s Wrong Responses to the Right Problems
5          Marxism’s Wrong Turnings: Class War and Wholesale Collectivization
6          Down the Slippery Slope to Totalitarianism
7          Keeping Left: In Defence of Democracy and Individual Rights
8          After Vietnam: The Left Descends into Cultural Relativism
9          Final Full Turn: The Left Condones Reactionary Religion
10        Two Open Letters to Friends
11        Capitalism and Beyond: Toward a New Old Left



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