Misrepresenting the Left: We Are Not Liberals

Despite the current media-induced confusion, liberals are not leftists. This misconception is not only embarrassing to those of us who are genuinely leftist in our politics, it is also discrediting the Left. From the New York Times to FOX News, the portrayal of the US Democratic party and Barack Obama as leftist is creating a perception in the US populace that leftists are ineffective politicos who have no principles they won’t modify. Of course, the Left has not done that great of a job explaining the situation in any other way, thereby leaving the way open for the misconceptions put forth by the media to appear as truth.

If one wants to know what a liberal is, they need only to look at the US Democratic Party. From Hilary Clinton to Dennis Kucinich, that party is in no way leftist. How can I say that? To begin with, liberals differ from leftists in fundamental ways. For starters, liberalism is founded on the sanctity of private property. According to John Locke, who is quite possibly the godfather of liberalism, it is the possession of property that gives humans their freedom. Indeed, in its early days, liberalism only saw freedom as being deserving to propertied males. While not disparaging the positive aspects of liberalism’s early days–its opposition to monarchy and the role of the Church, to name two of the most important ones–it is crucial to acknowledge the shortcomings of a philosophy grounded in the ownership of property. Since the fact of private ownership was a qualification for entry into self-governance it obviously excluded many members of those societies where the politics of liberalism replaced the monarchy and the Church. Add to this fact the denial of political power to women and (in the newly created United States) the acceptance of slavery, and the shortcomings of liberalism as a philosophy guaranteeing liberty and equality become glaringly obvious. It is understood by those that utilize a Marxist analysis to understand history that liberalism is a bourgeois philosophy, primarily because it protects the dominance of that class in those societies where it flourishes.

Of course, history does progress. The slave trade was eventually outlawed in Europe and suffered a bloody end in the United States. Women did eventually achieve political and economic power in those nations where liberalism is the underlying philosophical foundation of the regime. This progress did not occur due to the graces of the ruling class, however. Of all the countries that fall under the liberal banner, France experienced the greatest upheavals on its way to eventual liberty for all of its citizens. The United States was close behind. Equality remains at best a promise. The greatest challenges to liberalism were the twentieth century’s two world wars. Yet, both of these wars were the result of liberalism’s necessary relationship to the capitalist economy. World War I was the result of a rivalry between empires that had run out of new lands to conquer. Those empires then turned on each other in an attempt to steal each other’s colonies. World War Two was a direct assault on the principles of liberalism by the totalitarian philosophy of fascism.

This brings us neatly to the historical moment when liberalism became identified with governmental intervention into the domestic economy in ways not seen before. Instead of helping only the wealthy and their corporations dominate the economy as in the past, liberals began to encourage the installation of governmental controls on unfettered capitalism. This did not happen because liberals were interested in destroying capitalism, but in saving it. The institutions of capital in much of the world were under heavy fire from workers and others in the years preceding World War Two. Unlike the conservative free marketeers in public life, liberals during the reign of FDR understood that the only way to save capitalism from what they considered the twin evils of Bolshevism and fascism was to institute programs that would guarantee working people work and some minimum financial security. Government programs designed to provide this minimal security were legislated under intense attacks from the free marketeers and were the result of years of strikes and other battles from the labor Left. It is reasonable to state that these safety net programs and the transformation of the US economy to a Keynesian model that relied heavily on the production and sale of war materials did save capitalism in the United States and, consequently, throughout much of the world. This also placed the United States into the role of the primary capitalist and imperialist power. This transformation did at least two things. It insured that war and the preparation for war would continue to be a growth industry for US business and it created a situation where US workers (mostly white males at the time) would be able to live a relatively good life in terms of income and job security, thanks to the intensified exploitation of labor forces in the developing world. It also allowed the liberal government to push through programs like Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Medicare.

The peak of postwar liberalism in the US was the 1960s. Its greatest triumph was passing legislation that ended legal apartheid in the US and its greatest defeat was the defeat of US forces in Southeast Asia. The latter, which was presented to the world as a mission to bring the liberal ideals of liberty and equality to the people of that region of the world, was disproved. The actual conduct of the war exposed this presentation for the lie it was: a bloody and brutal attempt to destroy a nation and a people that bordered on genocide. It also gave the US Left, which was at its greatest popularity since the 1930s, the opportunity to expose the myth of liberalism. That is, that liberalism’s ideals of liberty and equality could not be obtained under the economic machine of capitalism. This contradiction was apparent both in Vietnam and in the US, as the struggle for racial equality became an effort by the government to repress those individuals and groups dedicated to achieving that equality.

The post World War Two years of capitalist expansion were followed by years of contraction that began in the early 1970s (most agree that 1973 was the exact year). This created a fear among the capitalist class and its governmental sycophants that they might lose their position in the world. So, they began to cut back on labor costs, shipping operations to the non-union southern US and then overseas and reneging on retirement promises and health care contracts. At first, there were those among the liberal establishment in the US who stood with the workers and opposed these moves. However, by the time the ultraright administration of Ronald Reagan was out of office, it was almost impossible to find a liberal who would stand with striking workers. Indeed, it was getting pretty difficult to find a national union official who would stand with striking workers. The free marketeers were back on top and were once again in complete control of the economic policy of Washington. This period saw the rise of a new type of liberal (the neoliberals) to positions of power in the White House and throughout Washington. Neoliberal Bill Clinton campaigned on a promise to halt so-called free trade agreement known as NAFTA and then pushed it through Congress in his first years in office. NAFTA and other free trade agreements were not about free trade, but about forcing already indebted nations of the developing world to accept US goods while destroying their own economies. At the same time, credit rules began to be loosened in the United States, resulting in the creation of untold billions of dollars that did not truly exist. Yet, as long as everyone from the individual getting a home loan to the World Bank forcing austerity measures on national governments believed that the money was good there was no apparent problem. The neoliberal model of world development–a model that encouraged dependence on US banks and corporations and espoused the philosophy that the free market would solve all social ills–reigned supreme.

As for the liberal political program, it became a mere shadow of its earlier self. No longer were society wide programs to eliminate poverty like the Great Society programs mentioned earlier considered. Instead, the liberals looked at such programs and destroyed them under the guise of reform. Perhaps the best example of this strategy can be found in Bill Clinton’s Welfare Reform Act of 1996, a piece of legislation that took free marketeer Ronald Reagan’s statement that people in the US were only poor by choice and made that statement policy. Even when it came to identity politics, the liberals were hesitant to push their belief in equality to far. Instead of demanding legislation insuring de jure equality for the LBGT community, the Clinton administration chose to institute ambiguous policies that clarified little and arguably caused more discrimination. In addition, during his campaign, Clinton borrowed from the racist Southern strategy of the GOP and attacked performer Sister Souljah for her statements about black resistance to white racists. An adjunct to this more conservative social stance could be seen in liberals public embrace of religious figures and politics. Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party also supported the 1995 legislation increasing the number of federal offenses that could result in the death penalty while further militarizing the nation’s police forces. The US military attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 that came after forcing the Belgrade government to accept a peace agreement that guaranteed war was the final act in a reign that reminded everyone on the left that liberalism exists to defend the interests of the bourgeoisie.

The Left believes in justice. According to most liberals, so do they. However, the Left also believes that there can not be genuine justice for all unless there is economic justice for all. To put it briefly, human rights can not exist for all regardless of class until economic inequality is addressed and minimized. Ideally, this means that the motivation of profit is eliminated altogether. It does not deny the right of people to own their own property, but it does deny those who would profit from letting others use that property through rent. Unlike liberalism, leftists publicly acknowledge the fundamental nature economics plays in how political structures operate. This doesn’t mean that liberals don’t understand the essential role capitalism plays in maintaining the liberal state in all its guises, it just means that leftists know that to lessen the inequalities that exist under capitalism, it is necessary to change it with the eventual goal of ending its predominant role in determining social relations. In short, leftists understand that capitalism is a fundamental source of social inequalities, while liberals tend to believe that, if capitalism cannot cure those inequities, it can surely help lessen them. This belief exists despite the historical empirical evidence that the opposite is true.

If one looks at history, it seems apparent that leftism arose in response to the failings of the original liberal projects of the French revolution and the American war for independence. Both of these catalytic events did at least two important things. They ended the power of the monarchy and put the newly forming bourgeois class in power. Meanwhile, the peasants and the growing industrial working class discovered that the ideals of liberty and equality did not apply to them. In fact, their unequal status in relation to the bourgeoisie was essential to the rule of that class. This realization created a need for a different political philosophy that progressed beyond the principles of the French Revolution. Like the philosophy of that revolution, this newer philosophy was born from the experience of the oppressed. It found its most complete expression in the pens of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Liberals fear the end of capitalism and therefore will not support those who desire to undermine it. This is why they supported the Cold War. It is why they support the establishment of a client state in Iraq and why they support the expansion of the US war in Afghanistan. It is why they support a health care bill that is not single payer but supportive of the insurance industry. It is why Barack Obama had no doubts when he continued the Bush bailout of Wall Street. The musician Phil Ochs said it like this in his 1965 song “Love Me, Love Me I’m a Liberal.”

But don’t talk about revolution
That’s going a little bit too far
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal…
There’s no one more red, white and blue
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

Like liberals, there are several varieties of leftists. All, however, share an understanding that capitalism is an essentially unfair economic system that rewards those who already have capital much more frequently than those who just work their tails off. They also understand that capitalism needs wars to survive and requires inequality to function. This is why they oppose it. As stated before, liberals have a much rosier view of capitalism and have historically been willing to do whatever it takes to save it. So, while they may be the Left’s occasional allies, they are not the Left, no matter how many times FOX News and the New York Times say they are.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MichaelKenny said on April 10th, 2010 at 12:00pm #

    This is a bit of a terminological jumble! Mr Jacobs is denouncing 19th century European liberalism, not American liberalism, which is a very mild form of what , in Europe, is called socialism. What Mr Jacobs is denouncing is nowadays called conservatism, but is still not exactly what Americans mean by “conservatism”. What Mr Jacobs calls the Left is Europe’s Far Left or exterme Left. I was amused by the reference to Marx and Engels, who are (literally!) past history in Europe. If American liberals are are ineffective politicos who have no principles they won’t modify, then perhaps one could say that American leftists are people who have no relevant principles left, but still refuse to modify them and therefore never even get to be politicos! The ineffectiveness of the American Left stems precisely from the fact that they live in a 1930s time warp and, being therefore irrelevant to the 21st century, are reduced to sneering, smearing and jeering from the sidelines. Worse than that, they all seeem to be at least 60 yeras old!

  2. bozh said on April 10th, 2010 at 2:37pm #

    Well, if 98% of people voting for oneparty and one and the same system that allowed slavery, extirpation of indigenes, denial of medical treatment, a-bombing japan, lynchings, racism, 170 minor and major wars, etc., did not prove that there was no sane and honest people in US, i don’t know what wld!

    Mind u, i am nost saying that there is not that many insane and dishonest people in saudi arabia, afgh’n, russia, jordan, brazil, and elsewhere! So read my post carefully, please.

    To me, liberalism meant since at least 30 y’s ago as being a tad left-right of mussolini and the rest of the pop [save a few sane souls] mms away from hitler.

    However, even ron, while talking ab warts, neglects to say what is causing them. So, i’l say it and for 50th time: division of people into classes; probably initiated by shamano-priestly rulers and later perfected; made into law and institutionalized by king-gods and now maintained in many lands.

    Money, a tool, cannot be root cause of all evil. Its [ab]use, yes! But the abuse of that tool is caused by initial or first cause!
    Some ‘jews’ appear to be quite adept in using money in certain way; which may or may have not caused the recent financial break down. tnx

  3. Ron Jacobs said on April 11th, 2010 at 6:47am #

    Hobbes and Locke are two sides of the same coin.
    Bush and Obama are two sides of the same coin.

    The common thing that holds them all together is their belief in the liberatory value of private property, which is great if you have some. The more you have the better off you are in the society that bases its politics on that fundamental belief.

  4. bozh said on April 11th, 2010 at 8:57am #

    I do not know anything ab hobbes or locke, but i do know a lot ab addiction to wealth-power.
    But, i assert, that before people were able to amass land [and thus obtain wealth and only thus obtain it] a prior situation or a first cause must have caused it.

    It had to be an ideology or a science. The ideology [still practised in many lands] arose on observing animal behavior. It was seen that in animal world the strongest-fastest-wisest animal had much greater chance for survival than a weak-stupid one.
    This ism or early science [science 1; probably shamanitic] was then tried on humans.
    And the dark ages descended upon us; to this day.
    Yet, observing peoples’ behavior in the redlands, one cld see that the structure of societies of these peoples was much egalitarian or near idyllic.
    Also guided by elders; metings held in a circle. Everybody knew and smoked with the elders.
    It cld be noted that among these people there was no organized religion, and thus no science 1, to destroy the idyllic structure of society and their timocratic governance.

    Science 2 had been viciously deterred by science 1; that of the priestly class. And of course to this day.
    And by science 1, i mean science that also incorporates the study of religious behavior and its science and its eterne verities.

    natch, plutocratic governance along with all religions i know of have put their science 1 outside the reality of which the two phenomena are mere parts; and relig’n being a separate entity have convinced many that religions cannot be scrutinized for validity.
    Dichotomizing one reality into reality and nonreality, had worked well for priests up to now.
    But this too wld one day be exposed as a mere science 1 possibly eternally clashing with science 2. What way to live? More wars, more oppression, more poverty, more bitterness-anger, etc. tnx

  5. Deadbeat said on April 11th, 2010 at 12:16pm #


    Thanks for writing this article. It is a great antidote to all those Libertarian/Ron Paul types whose rhetoric claims that the current crisis is something other than Capitalism. Their rhetoric is design to confuse the masses to maintain the system dispite their critiques of the system.

    Liberals on the other hand tell us to “fear” the Right all the while they work to mainain existing property relations. Arianna Huffington in response to Michael Moore’s movie critical of Capitalism, infers that states the problem is not with Capitalism but with “deregulation” and the “greedy” bankers.

    Understanding Liberalism is critical for average people to see through the role they play to keep people confused. They’re rise to power would not have occurred had it NOT been for movements and their “solutions” are often designed to qwell movements. Their “solutions” tend to be weak and piecemeal. In fact they tend to COMPARTMENTALIZE issues and AVOID at all cost any holestic (radical) solutions. They are elitiest and their main purpose is maintaining their privelege all the while putting forward a phony image of empathy and why Liberals are so discredited.

    Please continue to write more articles along this line because the Left has suffered from failing to articulate its own distinction from Liberal and especially the importance of Marxism (anti-capitalism). Thirty years of silence is much TOO long.

  6. Ron Jacobs said on April 11th, 2010 at 12:50pm #

    Thanks Deadbeat….

  7. Don Hawkins said on April 11th, 2010 at 1:27pm #

    Today on CNN they had a little talk and it was said that Hamid Karzai is not playing ball with the US and probably smoking something and the government is corrupt. My first thought was I don’t know what the so called leaders from the public and private sector here in the States are smoking but they appear to be getting some bad stuff and I don’t think it’s doing them any good. We don’t see any corruption here in the States no all on the up and up transparency is a good word sure it is. How does that go do as I say not as I do. Then I watched the Republicans in there conference and that man Steele wow what a dude. If he doesn’t make it in his present position he could always’ go to work at say Wal Mart and give the cheer. Palin was in rare form with the hell no part again. I guess clowns or being a clown is now part of the game because you sure can’t tell the truth in a time of universal deceit and that’s being nice as what I see is just nut’s. You would think practicing universal deceit would at least take a little clever but I guess not just grand stupidity and a little hell no off to the races. The time is now mates as it sure appears we all 6 billion plus are going down and going down hard. For me it’s Sunday the day of rest and for the few we all see if we wish it looks like there day of rest is all week 365 day’s a year in clown town USA. It’s not clowntown USA well you could have fooled me.

  8. Don Hawkins said on April 11th, 2010 at 2:00pm #

    Oh Sarah Palin’s “Going Rogue” has been on the best seller list for how many week’s? It look’s like they all have new book’s out on how to think. First you have to have a mind before you can think living in a high school mentality in the old Capitalist system seems to play funny tricks on a few. I wonder in private do they think the same way talk to each other in the same way they talk to the people that’s us the people. Anyway who out there knows this for sure does the Earth revolve around the Sun or does the Sun revolve around the Earth it’s bothered me for year’s now does anybody know for sure and I need data maybe a chart or two an expert on the subject maybe the CATO institute knows ok the leadership of the republican party I’ll bet has the knowledge Palin must know we could ask a scientist no probably not a good idea although we did go to the moon once or twice maybe the Democrat’s the leadership could find out. Wait I got it the tea party the big guy’s who started it will know for sure we could start there.

  9. Don Hawkins said on April 11th, 2010 at 5:48pm #

    Misrepresenting a little more than 6 billion people.


    No, the real story is not the relationship between science and the media at all. It’s the story of how the media has been completely taken in by a third group, a third culture, consisting of ideologically-driven, pathological liars, who will say almost anything in order to score political points, and will smear anyone they regard as an opponent. Stern calls climate change the greatest ever failure of the free markets. I think that looking back, we may come to regard the last six months as the greatest ever failure of mass media. Or alternatively, the most successful disinformation campaign ever waged.

  10. Morpheus said on April 12th, 2010 at 2:31pm #

    As far as I can tell, genuine capitalism is leaving the U.S. gradually due to political corruption. Government in a capitalist nation’s markets has a role in prosecuting corporations for fraud and abuse of customers by monopoly (anti-trust) That’s where the real problem is: there has been rampant neglect by politicians in being willing to actually view numerous cases as monopolies or flawed when they should be. This has been about just as true with the Democrats now as it was with the Republicans then. I consider myself traditionally capitalist. I honestly can’t stand the great deal of favoritism, because it relatively is for the banking and mortgage parties who supposedly acted lax on their loan-giving to lead up to the financial crisis.

    Given that a few commenters mentioned Ron Paul, his idea of removing the Federal Reserve doesn’t make much sense. Correct me if I’m missing details, but doesn’t it bother anyone when the implied route of the money is into the hands of the politicians and the same party who try to issue bailout money for cars that aren’t bought? Or who have a hard time balancing their own checkbook?

    I consider myself fairly liberal and a capitalist. Only in the traditional sense though, not in favor of corporatism and deliberate favoritism by politicians to businesses, but in favor of government as judge and arbitrator into business dealings (anti-trust and fraud prosecution).

  11. Dissident2010 said on April 12th, 2010 at 2:33pm #

    MichaelKenny said: “The ineffectiveness of the American Left stems precisely from the fact that they live in a 1930s time warp and, being therefore irrelevant to the 21st century, are reduced to sneering, smearing and jeering from the sidelines. Worse than that, they all seeem to be at least 60 yeras old!”

    Well, I am only one person, but I am 25 years old, American by birth, and a Marxist/anti-imperialist (by choice).

    I think the modern American Left is not more effective than it is for reasons perfectly opposite of those which you name. Namely, it is now focused on “Green”, environmental (often Malthusian) politics at home; and fixated with the absurd oxymoron of “humanitarian intervention”, i.e. imperialism with a cheap pretext for the liberal “useful idiots” to cling to, when it comes to international relations.

    This is in contrast with the Old Left (the Left prior to the 1960’s), which rightly focused on inequality, power relations, economic democracy, class struggle, socialism, and exposing the farcical nature of bourgeois elections*.

    You’re simply wrong to say that the Left lives in a “1930’s time warp.” If only they did, we might be better off. Instead, they are living in a 1960’s time warp, and have been for 50 years.

    The only thing I did agree with in your comment is that the author of this article confuses classical liberalism with liberalism in the modern, U.S. sense of favoring capitalism with a robust social safety net.

    *I would say that the U.S. qualifies as basically a plutocracy, in the very literal sense of that word, in that money is able to directly purchase political power. The most charitable thing you could realistically call it is a “money democracy” or something similar, that is, admitting that it has at least some elements of democracy (such as the Bill of Rights, so far as they are actually upheld) mixed in with what is primarily and overridingly a plutocracy.

    In my opinion, elections in capitalist democracies basically have two stages: the first one, where you buy name recognition with millions to 100s of millions of dollars in big donations from moneyed interests. The second stage is where you create and maintain a favorable impression, for about twelve months, among those who recognize your name.

    It’s primarily the first stage that make bourgeois elections a farce, imo. However, without the power of recall, the second stage is pretty meaningless as well. The first stage is, more or less, the capitalist equivalent of the restrictions which many Communist countries placed on electoral participation, only allowing CP members to run. It serves the same objective function: just as formal political restrictions in Communist countries restricted the electoral field to only those choices which were deemed acceptable by the ruling party, so the money-raising/name recognition stage of elections in capitalist countries restricts the electoral field, just as effectively as an official ban, if not more effectively, to those candidates deemed acceptable by the economic titans who are the true rulers of this country.