Leftism vs. Liberalism

Design by Alexandra Baran

Image description: A red hammer and sickle symbol faces off against a yellow dollar sign in a pixelated, grassy Pokémon battle. They are labelled “Communism” and “capitalism”. The question “What will communism do?” is written in a text box below.

Liberals are not leftists. Nor are there really any leftists in American politics. 

For the past few years, we have heard from both the right and the center that Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, and anyone who is slightly farther left than the conventional Democrat is a socialist. This is not true. They are liberals, and to say that these American politicians are socialists undermines what socialism, and even communism, is. 

What are socialism and communism?

Socialism is when a political system in which production and distribution are owned by the workers, promotes maintaining a natural environment while also meeting economic needs and resists the liberalization of the bourgois. The bourgeois is the social middle class that promotes materialism and capitalism. 

Communism is the political theory created by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels that promotes publicly owned property, common ownership over the means of production, and, similarly to socialism, removal of the social structure of class-based social hierarchy systems.

Before anyone panics at the C word, it should be clarified that leftism is roughly equivalent to socialism and communism. Most people’s initial reaction to the word communism is to either equate it with fascism or write it off as a failed political system. Both are incorrect. 

Communism is the biggest threat to imperialism and capitalism, so of course the response is to create propaganda against it. America is the biggest threat to global peace as a heavily militarized state. A militarized state is a society which supports/organizes around military conflict and violence. Americans created propaganda such as the Red Scare in the 1920’s and beyond, against any communist or socialist power. The Red Scare induced fear about the rise of communism and framed it as a threat to the American system of governance. The bad guy (Imperialist America) has to convince his henchmen that his opponent (communism) is the evil one, not him. 

A good way to summarize the term communism to American’s who have began identifying as leftists is this tweet by @Mahxism:“Everyone loves the idea of communism, until you tell them it’s called communism.” There are lots of appealing components of communism such as strong communities, equal rights, everyone is housed and fed, a stable economy, and equally distributed resources. Unfortunately, there is also loads of misinformation and propaganda created by imperialism. Because America has a misinterpreted view of socialism and communism, many people do not truly know what those political systems consist of. 

As a white leftist writing this, I need to clarify for other white leftists that it is important to understand that leftists who ONLY read theory are not more knowledgeable than those who live the realities of capitalism and imperialism. America makes radicalization inaccessible to the working and lower class due to how conservative the nation is and how it equates radicalization with liberalism (which is false). Particularly in academia, we are told that higher education is the only way to gain concrete understanding of a topic, but higher education is inaccessible to marginalized communities and families with lower incomes. Therefore, a lot of radicalization comes from marginalized communities and their experiences within capitalism, not solely through Karl Marx (though most leftists read various theorists to further consume and solidify their own theory of radicalization).

Those who live in marginalized communities and have been forced to suffer under capitalism thus often understand communism and socialism more than theorists. Those who have not suffered at the hands of capitalism but have been radicalized are usually people who have read up on communist and socialist theory and/or read the Communist Manifesto (the theory of the Communist Party written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels). However, because theory is not promoted by the American education system, they probably would not have learned what communism and socialism actually are without these writings. 

America’s marginalized communities are some of the most prominent places for understanding communism/socialism. Communities that are harmed the most by capitalism and imperialism are POC and Black communities. Thus, liberation against capitalism and imperialism will be led by POC and Black revolutionaries. Many communist/socialist organizations are rooted in Black communities and communities of color, such as the Black Panthers.

What is Liberalism and why is it different?

Liberalism, meanwhile, is the belief that you can have progress by changing laws rather than by having revolutions. Liberalism puts emphasis on individual liberties and believes that equal rights should only be given to those who have not caused harm to others.

A political course on study.com states that within liberalism “economic freedom is also closely associated with liberalism and involves support for free markets and private property rights,” aka capitalism, which is the political system where trade and industry is controlled by private owners/companies who receive all the profit. Liberals thus believe the same American propaganda against socialism and communism in order to promote capitalism and the growth of America’s economy (usually through war and imperialism)

 Additionally, one of the many issues with liberalism is that whether or not someone has caused harm is a subjective judgement. Meaning that often the ‘laws’ and ‘justice’ of liberty protects the ruling classes, or simply does not apply to them because they are able to afford the luxury of being above the law. 

Communism and socialism are considered “far left.” Most communists are socialists, but not all socialists are communists (however they do go hand in hand). In “The Communist Manifesto” socialism precedes communism, therefore most communists also support socialism. Leftism is unlikely to ever rise to power in American politics, regardless of how “progressive” someone’s ideas may be. Most American politicians, despite being described as “liberal” or even “leftist,” are in fact centrists in a global political context (Bernie Sanders, for example). The truth of the matter is that you cannot have true leftism in American government because the country itself is built on colonialism and imperialism. Leftism refutes colonialism and imperialism, placing itself in direct opposition to these foundational principles of the United States. Colonialism and imperialism benefit from capitalism because America gains monetary value from stealing land, people, and resources –– the opposite of socialist and communist political properties.

The left consists of socialism and communism. Thus leftism is when people believe in aid in communities, equal rights, and the proletarian revolution. The proletariat is the working class people who are believed to start the revolution against the bourgeois and the rise of socialism. So leftism may seem extreme to liberals, who have a few left-leaning morals, but because leftism does not support capitalism, it is deemed evil by liberals.

Why are Leftism and Liberalism often confused and why is this a problem?

Most Americans who become radicalized are former liberals, and there’s nothing wrong with that considering how skewed American history is. American education glorifies murderous colonists and imperialists, teaching even to this day to respect our leaders for destroying other countries in the name of “democracy.” America considers this to be liberal because America is ‘not infringing on American people’s rights’, which we know to be false considering how much its citizens have to protest. However, many people still tend to use the term liberalism interchangeably with leftism.

But radicalization into leftism exposes many issues with the principles of liberalism. Liberalism arose out of the American, British, and French revolutions which pursued the end of monarchy. The phrases “consent of the governed” and “life, liberty, and property” were popularized in these revolutions as mission statements for liberals. Therefore the term liberalism is used incorrectly in American political discourse. 

Liberalism is what American people would call activists and those who reject the right. However, according to a discussion on reddit, “The major problem with liberalism is that its main tenets are idealist and abstract away from actual social relations and power structures.” Under liberalist views, human rights and democracy benefits the ruling class because of the ability to make profit off of marginalized communities. When liberals in the ruling class— politicians and the wealthy — fight for equal rights, it is usually in order to benefit from the oppressed. The issue with liberalism is that it pretends to care about the rights of all people, but only when the threat is affecting the majority. Unfortunately, liberals who fight for their own rights fail to consider how the United States strips these rights away from the countries it raids.

Furthermore, liberalism cannot be considered far left like socialism and communism because liberalism promotes the same anti-communist propaganda as the right wing. A distinction between the two is that “a liberal believes capitalism can be humanized,” while socialists and communists do not. You cannot call someone who believes in revolution against capitalism a liberal because liberalism contributes to capitalism. 

When someone says they are a leftist, they are often referring to believing in socialism or communism. Why don’t they simply call themselves a socialist or a communist? Because of a history of war, murder, and annihilation of communist countries and organizations by America, many newly radicalized people tend to use the term leftist to keep themselves safe from anti-communist sentiment. Some also use “leftist” when they have yet to fully comprehend the theory and practice of socialism and/or communism because there are so many subcategories within the political theories.

It is important to understand that there cannot be a socialist or communist America. Therefore, no politicians running for office in the United States can be labelled socialist and communist, as they are only “progressive” in comparison to the American right wing. 

It is the responsibility of the radicalized person to continue unlearning propaganda and radicalize every part of society. Even just by learning the difference of two terms is a start.

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