What Is (and Is Not) Left-Wing?

Recently I wrote an article objecting to labeling a false Left as Left — in effect erecting a strawman to criticize the Left. In his essay, Kieran Kelly elaborates on what is Left and how it differs from ideologies toward the Right. — DV coeditor

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The term “left-wing” is seldom defined and is often grossly misapplied. Some point at Stalinist repression and say that that is an example of how bad the left can be, but such authoritarianism contravenes the defining left-wing principle of anti-authoritarianism. Others have tried to characterise Nazism and Fascism as being half-left and half-right simply because they appropriated left-wing rhetoric for a very right-wing project. Liberalism likewise uses left-wing rhetoric to channel the energies of left-wing ethical or moral leanings into a very right-wing project. The confusion is so great that the US practice of identifying “liberal” with the left is spreading to other countries. In this process the very idea of being left-wing is excluded from public political discourse in such a way that a person’s left-wing convictions are used to attach them to a right-wing ideology. “Left-wing”, however, has an eminently recuperable set of definitional attributes. It began life as an expression of a set of stances, of which each had a binary opposite in a “right-wing”, and it can still be reduced to a similar set. The result is a group of attributes where an individual, a group, or an ideology may be either on the right or on the left, but each individual, group, or ideology may have both right and left wing aspects, and many other aspects do not reduce to this choice. In practice, of course, two imperatives derived from left-wing stances may contravene each other, or be seen as contravening each other, but that should not be seen as of relevance to the left-wing nature of their foundations.

The term left-wing comes from those who during the French Revolution believed in a society based on the revolutionary ideals that had animated the masses. Over time there has been a consensus among left-wing movements on many issues (I exclude here state regimes which adopt left-wing rhetoric, but which, more often than not, are actually right-wing in their nature). My purpose here is to produce a comprehensive and inclusive list. The list below gives an idea of a maximal left-wing philosophy, like a platonic ideal. I am not advocating that people should abandon any beliefs or stances we hold that are actually right-wing. I myself am rather right-wing on the question of individualism, but that doesn’t mean that I am not a profoundly left-wing person. This is a purist sort of vision, not something to try to live up to or even hold as an abstract aspirational ideal.

“Liberty, equality and fraternity” was the original basis of left-wing sentiment. “Fraternity” doesn’t quite work in this day and age and so I suggest that a good core set of left-wing principles to proceed from would be: liberty, equality, community and solidarity.

Anti-authoritarian

Obviously a belief in liberty implies an opposition to authoritarianism. Promoting democracy and decentralisation are both, properly speaking, left-wing stances. There are ideas of “positive” liberty, associated with Communist regimes and so forth, and “negative” liberty, associated with liberalism. Positive liberty is associated with the idea of civic engagement as a form of liberty even if it involves the curtailment of individual freedoms. The objection I would raise to this idea is that it doesn’t actually coincide with anyone’s normal usage, nor a dictionary definition of, “liberty”. “Positive liberty” is a concept most closely associated with hostile sources who ascribe it simultaneously to Marx, Engels, the Soviet Bloc, the People’s Republic of China, Machiavelli, Fascism, Nazism and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Leaving aside positive liberty, it has been pointed out that liberal “negative” liberty has for many throughout history consisted of the freedom to starve to death in a gutter. It is actually worse than that, liberal ideas of “free markets” or “laissez faire” are themselves authoritarian. Liberal ideologues (with the surprising assent of non-liberals of both left and right) portray liberalism as inherently and fundamentally at odds with authoritarianism. Yet liberal regimes can be very brutally authoritarian – particularly, but not exclusively, in imperial and neocolonial coercive practices. They practice extrajudicial executions, paramilitary policing, administrative detentions and physical and mental torture techniques. As a form of authoritarian institution, for example, the brutal US prison system has no contemporary parallels. The perceived contradiction between liberalism and authoritarianism is illusory. A foundation of liberalism, a core definitional belief, is that the coercive power of the state should be used to protect private property regardless of the democratic will of society, or fundamental issues of natural justice, or anything else anyone can think of.

Liberalism arose at a time during an ongoing British transformation of oligarchic power. Feudal rights (which came with responsibilities) were transformed into property rights – most notoriously with the “enclosures” of common lands, a process described as “a revolution of the rich against the poor.” Britain’s feudal powers actually consolidated their control through the end (or alleged end) of feudalism and about 50% of the peerage were actually Whigs (aka liberals). By limiting the sovereign rights of the crown and making private property sacrosanct and by creating an ideology of market fundamentalism, the same powerful elites (with no meaningful change) created a new hierarchical authoritarian structure where their material wealth maintained a strict dominance over rural and urban proletarian masses who, now deprived any independent economic resources were arguably less free than the bonded serfs of the feudal system.

This explains why many on the left, including even anarchists, often advocate an increase in government power. Governments, however imperfectly, can be made subject to democratic pressures, while powerful private interests, who can ‘own’ just about anything now including naturally occurring genes, are tyrannies by definition. Which brings us to….

Redistributive

The left-wing has always seen a fundamental injustice in the vast material disparities existing in society. Reponses have varied from the advocacy of the abolition of all private property to various more modest calls for the moderation of the free-market. One might consider that Proudhon, the anarchist famous for saying that “all property is theft” also said “property is freedom.” In the first instance he is referencing not only the inequities of distribution and the concentration of ownership, but the dubious origins of the titles to property. We are fed a constant stream of bullshit telling us that wealth is acquired through work, thrift and judicious reinvestment, but significant wealth almost always is in the hands of those who come to it through inheritance. Social mobility in contemporary societies compares unfavourably with premodern societies – for all their castes and feudalism – and the degree of inequality and sheer obscene wealth (corporate or individual) that exists today has no past equivalent whatsoever. At the same time all significant fortunes have the acquisitive use of violence (against smallholders, indigenous peoples and/or workers) as a necessary part of their origin, whilst their continued existence is heavily reliant on the “legitimate” use of coercive power by the state.

Proudhon’s second statement, “property is freedom”, mirrors the current understanding but lacks the language which we now have available. The social sciences have quite shown that the real issue is access to economic resources (meaning anything from food to education to healthcare). Private property per se may not be the problem so much as the privileges which are extended to owners and what we decide can be owned. There is nothing natural about the idea of owning things, particularly natural resources, as can be seen from the fact that more and more things are being made into ownable private property. This is the neoliberal enclosure movement, another revolution of the rich against the poor where, as in the British enclosure, the rich are often simply gifted ownership of previously commonly held or state-owned resources.

At the other end of the spectrum the necessary corollary of the new enclosure of the commons is that those who don’t own things are progressively stripped of access to resources. One example of this is famine. We are led to believe that famine arises because there is not enough food. This is simply untrue in every respect. Food shortages play a role, but not because of simple “supply and demand” or even, to any significant level, hoarding, but because they prompt predatory speculation which inflates food prices at a time when many have simultaneously lost income through, say, crop failure. More nuanced economicspeak would have it that famines arise because of “distribution” problems, an anodyne usage which leads us to think that its because there aren’t enough trucks or roads. What it really means is that people starve to death because they have no money. A nice piece of paper like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is all very well, but our actual system of governance in the real world says that you do not have the right to live unless you can buy food. Those condemned to die are disproportionately children and one of the most obscene aspects of famine is that their parents are forced to choose which of their own children they will kill by denying food and to then watch them slowly die. I just think that we should bear that sort of thing in mind when we get into hypothetical arguments about the rights of the “bourgeois” corner shop owner to their own hard-earned wealth (when we should probably be trying to awaken to the fact that they are also oppressed by the same system).

Collectivist

The left-wing is strongly associated with collectivism as both a means of allowing the masses to exert power and as a way of building a society without, or with less, inequality. This coincides with the fraternity/community/solidarity thing. As mentioned, I’m a bit of an individualist who sees collectivism more as a necessity than as something desirable in itself. It is maybe a matter of emphasis in that I strongly believe in individuals standing together in solidarity, rather than the group standing as one. Thus I don’t feel that I’m entirely the right person to comment on this aspect of the left. I will, however, say that those who overemphasise individual liberty to the exclusion of other left-wing imperatives are clearly right-wing. One might see this as an indication that being left-wing is a matter of balancing competing imperatives. One might take from that a need to change fundamental aspects of society so that there is no contradiction between individual liberty and collectivism. One might even say that people such as economic “libertarians” are actually victims of the inevitable antagonisms of our social system and that is why they can only see “individual liberty” in the perpetuation of structural violence.

Conscious

Marxists gave us the concept of “class consciousness” and it has been incorporated by other left-wing movements. In basic terms it is a recognition of a societal structure of inequality and injustice. In individual cases it has become problematic, and there may be a need to redefine classes with some of the middle classes having become, essentially, privileged proletarians while many lesser capitalists are subject to the expropriation of their own labour value which actually goes to bigger oligopolistic or monopolistic interests. At the same time an executive class robs capital from investors. Nevertheless, there is a role for class consciousness if it is not dogmatic. At the same time, the left-wing has also discovered numerous other “consciousnesses” which point to the structural elements of an unjust society. Thus the left-wing is: class, race, gender and environmentally conscious. “Race” can be taken to include ethnicity, “gender” to include sexuality. Thus post-structuralism, which asserts that all of this “identity” politics is irrelevant in today’s pluralist world (after all, there’s a black man in the Whitehouse) is actually a right-wing stance.

Progressive

The left-wing is broadly associated with many enlightenment values: rationality; empiricism; atheism/agnosticism/secular humanism and opposition to religion or organised religion; and logical positivism. I don’t deny that there have been excesses and abuses (although often by those who are otherwise in a firmly right-wing stance), but it is safe to say that, however vaguely and amorphously, something like postmodernism is inclined to be right-wing. Many left-wingers have advocated the abandonment of “progress” and a return to a more “primitive” state (most notably “Tolstoyan” anarchists) but most are more inclined to embrace technology.

Quite simply, the right-wing believes in preserving the status quo (conservatism) or returning to a prior system (reaction, as in “reactionary”). The left-wing (Tolstoy notwithstanding) is supportive of progressive change, usually radical if not revolutionary.

Optimistic

The left-wing believes that people are basically good and believes that problems are solved by ending systemic and structural constraints and ending the domination of narrow elites. The left-wing stance is one that seeks to empower people, hence support of various mass-based power formations from syndicalism to grassroots activism. The right-wing, from Hobbes to Friedman, basically believes that people are nasty, greedy and horrible. I would put that down to a case of projection. Also rather right-wing (when you get down to it) is Leninist vanguardism and the sort of elitist liberalism embraced by many in the establishment who think that people are too stupid to run their own lives. This is another issue that could be discussed at length because, being realistic, what with the current ideological climate, there is considerable room for taking a (maybe) left-wing stance that is somewhat elitist, but if there is an explicit intent to end people’s ideological blinders and empower them I think that this still falls within the bounds of the “left-wing.” I think it is also important to recognise that a left-wing stance supports the free flow of information, which may be the most important fight for us all.

Universal

The left-wing has a strong association with universalism and internationalism. The only point I would make about that is that although parochial nationalism is obviously right-wing, when opposing imperialism or predatory globalisation, we should recognise that nationalism may be a non-parochial defensive response, not seeking to privilege one’s own little tribe but rather to fight the oppression of powerful foreign or transnational forces.

Conclusion

I may not have covered all aspects of what is left-wing here, and people may disagree with some of it, and I might just be wrong about some parts. As a whole, however, I hope that this provides a way of thinking about left-wing that prevents the entire phrase from becoming yet another meaningless piece of nonsense used by the media to waffle on endlessly without ever saying anything of substance. Apart from anything else, if you find yourself in a situation where your ostensibly “left-wing” group has been invaded by a loudmouthed right-wing liberal going on about the threat of immigration, and so forth, you can at least turn around and ask them why they are at a meeting for self-professed leftists.

Kieran Kelly blogs at On Genocide. Read other articles by Kieran.