Left-wing politics

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In politics, left-wing, the political left or simply the left are terms that refer to the segment of the political spectrum typically associated with any of several strains of, to varying extents, liberalism, socialism, green politics, anarchism, communism, social democracy, progressivism, American liberalism or social liberalism, and defined in contradistinction to its polar opposite, the Right.

The term originates from the French Revolution, when liberal deputies from the Third Estate generally sat to the left of the president's chair, a habit which began in the Estates General of 1789. The nobility, members of the Second Estate, generally sat to the right. It is still the tradition in the French Assemblée Nationale for the representatives to be seated left-to-right (relative to the Assemblée president) according to their political alignment.

As this original reference became obsolete, the meaning of the term has changed, and is now used to denote a broad variety of political philosophies and principles. In contemporary Western political discourse, the term is most often used to describe forms of socialism, social democracy, or, in the sense in which the term is understood in the United States, liberalism.

The left-wing attribution is very broadly employed as a political descriptor, and a single definition is elusive. For example, the use of the phrase in the democratic West is quite distinct from the usage in most Communist states - where the term has connotations associated with Bukharin and the democratization of all human activities (see also deviationism).

Communism, as well as the Marxist philosophy that many base it on, and most currents of traditional anarchism are often considered to be radical forms of left-wing politics.

The left generally claims to be dedicated to personal liberty and social justice. The left is often seen to include secularism, as in the United States, India, the Middle East, and Turkey. In contrast, in many Roman Catholic countries there is a tradition of Liberation theology which is quite left-wing due to the focus on economic justice. In other Roman Catholic countries, the church has allied with the right wing (for example, in Spain under Franco). In the US, religion and left-wing politics have at times been allied historically, such as in the U.S. civil rights movement, during abolition and Christian socialism.

Many on the Left describe themselves as "progressive", a term that arose from their self-identification as the side of social progress and openness to change.

Old Left refers to the strands of left politics current in the first half of the twentieth century, such as the Communist parties. These tended to emphasise class, sometimes in an economic determinist way, and tended to follow rigid organisational forms. New Left refers to the strands of left politics that emerged in the 1950s and especially 1960s, which tended to follow more democratic organisational forms, emphasise the cultural and personal as well as the economic, and were open to the new social movements. Examples of the new left include Students for a Democratic Society and New Left Review.

Centre-left, left of centre and left liberal refer to the left side of mainstream politics in liberal democracies. These tend to support liberal democracy, representative democracy, private property rights and some degree of free market, as well as high social spending, universal provision of social welfare and some state regulation of the economy. Examples would be the British Labour Party, some of the American Democratic Party or the Social Democratic Party of Germany. Soft left refers to socialist rather than liberal positions, but thoroughly reformist, democratic or parliamentary forms of socialism. Examples would be Irving Howe or Michael Foot. Hard left refers to socialists who are more explicitly in favour of fundamental change in society, but often through existing democratic structures - e.g. the Militant Tendency. Ultra-left refers to more extreme forms of left politics, often Marxist, which are particularly intransigent - e.g. Italian autonomism.

Spiritual left refers to a spiritually or religiously based position that shares the social transformative vision of the Left and its commitment to social justice, peace, economic equality, and (in recent years) ecological consciousness, but who base their commitment on spiritual or religious traditions. Two present-day examples of spiritual leftism are Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, who finds a call for peace and for the elimination of poverty in the Christian Gospel and Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, calling for a "New Bottom Line" where productivity, efficiency and rationality would be judged not only in material terms, but also in terms of love, generosity, peace, social justice, ecological sanity and awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe.

See political spectrum and left-right politics for further discussion of this kind of classification.


[edit] History of the term

See the Left-Right politics article for more detailed discussion of the history and development of the term

Although it may seem counter to present-day usage, those originally on 'The Left' during the French Revolution were the largely bourgeois supporters of laissez-faire capitalism and free markets. As the electorate expanded beyond property-holders, these relatively wealthy elites found themselves clearly victorious over the old aristocracy and the remnants of feudalism, but newly opposed by the growing and increasingly organized and politicized workers and wage-earners. The "left" of 1789 would, in some ways be part of the present-day "right", liberal with regard to the rights of property and intellect, but not embracing notions of distributive justice, rights for organized labour, etc.

In some countries, such as the Netherlands, "the left" had for a long time meant the non-religious side of politics. This gradually changed into the more general European meaning of the word.

The European left has recently shown a continuum between what the US would consider Populist and Socialist parties (including such hybrids as eurocommunism). At the turn of the century, the European left was Communist. In the United States, however, no avowedly socialist or Communist party ever became a major player in national politics, although the Social Democratic Party of Eugene V. Debs and its successor Socialist Party of America (in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) and the Communist Party of the United States of America (in the 1930s) made some inroads. While many American "liberals" might be "social democrats" in European terms, very few of them openly embrace the term "left"; in the United States, the term is mainly embraced by New Left activists, certain portions of the labor movement, and people who see their intellectual or political heritage as descending from 19th century socialist movements.

The New Left refers to left-wing movements from the 1960s onwards who claimed to be breaking with some institutions and traditions of the left. Where earlier left-wing movements were generally rooted in labour activism, the New Left generally adopted a broader definition of political activism, commonly called social activism. The New Left has had varying degrees of unity since its rise in the 1960s, losing some of its initial radicalism and mainly existing as loose coalitions of numerous distinct movements, including (but not limited to) feminists, greens, some labour unions, some atheists, some gay rights activists, and some minority ethnic and racially oriented civil rights groups.

Many Greens deny that green politics is "on the left"; nonetheless, their economic policies can generally be considered left-wing, and when they have formed political coalitions (most notably in Germany, but also in local governments elsewhere), it has almost always been with groups that would generally be classified as being on the left.

[edit] Left-wing issues

The left has historically opposed the concentration of wealth and power, especially in an institutionalized form, in the hands of those who have traditionally controlled them. As such, the left often works to eliminate high levels of inequality. Outside the United States, which lacked a historical ruling class or nobility, this often included at the most basic level demands for democratization of the political system and land reform in agricultural areas.

The left has traditionally been concerned with the lower classes and with combating oppression. Thus the industrial revolution saw left-wing politics become associated with the conditions and rights of workers in the new industries. This led to movements around social democracy, socialism and trade unionism. More recently, the left has criticized what it perceives as the exploitative nature of current forms of globalization, e.g. the rise of sweatshops and the "race to the bottom", and either has sought to promote more just forms of globalizations, such as fair trade, or has sought to allow nation-states to "delink" or break free of the global economy.

Although specific means of achieving these ends are not agreed upon by different left-wing groups, almost all those on the left agree that some form of government or social intervention in economics is necessary, ranging from Keynesian economics and the welfare state through industrial democracy or the social market to nationalization of the economy and central planning.

As civil and human rights gained more attention during the twentieth century, the left allied itself with advocates of racial and gender equality and cultural tolerance. Most of the left has been opposed to imperialism, colonialism and war, and much of the left has allied itself to movements for national self-determination, especially in the colonial world. The left has also been both challenged and renewed in the later twentieth century through the emergence of the new social movements, such as the nuclear disarmament, feminist and green movements.

Advocacy of government or social intervention in the market puts those on the left at odds with advocates of the free market as well as corporations (who oppose democratic control of the markets but not necessarily all control) if they see their interests threatened.

The above strands of left wing thought come in many forms, and individuals who support some of the objectives of one of the above strands will not necessarily support all of the others. At the level of practical political policy, there are endless variations in the means that left wing thinkers advocate to achieve their basic aims, and they sometimes argue with each other as much as with the right. --

[edit] The left and feminism

Main article: the left and feminism

Early feminism in the nineteenth century was closely connected to radical politics. However, there was also a right-wing current which rejected alliances with other radical movements such as for the abolition of slavery and workers’ rights. Contemporary feminism emerged alongside the New Left and other new social movements as partly within and partly a challenge to the left. Today, socialist feminists, Marxist feminists and liberal feminists are, to a greater or lesser extent, on the left of the political spectrum, while radical feminists reject this axis.

[edit] The left and postmodernism

As Barbara Epstein notes, "Many people, inside and outside the world of postmodernism (and for that matter inside and outside the left), have come to equate postmodernism with the left" <ref name="Postmoden">Postmodernism and the Left, Barbara Epstein, New Politics, vol. 6, no. 2 (new series), whole no. 22, Winter 1997.</ref>. While some postmodernists, such as Francis Fukuyama, are widely identified with the right, most postmodernists would describe themselves as on the left. Postmodernism is far from being widely accepted within left-wing political movements; it has been most widely accepted amongst left-wing academics.

Left-wing Postmodernist theories tend to reject attempts at universal explanatory theories such as Marxism, deriding them as grand narratives. They argue for an embrace of culture and ideology as the battle grounds for change, rejecting traditional ways of organising such as political parties and trade unions, instead focusing on critiquing or deconstructing existing society.

[edit] Critiques from within the left

Left-wing critics of postmodernism generally see it as a reaction of the failure of socialist movements of the 1960s (both in Europe and Latin America and the USA) and the disillusionment with the old Communist parties. They claim that disconnected from any mass movements, and pessimistic about the possibility for any mass activism these academics justified their retreat into cultural studies courses by inflating the importance of culture through denying the existence of an independent reality. <ref name="Postmoden">p</ref> <ref>Postmodernism, commodity fetishism and hegemony, Néstor Kohan, International Socialism, Issue 105.</ref> <ref>Chomsky on Postmodernism, Noam Chomsky, Z-Magazine's Left On-Line Bulletin Board.</ref>

[edit] The Sokal affair

Probably the most famous critique of postmodernism from within the left came in the form of a 1996 prank by physicist and self-described leftist Alan Sokal. Concerned about what he saw as the increasing prevalence on the left of "a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking… that denies the existence of objective realities, or…downplays their practical relevance…" <ref>A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies, Alan Sokal</ref>, Sokal composed a nonsensical article entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" <ref>Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, Alan Sokal, first published in; Social Text, issule 46/47, 1996</ref> , in which a mix of mis-stated and mis-used terms from physics, postmodernism, literary analysis, and political theory are used to claim that physical reality, and especially gravitation, do not objectively exist, but are psychologically and politically constructed.

The journal Social Text published the paper in its Spring/Summer 1996 issue, whereupon Sokal publicly revealed his hoax. While some saw Sokal as attacking leftism in general, he was very clear that this was intended as a critique from within:

Politically, I'm angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed Left. We're witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism… epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique. Theorizing about “the social construction of reality” won't help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming. Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity.… The results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy. <ref>A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies, Alan Sokal</ref>

[edit] Critiques from the Right

Right-wing critics have generally seen acceptance of post-modernism as an indication of what they perceive as the poorly thought-out, fashionable nature of the academic left. Some right-wing critics state that left-wing postmodernism is a product of the failure of Marxism to bring liberation. For example Gary Jason claims that "The failure of socialism, both empirically and theoretically, ... brought about a crisis of faith among socialists, and postmodernism is their response." <ref>Socialism's Last Bastion, Gary Jason, Liberty</ref>

Many opponents of the left, David Horowitz for example, critique methods by which they claim leftism is disseminated, especially in academia. They claim that researchers who align themselves with the left select facts favorable to their cause, and demonize the values of those who oppose their cause. Because academia is a body of experts which the public respects, these critics argue that academics should give equal weight to all viewpoints.

[edit] The Left and Darwinism

The left's relationship with Darwinism has historically been congenial on the scientific front, with the exception of Stalin's support of Trofim Lysenko's Lamarckian views. It has been hostile on the philosophical front because the left was resisting various political theories using evolutionary language, such as Social Darwinism.

In 1875 Friedrich Engels wrote a letter to Pyotr Lavrov saying

"I accept the theory of evolution, but Darwin’s method of proof (struggle for life, natural selection) I consider only a first, provisional, imperfect expression of a newly discovered fact. ... The interaction of bodies in nature — inanimate as well as animate — includes both harmony and collision, struggle and cooperation. When therefore a self-styled natural scientist takes the liberty of reducing the whole of historical development with all its wealth and variety to the one-sided and meager phrase "struggle for existence," a phrase which even in the sphere of nature can be accepted only cum grano salis, such a procedure really contains its own condemnation." <ref>Engels to Pyotr Lavrov In London, Marx-Engels Correspondence 1875, Marx/Engels Internet Archive (2000)</ref>

In 1902 the anarchist philosopher and scientist Peter Kropotkin published the book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, which provided an additional means for the natural selection and evolution of species, beyond claims of 'Survival of the Fittest.' Written partly as a response to Social Darwinism and in particular to Thomas H. Huxley's essay, "The Struggle for Existence", published in the magazine Nineteenth Century, Kropotkin drew on his experiences in scientific expeditions during his time in Siberia to illustrate the phenomenon of cooperation in animal and human communities. After examining the evidence of cooperation among the animals, the "savages", the "barbarians", in the medieval city, and in modern times, he concludes that cooperation and mutual aid are as important in the evolution of the species as competition and mutual strife, if not more important.

[edit] The Left and War

Main article: The Left and War

Historically, various groups on the Left have been either enthusiastic supporters or high-profile opponents of various wars.

While anti-war movements have never been exclusively left-wing, they have generally been led, inspired, and organised by those on the left. While some on the left are inspired by pacifism, most left-wing opposition to war arises from anti-imperialism which leads them to reject specific wars because they see them as being in capitalist interests rather than being morally against all violence. Left-wing opposition to war is also often characterised by the internationalist belief that the world's workers share common interests with one another, rather than with the powers governing their respective countries.

[edit] First and Second World Wars

Until the First World War, there was broad agreement among those on the left on opposition to imperialist wars. Few left-wingers supported their nation in conflicts such as the Boer War. The First World War triggered fierce debate among socialist groups as to the right response to take, with the leaderships of most socialist parties of the Second International supporting their governments, and a minority of socialists, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin opposing the war as imperialist. Left-wing opponents to the war came together at the Zimmerwald Conference. Part of the driving force of the Russian Revolution was revolt by soldiers against the First World War, epitomised in the slogan taken up by the Bolsheviks: "bread, land and peace".

The Second World War was generally seen as a war between fascism and democracy and thus many on the left supported the Allied cause. However, some groups saw it as simply another imperialist war and thus opposed it.

[edit] Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War was seen by many on the left as an important fight between fascism and democracy. In response to the outbreak of war, many people joined the International Brigades or other left-wing militias organized by trade unions or political parties. Others campaigned for the democratic countries to impose arms embargoes and to work through the League of Nations to stop the war.

[edit] Vietnam and the Post-September 11 Anti-war Movements

The next large anti-war movement that involved the western left was that against the Vietnam War; it triggered much opposition beyond the ranks of the left and is generally thought of as part of a growing counter-culture movement which took up many different left-wing issues.

The American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which came in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, led to new anti-war movements forming. Various social democratic political parties (such as Tony Blair's Labour Party) supported and sent their countries' troops to participate in these wars, seeing them as appropriate responses to the terrorist threat. Indeed, there have been defences of these wars from the basis of left-wing internationalist values.<ref>e.g. Oliver Kamm Anti -Totalitarianism: The Left-wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy. 2005, London: Social Affairs Unit ISBN 1-904863-06-X</ref>. However, most of the left has opposed these wars, especially the war in Iraq. The war in Iraq was largely seen as unrelated to the attack on the US, and some have claimed that the war in Iraq is imperialist, that oil and control of the Middle East were the goals rather than liberation.

Some criticism has been levelled at various left-wing groups for forming anti-war coalitions with conservative organisations (such as the paleoconservative Antiwar.com) or with groups seen as as led by fundamentalist Islamists (such as the Muslim Association of Britain). One response has been to claim that the characterisation of Muslim groups as extremist is racist, and that broad united fronts are positive. There has also been some controversy over the Left's use of the Palestine issue in an anti-war context.

The anti-war movement was generally seen as re-invigorating left-wing movements, though there was a large current on the French Left (especially within ATTAC) that saw them as detracting from the economic issues of the anti-globalisation movement. In the U.S., much of the left-wing radicalisation was channelled into Anybody but Bush campaigns, which effectively meant supporting the pro-war centrist Democratic Party. In the U.K, anti-war feeling may have been a factor in a drop in support for the pro-war Labour Party and the cause of gains for the Liberal Democrats. Some of the left-wing groups that had been involved in the anti-war movement sought to harness the increase in popular radicalism through the setting up of a new political party called Respect. <ref>Unfading commitment, Simon Jeffery, The Guardian, February 15, 2005</ref>

[edit] The left and political violence

The political term left arose during the French Revolution; the left in that revolution overtly articulated a politics of "Terror" as a revolutionary tactic, although, in the event, they were to be as much its victims as its perpetrators.

Most left-wing groups and movements today unequivocally reject terrorism either on moral grounds or for being counter-productive in advancing the progressive cause. Some groups on the far left have defend certain acts of political violence, including some that others chracterize disparagingly as "terrorism". Those who claim a legitimacy for violence generally try to differentiate the violent actions of unsupported minority groups, of which they are critical, with guerrilla struggles, extreme acts of civil disobedience (such as rioting), and revolution, of which they are variously less critical, uncritical, or even supportive.

Among the heirs to the tradition of violent revolution were the Narodniks in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They aimed to overthrow the oppressive authoritarianism of the Tsarist state by systematic attacks on the Tsar and his ministers. Even as a response to such a regime, aimed at the leaders of the regime, their strategy was hotly debated within the Russian left; for example, in a discussion of the Narodniks. Leon Trotsky wrote:

'In our eyes, individual terror is inadmissible precisely because it belittles the role of the masses in their own consciousness, reconciles them to their own powerlessness, and turns their eyes and hopes toward a great avenger and liberator who someday will come and accomplish his mission.' <ref>Terrorism and Communism by Leon Trotsky </ref>

In the 1970s, various left-wing groups sprang up from the social movements of the time, such as Weathermen and the Symbionese Liberation Army in the U.S., the Angry Brigade in Britain, the Baader-Meinhof group in Germany, the Red Brigades in Italy and so on. These groups were impatient with the pace of progress the social movements had achieved. They turned to acts of terrorism in order to either hasten what they deemed progress or in order to shock the populace into dissatisfaction with the status quo. The actual result of their activities was to divide the left and they failed to inflict serious damage on their "ruling classes".[1]

It is also generally accepted that "Communist states" have used mass murder, torture and other forms of cruelty in order to further their political ideologies. For example, both Stalin and Mao committed atrocities in the name of Communism, on a par with those committed by Hitler in the name of Nazism.

In the post-World War II era, much of the left has been supportive of what it deems "national liberation struggles", often waged by violent means, arguing that "you can not compare the violence of the oppressed to the violence of the oppressor". However, it has tended to be much more supportive of open rebellion than of tactics that would generally be deemed "terrorist".[citation needed]

[edit] Examples of left-wing terrorist groups

[edit] The Left and Global Justice/Anti-corporate Globalization

The Global Justice Movement movement, also known as the anti-globalisation or alter-globalization movement, is a collection of social movements which are prominent in protests against global trade agreements and the negative consequences they perceive them to have for the poor, for the environment and for peace. It is generally characterised as left-wing, though some activists within it reject association with the traditional left. Likewise, some within the left reject it being 'left'. While some within the movement are motivated by concerns that are generally thought of as left-wing issues, the presence of libertarians at demonstrations, and the anti-corporate-globalization positions of noted right-wingers such as Pat Buchanan are notable exceptions. The ongoing anti-corporate work of anarchists which do not identify as "left" or "right" additionally make it difficult to label the movement "left" as such.

From the right, the anti-globalisation movement is often caricatured as an attempt by far-left groups to repackage themselves and it might also be regarded as existing within a broader set of anti-capitalist movements and philosophies.

[edit] Political parties on the Left

Depending on the political viewpoint of the person defining the categories, different groups might be categorized as on the left. One might generally characterize parties as on the political left in their respective countries, though even then they might have relatively little in common with other left-wing groups beyond their opposition to the right. However even this can cause issues. For example, the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization of centrists affiliated with the Democratic Party in which former President Bill Clinton was active, is generally considered to be the right wing of the U.S. Democratic Party.

[edit] Notes


[edit] Bibliography

[edit] See also

[edit] Left-wing Ideologies
[edit] Left-wing issues
[edit] Related political topics

[edit] External links

Reference sites

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Left-wing politics

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