The political left must know itself

John Winstead mug

John Winstead

What is “the left”? Consider our contemporary political terms “left” and “right”. We can trace their origins to the French Revolution, when they referred to where a person sat relative to the chair of the president of the Estates General; monarchists sat on the right, and antimonarchist Montagnards and Jacobins sat on the left. Accordingly, the right is generally associated with tradition, incremental change and the desirability of natural hierarchy, and the left is associated with progress: “liberte, egalite, fraternite.” However, slogan-level analyses such as these risk missing what is really at stake when people align themselves with one term or the other.

At first glance, analyzing the terms yields an answer like this: the left stands for equality; the right stands for liberty. But this, too, is reductive. 

When we examine clashes that have helped define concepts of left-wing or right-wing throughout history — the French Revolution, American slavery, suffrage, Civil Rights movements, anti-imperialist struggles — what we see is the left fighting for a more extensive scheme of liberties to be extended to the lower classes. 

These schemes apply to a diverse range of contexts: for serfs to be free from their lords, for slaves to be free from their masters, for women and people of color to be free from the private and public dominion of white men, for workers to be free of their bosses, for underdeveloped countries to be free from the imperial yoke, and even for animals to be free from an agonized life and torturous death. 

Overall, examining history gives the distinct impression that the left fights for an extension of liberty, not its degradation. This impression is reflected in discourse surrounding certain leftist movements, including animal liberation and liberation theology.

I consider right-wing politics not the privileging of liberty over equality but the privileging of some people’s liberty over other people’s liberty. I consider left-wing politics, on the other hand, a politics of emancipation that seeks liberty for all.

Conservatism, I argue, is a politics of reaction that seeks to undermine extensions of liberty due to the threats they pose: women will no longer be subservient to their husbands, workers will no longer be subservient to their bosses, and the totality of the lives of every living person will no longer be subservient to the forces of capital accumulation.

I find this distinction not just between leftists and conservatives but also between leftists and the liberals — left-liberals, that is, to distinguish them from right-liberals or conservatives. Historical liberal paragons such as John Stuart Mill or John Locke were loathe to extend their conceptions of liberty to so-called “savages,” defending British imperialism and the genocide of American Indians. 

Leftism, on the other hand, is always supportive of self-determination; indeed, this quality is one prominent distinction between Marxist “scientific socialism” and older “utopian” iterations of socialism: those convinced only the working class could emancipate the working class.

What is “the left”? I say the left is self-liberation.