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 problem.
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.
That’s just a working definition meant to be inclusive and to avoid gatekeeping. And by necessity, it requires direct action, mutual aid, strikes, protests, and other non-electoral measures. You can’t vote away the oligarchy.
On a practical level, it’s a strange and frustrating experience to hold leftist views in America today. Leftists are attacked as “extremists” for wanting everyone to have health care. They’re labeled “radicals” for believing children shouldn’t be caged by either ruling party. They’re called “Trump enablers” by liberals who unironically support Republicans who paved the way for Trump, i.e. the Lincoln Project, Bush, Cheney, etc.
What’s more, as the midpoint of US politics keeps moving right, anyone who isn’t a fascist is described as “the left,” so leftists get lumped in with establishment Democrats like Joe Biden who is no more a leftist than Donald Trump is a feminist. When rightwinger Joe Manchin is called a moderate and status quo stalwarts like Nancy Pelosi are described as “far left,” those words become meaningless.
And that’s the point. Leftists threaten the hegemony of the capitalist duopoly, so the system tries to neutralize them by pretending they don’t exist, obscuring their views, and/or 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. That’s not hyperbole.
Imperialism. Conservatism. Stalinism. Maoism. Leninism. Leftwing Nationalism. Eco-fascism. Neoliberalism. 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 present-day American 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. And why leftists reject incrementalism as a matter of basic principle.
Why do leftists and liberals fight?
When leftists say there’s no difference between the two ruling parties, it’s not to suggest 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 the GOP and see Democratic leaders as Republican collaborators. The antipathy goes both ways. Democrats and Republicans alike see leftists as immature, insufferable, and dangerously extreme. Defenders of the Democratic establishment consider themselves the morally superior adults who are bravely “resisting” the right, and leftists the tantrum-throwing juveniles whose “purism” endangers democracy.
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. It often goes unspoken because it is obvious on its face. Then Democrats come along and tell voters “we’ve got this fight,” shun leftists who are already on the battlefield, and turn around and cement power and wealth for their corporate donors. Leftists are justifiably livid at that betrayal and duplicity.
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, I sincerely believed my colleagues and I were opposing Republicans to the best of our ability and that leftists were naive “spoilers.” After a long period of self-reflection, I’ve come to understand that accepting half-measures is not the ‘mature’ approach, but just another way of perpetuating unjust policies. 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!” they exclaimed. 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 figures, or to answer for the economic problems of previous experiments in communism or socialism, as though capitalism is a model of virtue. 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.
Peter - this is one of the best things I've ever read on the subject, well done!
Really great, Peter.