It is common to hear on the right that we must oppose all forms of identity politics. Indeed, classical liberals often accuse nationalists of being just like the radical left because of our shared belief in collectivism. However, this claim is misleading because the right and left wing views of collectives are diametrically opposed. While it may seem counterintuitive, it is actually communists and liberals who share the same philosophical roots.
The right, by necessity, is categorically opposed to the Enlightenment philosophy which led to both liberalism and Marxism. Moreover it is important to note that in the 21st century, the divide between liberals and communists isn't relevant for any practical purposes. Any cursory observer of the modern political landscape will note that the defeat of Marxism in the Cold War was a total victory for liberalism; the Marxist ideology itself now has barely any adherents in the west and is not a threat to the system. Modern radical left-wing identity politics (as practiced by social justice warriors, progressives, etc.) is fundamentally liberal.
Modern conservatives will point at the “radical left” and decry their supposed collectivism and authoritarianism without really understanding that their enemy is simply a more puritanical and zealous offshoot of the liberal ideology to which conservatives themselves cling. The connection between the liberal and the radical left’s understanding of collectives is found in their shared belief in nominalism. Indeed, the liberal ideology presents radical manifestations of nominalism. Nominalism originated within a group of theologians in the late middle ages which included thinkers like Roscellinus and William of Ockham. Their views were later adopted by liberal thinkers like John Locke and John Stuart Mill, and communist thinkers like Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin.
Nominalists believe that categories are linguistic constructions that Man has invented to help him understand the world. According to this view, none of the categories we use are inherent to the things we use them to categorize. All categories are subject to change over time depending on what cognitive tasks people wish to use them for. A good example of the outworking of this view is the modern left’s view of gender.
Interestingly while conservatives generally oppose the leftist position on gender, they continue to support the classical-liberal philosophy which has led the left to take these positions. This direct causal relationship between classical liberal philosophy and modern gender theory matters as much more than a mere academic curiosity. Logically speaking, the philosophical assumptions underlying classical liberal thought will necessarily produce modern gender theory and other social constructivist views in the long run.
Leftist gender theory puts forward two main arguments that make use of nominalism. The first is that gender is a social construct, and the second is that each person belonging to the assorted sexual groups that make up the LGBT acronym were “born that way.” The argument about gender being a social construct obviously makes use of nominalism by claiming that the category of gender exists only within the linguistic structure that the term gender is part of. But the relation between the argument that a person deviating from their sex was actually “born that way” seems more esoteric.
To understand the leftist argument it's important to first understand what they mean by the terms they use. Traditionally speaking, human sexuality was entirely categorized under the interchangeable concepts of “sex” or “gender." One’s sex was either “male” or “female." According to one’s sex, one would have the whole set of sexual behaviours, expressions, and social roles associated with it. Gender was traditionally understood to be a binary into which all people could be placed. Men and women would get married and have children together; the man was the head of the household and would generally provide economically while the woman supported him and focused on taking care of the children.
Significantly, leftist gender theory is predicated on the idea that this category of “sex” can be sliced up into several different, mutually independent, categories which each describe one of the aspects that used to all be classified under the singular term of “sex.” For example, the left will use “biological sex” to describe biological aspects of gender like XX or XY chromosomes or the reproductive organs with which one was born. “Gender” is used to describe what the left considers to be the socially constructed categories of man and woman. Then there is “gender expression,” which is the set of behaviours and appearance associated with one’s gender, such as clothing, timbre of voice, and mannerisms. There is also “sexual preference,” which is what type of person one happens to be sexually attracted to: man, woman, and so on. In addition to these there are more, but hopefully these examples give the reader a general picture of leftist thought on this matter.
Seeing this, it is clear that oftentimes the left and the right are talking past each other, because when we talk about sex and gender, we are not talking about the same thing. In fact, the set of categories the left has developed around the topic of human sexuality seem designed to respond to the traditional view. Since each of the categories used by the left are supposed to be functionally independent and unrelated to one another, there isn’t a contradiction, from the leftist worldview, when a biological man decides that he wants to be a woman in terms of his gender identity. In the face of this, a question everyone ought to ask themselves is how the left came to a position that marks such an extreme departure from what western societies have believed for thousands of years.
It is worth comparing this complex abstract leftist system of categorization to our experience of the world and what scientific evidence we have on the topic. Central to the leftist argument is the idea that all their different categories relating to human sexuality are independent from one another, and thus one’s classification in one ought not have an impact on one’s classification in any of the others.
The scientific evidence on the subject of human sexuality suggests that the relationship between biological sex and traditional gendered behaviour and identity is not merely constructed, as is claimed by those who argue gender is a social construct, but rather innate. Men and women’s brains are structured differently. These differences in structure stemming from biological sex mean that men and women think in different ways. For example, men think in terms of systematizing and women in terms of empathizing. Systematizing thought seeks to understand things as systems composed of variables connected through logical relations, empathizing thought seeks to relate to other people and understand their emotions.
But it's not just differences in the brain: the differences in body type by sex are related to the way each sex thinks. For example, women with more feminine bodies have a more feminine way of thinking. Men, for their part, have bodies developed for fighting, while women do not. Biological differences between men and women naturally manifest as differences in social behaviours. Girls exposed to high-achieving boys in school are less likely to get a bachelor’s degree, and more likely to get married and have more kids.
Moreover, the idea that certain sexual behaviours or drives such as homosexuality seem to be strongly ingrained in certain individuals is by no means a demonstration that these people were “born that way”. To understand this it is useful to look at ducklings. A duckling will imprint on the nearest moving thing to himself a few minutes after hatching. Imprinting means they form a bond with the creature they will treat as their mother. Usually since the mother duck is sitting right on top of the eggs, or somewhere nearby, the ducklings form their maternal bond with their actual mother. However, in certain unfortunate circumstances ducklings can form this maternal bond with another animal or man who passes by the nest. If this occurs, the most likely outcome is the death of the duckling within a few days.
No self-respecting scientist would conclude from this that a duckling which bonds with a human was just “born that way”. Our understanding of duck biology, and the fact that any genetic predisposition to such deviant behaviour is so radically unfavourable to the survival and reproduction of the animal that it could never be passed onto future generations leads us to understand that this type of deviance is a malfunction of normal biological systems. While I am not claiming that the bonding mechanisms of ducks and the reproductive pre-disposition of humans function in the same way, this is an example of how postnatal development can profoundly affect the way a creature relates to others.
The distinction between the traditional view and the leftist view is philosophical. The traditional position is that the human subject ought to build their beliefs based on the nature of the world outside of one's mind. The modern left-wing position is that the human subject is constructing and determining the nature of his reality. Conservatives like to mock the left-wing position as kooky, yet they ignore that the left’s philosophical position is taken from the same enlightenment philosophy that classical liberalism comes from.
The leftist position can be traced directly back to the nominalist views of Locke. Locke’s view of the difference between Real and Nominal essences presented in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, is practically interchangeable with the leftist argument because the left is using the same philosophical framework. Locke argues things have a "real essence", which is the unknowable underlying physical substance of which things are composed. He continues by arguing that we create categories into which we place the different objects of our experience, the category a thing is assigned to is its "nominal essence". According to Locke, nominal essences are by definition imperfect approximations of the real nature of a thing.
Were the left to explicitly use Lockean categories in their argument for transsexualism, they would be able to present a very clear case. The typical retort against the transsexual movement is that our knowledge of XX and XY chromosomes prove the biological origin of gender. Hypothetically the leftist could quite easily use the same nominalism that is built into classical liberalism as the basis for their response:
“Our concept of the gender binary is simply us attempting to create a category that reflects our perceptions of the world. But these perceptions are limited to nominal essences–we have no access to the real essence. This being the case, our current gender categories are only imperfect descriptions of the thing in question and we ought to change them when they are no longer useful. In the case of gender, our categories do not accurately describe the lived experience of people with alternative sexualities and are as a result immoral because they exclude minorities from the mainstream social discourse, thus they ought to be changed to be more inclusive regardless of how useful these categories may or may not have been in the study of biology.” Such an argument is perfectly in-line with liberalism.
This is not just speculation; the accepted narrative on sex and gender has shifted to the left for decades and the Conservative party, with its classical liberal philosophy, has not only done nothing to prevent this, it now actively celebrates and participates in leftist gender politics. The Conservative party in this country was officially against gay marriage until 2016, and now we have the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada: Erin O’Toole, saying he will only march in pride parades if they are more inclusive. A right-wing party based on classical liberalism will never provide an alternative worldview to the left because ultimately they are both drawing their ideologies from the same poisoned well.
Having looked at the centrality of nominalism in liberal thought, we can return to a point I made in the introductory remarks about how communism and liberalism share the same philosophical roots in terms of nominalism. If we draw from the basic theoretical understanding of leftist nominalism we’ve established, we can now extend our analysis to the entire leftist view of collectives. The left views all other categories related to human identity through a nominalistic lens. Things like nationality and race are as socially constructed as gender. And in this case actually borrowing from communism the left views all of these identities as tools to further liberalism. This is the core of leftist identity politics, none of these identities are meaningful ends in themselves, they are merely tools to deconstruct society until historical progress is achieved.
Marxism shares the same nominalistic presuppositions as liberalism. According to Marx all belief systems in a society are ultimately grounded in the material conditions of that society. Even class, which is the basic binary set of identities into which all people fall within Marxist analysis, is only a construct that emerges from the way production is organized in a society. As a result, Marx theorized that all the distinctions that form our identities would be eliminated in the final communist stage of history.
The Marxist view of identity was described by Stalin in his 1913 work “Marxism and the National Question”; Stalin outlines that while nation is merely a social construct in the Marxist worldview, nationalism can be a tool against the international capitalist system. This idea of nation as an ideational construct expressed by Stalin is nowadays known as civic nationalism. Indeed the modern American notion of America being “a nation of ideas” mirrors the Marxist argument.
The difference is that for Stalin the nation was a vehicle for social revolution, whereas in modern American politics, the nation is seen as a vehicle for liberalism by both Republicans and Democrats. In this sense, the proposition made by progressive identity politics, that all identities are constructs which can be directed to political ends, is actually the central thesis of the American understanding of nation. Once again we see that the modern SJW phenomenon is really just a particularly fanatical expression of liberalism, and because America as a country was founded on enlightenment liberalism, modern progressives are the natural product of the historical evolution of the American ideology.
The history of the Soviet Union demonstrates the effectiveness of this strategy. By supporting anti-colonial nationalist movements around the world international communism was able to make great headway in the cold war. Perhaps more significantly, the Soviet Union itself was seen by its leaders as a vehicle for the spread of international communism. Thus, Soviet patriotism was invoked to motivate the Soviet people to support the government’s military interventions. From eastern Europe to Afghanistan, the KGB officers and Red Army soldiers were told they were fighting for the progress of mankind embodied by the Soviet state when they occupied the USSR’s neighbours and suppressed local dissent.
US policymakers, particularly Neoconservatives, have taken up this application of the nominalistic conception of nationhood when invading foreign countries. American soldiers are told patriotism means bringing liberalism to other countries. America is a nation of ideas, and so the fate of those ideas is inseparable from the fate of America, where America goes so too must liberalism and vice versa. Thus invading the middle east to impose liberal democracy on Muslims is part of the same program as importing millions of migrants into America itself and teaching them the American way. Whether by bringing foreigners into America, or bringing America to foreign countries, the US’ historical imperative is to remake the world in the image of liberalism.
Having looked at nominalism in left wing ideologies—both communist and liberal—it's worth discussing the philosophical idea underlying much of right wing thought: essentialism. Those somewhat familiar with modern academia will note that describing something as “essentialist” is seen as a criticism.
Essentialism, so reviled by academia, but so important for serious right-wing thought, is the belief that things have certain characteristics which define what they are by nature.
If we remove something’s essential characteristics, then it ceases to be the kind of thing it was. For example, all points on the perimeter of a circle are an equal distance from the centre. This property is an essential defining characteristic of “circleness.” If a shape lacks this property, it cannot be a circle.
In classical philosophy, essentialism was tied to a sense that the world was fundamentally ordered and inherently imbued with meaning. As I described in a previous article, the traditional western view was that things had certain functions according to their nature. Of course, something’s nature is defined by its essence: consequently, it was understood that something’s essence conferred a purpose to it. This view reached its apotheosis with the advent of Christianity. With the Christian God established as the absolute, the beginning and the end of being, the whole world and everything in it was a coherent hierarchy of being. Everything was brought together under God’s plan.
From this perspective, human sexuality would have been understood in terms of functions. When we look anatomically at human reproductive organs we find that men and women each possess a highly complex system composed of several organs. Furthermore, the organs of men and women are designed so that together a man and a woman can fulfill the greatest biological imperative for all beings: passing on one’s genes. The natural purpose of human sexuality is to ensure the survival of our species by producing children. Thus, logically as well as morally, sexual acts and desires were traditionally interpreted by whether or not they contributed to this purpose.
As I covered in a previous article, the natural and stable conclusion that people arrived at all over the world, and upheld for thousands of years, was marriage between a man and a woman. In Christian Europe, it was further established that unions between men and women were to be monogamous, and so, unlike in many other parts of the globe, powerful men were not to take on several wives and concubines. For traditional western societies, it would seem strange that our modern sexual norms promote sterility rather than fertility. It is for this reason that Christian social norms had to first be dissolved in the sexual revolution that occurred in the 20th century, before we began to have things like the media promoting relationships between two men or transition surgeries that involve the castration of the subject. None of these modern sexual norms can, in principle, by the nature of human biology itself result in the creation of children, and for this reason, they run against the traditional view.
However, as I noted at the beginning of this article, late medieval Catholic theologians such as William of Ockham and Roscellinus produced an interpretation of Christian theology that took a nominalist view of reality. This view was later built upon by early modern and enlightenment philosophy. I would argue that the zenith of the nominalist tendency in western thought is to be found in the relativism and anomie of the modern west.
One of the best expressions of this modern condition is given by the famous French existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre in his dictum: “existence precedes essence”. By this he meant to reject the idea that the universe is in any way metaphysically ordered. Nothing comes into the world possessing an essence which defines it. Thus, existence is naturally defined by metaphysical chaos and meaninglessness. Sartre therefore argues that it is through our own will and actions that we must define not only meaning for ourselves, but also our own identity in a very profound sense.
Notably, Sartre’s girlfriend, Simone De Beauvoir, took his existentialist philosophy and applied it to her own writings. Simone de Beauvoir is arguably the most important founder of second wave feminism, and in her book, The Second Sex, Sartre’s influence can be seen when Beauvoir writes “one is not born, but becomes a woman." Beauvoir is here establishing the division between sex and gender as categories which we discussed above. Her argument is that there is nothing essential which makes women take on the characteristics traditionally associated with being a woman. Rather, a woman’s identity as woman is constructed. Under a patriarchy, a woman’s identity is imposed on her, and the goal of feminism is to free women of the social construction of womanhood and allow them to construct their own identity for themselves.
As an aside, this is one of the many reasons one cannot be right-wing or conservative and be a feminist in any sense. It is not enough to reject “radical feminism” but embrace “second wave feminism”. All feminism, as we just saw, is predicated on the idea that there are no essential differences between men and women, that biological differences are at best incidental. This denial of essential differences and biology is built into the very foundations not only of feminism, but of all leftist thought (this includes liberalism).
It’s notable that by turning womanhood into a nominal concept as she does, Beauvoir is setting womanhood up for its later transformation by the LGBT movement. Indeed, if being a woman is not something one is by nature, but rather something one does by choice (or social pressure), then the concept of womanhood loses its meaning. In our current time, all it takes to be a woman is to declare oneself a woman. Thus, it has become a category with no content, as any content would impose a limit on the concept. If the concept “woman” can mean anything, then it means nothing.
Liberals and communists share the same view of identity, in which any category that can be used to define a group identity is nothing more than a nominal construct. The right categorically refuses their nominalist view and advances an essentialist view. A genuine, assertive, right-wing essentialism does not limit itself to arguing about pronouns with left-wing campus activists. The historical right understands the world as being ordered in a total metaphysical sense. History itself is shaped by eternal and universal laws and forms. Identity on the right is based on metaphysically real categories whose definition is not subject to the human will. The right fights to establish a society in which identities are ordered—communists and liberals dream of a world in which real identity doesn’t exist.