Defining and Understanding the Left
By Discover The Networks
The term “left,” as it pertains to politics, dates back to pre-revolutionary France. In 1789, the French National Assembly was created as a parliamentary body to shift the control of political matters from the king to the citizenry. Inside the chamber where the National Assembly met, supporters of the king (i.e., conservatives in favor of the status quo) sat to the president's right and supporters of the revolution to his left. Observers and political commentators gradually began using the terms "left" and "right" to refer to the opposing sides.
The origins of the modern left can be traced back to the famous passage in Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality, in which he condemned the institution of private property:
“The first man, who after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, ‘this is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.”
Added Rousseau: “How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!”
Around the 1830s, a faction of French liberals gravitated toward Romanticism and the philosophy of the late Rousseau, proclaiming that capitalism, private property, and the increasing complexity of modern society were agents of moral decay -- both for the individual and for society at large. This is essentially the worldview that has made its way, through history, into the collective mind of the modern left; it is a worldview calling for a revolution that not only will topple the existing capitalist order and punish its corrupt leaders, but that also will replace that order with a socialist regime where the utopian ideals of perfect justice and equality will reign. Such an ambition can be put into effect only by a totalitarian state with the authority to micromanage every facet of human life, precisely the end-point toward which the policies and crusades of the modern left are directed.
The contemporary left holds that non-socialist societies are composed largely of dominators and the dominated, oppressors and the oppressed. The alleged cause of this social arrangement is the economic system of free-market capitalism, which is viewed by the left as the root of all manner of social ills and vices -- racism, sexism, alienation, homophobia, imperialism. In the calculus of the left, capitalism is an agent of tyranny and exploitation that presses its boot upon the proverbial necks of a wide array of victim groups -- blacks and other minorities, women, homosexuals, immigrants, and the poor, to name but a few. That is why according to the left, the United States (historically the standard-bearer of all capitalist economies) can only do wrong.
To eliminate America’s inherent injustices, the left seeks to return to a status society where the power hierarchy is inverted, where the groups now said to be oppressed become the privileged races and classes (and gender) of the new social order. The left’s quest to transform the “dominated” into dominators, and vice versa, draws its inspiration from the Communist Manifesto, which asserts that “[t]he history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” The struggle identified by the Manifesto was that of the proletarians and their intellectual vanguard, who, armed with the radical utopian vision of socialism, were expected to launch a series of civil wars in their respective countries -- battles that would topple the “ruling classes” and the illegitimate societies they had established.
According to Marxist theory, these conflicts would rip each targeted society apart and create a new revolutionary world order from its ruins. And if the success of such revolutions was contingent upon immense suffering, so be it. No price would be too dear to pay for the vaporization of the old order and the creation of a “progressive” future featuring, as Daniel Flynn explains in A Conservative History of the American Left: “a brotherhood of man, human perfection, complete equality, needs provided without cost, wants pursued without consequence, heaven on earth -- ideas too impractical to live in practice, ideas too beautiful to die as ideas.”
In an effort to bring about this utopia, the contemporary left has formed a broad alliance, or united front, composed of radicals representing a host of demographic groups that are allegedly victimized by American capitalism and its related injustices. Each constituent of this alliance -- minorities, homosexuals, women, immigrants, the poor -- contributes its voice to a chorus that aims to discredit the United States specifically -- and Western culture generally -- as abusers of the vulnerable. Nor is the left’s list of victim groups limited only to human beings; in the worldview of leftwing environmentalists and animal rights activists, even certain species of shrubs, trees, insects, and rodents qualify as victims of capitalism's ravages.
Calling themselves “liberals,” today’s leftists claim the moral high ground as self-anointed avatars of compassion and enlightenment -- counterweights to the supposedly “reactionary” conservatives they depict as heartless monsters. The modern left understands that in order to win the hearts and minds of Americans, it must present its totalitarian objective -- the uncompromising destruction of the status quo -- in the non-threatening lexicon of traditional Western values; that is, it must cite, as its animating purpose, the promotion of such lofty ideals as “human rights,” “civil rights,” “civil liberties,” and above all, “social justice,” or the “correction” of the free market’s inherent inequalities through political interventions of a Marxist nature. As the perennial Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas once said: “The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism. But under the name of ‘liberalism,’ they will adopt every fragment of the socialist program, until one day America will be a socialist nation, without knowing how it happened.”
Toward this deceitful end, the left co-opted the name of “liberalism,” long honored in the West as the movement that had brought freedom, dignity, economic opportunity, and legal protections to millions of people who had been denied those advantages everywhere on the globe since the very dawn of history. Draping their programs and objectives in the glittering vestments of so-called “liberalism,” leftists embarked on the revolutionary enterprise of redefining, subtly and incrementally, what most Americans understood liberal policies to be. Over the course of years and decades, the leaders of the left championed crusades and ideals that bore ever-decreasing resemblance to the liberal causes of a prior era, yet they invariably identified both themselves and their evolving causes as “liberal.” Most significantly, they were largely successful in getting the media and academic elites to parrot their redefinition of that designation at every stage along the way. Thus, programs that were in fact leftist and socialist were enacted by legislators and social reformers in the name of “liberalism,” whose reputation for noble intentions served not only to shield those programs from public criticism, but in fact to win wide public approval of them.
When the term “liberalism” (from the Latin word liberalis, meaning “pertaining to a free man”) first emerged in the early 1800s, its hallmarks were a belief in individual rights, the rule of law, limited government, private property, and laissez faire economics. These would remain the defining characteristics of liberalism throughout the liberal epoch (generally identified as the period of 1815-1914). Yet the modern left, which portrays itself as the agent of enlightened commitment to “liberal” causes, in fact stands for the antithesis of each of the foregoing liberal ideals. Contrary to its self-definition, the left is neither “liberal” nor “progressive,” but rather a reactionary force that seeks to resurrect the traditions that characterized the epoch which preceded the rise of classical liberalism.
Consider these easily verifiable truths: The modern left is the stalwart champion of group rights and collective identity, rather than of individual rights and responsibilities (e.g., the racial preference policies known as affirmative action, and the left's devotion to identity politics generally); the circumvention of law rather than the rule of law (as exemplified by the flouting of immigration laws and nondiscrimination laws, and by a preference for judicial activism whereby judges co-opt the powers that rightfully belong to legislators); the expansion of government rather than its diminution (favoring ever-escalating taxes to fund a bloated welfare state and a government that oversees virtually every aspect of human life); and the redistribution of wealth (through punitive taxes and, again, a mushrooming welfare state) rather than its creation through free markets based on private property.
Another hallmark of classical liberalism was its spirit of toleration for divergent beliefs and ideas, and of respect for individual freedom of thought. Yet in modern leftism, we find precisely the opposite: intolerance of opposing viewpoints, and the promotion of group-think. The left interprets as treason any deviation from its own intellectual orthodoxy, if exhibited by a member of a so-called “victim” group who theoretically ought to occupy a place in the phalanx of revolutionary agitators. We see this phenomenon manifested with particular clarity by black leftists who excoriate black conservatives as “race traitors,” “house slaves,” “Oreos,” and “Uncle Toms.”
By calling themselves “liberals,” leftists have entirely redefined the terms of debate. And as noted earlier, the media and the public have largely gone along with this fraudulent self-identification, as evidenced by the fact that few people nowadays draw any distinction between liberalism in its original and authentic sense, and leftism -- or socialism posing as “liberalism.” Thus we witness the travesty of the “liberal” label being widely attached to leftists like Michael Moore, George Soros, Noam Chomsky, Al Sharpton, Jane Fonda, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. Yet the ideals of each of these individuals are utterly antithetical to the tenets of classical liberalism outlined above.