To write a thorough and well-documented history of the Left is an impressive accomplishment in itself. To write such a history so that it reads with the ease and flow of a good, gripping novel is another thing altogether, but that is what Mark Melcher and Stephen Soukup have done with Know Thine Enemy: A History of the Left (Volume One). This comprehensive history of the Left’s major figures and movements is page-turning reading for anyone wanting a deeper understanding of the threat to America’s culture, politics, and future posed by the Left’s radical agenda.
The book’s opening alerts the reader that the history in the following pages will not be a dry recitation of ideas, events, and dates: “The United States is engaged today in a civil war that is testing whether it—or any nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal—can endure.”
A civil war testing whether America can endure? That assertion hits with the clarity and force of President Trump’s historic 2017 speech in Warsaw in which he boldly asked whether the West had the will to survive and the confidence in our values to defend them regardless of the cost. But those questions apply to the United States as well as to the West as a whole, and it has become increasingly evident that civil war is an apt description of our current state in America.
The days are over when American liberals and conservatives shared the same Judeo-Christian worldview and struggled over policy from within our constitutional system, with neither side seeking the destruction of our constitutional republic. As carefully detailed by Melcher and Soukup, “one side in the current civil war seeks to demolish the entire Judeo-Christian belief system upon which Western Civilization was founded.”
As described by the authors, today’s Left, whether they call themselves liberal, progressive, communist, socialist, fascist, or Marxist, seeks the destruction of our constitutional system by attacking the worldview on which it stands. Regardless of minor squabbles over the ideological details, the American Left shares a rejection of the Judeo-Christian worldview, with its view of humanity as fallen and therefore prone to abuse power. That worldview and its view of human nature are essential to the limits and separation of governmental powers in our Constitution. Throughout the book, Melcher and Soukup explore the Left’s hostility to Christianity, capitalism, and private property, which in the leftist mind are relics of an earlier and darker age. With centralized power in the right “enlightened” hands, the Left claims that their policies will propel us into a future of absolute equality, prosperity, and peace.
Beginning with Voltaire and Rousseau, the authors cover the Enlightenment of the 18th century with special focus on the philosophers and economic conditions that fueled the French Revolution. Of course, much has been written about that bloody and chaotic time. But Melcher and Soukup have painstakingly selected primary and secondary source materials that allow the reader to hear the voice and essential ideas of the prominent thinkers of the Left in their own words, but without burdening the reader with arcane theoretic details.
For example, the Left’s obsession with radical notions of equality and their aversion to individual excellence are captured in this quote from the trial of Gracchus Babeuf from the period of the French Revolution:
“Even someone who could prove that he is capable, by the individual exertion of his own natural strength, of doing the work of four men, and so lay claim to the recompense of four, would be no less a conspirator against society, because he would be upsetting the equilibrium of things by this alone, and would thus be destroying the precious principle of equality.”
This radical view of equality permeated the Left’s thinking in everything from the development of communist theory that followed to participation trophies today. But somehow the rhetoric about equality seems to conflict with the air radiating from today’s Left that they are superior to everyone else, and the authors explore that aspect of the Left’s history as well. In describing the Salons of the French Enlightenment, they quote Roberto Calasso’s insightful description of the “alliance between snobbery and the Left.” Calasso could have been describing the virtue-signaling of a Hollywood awards ceremony when he wrote, “From that moment on, the higher snobbery, which always needs some discreet disguise, would know what cloak to cover itself with: the worthy Cause.”
The authors continue with their exploration of Kant, Hegel, Marx and other European philosophers and then on to other leftist movements such as Fabianism in England and anarchism and the forerunners of fascism on the Continent. Volume One ends with a detailed description of the damage done to the American Constitution by Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and the so-called “Progressive” movement. At each step, regardless of the subject, the authors combine scholarly depth with a presentation style that is enjoyable and even gripping to read.
America is indeed in the midst of a moral and ideological civil war. With Know Thine Enemy, Melcher and Soukup have done a great service for those on the side of liberty.