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What's a Leftist?
Sick of our system of oppression and exploitation? Fed up with two-party propaganda? There's a name for that.
In their brilliant book, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, David Graeber and David Wengrow reference cultural anthropologist Christopher Boehm’s description of politics as “the ability to reflect consciously on different directions one’s society could take, and to make explicit arguments why it should take one path rather than another.” As such, political disputes are disagreements over how society should be structured. Socialism and capitalism, for example, are two very different approaches to that challenge.
My focus here is not to argue for one particular belief system over another, but to try to bring some clarity to the incoherent use of the terms “left” and “leftism” in U.S. political discourse, drawing on the concept of politics as a choice about reordering society.
A leftist strives to eradicate existing systems of oppression, discrimination, and exploitation by fundamentally restructuring how humans coexist and cooperate.
Premised on systemic change, leftism is by definition a revolutionary approach to politics. To achieve leftist goals, non-electoral measures are required: Direct action, mutual aid, strikes, protests, etc. You can’t vote away an oligarchy or kleptocracy.
On a practical level, holding leftist views in America today is an exercise in frustration. Leftists are attacked as extremists for wanting every citizen to have health care and housing. They are labeled radicals for believing children shouldn’t be caged by either ruling party. They are called “spoilers” for rejecting partisan framing and holding all politicians accountable. What’s more, anyone who isn’t a rightwing extremist is described as “the left,” so leftists get lumped in with establishment Democrats like Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, who are no more leftists than Donald Trump is a feminist.
And that’s the point. Leftists threaten the hegemony of the capitalist duopoly, so their opponents try to neutralize them by pretending they don’t exist, obscuring their views, and blaming them for everything that goes wrong. But looking past the propaganda, we can distinguish leftism, the belief system, from left, the direction (away from the right and notably, toward the human heart).
Background: Left vs. Right
Left-right political classification began with the French Revolution, when members of the National Assembly who supported the king’s absolute veto sat to the right of the assembly president, and those who did not, to the left. Though frustratingly imprecise, it has proven durable. Nearly a quarter millennium later, it is the standard framework for American politics.
Anyone who has gone down the rabbit hole of trying to explain leftwing and rightwing ideologies knows how confounding the task can be. All sorts of quadrants, axes, and compasses have been propounded to categorize people’s political views. For every hundred individuals, there are a hundred belief systems, and that’s not hyperbole.
Neoliberalism. Conservatism. Stalinism. Maoism. Leninism. Leftwing Nationalism. Eco-fascism. Capitalism. Communism. Socialism. Accelerationism. Progressivism. Democratic Socialism. Classical Liberalism. Constitutional Monarchism. Minarchism. Libertarianism. Liberal Conservatism. Liberalism. Transhumanism. Agrarianism. Trotskyism. Posadism. Collectivism. Marxism. Libertarian Socialism. Syndicalism. Nordic Liberalism. Anarchism. Anarcho-Capitalism. Anarcho-Communism. Liberal Corporatism. Technoliberalism. Feudalism. Neo-Nazism. Paleoconservatism.
Those are just some of the many “isms” from across the spectrum — ideas and ideals about organizing society economically, politically, culturally, and socially. Without getting mired in the definitional weeds, one point of clarification is essential: Unlike liberalism or progressivism, leftism isn’t about tweaking the established capitalist order for marginal improvements. It’s about believing in — and actively building — an entirely new structure, one that fosters justice, cooperation, dignity, and mutual respect, and that does away with coercion and violence. Which is why terms like “Democrat,” “liberal,” “progressive,” and “leftist” are not interchangeable.
Why do leftists and liberals fight?
When leftists say there’s no difference between the two ruling parties, it’s not to argue that every Republican and Democrat is identical, but that both are on the same side of the capitalist divide, partnering to uphold a cruel and rapacious system that must be dismantled and replaced.
Leftists abhor both the GOP and the DNC, who they view as collaborators, protecting and preserving the ruling class. The antipathy goes both ways. Democrats and Republicans alike see leftists as immature, insufferable, and dangerously extreme. If anything, leftists are even more loathed by the Democratic establishment than by the right wing. Democratic Party operatives and their defenders consider themselves the morally superior adults who are bravely “resisting” the right and “saving democracy from fascists” while leftists are tantrum-throwing juveniles whose “purism” endangers the democratic order.
An informative Current Affairs article does a great job of illustrating the liberal-leftist divide:
The liberal sees the conservative patriot wearing a flag pin and says: “A flag pin isn’t what makes you a patriot.” The leftist says: “Patriotism is an incoherent and chauvinistic notion.” The liberal says, “We’re the real ones who love America,” while the leftist says, “What is America?” or “I don’t see what it would mean to love or hate a meaningless conceptual entity.” The liberal says, “I’m standing up for what the Founding Fathers actually believed” while the leftist says, “The Founding Fathers endorsed the ownership of human beings. Some owned human beings themselves, and beat or raped these human beings. I will not measure the worth of something by what the Founding Fathers thought about it.”
Apply that to just about any major issue and you’ll understand why leftists are often more at odds with Democrats than with Republicans. A leftist begins with the assumption that the GOP is a morally bankrupt tool of the oligarchy and a nemesis of the working class. It often goes unsaid because it is assumed to be obvious on its face.
What is most galling to leftists is that corporate Democrats come along and claim to be fighting Republicans, then turn around and cement power for their big donors, while tossing a few crumbs to appease their voters. The betrayal brings to mind Martin Luther King, Jr.’s admonition that white moderates posed a potentially greater “stumbling block in the stride toward freedom” than even the KKK: “The white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;’ who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom.”
Leftists treat Republicans and their far-right allies as foes based on core differences in their respective values. But Democrats pretend to share leftist values, while perpetuating many of the same injustices as Republicans. Which explains why leftists see Democratic leaders as duplicitous backstabbers and focus so much ire on them.
As a defector from the top ranks of the Democratic Party, I’ve been on both sides of the liberal-leftist fight. When I was an adviser to Hillary Clinton and other Democratic leaders, I sincerely believed my colleagues and I were opposing Republicans to the best of our ability, and that leftists were naive about what was politically possible. After a long period of self-reflection, I came to understand that accepting tepid incrementalism is not the mature or sophisticated approach, but in fact another way of perpetuating unjust policies. I quit the Democratic Party and became an Independent because I recognized that it’s not enough to provide “access” to health insurance for those who can afford it. Everyone should have free healthcare. It’s not enough to pay lip service to climate action or be a signatory to symbolic agreements. The climate emergency is here.
When Democratic leaders claimed they cut child poverty in half (which, incidentally, they didn’t) liberals cheered: “What a noble achievement!” Leftists, on the other hand, expressed revulsion that anyone would boast about leaving the other half in poverty. Once you see through the Democratic Party’s performative opposition and theatrics (ripped speeches, candles, Kente cloths, sideways claps), you can’t unsee it. Just like the GOP, the Democratic Party’s job is to crush any real threats to the capitalist stranglehold.
As younger generations reject capitalism and as leftist policies gain popularity, the last resort of establishment propagandists is try to force leftists to defend every moral transgression of long-dead thinkers and revolutionaries, or to answer for the economic problems of prior experiments in communism or socialism. In my view of leftism — which is to conceive and construct an entirely new political and social order — that’s a pointless distraction. Who cares? Leftism is not reactionary, it’s not about returning to some idealized past. It’s a vision for creating a more ethical future. And a damn good one.