The Left is not Right

Matthew Flannagan


Gavin Drew has examined the fundamental dynamics of rightist (conservative) thought and contrasted this with the fundamental dynamics of leftist (collectivist) thought. (Click here to read this article.) Because the Gospel contradicts the conservative position, he asserts, Christians should not hold to it - rather, he argues, the Gospel implies collectivism, and this is the correct Biblical position for the Christian to hold.

Does Christianity commit us to denying conservatism and accepting collectivism? Many of the fundamental presuppositions of collectivist thought are diametrically opposed to Christian belief and many conservative theses follow from a Christian perspective.

The Fundamental Dynamics of Conservative Thought

Drew suggests that conservatives consider the autonomous individual to be the ultimate social reality. Conservatives do not believe that society has a concrete existence, but rather that it is an abstraction created to meet human needs. Further, he suggests that conservatives are therefore suspicious of society, and that this motivates their commitment to limited government.

He fails to draw an important distinction between society and the state. 'Society' refers to the various social relationships and institutions in which we live. Some of these institutions, such as the family, are natural, others are various voluntary associations that we join and associate with.

However, 'the state' is the social institution that has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. What characterises a state is that it is coercive; it can back up its requests with physical force. People who disobey the state can face deprivation of their lives (ie capital punishment); their liberty (ie imprisonment); or their property (ie fines). What is typically known as murder, kidnapping or theft, when done by the state, is simply 'the legal system'. What distinguishes the state from other institutions is its right to legitimately wield such force.

The state is not identical with society, rather it is only one of many social institutions that makes up society. What conservative thought views as artificial is not society, but the state. The state is a construct, created by human beings already living in society to protect them from harm from other human beings. The claim that one social institution is a construction does not imply that all of society is a construction.

Drew also misconstrued the conservative views of freedom and human dignity. He argued that from a conservative account, freedom is a minimal restriction to one's pursuit of power and wealth. Given that dignity is linked with freedom, it must follow that one's dignity depends on how powerful and wealthy one is - that is, dignity is earned. This kind of characterisation portrays freedom as essentially an egotistical venture, with sinners wanting not to be restricted from sinning.

In fact, conservatives view freedom as freedom from force. They argue that the value of any action, good or bad, depends upon the action being voluntary. To force someone to do something against their own will is to claim to be a better judge of the situation than they are, it is to say that you know best, it is to impose one's own understanding and beliefs upon another. It is this action that is prideful and egocentric.

Freedom from force need not be associated with egoism at all. Human beings are called to love God and our fellow human beings. In order for love to be love, however, it must be given voluntarily. Consequently, freedom in the conservative sense is an essential social condition if we are to love both God and other people.

Further, conservatives do not see human dignity as earned, but as an inherent quality. The reason we support freedom from force in the first place is because humans have dignity. Humans have the ability to reason, think and make voluntary choices. A classic conservative position sees this as the core of human dignity. To force people to do something is to fail to respect them as bearers of these faculties. Consequently, freedom from force is a requirement of this dignity: to claim otherwise is to misrepresent the conservative position.

A third area of misunderstanding is Drew's attack on the realism expounded by conservatives. Conservatives argue that human beings are selfish and prideful: consequently any social policy based on the assumption that human beings are not this way is problematic. Drew criticises this realism by suggesting that it means that what is, is what ought to be. But this does not follow.

Consider the following analogy. I know that my brother is a thief and I want to protect my property. I have two options: I can leave my money lying around, or I can lock it in a safe. Now suppose I choose the latter option - does it follow that I think people ought to steal, that I believe my brother ought to be a thief simply because I endorsed a course of action that assumed he would probably steal it? Clearly not.

In this situation I am trying to safeguard myself against possible theft. I do so in light of the way things are, I base my actions on what, given the facts, is likely to happen. My cautionary action does not, however, commit me to accepting theft as good, or seeing it as ideal.

Note the implications of these assumptions.

· The conservative view of the state means that it was created to serve human beings by performing a specific function delegated to it by human beings. Because of this the state is limited to these functions. If it goes beyond them it usurps its authority and legitimacy.

· The state is an institution of force. To force people to do things is incompatible with human dignity. Consequently, the state's force should be kept to a minimum.

· The conservative view of human nature leads one to be suspicious of state power. When people have access to excessive power they have a tendency to abuse it. Consequently, allowing the body with a monopoly on force to grow large and powerful, regulating huge areas of life, is dangerous to human freedom and dignity.

· Human nature is selfish and no amount of social conditioning can change this fact. Consequently, the state's ability to solve social problems is limited. Instead the state aims to restrain human selfishness and keep its destructive effects in check.

Far from being anti-society, conservatism affirms human social nature. It is humanity's social nature that leads to the need for a state to exist. Humans as social beings must live together, and will do so naturally. Human selfishness and greed, however, leads to anarchy, chaos and social breakdown. Because of this, society is set up to use force specifically to maintain societal order. The conservative state is 'society preserving'.

Further, it is respect for society that leads to the acceptance of limited government. The state is not society, and should not try to replace society or take over the functions of society by making various social institutions branches of government.

Conservatives recognise that people are inherently social, that they will form societies independently of the state. They do not need to have a society or culture imposed on them by the government (typically one with secular, anti-Christian overtones), they do not need to be forced into a society.

To assert, as collectivism does, that we need a large intervening government in order to be social beings, implies that human beings are naturally antisocial. It is to say that humans will not form or assist social institutions unless they are forced to. It is collectivism, not conservatism, that seeks to destroy humanity's social nature.

The Fundamental Dynamic of Collectivist Thought

Drew also failed to note many of the important presuppositions undergirding collectivism. First, collectivists are deterministic about human behaviour. That is, collectivists deny that individuals have free will and responsibility for their actions. Instead, one's actions are determined by society and economic/power relations within society.

Secondly, collectivists see human nature as perfectible; what is wrong with the world is not internal to us, human sinful nature is not the problem. The problem is the social structures man lives within: any problem with human nature is only a symptom of this deeper and more fundamental cause. Further, human nature can be made good simply by changing society and transforming these social structures.

Because it is economic/power relations that cause the world's problems, collectivism sees oppression as being perpetrated by the powerful against the powerless. The powerful are the oppressors and the ones ultimately responsible for societal ills.

In contrast, the powerless are victims and oppressed. Any social problems they face can be traced back to exploitation by the powerful. This means that collectivists tend to blame institutions such as the government and societal structures, rather than people, for the ills of society. This leads to a 'two class' analysis of society; those who have power and wealth illegitimately and who control all society's structures perpetuate the oppression.

What flows from this analysis is that the solution to all societal ills is structural change. This change is done by the government and as such essentially involves force. The oppressed take control of society and through government force the powerful to relinquish power and redistribute it to the oppressed class. Collectivism, then, is inherently forceful.

As a result, collectivism rejects the notion of a limited state. The state, in essence, is the toll via which all societal ills can be solved. Using the coercive power of the state the oppressed can re-order society. This will abolish the cause of all social problems and lead to the transformation of human nature. The state is to be involved in all societal affairs, engineering and reconstructing all aspects of society. Linked to this notion of a 'saviour state' is an inherent utopianism.

Is Left-Wing Thought Antithetical to Christianity?

Drew suggested that the affirmation of collectivist theses and the denial of conservative ones followed from Christianity. This is not the case: Christianity is antithetical to many of the dynamics of collectivism.

Christianity affirms that individuals have free will and are individually responsible for their actions. People are called to turn and repent of their sin because they are accountable for their actions and will face judgement for them. In asserting determinism, collectivism threatens the doctrine of final punishment.

Christianity disagrees with collectivism over the source of the world's problems. Christianity teaches that the free choice of Adam and Eve to disobey God's commands is the source of all human problems. This action, and the alienation from God that followed, is what has led to exploitative economic and societal relations. Collectivism in essence denies the Fall of humanity and the clear teaching of the opening chapters of Genesis.

Further, Christianity teaches that human nature is inherently corrupt, humans are totally depraved and this depravity can only be changed by divine Grace. We cannot through our own efforts socially or individually bring about a transformation in human nature. In essence, collectivism asserts the heresy of salvation by works and rejects salvation by grace.

Christianity teaches that sin is universal. Evil in our world is due to the pervasive sin of all people, in all segments of society. It is not true that one group is the source of all evil.

The rich may be tempted to be greedy, but the poor are tempted towards envy. Those with money may be uncharitable, but some without money are lazy. Just as Paul taught that sin is rampant amongst Jew and Gentile, it is equally rampant amongst rich and poor.

Just as Christianity disagrees with collectivism over the source of the problem, it disagrees with the solution. According to Christianity, the solution is for individuals to turn away from their individual acts of disobedience. With the help of God's grace, this will lead to a change in the way they relate to others.

When enough people do this on a large scale, the alteration of social relations leads to a cultural reformation. Collectivism sees social change as the solution to transforming individuals and human nature: Christianity affirms the opposite.

In addition, Christianity achieves its ends through non-coercive means. Evangelism means convincing people (with the help of the Spirit) voluntarily to repent. We are called to serve others, submit to others, lay our lives down and even suffer martyrdom to achieve this. Collectivism on the other hand advocates gaining power and getting people to change their ways by force. Collectivism endorses a secular Constantinianism and idolatrously parades the state as saviour.

On the other hand, conservatism follows from several Christian doctrines. Christian teaching of original sin and total depravity entails the conservative view of human nature. It also affirms the anti-utopian and limited government which follows from this perspective on human nature.

The conservative view of the state is similar to the Biblical view of the state. Conservatives assert that the state was created by a type of social contract by people to protect them from harm. Genesis teaches the state was instituted by divine covenant to restrain bloodshed.

The conservative view of human dignity also has affinities in Biblical thought. Many traditions link the image of God in some extent to mankind's capacity for rational, volitional action. Further Biblical doctrines of judgement and free will imply that humans are free and responsible agents, it makes sense then to treat them as such.

Our human duty to be beings who exist to love and serve God and others requires that we be granted freedom in order to do so. In order to love the Lord our God and our neighbour as ourselves we need the freedom to be able to choose to do so in the first place. Having the state forcibly take our money and attempt to do our charitable duty for us removes any responsibility from us individually.

We are called to defend the innocent, the needy, the poor and the alien, we are told that we will have to give an account for our actions, but why should we worry about this as long as we pay our taxes and have the government do it for us?


Matt is a lecturer and tutor in Ethics and Social and Moral Philosophy at Waikato University, and President of the Waikato Students' Union Inc. He has lectured at various Biblical institutions, is the Ethical Advisor to the pro-life group SOUL New Zealand. He attends the Reformed Church of Hamilton and is a member of the Christian Heritage Party. Married to Madeleine, he has two children and plans to study at BCNZ next year.

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