Lately, we’ve published a few blog posts whose headlines have used the word “liberal” in the headline. I myself published two pieces titled “Black Lives Matter is Winning, and They Don’t Need Advice from the Liberal Establishment,” and “Our Useless Liberal Media Still Won’t Commit to Medicare For All.” Our friend Kristoffer Hellén contributed a great piece just last week called “How Liberals (Yes, Liberals) Hijack Discourse to Undermine the Left.”
Predictably, we were met with criticism over our use of the term “liberal” to describe political and media elites, as well as moderate rank and file Democratic voters. Followers retorted:
“There is no liberal establishment!”
“The media isn’t liberal. It’s corporate.”
“Pelosi and Schumer aren’t liberals, they’re neoliberals.”
And so on, and so forth. Kristoffer’s piece addressed that last point head-on, but there is still widespread confusion about what exactly “liberalism” is, especially as it relates to left politics, or even progressivism. Liberals are not Leftists, they’re not anti-establishment, they’re certainly not anti-corporate, and most of them embrace neoliberal ideology. Despite all of this, many on the progressive left still consider themselves liberals, and feel the need to defend the liberal brand when it comes under attack from their fellow comrades.
Historically, liberalism has been defined by a commitment to limited government and individual freedoms. This of course makes all Leftists liberals to a certain degree, in that we’re for civil rights, free speech, religious liberty, a woman’s right to choose, etc. But liberalism is also very accommodating to capitalism; free trade, free markets, and property rights are all core tenets of liberal ideology. In fact, English philosopher John Locke, whose theories of labor, private property ownership, and unlimited wealth were directly critiqued by Karl Marx, is often referred to as the “Father of Liberalism.” And while many of today’s liberals are to the left of Locke, they still are still a far cry from being actual progressive Leftists.
To this day, liberals and Leftists have fundamentally different views on capitalism and democracy, property rights and political rights, inequality and opportunity, and how human rights are truly realized. This is why many liberals fit the informal description of the “wine track” voter, and Leftists are more oriented towards populist class politics. Liberals and Leftists both believe in racial and gender equality, but Leftists also have a class analysis, which is to say, a power analysis, of these issues, that liberals mostly don’t.
The differences between liberals and Leftists is not just academic. A viable Left movement will need to understand and articulate these distinctions moving forward in order to move the well-intentioned liberals to the left and break from those whose commitment to justice ends with hollow identity-based gestures. I discuss the specific distinctions between Leftists and liberals more thoroughly in this latest podcast recording. Listen to the full episode by clicking the player below: