U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What is the Left, anyway?

I’ve had the good luck to be participating in an upcoming book project, called Keywords for Radicals, that seeks to explore what various political and social terms, from a leftist perspective, have meant in the past and could mean in the future. Recently, the debates swirling around Jonathan Chait’s essay on the “politically correct left” have reminded me how important such a project is – for while the term “liberalism” has been notoriously difficult to pin down in recent decades, what is rarely remarked on is how obscure – to the point of almost, at times, being invisible – what it means to be on the left is, as well. For in the discussions being had at this blog, other places online and in personal conversations, I noticed a common obstacle – the fuzziness of what, exactly, Chait means by his use of the categories “liberalism” and “the politically correct left.”

As I mentioned in the comments to Andy’s great post about Chait’s essay, I find the lack of clarity on what is meant by “the left” to be particularly frustrating. It seems to me that this term has been ambiguous for quite a while – for about as long, in fact, as the meaning of the word “liberal” stopped carrying the positive connotations it once broadly held in the middle of the twentieth century. Indeed, written into the confusions about what it means to be a leftist is a history of the last 50 years of American political culture.

For it was not always this way. During the Depression – when members of the Democratic Party started commonly referring to themselves as liberals to distinguish themselves from conservatives – everyone knew what a leftist was. A leftist was a communist, or a socialist, or perhaps an anarchist. And although liberals and leftists cooperated in the actual corridors of government more than any other time up till then or since, liberals were quite clear about not being leftists and most people, if not all, regarded this as a legitimate distinction to make.

Fast forward to our contemporary times of the Tea Party, where everyone from Fox News anchors to nominally respectable politicians use the terms “liberal” and “socialist” interchangeably. We’re all familiar with this oddity, but usually the tragedy of the tale is what has happened, as a consequence, to the idea (and ideal) of liberalism. Frequent is the liberal complaint, delivered in a sarcastic tone, that obviously they are dirty commies since they believe that everyone should, say, have health care.

Now I have no problem at all with liberals pointing out the absurdity of conservatives equating a welfare state worth its salt with full-blown socialism, but it is interesting how such laments reinforce the narrowing of the political landscape by simply engaging in the battle on the basis of what liberalism is or is not, rather than what something else might be. (What is socialism, anyway? Simply not liberalism, apparently.) For it appears that the lack of a culturally influential and politically powerful left has made it difficult for liberals, as well, to get a grip on what is meant by “the left.” For Jonathan Chait, the left – or specifically the “politically correct left,” I suppose – are people who want to talk about race and gender and insist upon doing so (loudly!, with all caps even!, OMG), even when he’s really trying hard to keep things focused on the Stuff That Matters. There are all sorts of possible problems with this, but Chait is merely one example of a general lack of agreement about what in the world “the left” refers to.

Take, for example, this essay by Alan Brinkley from a few years back. Here, again, the concern is with what it means to be a liberal – but at one point, Brinkley argues that “the liberal creed remains one that even many conservatives, if they thought about it, might agree with.” So here we have a description of liberalism which, one would assume, separates it pretty substantially from leftism: whatever leftism is, no one ever wrote the sentence, “the leftist creed remains one that even many conservatives, if they thought about it, might agree with.” But not so fast. From various discussions with people who I think would refer to themselves as liberals, it has been made clear to me in the past few years that a lot of liberals do not think of themselves as closer to conservatism, but rather closer to “the left.”[1] Again, we might want to sort this out by clarifying what we mean by liberalism, which is what liberals have been busy at work doing for quite a few years now. (This is also a huge part of Chait’s program, as he seems very concerned with preserving a liberal tradition according to how he understands that term.) But perhaps we could also help ourselves out by clarifying what we mean by “the left.”

For when we move out of the realm of scholarly or political commentators, the problem becomes even worse. Almost all self-described leftists can recount tales of being mistaken for liberals. (How many times have relatives assumed that I must be a big supporter of President Obama since earlier I said something shockingly sarcastic about capitalism?) Indeed, the most popular alternative label for those liberally inclined – “progressive” – exists in part, I think, because the distinction between liberalism and the left has been so substantially blurred. You know the problem is acute when the only “recent” pop culture reference you can think of that actually compares liberals and the left with the purpose of contrasting them is a punk rock song that, oddly enough, appears to clump socialists in with liberals and leaves only anarchists with the distinction of being on the true left! (I mean I don’t know about you, but I’ve never met any liberals who fought for Stalin.)

This ambiguity compounds the problems even self-described leftists have in navigating political contexts. Because the boundaries between liberalism and the left can be so fuzzy, figuring out where other people fall, relative to our position, can be tricky. Leftists thus have a slew of terms to describe the politics of the ambiguous liberal – “progressive” is one of these (but due to many leftists’ suspicion that it is merely a trendy way of saying “liberal” it is not too common), “lefty-liberal” is another, and there’s also my personal favorite, coined by a friend of mine, “squishy left.”

This inconvenience is not merely a matter of semantic confusion. Rather, it is a troubling sign of the times, one of many conceptual shortcomings that have resulted from the narrowing of the American political imagination. For just as Republicans can call someone like Hilary Clinton a radical and not be laughed out of their offices, leftists find it difficult to engage with their closest cousins about their differences when there isn’t even a commonly shared understanding about what those differences are. This is not to suggest that we search for some pure leftism or some pure liberalism, or that the two political and philosophical traditions never overlap; they do, considerably. Yet it does seem that having some shared concept of what it means to be on the left is just as urgent as defining or debating about what liberalism means – for whether or not you identify as liberal, leftist, or conservative, one thing is clear: our current definitions are not helping us much, and indeed, they may be hindering us from beginning to have even a coherent argument, let alone a constructive discussion.

[1] The very fact that I have to say I think they would refer to themselves as liberals is itself an illustration of what I am talking about; the general allergic reaction many (but rarely the conservatives) have to political labels these days often means you cannot simply assume that those who seem like liberals to you might actually identify as liberals; they might prefer “progressives” or abstain from any label at all.

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Excellent, necessary post! One issue that should be included in this discussion is the culture of branding, which is a phenomenon that goes beyond the “narrowing of the American political imagination” (I also wonder about this value judgment, to what extent it involves a nostalgia for an American past that never was). Some intellectuals and activists have spoken for the reenergizing of political categories from the so-called radical left, the resurrection of both communism and anarchism as concepts (or is it brands?) in the mediascape attests to this. Throw in a healthy dose of global populism, in the movements idealized by the US left in Europe and Latin America, from Podemos and Syriza to Morales and Chavez, and we have a wondrous mess to unknot. To boot, there are those who speak for the annullation of left and right as categories, because how slippery they have become!

    • Thanks for this comment! On “narrowing of the American political imagination,” I agree that it can indicate a kind of nostalgia, and that maybe I’m even indulging in it, insofar as there were moments in American history where people were aware of something called “the Left” to distinguish it from liberalism, and that sounds kind of nice to me now. But that’s hardly the only place we want to end up at and in that sense I’m also hoping for a horizon that we’ve not yet seen.

      Your point about the discussion of labels is interesting. Personally I am an advocate for dealing with labels, rather than trying to brush them aside with a “it’s too complex,” as I think that too often operates as a way to avoid acknowledging the lines already drawn in the sand and engaging in real-life political conflict we would rather just side step. However, I view labels as contested and changing, and that’s precisely why we should have these debates about what they should mean — not because labels are static, but because if we don’t, we’ll fulfill our prophecy that they can’t be used to have coherent conversations with each other. But debating what the labels should mean is an excellent way, it seems to me, to already force the discussions we’ll be more able to have once the labels are more broadly agreed upon. In other words defining the labels is itself part of the political process that is going to get us somewhere, so it’s a very worthy task.

      (And by discussion, I don’t just mean polite exchange, but also heated debate — it is still really helpful, if you are arguing with say, a liberal over liberalism, if you are both working with the same definition of what that means.)

  2. Full disclosure. I identify as a Liberal – as opposed to a progressive – so I have lots of ideas on this and they have little in common hopefully, with Chait. But I am a peculiar, idiosyncratic Liberal because of my radical pluralism, but enough about that.
    In the early 1970s, in an American context Michael Harrington used to give stump speeches for Socialism and hi opening remarks would always be how insufficient liberalism was/is. In Harrington’s words “we have to go much, much farther than liberalism onto socialism” making it quite explicit. The non-liberal or anti-liberal Left has always had hostility, even contempt for liberalism, going back further than the notorious Phil Ochs song. Part of the reason is that the Liberalism of the latter half of the 20th century simply wasn’t Left Wing enough for the consciously radical. Too many Liberals supported the Vietnam War for example and were too slow to embrace the new social movements that were and are very important to Progressives and Leftists. (RIchard Ellis’ The Dark Side Of The Left is a quite good book on this subject from a pro-Liberal/anti-Far Left point of view.)
    Secondly the question of Capitalism. Liberalism, and this may well be an inherent flaw in it from a non-liberal point of view, is either accommodating or agnostic about Capitalism. It never has had as its chief aim an overhaul or overthrow of all existing relations or conditions. The lack of a radical vision or project will surely alienate many on the Left who are influenced by Marxist historians and sociology etc. and see Capitalism is a but a contingent, historical step with many more horrors than glories. Liberals tend to have the shadow of actually existing Socialism with all of its failures and crimes looking over them, while radicals insist that they never really supported those regimes to begin with and that it wasn’t real or true socialism.
    This is admittedly an outsider’s perspective. Others on this great blog may very well see it differently. Many might see my Liberalism as simply a kind of conservative mistake or error and it may very well be, but one must make choices in life and I chose to abstain from radical projects.

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