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The term "right-wing" is largely meaningless in an ideological sense, invoked over time to refer to such dissimilar, even antithetical movements as monarchial conservativism, Reagan Republicanism, European fascism, and contemporary libertarianism.

Right-wing therefore has meaning only in the sense of opposing a "left-wing" historically united by the goal of socialism.

If "right-wing" is meaningless except as a term of opposition, "left-wing" can be more precisely depicted in increments moving leftward from roughly American Progressivism/New Deal liberalism all the way to Marxism-Leninism.

The problem comes with the failure in common discourse to distinguish between the different strains of leftism. Perhaps because our chattering classes tend to see no enemies on the left, there is no effort made to clarify what left-wing actually means.

The ideological confusion this produces has been on full display in media coverage of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, wherein it is suggested that the further one moves to the left, the more liberal one becomes, as in Elizabeth Warren is more liberal than Joe Biden, and the self-proclaimed socialist Bernie Sanders is more liberal than Warren.

All of which raises the rather obvious question of what would be more liberal than Sanders. After all, if liberalism and socialism are indeed different things, as American liberals have always insisted, how far left do you have to drift before you stop being more liberal and become socialist?

Are self-proclaimed socialists actually more liberal than liberals? And by such logic wouldn't Fidel Castro be more liberal than Sanders, and Pol Pot still more liberal than Castro?

Clearly, this isn't a formulation contemporary liberal Democrats should be comfortable with, yet that is the inescapable logic inherent in the fuzziness of the labels they apply to themselves and that are applied to them by sympathetic media.

To clear up a bit of the ideological mess, it might be useful to think of the left as containing four basic positions.

The first and least radical, in the sense of being closest to center, would be American Progressivism/New Deal liberalism, which has championed the welfare state and the principle of redistribution over the last century as a means of reforming the generally unregulated capitalism endorsed by classical liberals.

The central ideological difficulty of this relatively mild form of leftism has always been the failure to identify some kind of logical stopping point in welfare-state growth that prevents the ideology from ratcheting leftward toward more radical, overtly socialist positions.

The most obvious counterpart of American Progressivism/New Deal liberalism in the contemporary European context is what has come to be called "social democracy," represented by the Labor Party of Great Britain, the Social Democratic Party of Germany, and the French Socialist Party.

Social Democracy is an increment further left of American Progressivism by virtue of being originally derived (unlike the American Democratic Party) from Marxian socialism, historically favoring nationalization of certain "commanding heights" of the economy (infrastructure, energy, and heavy industry) and advocating an even larger "cradle to grave" welfare state than American Democrats.

Stepping still leftward, we find "democratic socialism," most conspicuously associated with the Democratic Socialists of America movement of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib and the radical left journal Jacobin. The primary difference between social democracy and democratic socialism is that whereas the former permits a still capacious (but increasing regulated) private sector, the latter seeks to abolish capitalism altogether on the grounds that genuine democracy is incapable of functioning under it. For Democratic Socialists, the goal of democracy is undermined by the oppression and inequalities inherent in capitalism.

Furthest to the left is Marxism-Leninism (communism), which, as originally formulated by Marx, replaces private ownership of the means of production with public ownership operating under a "dictatorship of the proletariat" (meaning, in practice, a dictatorship of the party acting on behalf of an incapable proletariat).

Think at this point, the most radical leftward point, of all those misnamed "People's Republics" under the control of revolutionary "vanguard" parties in places like the Soviet Union, China, and Vietnam and once united under the banner of the Moscow-based Third International (Comintern).

The different strains vary in terms of willingness to tolerate capitalism and respect for liberal democracy, with both declining as you move further left.

The contrast with the political right is striking. Whereas classical liberals and contemporary conservatives and libertarians seek to protect by limiting--more specifically, to protect the blessings of the American founding by limiting the power of the state--the left represents perpetual, frantic movement, constantly seeking to expand state power to combat a never-ending series of problems, however trivial and rooted in the flaws of human nature itself.

Classical liberalism (and its contemporary conservative and libertarian manifestations) is constant in its Madisonian principles, the left entirely fluid, incapable of stopping, with radicalization inherent in its fluidity.

The right is about limits; the left by its very nature can acknowledge none.


Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.

Editorial on 12/02/2019

Print Headline: BRADLEY R. GITZ: What is 'left-wing'?


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