Left-wing politics

Left-wing politics

In politics, Left, left-wing and leftist generally refer to support for an egalitarian society.[1][2] They usually involve a concern for those in society who are disadvantaged relatively to others and an assumption that there are unjustified inequalities (which right-wing politics view as natural or traditional) that should be reduced or abolished.[3] The terms Left and Right were coined during the French Revolution, referring to the seating arrangement in the Estates General; those who sat on the left generally supported the radical changes of the revolution, including the creation of a republic and secularization.[4] Use of the term "Left" became more prominent after the restoration of the French monarchy in 1815 when it was applied to the "Independents".[5] The term was then applied to a number of revolutionary movements, especially socialism, anarchism[6] and communism as well as more reformist movements like social democracy and social liberalism.[7][8]

According to Barry Clark:[9]

Leftists... claim that human development flourishes when individuals engage in cooperative, mutually respectful relations that can thrive only when excessive differences in status, power, and wealth are eliminated. According to leftists, a society without substantial equality will distort the development of not only deprived persons, but also those whose privileges undermine their motivation and sense of social responsibility. This suppression of human development, together with the resentment and conflict engendered by sharp class distinctions, will ultimately reduce the efficiency of the economy.


History of the term

In politics, the term left wing derives from the French Revolution, as radical Montagnard and Jacobin deputies from the Third Estate generally sat to the left of the president's chair in parliament, a habit which began in the Estates General of 1789. Throughout the 19th century in France, the main line dividing left and right was between supporters of the French Republic and those of the Monarchy.[4] The June Days Uprising during the Second Republic was an attempt by the left to assert itself after the 1848 Revolution, but only a small portion of the population supported this.

In the mid 19th century, nationalism, socialism, democracy, and anti-clericalism became features of the French Left. After Napoleon III's 1851 coup and the subsequent establishment of the Second Empire, Marxism began to rival radical republicanism and utopian socialism as a force within left-wing politics. The influential Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published in 1848, asserted that all human history is the history of class struggle. They predicted that a proletarian revolution would eventually overthrow bourgeois capitalism and create a classless, stateless, post-monetary society.

In the United States, many leftists, social liberals, progressives and trade unionists were influenced by the works of Thomas Paine, who introduced the concept of asset-based egalitarianism, which theorises that social equality is possible by a redistribution of resources.

The International Workingmen's Association (1864–76), sometimes called the First International, brought together delegates from many different countries, with many different views about how to reach a classless and stateless society. Following a split between supporters of Marx and Mikhail Bakunin, anarchists formed the International Workers' Association.[10] The Second International (1888–1916) became divided over the issue of World War I. Those who opposed the war, such as Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, saw themselves as further to the left.

In the United States after Reconstruction, the phrase "the Left" was used to describe those who supported trade unions, the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement.[7][11] More recently in the United States, left-wing and right-wing have often been used as synonyms for Democratic and Republican, or as synonyms for liberalism and conservatism.[12][13][14][15]


The spectrum of left-wing politics ranges from centre-left to far left (or ultra-left). The term centre left describes a position within the political mainstream. The terms far left and ultra-left refer to positions that are more radical. The centre-left includes social democrats, social liberals, progressives and also some democratic socialists and greens (in particular the eco-socialists). Centre-left supporters accept market allocation of resources in a mixed economy with a significant public sector and a thriving private sector. Centre-left policies tend to favour limited state intervention in the economy in matters pertaining to the public interest.

In several countries, the terms far left and radical left have been associated with communism, Maoism, Autonomism and many forms of anarchism. They have been used to describe groups that advocate anti-capitalist, identity politics or eco-terrorism. In France, a distinction is made between the left (Socialist Party and Communist Party) and the far left (Trotskyists, Maoists and Anarchists).[16] The US Department of Homeland Security defines left-wing extremism as groups who want "to bring about change through violent revolution rather than through established political processes."[17]

In China, the term Chinese New Left denotes those who oppose the current economic reforms and favour the restoration of more socialist policies.[18] In the Western world, the term New Left refers to cultural politics. In the United Kingdom in the 1980s, the term hard left was applied to supporters of Tony Benn, such as the Campaign Group and Labour Briefing, as well as Trotskyist groups such as the Militant Tendency and Socialist Organiser.[19] In the same period, the term soft left was applied to supporters of the British Labour Party who were perceived to be more moderate. Under the leadership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown the British Labour Party re-branded itself as New Labour in order to promote the notion that it was less left-wing than it had been in the past. One of the first actions however of the Labour Party leader who succeeded them, Ed Miliband, was the rejection of the "New Labour" label.



Leftist economic beliefs range from Keynesian economics and the welfare state through industrial democracy and the social market to nationalization of the economy and central planning.[20] During the industrial revolution, left-wingers supported trade unions. In the early twentieth century, the Left were associated with policies advocating extensive government intervention in the economy.[21] Leftists continue to criticize what they perceive as the exploitative nature of globalization, the race to the bottom and unjust lay-offs. In the last quarter of the Twentieth Century the belief that government (ruling in accordance with the interests of the people) ought to directly involve itself in the day to day workings of an economy declined in popularity amongst the center left, especially social-democrats who became influenced by 'third way' ideology.

Other leftists believe in Marxian economics, which are based on the economic theories of Karl Marx. Some distinguish Marx's economic theories from his political philosophy, arguing that Marx's approach to understanding the economy is independent of his advocacy of revolutionary socialism or his belief in the inevitability of proletarian revolution.[22][23] Marxian economics does not exclusively rely upon Marx, it draws from a range of Marxist and non-Marxist sources. The dictatorship of the proletariat or workers' state are terms used by Marxists to describe what they see as a temporary state between the capitalist and communist society. Marx defined the proletariat as salaried workers, in contrast to the lumpen proletariat, who he defined as outcasts of society, such as beggars, tricksters, entertainers, buskers, criminals and prostitutes.[24] The political relevance of farmers has divided the left. In Das Kapital, Marx scarcely mentioned the subject.[25] Mao Zedong believed that it would be rural peasants not urban workers who would bring about proletariat revolution.

Left-libertarians, Libertarian socialists and left-wing anarchists believe in a decentralized economy run by trade unions, workers' councils, cooperatives, municipalities and communes, and oppose both government and private control of the economy, preferring local control, in which a nation of decentralized regions are united in a confederation.


The question of nationality and nationalism has been a central feature of political debates on the Left. During the French Revolution, nationalism was a policy of the Republican Left.[26] The Republican Left advocated civic nationalism,[4] and argued that the nation is a "daily plebiscite" formed by the subjective "will to live together." Related to "revanchism", the belligerent will to take revenge against Germany and retake control of Alsace-Lorraine, nationalism was sometimes opposed to imperialism. In the 1880s, there was a debate between those, such as Georges Clemenceau (Radical), Jean Jaurès (Socialist) and Maurice Barrès (nationalist), who argued that colonialism diverted France from the "blue line of the Vosges" (referring to Alsace-Lorraine), and the "colonial lobby", such as Jules Ferry (moderate republican), Léon Gambetta (republican) and Eugène Etienne, the president of the parliamentary colonial group. After the Dreyfus Affair however nationalism became increasingly associated with the far right.[27]

The Marxist social class theory of proletarian internationalism asserts that members of the working class should act in solidarity with working people in other countries in pursuit of a common class interest, rather than focusing on their own countries. Proletarian internationalism is summed up in the slogan, "Workers of all countries, unite!", the last line of The Communist Manifesto. Union members had learned that more members meant more bargaining power. Taken to an international level, leftists argued that workers ought to act in solidarity to further increase the power of the working class.

Proletarian internationalism saw itself as a deterrent against war, because people with a common interest are less likely to take up arms against one another, instead focusing on fighting the ruling class. According to Marxist theory, the antonym of proletarian internationalism is bourgeois nationalism. Some Marxists, together with others on the left, view nationalism,[28] racism[29] (including anti-Semitism[30]), and religion, as divide and conquer strategies used by the ruling classes to prevent the working class from uniting against them. Left-wing movements therefore have often taken up anti-imperialist positions. Anarchism has developed a critique of nationalism that focuses on nationalism's role in justifying and consolidating state power and domination. Through its unifying goal, nationalism strives for centralization, both in specific territories and in a ruling elite of individuals, while it prepares a population for capitalist exploitation. Within anarchism, this subject has been treated extensively by Rudolf Rocker in Nationalism and Culture and by the works of Fredy Perlman, such as Against His-Story, Against Leviathan and "The Continuing Appeal of Nationalism".[31]

The failure of revolutions in Germany and Hungary ended Bolshevik hopes for an imminent world revolution and led to promotion of "Socialism in One Country" by Joseph Stalin. In the first edition of the book Osnovy Leninizma (Foundations of Leninism, 1924), Stalin argued that revolution in one country is insufficient. But by the end of that year, in the second edition of the book, he argued that the "proletariat can and must build the socialist society in one country". In April 1925 Nikolai Bukharin elaborated the issue in his brochure Can We Build Socialism in One Country in the Absence of the Victory of the West-European Proletariat? The position was adopted as State policy after Stalin's January 1926 article On the Issues of Leninism (К вопросам ленинизма). This idea was opposed by Leon Trotsky and his followers who declared the need for an international "permanent revolution". Various Fourth Internationalist groups around the world who describe themselves as Trotskyist see themselves as standing in this tradition, while Maoist China supported Socialism in One Country.

Some link left-wing nationalism to the pressure generated by economic integration with other countries encouraged by free-trade agreements. This view is sometimes used to justify hostility towards supranational organizations such as the European Union. Left-wing nationalism can also refer to any nationalism which emphasises a working-class populist agenda which seeks to overcome perceived exploitation or oppression by other nations. Many Third World anti-colonial movements adopted left-wing and socialist ideas.

Social progressivism and counterculture

Social progressivism is another common feature of the modern Left, particularly in the United States, where social progressives played an important role in the abolition of slavery,[32] women's suffrage,[33] civil rights, and multiculturalism. Progressives have both advocated prohibition legislation and worked towards its repeal. Current positions associated with social progressivism in the West include opposition to the death penalty, and support for legal recognition of same-sex marriage, distribution of contraceptives, public funding of embryonic stem-cell research, and the right of women to choose abortion. Public education is a subject of great interest to social progressives, who support comprehensive sex education, and making condoms available to high school students.

Various counterculture movements in the 1960s and 1970s were associated with the "New Left". Unlike the earlier leftist focus on union activism, the "New Left" instead adopted a broader definition of political activism commonly called social activism. U.S. "New Left" is associated with the Hippie movement, college campus mass protest movements and a broadening of focus from protesting class-based oppression to include issues such as gender, race, and sexual orientation. The British "New Left" was an intellectually driven movement which attempted to correct the perceived errors of "Old Left".

The New Left opposed prevailing authority structures in society, which it termed "The Establishment", and became known as "anti-Establishment." The New Left did not seek to recruit industrial workers, but rather concentrated on a social activist approach to organization, convinced that they could be the source for a better kind of social revolution. This view has been criticised by some Marxists (especially Trotskyists) who characterized this approach as 'substitutionism'- or what they saw as the misguided and apparently non-Marxist belief that other groups in society could 'substitute' for the revolutionary agency of the working class.[34][35]

Many early feminists and advocates of women's rights were considered left-wing by their contemporaries. Feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft was influenced by the radical thinker Thomas Paine. Many notable leftists have been strong supporters of sexual equality, such as: the Marxists Rosa Luxemburg, Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai, the anarchist Emma Goldman, and the socialists Helen Keller and Annie Besant.[36] Marxists such as Clara Zetkin[37][38] and Alexandra Kollontai [39][40] however, though supporters of radical social equality for women, opposed feminism on the grounds that it was a bourgeois ideology. Marxists were responsible for organizing the first International Women's Day events.[41]

In more recent times the women's liberation movement is closely connected to the New Left and other new social movements that challenged the orthodoxies of the Old Left. Socialist feminism (e.g.Freedom Socialist Party, Radical Women) and Marxist feminism (e.g. Selma James) saw themselves as a part of the left that challenged what they perceive to be male-dominated and sexist structures within the left. Liberal feminism is closely connected with left-liberalism, and the left-wing of mainstream American politics. (e.g. the National Organization for Women).


The original French left-wing was anti-clerical, opposing the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and supporting the separation of church and state.[4] Karl Marx asserted that "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people."[42] In Soviet Russia the Bolsheviks originally embraced "an ideological creed which professed that all religion would atrophy" and "resolved to eradicate Christianity as such." In 1918 "ten Orthodox hierarchs were summarily shot" and "children were deprived of any religious education outside the home."[43]

Religious beliefs, however, have also been associated with some left-wing movements, such as the American abolitionist movement and the anti-capital punishment movement. Early socialist thinkers such as Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, and the Duc de Saint-Simon based their theories of socialism upon Christian principles. From St. Augustine of Hippo's City of God through St. Thomas More's Utopia major Christian writers defended ideas that socialists found agreeable. There is a strong thread of egalitarianism in the New Testament. Other common leftist concerns such as pacifism, social justice, racial equality, human rights, and the rejection of excessive wealth can be found in the Bible.[44] In the late 19th century, the Social Gospel movement arose (particularly among some Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Baptists in North America and Britain,) which attempted to integrate progressive and socialist thought with Christianity in faith-based social activism, promoted by movements such as Christian Socialism. In the 20th century, the theology of liberation and Creation Spirituality was championed by such writers as Gustavo Gutierrez and Matthew Fox.

There are also left-wing movements such as Islamic socialism and Buddhist socialism. There have been alliances between the Left and anti-war Muslims, such as the Respect Party and the Stop the War Coalition in Britain. In France, the Left has been divided over moves to ban the hijab from schools, with some supporting a ban based on separation of church and state, and others opposing the ban based on personal freedom.

The environment

Both Karl Marx and the early socialist William Morris arguably had a deep concern for environmental matters.[45][46][47][48] According to Marx, “Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together . . . are not owners of the earth. They are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations.”[49][50] Following the Russian Revolution, environmental scientists such as revolutionary Aleksandr Bogdanov and the Proletkul't organisation made efforts to incorporate environmentalism into Bolshevism, and "integrate production with natural laws and limits" in the first decade of Soviet rule, before Joseph Stalin attacked ecologists and the science of ecology, purged environmentalists and promoted the pseudo-science of Trofim Lysenko.[51][52][53] Likewise, Mao Zedong rejected environmentalism and believed that, based on the laws of historical materialism, all of nature must be put into the service of revolution.[54]

From the 1970s onwards, environmentalism became an increasing concern of the left, with social movements and some unions campaigning over environmental issues. For example, the left-wing Builders Labourers Federation in Australia, led by the communist Jack Mundy, united with environmentalists to place Green Bans on environmentally destructive development projects.[55] Some segments of the socialist and Marxist left consciously merged environmentalism and anti-capitalism into an eco-socialist ideology.[56] Barry Commoner articulated a left-wing response to The Limits to Growth model that predicted catastrophic resource depletion and spurred environmentalism, postulating that capitalist technologies were chiefly responsible for environmental degradation, as opposed to population pressures.[57] Environmental degradation can be seen as a class or equity issue, as environmental destruction disproportionately affects poorer communities and countries.[58]

Several left-wing or socialist groupings have an overt environmental concern, whereas several green parties contain a strong socialist presence. For example, the Green Party of England and Wales features an eco-socialist group, Green Left, that was founded in June 2005 and whose members hold a number of influential positions within the party, including both the former Principal Speakers Siân Berry and Dr. Derek Wall, himself an eco-socialist and marxist academic.[59] In Europe, some 'Green-Left' political parties combine traditional social-democratic values such as a desire for greater economic equality and workers rights with demands for environmental protection, such as the Nordic Green Left.

Well-known socialist Bolivian President Evo Morales has traced environmental degradation to consumerism.[60] He has said "The Earth does not have enough for the North to live better and better, but it does have enough for all of us to live well." James Hansen, Noam Chomsky, Raj Patel, Naomi Klein, The Yes Men, and Dennis Kucinich have had similar views.[61][62][63][64][65][66]

In the 21st Century, questions about the environment have become increasingly politicized, with the Left generally accepting the findings of environmental scientists about global warming,[67][68] and many on the Right disputing or rejecting those findings.[69][70][71] The left is however divided over how to effectively and equitably reduce carbon emissions- the center-left often advocates a reliance on market measures such as emissions trading or a carbon tax, whilst those further to the left tend to support direct government regulation and intervention either alongside or instead of market mechanisms.[72][73][74]

Anti-globalization and Third-worldism

The Global Justice Movement, also known as the anti-globalisation or alter-globalization movement, protests against global trade agreements and the negative consequences they perceive them to have for the poor and the environment. This movement is generally characterised as left-wing, although some on the right, Pat Buchanan for example, oppose globalization on nationalistic grounds. The Global Justice Movement does not oppose globalisation per se, on the contrary, it supports some forms of internationalism. Its main themes are the reforms (or abolition) of international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and the creation of an international social and environmental justice movement. It rejects the leadership of any political party, defining itself as a "movement of movements."

Third-worldism regards the inequality between developed, or First World countries, and the developing, or Third World countries as of key political importance. It supports national liberation movements against what it takes to be imperialism by capitalist nations. Key figures associated with Third-worldism include Frantz Fanon, Ahmed Ben Bella, Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin and Simon Malley. Among the New Left groups associated with Third Worldism were Monthly Review and the New Communist Movement.

Third worldism is closely connected with Pan-Africanism, Pan-Arabism, Maoism, African socialism and Latin American socialist trends. The Palestine Liberation Organization and the Sandinistas are or have been particular causes célèbres. Some left-wing groups in the developing world, such as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Mexico, the Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa, and the Naxalites in India, argue that the First-World left takes a racist and paternalistic attitude towards liberation movements in the Third-World. There is particular criticism of the role played by NGOs and the assumption by the Western Anti-globalization movement that they should seek to influence the politics of the Third World.


Left-wing post-modernism opposes attempts to supply universal explanatory theories, including Marxism, deriding them as grand narratives. It views culture as a battleground, and via deconstruction seeks to undermine all pretensions to knowledge. Left-wing critics of post-modernism assert that cultural studies inflates the importance of culture by denying the existence of an independent reality.[75][76]

In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal wrote a nonsensical article entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity".[77] The journal Social Text published the paper in its Spring/Summer 1996 issue, whereupon Sokal publicly revealed his hoax. While this action was interpreted as an attack upon leftism, Sokal, who was a committed supporter of the Sandinista movement in Nicaragua during the 1980s, intended it as a critique from within the Left.[78] He said he was concerned about what he saw as the increasing prevalence on the left of "a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking... that denies the existence of objective realities". He called into question the usefulness of such theories to the wider left movement saying he "never understood how deconstruction was meant to help the working class."[78]

See also


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  2. ^ Bobbio, Norberto and Allan Cameron, Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction (University of Chicago Press, 1997) p. 37.
  3. ^ Lukes, Steven. 'Epilogue: The Grand Dichotomy of the Twentieth Century': concluding chapter to T. Ball and R. Bellamy (eds.), The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Political Thought.
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  66. ^ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S4ph9rSRY3Q
  67. ^ "The Left Pushes Secular Religions: Global Warming, Embryonic Stem Cell Research - Michael Barone". usnews.com. http://www.usnews.com/blogs/barone/2009/03/16/the-left-pushes-secular-religions-global-warming-embryonic-stem-cell-research.html. Retrieved 2010-05-13. 
  68. ^ "World Scientists' Warning To Humanity". Dieoff.org. 1992-11-18. http://dieoff.org/page8.htm. Retrieved 2010-05-13. 
  69. ^ "Challenges to both Left and Right on Global Warming", by Andrew C. Revkin, Nov. 13, 2007, "The right says global warming is somewhere between a hoax and a minor irritant, and argues that liberals’ thirst for top-down regulations will drive American wealth to developing countries and turn off the fossil-fuelled engine powering the economy."
  70. ^ "Weather Channel Founder Blasts Gore Over Global Warming Campaign". FOXNews.com. 2009-01-29. http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2009/01/29/weather-channel-founder-blasts-gore-global-warming-campaign/. Retrieved 2010-05-13. 
  71. ^ Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science, "the modern Right has adopted a style of politics that puts its adherents in increasingly stark conflict with both scientific information and dispassionate, expert analysis in general.", p. 4-5, "...the Right's selective attack on Mann's work ultimately presents a huge diversion for policymakers trying to decide what to do about global warming." p. 89, Basic Books, 2006, ISBN 9780465046768
  72. ^ "Rudd's carbon trading — locking in disaster". http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/41735. 
  73. ^ "Carbon tax not the solution we need on climate". http://www.solidarity.net.au/22/carbon-tax-not-the-solution-we-need-on-climate. 
  74. ^ Simon Butler. "James Hansen and climate solutions". http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/43410. 
  75. ^ Post-modernism, commodity fetishism and hegemony, Néstor Kohan, International Socialism, Issue 105.
  76. ^ Chomsky on Postmodernism, Noam Chomsky, Z-Magazine's Left On-Line Bulletin Board.
  77. ^ Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, Alan Sokal, first published in; Social Text, issue 46/47, 1996
  78. ^ a b A Physicist Experiments With Cultural Studies, Alan Sokal

Further reading

  • Encyclopedia of the American Left, ed. by Mari Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle, Dan Georgakas, Second Edition, Oxford University Press 1998, ISBN 0-19-512088-4
  • Lin Chun, The British New Left, Edinburgh : Edinburgh Univ. Press, 1993
  • Geoff Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000, Oxford University Press 2002, ISBN 0-19-504479-7
  • "Leftism in India, 1917-1947", Satyabrata Rai Chowdhuri, Palgrave Macmillan, UK, 2007, ISBN 9780230517165

External links

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