Between liberalism and Leftism: A dialogue, Part 1 (archive 2011)

When left-wingers defend themselves apart from liberals, many people seem confused due the right’s deliberate equation of the two. Recently I have been in heavy dialogue with Ben at MARMALADE . Anyway, after going through impressive amounts of demographic data, he presented me with this:

Both liberalism and conservativism are creations of modern society, but both are built on natural predispositions that evolved in human nature long before modern society (probably long before all of civilization). Humanity is still experimenting with all of this and has yet to find a balance.

From a liberal perspective, what seems obvious to me is that all of us moderns are ‘liberals’ (relative to the past). The liberal is the modern “man of the present” (the man of our age) or at least that is what they liberal strives to be, and so the liberal has in some ways taken the place of the traditionalist (playing the role of conserving institutions in a changing world and conserving cultures in a multicultural world). The reactionary conservative has left behind the role of the traditionalist and maybe the reason conservatives attack liberals so harshly is because liberals have taken up that traditionalist role (so, they criticize liberals as weak as they’ve criticized traditionalists as weak).

However, it wasn’t the liberal who caused the conservative to leave behind the role of the traditionalists. The liberal merely picked up the role because the liberal realized it was a necessary role that someone had to play. No, the real reason the conservative left behind the role of traditionalist for the role of reactionary was because of the rise of the left-winger. It is left-wingers who are “men of the future”, and conservatives as the penultimate “men of the past” have adopted the left-wing ideologies and tactics of the past. Traditionalism is no defense against progressivism, both liberals and conservatives realizing this. All traditionalism can do is moderate the changes happening in the present by seeking balance (through compromise) between the push/pull of the left-wing revolutionaries and the right-wing counter-revolutionaries.

The challenge for the liberal is that the role of traditionalist doesn’t really fit the liberal worldview. Nonetheless, the liberal fears modern liberal society falling apart and all the liberal gains being lost. Someone has to compromise… and so the liberal is in a tough spot, not able to be fully himself. This is particularly true when reactionary conservatives become dominant and left-wingers become weak… because then liberals become the necessary representatives of left-wing revolution/progressivism (at least in the minds of reactionary conservatives who always need an enemy to fight against, even if that requires them to invent an enemy). It’s only when left-wing ideologies are ascendant that the liberal can have some breathing room. Liberals don’t want to fight conservatives in the way conservatives want to fight. It’s only left-wingers who can fulfill this position of worthy enemy.
This is why liberals have struggled so much and been so confused in recent decades. The left-wing was in constant retreat which left liberals to use all of their strength just in trying to hold the center, to keep it from shifting too far right. This makes me wonder. Where did the left-wingers go? It’s not as if they all disappeared. It’s just that left-wingers became divided in sectarianism while also getting lost in abstract theorizing and so their activism became impotent. Liberals fought as well as they could without much organized support from left-wingers, but there was only so much liberals could do alone. As time went on, liberals weren’t just fighting conservatives but often fighting left-wingers as well. Many liberals turned to the Democratic Party as their last refuge because they had no where else to turn (left-wingers, of course, interpreting this as selling out). Liberals who chose to remain independent became lonely fighters or else apathetic recluses. Independent liberals, like left-wingers, have felt abandoned by the ‘liberal’ establishment (their liberalism being rather questionable from the stand point of the independent liberal). Left-wingers in particular see that it was the ‘liberal’ establishment that left them rather than left-wingers having abandoned liberals. Either way, a splintering happened on the left.

– – –

In conclusion, that is how we ended up in this situation: Where most of the population supports many liberal positions even as they don’t support the liberal label. Where even the most liberal of liberals are either ignorant about what liberalism means or wary of being identified as such. And where the entire left is disempowered and often divided against itself.

On a positive note: It’s only during such times of tumult and uncertainty that genuine progressive change happens… because it’s only when conservatives have dominated so forcefully that the fires of the left-leaning imagination is stoked to such an extent that new visions of society can form. The furnace for that imagination is grassroots populism of the variety seen right now with the Occupy movement. Whether or not people understand liberalism or like to be labeled that way, the protest movement that has developed is pure liberalism in action.

To which I responded with this and I have filled it out in more detail:

“Liberalism” and “conservatism” as temperaments, agreed. However, this is where I am going to step out of my “left-winger” opposition to you, and move to point out that those temperaments exist within both the conservative and the left-wing group. Libertarians tend to be temperamentally liberal according to Haidt’s research. Chomsky, who is a left-winger, is also temperamentally liberal, which is why a small minority of highly partisan left-wingers hate his guts which, honestly, surprises even me even though I have many, many criticism of him.

I think the disagreement is who we can trust the Liberal establishment, which is a the service of the managerial class to actually listen to EITHER the left wing or even left-liberals. (Notice, I use the term Left-liberal for what you are describing and I do this NOT as a slur, but to make it distinguishable from neo-liberalism). Furthermore, your analysis doesn’t really address class distinctions while focusing on personality. I think personality plays the large role, but class distinctions do separate things quite a bit.

On your assertion that all the splits were just over theory, I only partially agree. The part is that the activist left wing now has not theory and the theory has no activism. The sectarian debates weren’t just over theory, they were very real life and death policies in the 1970s and 1980s that had body counts in other places outside of the US. It wasn’t a field just fought in one country and when our delusions about China and Russia ruptured, we didn’t know where to go. Honestly we still don’t: we are returning to Marx, but even the left-wingers do so in ignorance of a lot of the events of between 1920-1980 because they aren’t part of the popular discourse in America.

There’s an excellent two books on this, Ben, Revolution in the Air by Max Elbaum about the rise and implosion of the Leninist, Maoists, and third worldists in the 60s and 70s. Black Panthers were not just a party inspired by Malcolm X, they were Maoists. The other is Marxism to Post-Marxism?by Goran Therborn. Both are from the socialists at Verso, but they are critical of the historical failure of the left.

But yes, the spirit of negation is a philosophical break, our utopianism which has, admittedly, been served by liberal implementation, but this has not been particularly well served by compromise with the traditionalists or the reactionaries. This has let to frustration, and, to be fair, to be distrustful of liberals who want to function within the Democratic party and even those outside of it. The impulse to compromise seems like an impulse to obstruction which is why the liberals playing the role of traditionalist is apt.

And Ben responded with a few interesting ideas as well:

I don’t see ideologies and temperaments as being absolutely separate. The ideologies we are raised with do impact our temperaments. Also, some psychological traits we are born with and tend to persist no matter external conditions. Both work together to form who we are. However, our inherent nature (often genetic and/or in utero) strongly influences the ideologies we’ll be drawn to as adults, especially as these traits relate to such factors as IQ, curiosity, experimentation, willingness to confront authority, etc.

There are some confusing factors.

There is the libertarian factor. You mention Haidt. I know of his research, but it is very limited. He doesn’t include many of the liberal values as if he doesn’t even recognize they exist. I think the research is fine for what it tests. It just doesn’t test everything relevant to what he theorizes about.

Furthermore, I suspect the label ‘libertarian’ might have some of the same problems of the label ‘liberal’. This could skew a lot of research. As I’ve pointed out, only 60% of the most liberal of liberals even identify as ‘liberal’, 9% actually identifying as conservative. Libertarianism has similarly been shoved into a particular corner. Most people automatically think of right-libertarianism when they hear the term ‘libertarian’. So, many moderate and left-leaning libertarians might not even identify as ‘libertarian’. I don’t know if Haidt was studying self-identified ‘libertarians’ (which would mostly be right-libertarians) or studying those who test high in their support of libertarian positions (then the question arises about what is a ‘libertarian’ position, too often defined in terms of right-libertarianism).

Even so, his research is interesting for what it does explore and what it is able to clarify. It shows the areas where libertarians are more similar to conservatives and where libertarians are more similar to liberals.


modern conservatism. I don’t know if someone could be both a conservative and a RWA, but research shows they aren’t the same thing. Nonetheless, in the US (and I suspect in Western Europe as well from where US conservatism originated), there is a lot of overlap between conservatism and RWA, the conservative movement either being the byproduct of or the merging point of the two.

There isn’t, however, an equivalent liberal movement that causes liberalism to become as conflated with left-wing ideologies. Whereas conservative pushes away from the moderate center, liberalism pulls toward the moderate center. There isn’t a far left liberal movement in the way there isn’t a far left liberal Democratic Party. Corey Robin points out that, when conservatives speak of conservatism, they clearly imply and sometimes directly speak of right-wing counterrevolutionary motivations. Quite differently, when liberals speak of liberalism, they don’t tend to speak in terms of left-wing revolutionary motivations.

To confuse matters further, there is much crossover between the right-wing and the left-wing. A libertarian can be either left or right. There is no simple, linear spectrum that includes all of that along with conservative and liberal. When people speak of conservative and liberal, they often are speaking more of general worldviews and/or predispositions. But when people speak of right-wing and left-wing, they usually are referring to specific ideologies. There is one distinction, though. I could see a left-winger with either a liberal or a conservative predisposition (similarly, research shows that communists in communist countries test high on Right-Wing Authoritarianism), but in the US it seems to me that it is harder to imagine a right-winger with a fully liberal predisposition (such as in terms of sympathy). To speak just of the ‘left’, I don’t see any clear spectrum between liberalism and leftism, the two often are distinct.

By the way, the opposite of Right-Wing Authoritarianism would be Left-Wing Anarchism. However, I don’t know that anyone has studied the opposite of RWA. I was just now wondering how this might relate to conservatism and liberalism. As research shows, someone holding a left-wing ideology can have a RWA personality. I doubt, though, that a liberal could have a RWA personality because they simply are opposite in so many ways (for example, liberals test high on ‘openness’ and RWAs test low). In the opposite direction, someone holding a right-wing ideology probably could have a personality of Left-Wing Anarchism and yet it is highly unlikely that a conservative could.

I noticed you mentioned your use of left-liberalism to distinguish from neo-liberalism. Many have noted that neo-liberals and neo-conservatives have more in common (some combination of corporatism and empire-building, the difference being in emphasis) than they respectively have for liberals and conservatives. A neo-liberal isn’t a liberal and a neo-conservative isn’t a conservative. So, if you mean neo-liberalism when you speak of the ‘liberal’ establishment, then you are in actuality speaking of something that is directly anti-liberal in essence. This is yet another reason that the Democratic Party isn’t a liberal party.


One thought on “Between liberalism and Leftism: A dialogue, Part 1 (archive 2011)

  1. That was interesting to read again. I was thinking about how much I still agree with my assessment. My thoughts have developed a lot since then, partly from books I’ve read since and also partly from my discussions with you.

    My sense of liberalism has become increasingly uncertain, confused even. And I’ve been drawn to left-wing criticisms of liberalism, including that of Losurdo. I’m not sure where that leaves me now.

    When I speak of not being ideologically loyal, an aspect of what I mean is that I’m simply ideologically confused and far from ideologically consistent. I hold on to some broad (vague?) notion of liberalism, but my holding is with a loose grip.

    With your prodding and my own doubting mind, I am constantly questioning what anyone means when they speak of such things as “liberal” and “white”. I do appreciate being challenged, but it gets frustrating at times. It can feel like human language (presently) fails us. I don’t know how to get at the meanings, understandings, and insights that are needed.

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