When does the left go too far?

If we can agree that the left can go too far, which it clearly can, then how would my worthy opponents precisely define when the left that they stand for has gone too far?

This is a quote from the Canadian psychologist Dr Jordan B. Peterson in a debate about political correctness. When I first heard this question, I was taken aback. This seems, on the surface at least, to be a simple and straightforward question. Why, then, is the political-left incapable of providing a unanimous answer to this question? Moreover, why do those on the left not realise their own potential to go too far in the first place?

One standard answer is that the question cannot be properly answered because it’s subjective – everyone has their own personal standards for what they consider politically tolerable. Of course, this is true to some extent, but while it may be impossible to create a truly objective standard for what is too extreme, it certainly is possible to create an accepted standard.

I am privileged enough to have grown up in a Britain – a country that has fully-accepted standards for what is considered to be “far-right”. Our politicians, academics and society generally are all in full agreement that as soon as somebody makes claims of racial supremacy, they have wandered deep in the extremes of political debate. This is not an objective standard, but it is an accepted standard, and it works as an incredibly effective defence against far-right extremism. 

If we can agree that the far-left can be as devastating as the far-right – and history clearly shows it can – then surely we should have similar recognisable boundaries for when left-wing thought ventures too far and becomes intolerable.

So why isn’t there already an accepted standard? The left doesn’t just refuse to draw a line, it has no clue why there needs to be a line in the first place. Left-wing academics, authors, politicians and thinkers have all, astoundingly, neglected the issue. The reason for this neglect is quite simply that many on the left think there is essentially no limit to which left-wing ideology can feasibly go. Allow me to explain.

Consider how often you have heard the dreadful phrase:

Communism is great in theory, it just doesn’t seem to work in practice.

What this statement fails to recognise is that the problems with far-left ideology are not limited to how effectively they can be practically implemented, but also how they encompass moral elements.

An ideology that abolishes property rights, makes enterprise and progress impossible, and eradicates individual liberty is hardly a moral or admirable ideology at all. Because of this common, but fatal, underestimation of far-left ideology, those with far-left views are often dismissed as harmless idealists, as opposed to what they really are: dangerous extremists. 

So where should we place this boundary? What is too extreme on the left? This is the discussion that we, as a society, must have. My view is that any ideology, left or right, is unacceptable if it fails to treat individuals as free and equal. This is the one characteristic that every single authoritarian regime in history has had in common: a lack of respect for individual liberty. The Nazis and Soviets were collectivists who defined everyone by either their class or their ethnicity. If you fail to respect the rights and freedoms of the individual and view them only through a prism of political identity, you inevitably disregard the suffering of individuals.  

In my view, the Enlightenment ideal of individualism is our only defence against destructive ideologies. If we don’t have this dialogue, left-wing radicalism will spread – and that’s precisely what we’re currently seeing. The UK’s shadow chancellor, John McDonnell is a self-professed Marxist who brags about his plans for revolution. The shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, says that Chairman Mao – a man responsible for 60,000,000 deaths – did “more good than harm”.

As a society, we would not tolerate such radicalism on the political right. We have set generally accepted boundaries and we defend them. I don’t believe that it is at all hyperbolic to say that if we don’t do the same for left-wing extremist, we could end up sacrificing the freedoms that we all hold dear.

Written by Edward Burdon

Edward Burdon is a political commentator.