Left-wing politics

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Left wing is also a term used in several sports; see winger (sport).

In politics, left-wing, the political left or simply The Left are terms that refer to the segment of the political spectrum typically associated with any of several strains of socialism or social democracy/Social liberalism. In addition it is considered the opposite of right-wing politics.

Communism, as well as the Marxist philosophy that many base it on, and most currents of traditional anarchism are often considered to be radical forms of left-wing politics. Most left-wingers however reject any association with communism or anarchism.

The term comes originally from the legislative seating arrangement during the French Revolution, when republicans who opposed the Ancien Régime were commonly referred to as leftists because they sat on the left side of successive legislative assemblies.

As this original reference became obsolete, the meaning of the term has changed as appropriate to the spectrum of ideas and stances being compared, and the point of view of the speaker. In recent times, the term almost always includes some forms of socialism, social democracy, or, in the United States, American liberalism.

Some consider it to include secularism, especially in the United States, India, the Middle East, and in many Catholic countries, while religion and left-wing politics have at times been allied historically, such as in the U.S. civil rights movement.

See political spectrum and left-right politics for further discussion of this kind of classification.


History of the term

Although it may seem ironic in terms of present-day usage, those originally on 'The Left' during the French Revolution were the largely bourgeois supporters of laissez-faire capitalism and free markets. As the electorate expanded beyond property-holders, these relatively wealthy elites found themselves clearly victorious over the old aristocracy and the remnants of feudalism, but newly opposed by the growing and increasingly organized and politicized workers and wage-earners. The "left" of 1789 would, in some ways be part of the present-day "right", liberal with regard to the rights of property and intellect, but not embracing notions of distributive justice, rights for organized labour, etc.

In some countries, such as the Netherlands, the left had for a long time the meaning of the non-religious side of politics. This gradually changed into the more general European meaning of the word.

The European left has traditionally shown a smooth continuum between non-communist and communist parties (including such hybrids as eurocommunism), which have sometimes allied with more moderate leftists to present a united front. In the United States, however, no avowedly socialist or communist party ever became a major player in national politics, although the Social Democratic Party of Eugene V. Debs and its successor Socialist Party of America (in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century) and the Communist Party of the United States of America (in the 1930s) made some inroads. While many American "liberals" might be "social democrats" in European terms, very few of them openly embrace the term "left"; in the United States, the term is mainly embraced by New Left activists, certain portions of the labor movement, and people who see their intellectual or political heritage as descending from 19th-century socialist movements.

The New Left refers to radical left-wing movements from the 1960s onwards who claimed to be breaking with some institutions and traditions of the left. Where earlier left-wing movements were generally rooted in labour activism, the New Left generally adopted a broader definition of political activism, commonly called social activism. The New Left has had varying degrees of unity since its rise in the 1960s, losing some of its initial radicalism and mainly existing as loose coalitions of numerous distinct movements, including (but not limited to) feminists, greens, some labour unions, some atheists, some gay rights activists, and some minority ethnic and racially oriented civil rights groups.

Many Greens deny that green politics is "on the left"; nonetheless, their economic policies can generally be considered left-wing, and when they have formed political coalitions (most notably in Germany, but also in local governments elsewhere), it has almost always been with groups that would generally be classified as being on the left.

Left-wing issues

The left has historically opposed the preservation of wealth and power, especially in an institutionalized form, in the hands of those who have traditionally had them. Outside the United States, which lacked an historical ruling class or nobility, this often included at the most basic level demands for democratisation of the political system and land reform in agricultural areas.

With the spread of the industrial revolution, left-wing politics became concerned with the conditions and rights of large numbers of workers in factories and of lower classes in general. Partial or full socialism, the welfare state, or trade unionism have been specific ways in which some leftists have tried to advance the interests of the poor. In modern times the left also criticized what it perceives as the exploitative nature of globalization through the rise of sweatshops and the race to the bottom, and has sought to promote fair trade.

As civil and human rights gained more attention during the 20th century, the left allied itself with advocates of racial and gender equality, and cultural tolerance. It has also opposed to some forms of aggressive nationalism, such as imperialism and offensive war, which has been seen as a vehicle to advance the interests of capitalism.

Although specific means of achieve these ends are not agreed upon by different left-wing groups, almost all those on the left agree that some form of government or social intervention in economics is necessary to advance the interests of the poor.

Advocacy of government or social intervention in the market puts those on the left at odds with advocates of the free market as well as corporations (who oppose democratic control of the markets but not necessarily all control) if they see their interests threatened.

Many on the Left describe themselves as "progressive", a term that arose from their self-identification as the side of social progress.

Left-wing positions on social issues, such as opposition to social hierarchy and authority over moral behaviour, strict adherence to tradition, and monoculturalism, may make them allies with advocates of right wing advocates of "individual freedom", though their solutions are very different.

The above strands of left wing thought come in many forms, and individuals who support some of the objectives of one of the above stands will not necessarily support all of the others. At the level of practical political policy, there are endless variations in the means that left wing thinkers advocate to achieve their basic aims, and they sometimes argue with each other as much as with the right.

Communism and left-wing politics

Despite the important differences from other left-wing ideologies, communism is almost universally considered to be a part of "the left." This is somewhat parallel to the customary inclusion of fascism (and, in particular, that of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy) in "the right." Nonetheless, communism differs significantly from other politics that are usually classified as left wing, and most left-wingers (even many far left groups) reject any association with it on the grounds that communism is too totalitarian to be politically humane or egalitarian. The argument that communism should be viewed independently of the conventional left-right spectrum has perhaps been made most eloquently by Karl Popper, through his development of the concept of totalitarianism. Most right-wingers (even many nationalists) reject any association with Nazism and fascism as well.

Some say that leftist welfare state reforms in many non-communist countries, such as the establishment of social security and recognition of labour unions helped to stave off communism by alleviating the excesses of capitalism, hence protecting and preserving social support for capitalism.

The Soviet Union

In the days of the Soviet Union, left-wing movements worldwide had different relationships with Moscow-line communist parties, ranging from enthusiastic support to outright opposition. Lincoln Steffens, in 1919, said of having visited the Soviet Union, "I have seen the future and it works", while others, increasingly numerous over the years, loathed the perceived crimes of those regimes and denounced them at every turn.

Throughout the history of the Soviet Union, the large social-democratic parties of Western Europe were largely opposed to what they saw as its totalitarianism. A large majority of members of the British Labour Party, the West German SPD, and the French Socialists were never supportive of the Soviet regime, and nor were their respective leaderships. The American Democratic party took a strong anti-Soviet stand, especially at the height of the Cold War.

One example of an internal dispute within communism is that most Trotskyists adhere to some variant of Leon Trotsky's view of the post-Lenin Soviet Union as a "degenerated workers' state" and denounce Stalin as a traitor, some even claiming that the Soviet Union was actually a kind of 'monopoly capitalist' state. Large segments of the left never took inspiration from the Soviet model and actually rejoiced to see the USSR's system collapse—as Michael Albert of Z Magazine put it, "one down, one to go" (referring to Stalinism and capitalism).[1]


China has undergone a transition from a "Communist" to in many ways right-wing authoritarian regime in recent decades. Chinese neo-left-wing politics, embracing postmodernism and Chinese nationalism, and opposed both to democracy and to what they see as a return of China to the capitalist world, arose as a political idea during the mid-1990s.Neo-left-wing politics is seen as being more appealing to students in mainland China today than liberalism, as problems faced in mainland China during its modernisation such as inequality and the widening gap between the rich and the poor are becoming more serious.

The Left and postmodernism

As Barbara Epstein notes, "Many people, inside and outside the world of postmodernism (and for that matter inside and outside the left), have come to equate postmodernism with the left" [2]. It is also the case that some postmodernists, such as Francis Fukuyama, are widely identified with the right. Generally although most postmodernists would describe themselves as on the left, postmodernism is far from being widely accepted within left-wing political movements, it has been most widely accepted amongst left-wing academics.

Left-wing Postmodernism claims to reject attempts at universal explanatory theories such as Marxism, deriding them as grand narratives. It tends to embrace culture and ideology as the battle grounds for change rejecting traditional ways of organising such as political parties and trade unions, instead it focuses on critiquing or deconstructing existing society.

Left-wing critics of postmodernism generally see it as a reaction of the failure of socialist movements of the 1960s (both in Europe and Latin America and the USA) and the disillusionment with the old Communist Parties. They claim that disconnected from any mass movements, and pessimistic about the possibility for any mass activism these academics justified their retreat into cultural studies courses by inflating the importance of culture through denying the existence of an independent reality.[3][4][5]

Right-wing critics have generally seen acceptance of post-modernism as an indication of the poorly thought-out, fashionable nature of the academic left. Some right-wing critics mirror the idea that left-wing postmodernism is a product of the 'failure' of Marxism to bring liberation. For example Gary Jason claims that "The failure of socialism, both empirically and theoretically, ... brought about a crisis of faith among socialists, and postmodernism is their response."[6]

The Left and Opposition to War

Main article: The Left and Opposition to War

While anti-war movements have never been exclusively left-wing, they have generally been led, inspired, organised by those on the left. While some on the left are inspired by pacifism, most left-wing opposition to war arises from anti-imperialism which leads them to reject specific wars because they see them as being in capitalist interests rather then being morally against all violence. Left-wing opposition to war is also often characterised by the internationalist belief that the world's workers share common interests with one another, rather than with the powers governing their respective countries.

First and Second World Wars

Until the First World War, there was broad agreement among those on the left on opposition to imperialist wars. Few left-wingers supported their nation in conflicts such as the Boer War. The First World War triggered fierce debate among socialist groups as to the right response to take. The Second world war was generally seen as an anti-fascist war and thus supported however some groups saw it as in the interests of capitalism and thus opposed it. These debates about positions on war co-incided with debates about wider political strategy, crudely the debate between revolutionary socialism and social democracy. Part of the driving force of the Russian Revolution was revolt by soldiers against the First World War, epitomised in the slogan taken up by the Bolsheviks "bread, land, and peace".

Vietnam and the Post-September 11 anti-war movements

The next large anti-war movement that involved the western left was the Vietnam War, it triggered much opposition beyond the ranks of the left and is generally thought of as part of a growing counter-culture movement that took up many different left-wing issues.

The American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq which came in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks led to new anti-war movements forming. Though various social democratic political parties (such as Tony Blair's Labour Party) supported and sent their countries' troops to participate in these wars, seeing them as appropriate responses to the terrorist threat, much of the organised left, particularly the socialist left, opposed these wars. This opposition was generally based to a large extent on their perception of the wars as imperialist, commonly claiming that oil and control of the middle east were there goals rather then liberation.

Some criticism has been levelled at various left-wing groups for forming anti-war coalitions with organisations that are presented as being conservative or fundamentalist Islamists. The general response has been to claim that such characterisations of all Muslim groups as extremists are racist, and that broad united fronts are positive. There has also been some controversy over the Left's use of the Palestine issue in an anti-war context.

The anti-war movement was generally seen as re-invigorating left-wing movements, though there was a large current on the French Left (especially within ATTAC) that saw them as detracting from the economic issues of the anti-globalisation movement. In the U.S. much of the left-wing radicalisation was channelled into Anybody but Bush campaigns, which effectively meant supported the pro-war centrist Democratic Party. In the U.K, anti-war feeling lead to a drop in support for the pro-war Labour Party and gains for the Liberal Democrats. Some of the left-wing groups that had been involved in the sort to harness the radicalisation in the setting up of a new political party called Respect.

The Left and Anti-Globalisation

The anti-globalisation movement, also known as the Global Justice Movement or alter-globalization movement, is a collection of social movements which are prominent in protests against global trade agreements and the negative consequences they perceive them to have for the poor, for the environment and for peace. It is generally characterised as left-wing, though some activists within it reject association with the traditional left. Certainly it is concerned with what are generally thought of as left-wing issues. From the right, the anti-globalisation movement is often caricatured as an attempt by far-left groups to repackage themselves and it might also be regarded as existing within a broader set of anti-capitalist movements and philosophies.

Political parties on the Left

Main article: Political parties on the Left

Depending on the political viewpoint of the categoriser, different groups might be categorised as on the left. One might generally characterise parties as on the political left in their respective countries, though even then they might have relatively little in common with other left-wing groups beyond their opposition to the right. However even this can cause issues. For example, the Democratic Leadership Council, an organization of centrists affiliated with the Democratic Party in which former President Bill Clinton was active, is generally considered to be the right wing of the U.S. Democratic Party. Outside of the U.S., the Democratic Party is considered by many to be right-of-centre.


  1. 1⇧Revolutions In The East, Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, Z magazine, Date=?
  2. 2⇧Postmodernism and the Left, Barbara Epstein, New Politics, vol. 6, no. 2 (new series), whole no. 22, Winter 1997
  3. 3⇧Postmodernism and the Left, Barbara Epstein, New Politics, vol. 6, no. 2 (new series), whole no. 22, Winter 1997
  4. 4⇧Postmodernism, commodity fetishism and hegemony, Néstor Kohan, International Socialism, Issue 105,
  5. 5⇧Chomsky on Postmodernism, Chomsky, Z-Magazine's Left On-Line Bulletin Board
  6. 6⇧Socialism's Last Bastion, Gary Jason, Liberty

See also

Left-wing Ideologies

Left-wing issues


Related political topics

External links

Reference sites

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