AskDefine | Define leftism

Dictionary Definition

leftism n : the ideology of the political left; belief in or support of the tenets of the political left

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Belief in the principles of left-wing politics.

Extensive Definition

In politics, "left-wing", "the political left", or "the Left" often refers to politics that seek to reform or abolish existing social hierarchies and promote a more equal distribution of wealth and privilege. In general, the left advocates for a society where all people have an equal opportunity, which they often describe as a "level playing field". Toward this end, most people who consider themselves left-wing support labor unions. The term "the Left" can encompass a number of ideologies, including Progressivism, Social liberalism, Social democracy, Left-libertarianism, some forms of Green politics, Socialism, Syndicalism, Marxism, Communism, and mainstream Anarchism.


From the 18th to 20th Centuries the "Old Left" argued that differences in social class determined the nature of a society. During the 1960s this perspective was broadened by the "New Left" to include an egalitarian approach to cultural politics, including "New Social Movements" based on anti-racism, feminism, environmentalism and LGBT rights. This turn to so-called "identity politics" has been decried by organizations of the Old Left as being partially responsible, together with other failures to focus on the class structure of society as the essential issue, for the co-optation of leftist elements into establishment ones as in the neo-conservative and neo-liberals, greens, etc.
According to Barry Clark,
Center left refers to the left side of mainstream politics in liberal democracies. These support liberal democracy, representative democracy, and private property rights in combination with tax funded spending on social welfare, active regulation of the economy, and some public ownership. "Center" is generally defined relative to a particular national or regional norm rather to some spectrum defined in terms of the global state of affairs.
Prominent examples of center-left parties include the UK Labour Party, the US Democratic Party, and the Social Democratic Party of Germany. There are also many nationalist parties who describe themselves as being on the left. For example in the United Kingdom in Scotland there is the Scottish National Party (SNP), in Wales there is Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales).
In some countries (especially the UK), "soft left" refers to reformist, democratic and/or parliamentary forms of socialism, whereas "hard left" refers to socialists who advocate more radical change in society. Organizations described as far left are rooted in the politics of the "Old Left." Ultra-left organizations are those on the extreme left of the political spectrum, such as autonomism and anarchism.
As with "center" the term 'left-wing' is relative to the politics of individual countries and regions. In an article on the 2001 general election in the United Kingdom, the American Washington Post newspaper observed that the British Conservative party's policies on healthcare and welfare would be on "the far left-wing fringe of American politics", and that the British election had been conducted way to the left of America's political dialogue.
Although the left is generally thought of as being secular, in some Roman Catholic countries there is a tradition of liberation theology which focuses upon "social justice", and in some Protestant countries there is a tradition of Christian Socialism. Some philosophers and historians, such as Eric Voegelin and Jacob Talmon, argue that the left is a utopian secular political religion.
Leftists themselves are divided among those who emphasize individual well-being (modern liberals) and communitarians (radicals and socialists). As civil and human rights gained more attention during the twentieth century, the Left has allied itself with advocates of racial and gender equality and cultural tolerance.

War and revolution

Historically, the left have been opponents of imperialist and colonial wars, and have championed anti-colonial rebellions.
While some segments of the left are inspired by a strict adherence to pacifism, much left-wing opposition to war arises primarily from anti-capitalist sentiment. Left-wing opposition to war is also often characterized by the internationalist belief that world's workers share common interests with one another, rather than with the powers governing their respective countries.

First and Second World Wars

The First World War triggered fierce debate among socialist groups as to the right response to take, with the leaderships of most socialist parties of the Second International supporting their governments, and a minority of socialists, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin opposing the war as imperialist. Left-wing opponents to the war came together at the Zimmerwald Conference. The Bolsheviks responded to a revolt by soldiers against the First World War with promises of "bread, land and peace." These promises proved to be misleading however, because once the Bolsheviks seized power there was famine due to enforced collectivization. This took place under economic blockade, and at a time when the Soviets put all their resources into efforts to defend their country from invasion, a period known as "War Communism."
As a result of the Nazi-Soviet pact supporters of the Soviet Union were instructed by Stalin to describe those who advocated military attacks upon Nazi Germany as capitalist warmongers, but when Hitler turned on Stalin by invading the Soviet Union the majority of those on the left who had opposed the war became supporters of military action against Germany.

Spanish Civil War

The Spanish Civil War, in which a democratically elected government was opposed by a military coup, was seen by many on the left as an important fight against fascism. In response to the outbreak of war, many joined the International Brigades or other left-wing militias organized by trade unions or political parties, such as the Anarchist CNT-FAI or the left-wing Marxist POUM. Others campaigned for arms embargoes and advocated intervention by the League of Nations.

Vietnam and Iraq anti-war movements

The biggest anti-war movement that involved the western left was that against military involvement by the USA and Australia in South Vietnam when it was faced with an insurgency by the Vietcong, who were supported militarily by North Vietnam. The protests were directed primarily against the American military intervention and eventually received considerable mainstream support.
The American-led war in Iraq led to revived support for anti-war movements. The governments of some social democratic political parties (such as Tony Blair's Labour Party) sent their countries' troops to participate in this war. A Left justification for this policy is supplied by, for example, Oliver Kamm Anti-Totalitarianism: The Left-wing Case for a so-called "Neo-Conservative" foreign policy. However, most of the left has opposed the war in Iraq. Some on the left claim that the war in Iraq is imperialist, that control of the Middle East with its strategic oilfields, and not the removal of regime of Saddam Hussein, was the actual goal. Others argue the legal justification for the war was inaccurate, specifically the claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Some criticism has been leveled at some left-wing groups for forming anti-war coalitions with libertarian organizations (such as the paleolibertarian or with groups led by fundamentalist Islamists . Some on the French left (especially within ATTAC) argue that antiwar protests distract from the economic arguments advocated by the anti-globalisation movement. In the U.S., much left-wing activism was channeled into Anybody but Bush campaigns, which effectively meant supporting the centre-left Democratic Party. In the U.K, anti-war feeling may have been a factor in a drop in support for the pro-war Labour Party government, and the cause of gains for the Liberal Democrats.

The Left and global justice / anti-corporate globalization

The Global Justice Movement movement, also known as the anti-globalisation or alter-globalization movement, are protesters 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, though some activists within it reject association with the traditional left. There are also those on the right, Pat Buchanan for example, who oppose globalization on nationalistic grounds. The Global Justice Movement does not oppose globalisation per se, on the contrary, it supports some forms of internationalism). The main themes of the movement are the reforms of international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and the creation of an international social justice movement. It rejects the leadership of any political party, defining itself as a "movement of movements."

The left and feminism

Early feminism in the nineteenth century was often, although not always, connected to radical politics. Today, socialist feminists, Marxist feminists, liberal feminists and some radical feminists position themselves as on the left of the political spectrum.

The left and the developing world

Left-wing political ideas and groups were involved in many of the anti-colonial movements in Africa, Asia and South America. Some left-wing groups in the developing world, such as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Mexico, Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa and the Naxalites in India, argue that the Western left usually takes a racist and paternalistic attitude towards popular movements in dominated countries. There is particular criticism of the role played by NGOs and the assumption by the Anti-globalization movement in Europe and North America that it is a global movement with an automatic right to lead movements in the South.

The left and post-modernism

Left-wing Post-modernist theories reject attempts at universal explanatory theories such as Marxism, deriding them as grand narratives. They argue for an embrace of culture as the battle grounds for change, rejecting traditional ways of organising such as political parties and trade unions, focusing instead on critiquing or deconstruction. Left-wing critics of Post-modernism view it as a reaction to the economic failure of State Socialism (both in Europe and Latin America and the USA) and disillusionment with authoritarian Communist regimes. They assert that cultural studies courses inflate the importance of culture through denying the existence of an independent reality.
The most famous critique of post-modernism from within the left came in the form of a 1996 prank by physicist and self-described leftist Alan Sokal. 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, or…downplays their practical relevance…", Sokal composed a nonsensical article entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity", in which a mix of mis-stated and mis-used terms from physics, postmodernism, literary analysis, and political theory are used to claim that physical reality, and especially gravitation, do not objectively exist, but are psychologically and politically constructed.
The journal Social Text published the paper in its Spring/Summer 1996 issue, whereupon Sokal publicly revealed his hoax. While some saw Sokal as attacking leftism in general, he was very clear that this was intended as a critique from within:
Politically, I'm angered because most (though not all) of this silliness is emanating from the self-proclaimed Left. We're witnessing here a profound historical volte-face. For most of the past two centuries, the Left has been identified with science and against obscurantism… epistemic relativism betrays this worthy heritage and undermines the already fragile prospects for progressive social critique. Theorizing about "the social construction of reality" won't help us find an effective treatment for AIDS or devise strategies for preventing global warming. Nor can we combat false ideas in history, sociology, economics and politics if we reject the notions of truth and falsity.… The results of my little experiment demonstrate, at the very least, that some fashionable sectors of the American academic Left have been getting intellectually lazy.
Traditionalist thinkers (conservative) scholar/critics view post-modernism as nihilistic. Gary Jason claims that "The failure of socialism, both empirically and theoretically, ... brought about a crisis of faith among socialists, and Post-modernism is their response."

See also

References and notes


  • 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
  • Marxism on Terrorism by John Molyneux
  • Terrorism and Communism by Karl Kautsky
  • Leftism in India

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