Despite the current media-induced confusion, liberals are not leftists. This misconception is not only embarrassing to those of us who are genuinely leftist in our politics, it is also discrediting the Left. From the New York Times to FOX News, the portrayal of the US Democratic party and Barack Obama as leftist is creating a perception in the US populace that leftists are ineffective politicos who have no principles they won’t modify. Of course, the Left has not done that great of a job explaining the situation in any other way, thereby leaving the way open for the misconceptions put forth by the media to appear as truth.
If one wants to know what a liberal is, they need only to look at The US Democratic Party. From Hilary Clinton to Dennis Kucinich, that party is in no way leftist. How can I say that? To begin with, liberals differ from leftists in fundamental ways. For starters, liberalism is founded on the sanctity of private property. According to John Locke, who is quite possibly the godfather of liberalism, it is the possession of property that gives humans their freedom. Indeed, in its early days, liberalism only saw freedom as being deserving to propertied males. While not disparaging the positive aspects of liberalism’s early days–its opposition to monarchy and the role of the Church, to name two of the most important ones–it is crucial to acknowledge the shortcomings of a philosophy grounded in the ownership of property. Since the fact of private ownership was a qualification for entry into self-governance it obviously excluded many members of those societies where the politics of liberalism replaced the monarchy and the Church. Add to this fact the denial of political power to women and (in the newly created United States) the acceptance of slavery, and the shortcomings of liberalism as a philosophy guaranteeing liberty and equality become glaringly obvious. It is understood by those that utilize a Marxist analysis to understand history that liberalism is a bourgeois philosophy, primarily because it protects the dominance of that class in those societies where it flourishes.
Of course, history does progress. The slave trade was eventually outlawed in Europe and suffered a bloody end in the United States. Women did eventually achieve political and economic power in those nations where liberalism is the underlying philosophical foundation of the regime. This progress did not occur due to the graces of the ruling class, however. Of all the countries that fall under the liberal banner, France experienced the greatest upheavals on its way to eventual liberty for all of its citizens. The United States was close behind. Equality remains at best a promise. The greatest challenges to liberalism were the twentieth century’s two world wars. Yet, both of these wars were the result of liberalism’s necessary relationship to the capitalist economy. World War I was the result of a rivalry between empires that had run out of new lands To conquer. Those empires then turned on each other in an attempt to steal each other’s colonies. World War Two was a direct assault on the principles of liberalism by the totalitarian philosophy of fascism.
This brings us neatly to the historical moment when liberalism became identified with governmental intervention into the domestic economy in ways not seen before. Instead of helping only the wealthy and their corporations dominate the economy as in the past, liberals began to encourage the installation of governmental controls on unfettered capitalism. This did not happen because liberals were interested in destroying capitalism, but in saving it. The institutions of capital in much of the world were under heavy fire from workers and others in the years preceding World War Two. Unlike the conservative free marketeers in public life, liberals during the reign of FDR understood that the only way to save capitalism from what they considered the twin evils of Bolshevism and fascism was to institute programs that would guarantee working people work and some minimum financial security. Government programs designed to provide this minimal security were legislated under intense attacks from the free marketeers and were the result of years of strikes and other battles from the labor Left. It is reasonable to state that these safety net programs and the transformation of the US economy to a Keynesian model that relied heavily on the production and sale of war materials did save capitalism in the United States and, consequently, throughout much of the world. This also placed the United States into the role of the primary capitalist and imperialist power. This transformation did at least two things. It insured that war and the preparation for war would continue to be a growth industry for US business and it created a situation where US workers (mostly white males at the time) would be able to live a relatively good life in terms of income and job security, thanks to the intensified exploitation of labor forces in the developing world. It also allowed the liberal government to push through programs like Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and Medicare.
The peak of postwar liberalism in the US was the 1960s. Its greatest triumph was passing legislation that ended legal apartheid in the US and its greatest defeat was the defeat of US forces in Southeast Asia. The latter, which was presented to the world as a mission to bring the liberal ideals of liberty and equality to the people of that region of the world, was disproved. The actual conduct of the war exposed this presentation for the lie it was: a bloody and brutal attempt to destroy a nation and a people that bordered on genocide. It also gave the US Left, which was at its greatest popularity since the 1930s, the opportunity to expose the myth of liberalism. That is, that liberalism’s ideals of liberty and equality could not be obtained under the economic machine of capitalism. This contradiction was apparent both in Vietnam and in the US, as the struggle for racial equality became an effort by the government to repress those individuals and groups dedicated to achieving that equality.
The post World War Two years of capitalist expansion were followed by years of contraction that began in the early 1970s (most agree that 1973 was the exact year). This created a fear among the capitalist class and its governmental sycophants that they might lose their position in the world. So, they began to cut back on labor costs, shipping operations to the non-union southern US and then overseas and reneging on retirement promises and health care contracts. At first, there were those among the liberal establishment in the US who stood with the workers and opposed these moves. However, by the time the ultraright administration of Ronald Reagan was out of office, it was almost impossible to find a liberal who would stand with striking workers. Indeed, it was getting pretty difficult to find a national union official who would stand with striking workers. The free marketeers were back on top and were once again in complete control of the economic policy of Washington. This period saw the rise of a new type of liberal (the neoliberals) to positions of power in the White House and throughout Washington. Neoliberal Bill Clinton campaigned on a promise to halt so-called free trade agreement known as NAFTA and then pushed it through Congress in his first years in office. NAFTA and other free trade agreements were not about free trade, but about forcing already indebted nations of the developing world to accept US goods while destroying their own economies. At the same time, credit rules began to be loosened in the United States, resulting in the creation of untold billions of dollars that did not truly exist. Yet, as long as everyone from the individual getting a home loan to the World Bank forcing austerity measures on national governments believed that the money was good there was no apparent problem. The neoliberal model of world development–a model that encouraged dependence on US banks and corporations and espoused the philosophy that the free market would solve all social ills–reigned supreme.
As for the liberal political program, it became a mere shadow of its earlier self. No longer were society wide programs to eliminate poverty like the Great Society programs mentioned earlier considered. Instead, the liberals looked at such programs and destroyed them under the guise of reform. Perhaps the best example of this strategy can be found in Bill Clinton’s Welfare Reform Act of 1996, a piece of legislation that took free marketeer Ronald Reagan’s statement that people in the US were only poor by choice and made that statement policy. Even when it came to identity politics, the liberals were hesitant to push their belief in equality to far. Instead of demanding legislation insuring de jure equality for the LBGT community, the Clinton administration chose to institute ambiguous policies that clarified little and arguably caused more discrimination. In addition, during his campaign, Clinton borrowed from the racist Southern strategy of the GOP and attacked performer Sister Souljah for her statements about black resistance to white racists. An adjunct to this more conservative social stance could be seen in liberals public embrace of religious figures and politics. Bill Clinton and the Democratic Party also supported the 1995 legislation increasing the number of federal offenses that could result in the death penalty while further militarizing the nation’s police forces. The US military attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 that came after forcing the Belgrade government to accept a peace agreement that guaranteed war was the final act in a reign that reminded everyone on the left that liberalism exists to defend the interests of the bourgeoisie.
The Left believes in justice. According to most liberals, so do they. However, the Left also believes that there can not be genuine justice for all unless there is economic justice for all. To put it briefly, human rights can not exist for all regardless of class until economic inequality is addressed and minimized. Ideally, this means that the motivation of profit is eliminated altogether. It does not deny the right of people to own their own property, but it does deny those who would profit from letting others use that property through rent. Unlike liberalism, leftists publicly acknowledge the fundamental nature economics plays in how political structures operate. This doesn’t mean that liberals don’t understand the essential role capitalism plays in maintaining the liberal state in all its guises, it just means that leftists know that to lessen the inequalities that exist under capitalism, it is necessary to change it with the eventual goal of ending its predominant role in determining social relations. In short, leftists understand that capitalism is a fundamental source of social inequalities, while liberals tend to believe that, if capitalism cannot cure those inequities, it can surely help lessen them. This belief exists despite the historical empirical evidence that the opposite is true.
If one looks at history, it seems apparent that leftism arose in response to the failings of the original liberal projects of the French revolution and the American war for independence. Both of these catalytic events did at least two important things. They ended the power of the monarchy and put the newly forming bourgeois class in power. Meanwhile, the peasants and the growing industrial working class discovered that the ideals of liberty and equality did not apply to them. In fact, their unequal status in relation to the bourgeoisie was essential to the rule of that class. This realization created a need for a different political philosophy that progressed beyond the principles of the French Revolution. Like the philosophy of that revolution, this newer philosophy was born from the experience of the oppressed. It found its most complete expression in the pens of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
Liberals fear the end of capitalism and therefore will not support those who desire to undermine it. This is why they supported the Cold War. It is why they support the establishment of a client state in Iraq and one of the reasons why they support Israel. It is why they support the expansion of the US war in Afghanistan. It is why they support a health care bill that is not single payer but supportive of the insurance industry. It is why Barack Obama had no doubts when he bailed out Wall Street. The musician Phil Ochs said it like this in his 1965 song “Love Me, Love Me I’m a Liberal.”
But don’t talk about revolution
That’s going a little bit too far
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal…
There’s no one more red, white and blue
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal
Like liberals, there are several varieties of leftists. All, however, share an understanding that capitalism is an essentially unfair economic system that rewards those who already have capital much more frequently than those who just work their tails off. They also understand that capitalism needs wars to survive and requires inequality to function. This is why they oppose it. As stated before, liberals have a much rosier view of capitalism and have historically been willing to do whatever it takes to save it. So, while they may be the Left’s occasional allies, they are not the Left, no matter how many times FOX News and the New York Times say they are.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org