What is Leftism?

For most it means some form of socialism, despite the fact that there are plenty of leftists who are not opposed to capitalism (clearly from the actual history of socialism, not all socialists are opposed to capitalism either). Plenty of other arguments can be made about that, but let’s just keep things simple and assume that the two terms are synonymous. As is the case with most vague terms, however, it’s easier to come up with a list of characteristics than a definition. Leftism encompasses many divergent ideas, strategies, and tactics; are there any common threads that unite all leftists, despite some obvious differences? In order to begin an attempt at an answer, it is necessary to examine the philosophical antecedents to what can broadly be termed Socialism.

Liberalism, Humanism, and Republicanism are political and philosophical schools of thought deriving from the modern European tradition (roughly beginning during the Renaissance). Without going into details, adherents of the three (especially Liberalism) presume the existence of an ideal property-owning male individual who is a fully rational (or at least a potentially rational) agent. This idealized individual stands opposed to the arbitrary authority of the economic and political systems of monarchism and feudalism, as well as the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church. All three (LH&R) presume the capacity of anyone (male), through education and hard work, to succeed in a free market (of commodities and ideas). Competition is the overall ethos of all three.

The promoters of LH&R insist that these modernist philosophies-compared to monarchism, elitism, and feudalism-are advances on the road to human freedom. They believe it more beneficial for what they call The Greater Good to adhere to and promote a philosophy that at least proposes the ability of anyone to gain some kind of control over her/his own life, whether in the realm of education, economic prosperity, or political interactions. The ultimate goals of LH&R are to do away with economic scarcity and intellectual/spiritual poverty, while promoting the idea of more democratic governance. They promote this under the rubric of Justice, and they see the State as its ultimate guarantor.

Socialism as a modern movement has been greatly influenced by these three philosophies. Like those who adhere to LH&R, leftists are concerned with, and are opposed to, economic and social injustice. They all propose ameliorating social ills through active intervention or charity, whether under the auspices of the State, NGOs, or other formal organizations. Very few of the proposed solutions or stopgaps promote (or even acknowledge) self-organized solutions engaged in by those directly suffering such ills. Welfare, affirmative action programs, psychiatric hospitals, drug rehabilitation facilities, etc. are all examples of various attempts to deal with social problems. Given the premises of these overlapping philosophies and their practical frameworks, they have the appearance of being the results of intelligence and knowledge mixed with empathy and the desire to help people. Cooperation for The Common Good is seen as more beneficial to humanity than individual competition. However, socialism also takes the existence of competition for granted. Liberals and socialists alike believe that human beings do not naturally get along, so we must be educated and encouraged to be cooperative. When all else fails, this can always be enforced by the State.

Moderate, Radical, and Extreme Leftism

Tactics and strategies

Regardless of the fact that there is plenty of overlap and blending-precluding real, discrete boundaries-I hope that describing these various manifestations of leftism will be a way to identify certain particular characteristics.

In terms of strategy and tactics, moderate leftists believe that things can be made better by working within current structures and institutions. Clearly reformist, moderate leftists promote legal, peaceful, and polite superficial alterations in the status quo, eventually hoping to legislate socialism into existence. The democracy they champion is bourgeois: one person, one vote, majority rule.

Radical leftists promotes a mixture of legal and illegal tactics, depending on whatever appears to have a better chance of succeeding at the moment, but they ultimately want the sanction of some properly constituted legal institutions (especially when they get to make most of the rules to be enforced). They are pragmatic, hoping for peaceful change, but ready to fight if they believe it to be necessary. The democracy they promote is more proletarian: they aren’t worried about the process of any particular election, so long as gains are made at the expense of the bosses and mainstream politicians.

Extreme leftists are amoral pragmatists, a strategic orientation that can also be termed opportunistic. They are decidedly impolite, explicitly desiring the destruction of current institutions (often including the State), with the desire to remake them so that only they themselves will be able to make and enforce new laws. They are much more willing to use force in the service of their goals. The democracy they promote is usually based on a Party.

Relationship to capitalists

All leftists privilege the category of worker as worker/producer, an entity that exists only within the sphere of the economy. Moderate leftists campaign for workers’ rights (to strike, to have job security and safety, to have decent and fair contracts), trying to mitigate the more obvious abuses of the bosses through the passage and enforcement of progressive legislation. They want capitalism to be organized with “People Before Profits” (as the overused slogan has it), ignoring the internal logic and history of capitalism. Moderate leftists promote socially responsible investing and want a more just distribution of wealth; social wealth in the form of the much-touted “safety net,” and personal wealth in the form of higher wages and increased taxes on corporations and the rich. They want to balance the rights of property and labor.

Radical leftists favor workers at the expense of the bosses. Workers are always right to the radical leftist. They wish to change the legal structure in such a way to reflect this favoritism, which is supposed to compensate for the previous history of exploitation. The redistribution of wealth envisioned by radical leftists builds on the higher wages and increased taxation of the corporations and the rich to include selective expropriation/nationalization (with or without compensation) of various resources (banks, natural resources for example).

Extreme leftists promote the total expropriation — without compensation — of the capitalist class, not only to right the wrongs of economic exploitation, but to remove the capitalist class from political power as well. At some point, the workers are to be at least nominally in charge of economic and political decision making (although that is usually meditated through a Party leadership).

The role of the State

Leftists view the State on a continuum of ambivalence. Most are clear that the role of the State is to further the goals of whatever class happens to rule at any given period; further they all recognize that the ruling class always reserves for itself a monopoly on the legitimate use of force and violence to enforce their rule. In the political imaginations of all moderate and some radical leftists, the State (even with a completely capitalist ruling class) can be used to remedy many social problems, from the excesses of transnational corporations to the abuses of those who have been traditionally disenfranchised (immigrants, women, minorities, the homeless, etc.). For extreme leftists, only their own State can solve such problems, because it is in the interest of the current ruling class to maintain divisions among those who are not of the ruling class. Despite the ambivalence, an attachment to the functions of government as executed by the State remains. This is the pivotal area of conflict between all leftists and all anarchists, despite the historical positioning of anarchism within the spectrum of leftism — about which more below.

The role of the individual

Missing from all these different strains of leftism is a discussion of the individual. While LH&R refer briefly to the individual, these philosophies do not take into account non-property-owning males, females, or juveniles — who are indeed considered the property of the normative individual: the adult property-owning man. This led to the complete lack on interest in (and the accompanying exploitation of) peasants and workers, a disregard that is supposed to be corrected by socialism. Unfortunately, virtually all socialists only posit the category Worker and Peasant as collective classes — a mass to be molded and directed — never considering the desires or interests of the individual (male or female) worker or peasant to control their own lives. According to the ideological imperatives of leftist thought, the self-activity of these masses is seen suspiciously through the ideological blinkers of the competitive ethos of capitalism (since the masses aren’t yet intelligent enough to be socialists); the workers will perhaps be able to organize themselves into defensive trade unions in order to safeguard their wages, while the peasants will only want to own and work their own piece of land. Again, education and enforcement of cooperation is necessary for these masses to become conscious political radicals.

A Generic Leftism?

So all leftists share the goals of making up for injustice by decree, whether the decree comes out of better/more responsive representatives and leaders, a more democratic political process, or the elimination of a non-worker power base. They all desire to organize, mobilize, and direct masses of people, with the eventual goal of attaining a more or less coherent majority, in order to propel progressive and democratic change of social institutions. Recruitment, education, and inculcating leftist values are some of the more mundane strategies leftists use to increase their influence in the wider political landscape.

All leftists have a common distrust of regular (non-political/non-politicized) people being able to decide for themselves how to solve the problems that face them. All leftists share an abiding faith in leadership. Not just a trust of particular leaders who portray themselves as having certain moral or ethical virtues over and above common people, but of the very principle of leadership. This confidence in leadership never brings representational politics into question. The existence of elected or appointed leaders who speak and act on behalf, or in the place, of individuals and groups is a given; mediation in the realm of politics is taken as a necessity, removing most decision making from individuals and groups. Leftists share this commitment to leadership and representation — they believe themselves able to justly represent those who have traditionally been excluded from politics: the disenfranchised, the voiceless, the weak.

The leftist activist, as a representative of those who suffer, is a person who believes her/himself to be indispensable to improving the lives of others. This derives from a dual-pronged notion common to all leftists:

  1. Non-political people, left to their own devices, will never be able to alter their situations in a radical or revolutionary manner (Lenin’s dismissal of workers as never being able to move beyond a “trade union mentality” without some professional outside help comes to mind here); and

  2. Those with more intelligence or a better analysis are both wise and ethical enough to lead (whether through example or by decree) and organize others for their own good, and perhaps more importantly, the greater good.

The unspoken but implicit theme that runs through this brief assessment of leftism is a reliance on authoritarian relations, whether assumed or enforced, brutally compelling or gently rational. The existence of an economy (exchange of commodities in a market) presumes the existence of one or more institutions to mediate disputes between those who produce, those who own, and those who consume; the existence of a representational political process presumes the existence of one or more institutions to mediate disputes between diverse parties based on common interest (often with conflicting goals); the existence of leadership presumes that there are substantive differences in the emotional and intellectual capacities of those who direct and those who follow. There are plenty of rationalizations contributing to the maintenance of such institutions of social control (schools, prisons, the military, the workplace), from efficiency to expediency, but they all ultimately rely on the legitimate (sanctioned by the State) use of coercive authority to enforce decisions. Leftists share a faith in the mediating influence of wise and ethical leaders who can work within politically neutral, socially progressive, and humane institutional frameworks. Their thoroughly hierarchical and authoritarian natures, however, should be clear even after a cursory glance.

Are All Forms of Anarchism Leftism

All anarchists share a desire to abolish government; that is the definition of anarchism. Starting with Bakunin, anarchism has been explicitly anti-statist, anti-capitalist, and anti-authoritarian; no serious anarchist seeks to alter that. Leftists have consistently supported and promoted the functions of the State, have an ambiguous relationship to capitalist development, and are all interested in maintaining hierarchical relationships. In addition, historically they have either tacitly ignored or actively suppressed the desires of individuals and groups for autonomy and self-organization, further eroding any credible solidarity between themselves and anarchists. On a purely definitional level, then, there should be an automatic distinction between leftists and anarchists, regardless of how things have appeared in history.

Despite these differences, many anarchists have thought of themselves as extreme leftists — and continue to do so — because they share many of the same analyses and interests (a distaste for capitalism, the necessity of revolution, for example) as leftists; many revolutionary leftists have also considered anarchists to be their (naïve) comrades — except in moments when the leftists gain some power; then the anarchists are either co-opted, jailed, or executed. The possibility for an extreme leftist to be anti-statist may be high, but is certainly not guaranteed, as any analysis history will show.

Left anarchists retain some kind of allegiance to 19th century LH&R and socialist philosophers, preferring the broad, generalized (and therefore extremely vague) category of socialism/anti-capitalism and the strategy of mass political struggles based on coalitions with other leftists, all the while showing little (if any) interest in promoting individual and group autonomy. From these premises, they can quite easily fall prey to the centralizing tendencies and leadership functions that dominate the tactics of leftists. They are quick to quote Bakunin (maybe Kropotkin too) and advocate organizational forms that might have been appropriate in the era of the First International, apparently oblivious to the sweeping changes that have occurred in the world in the past hundred-plus years — and they then have the gall to ridicule Marxists for remaining wedded to Marx’s outdated theories, as if by not naming their own tendencies after other dead guys they are thereby immune from similar mistakes.

The drawbacks and problems with Marxism, however — for example that it promotes the idea of a linear progression of history of order developing out of chaos, freedom developing out of oppression, material abundance developing out of scarcity, socialism developing out of capitalism, plus an absolute faith in Science as the ideologically neutral pursuit of pure Knowledge, and a similar faith in the liberatory function of all technology — are the same drawbacks and problems with the anarchism of Bakunin and Kropotkin. All of this seems lost on left anarchists. They blithely continue to promote a century-old version of anarchism, clearly unaware of, or unconcerned by, the fact that the philosophical and practical failures of leftism — in terms of the individual, the natural world, and appropriate modes of resistance to the continued domination of a flexible, adaptable, and expanding capitalism — are shared by this archaic form of anarchism as well.

Those of us who are interested in promoting radical social change in general, and anarchy in particular, need to emulate and improve upon successful (however temporary) revolutionary projects for liberation, rather than congratulating ourselves for being the heirs of Bakunin (et al.). We can do this best if we free ourselves from the historical baggage and the ideological and strategic constraints of all varieties of leftism.