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What Is the Left?

By John Perazzo
July 2008

The modern-day left consists of that portion of the political spectrum which holds that non-socialist societies are composed exclusively of dominators and the dominated, oppressors and the oppressed. The alleged cause of this social arrangement is the economic system of free-market capitalism, which is viewed by the left as the root of all manner of social ills and vices -- racism, sexism, alienation, homophobia, imperialism. In the calculus of the left, capitalism is the agent of tyranny and exploitation that presses its iron boot upon the proverbial necks of a wide array of victim groups -- blacks and other minorities, women, homosexuals, immigrants, and the poor, to name but a few. That is why according to the left, the United States (the standard-bearer of all capitalist economies) can only do wrong.

The origins of the modern left can be traced back to the famous passage in Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality, in which he condemned the institution of private property: “The first man, who after enclosing a piece of ground, took it into his head to say, ‘this is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil society.” Added Rousseau: “How many crimes, how many wars, how many murders, how many misfortunes and horrors, would that man have saved the human species, who pulling up the stakes or filling up the ditches should have cried to his fellows: Beware of listening to this impostor; you are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong equally to us all, and the earth itself to nobody!”

the 1830s, a faction of French liberals gravitated toward Romanticism and the philosophy of the late Rousseau, proclaiming that the Enlightenment ideal of progress was incompatible with virtue; that capitalism, private property, and the increasing complexity of modern society were agents of moral decay on both a micro and macro level. This is essentially the worldview that has made its way through history and into the collective mind of the modern left; it is a worldview calling for a revolution that not only will topple the existing capitalist order and punish its corrupt leaders, but also will replace that order with a socialist regime where the utopian ideals of perfect justice and equality will reign. Such an ambition can be put into effect only by a totalitarian state with the authority to micromanage every facet of human life, precisely the end-point toward which the policies and crusades of the modern left are directed.

To eliminate America’s inherent injustices, the left seeks to return to a status society where the power hierarchy is inverted, where the groups now said to be oppressed become the privileged races, classes and gender of the new social order. The left’s quest to transform the “dominated” into dominators, and vice versa, draws its inspiration from the Communist Manifesto, which asserts that “[t]he history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” The struggle identified by the Manifesto was that of the proletarians and their intellectual vanguard, who, armed with the radical utopian vision of socialism, were expected to launch a series of civil wars in their respective countries -- battles that would topple the “ruling classes” and the illegitimate societies they had established. According to Marxist theory, these conflicts would rip each targeted society apart and create a new revolutionary world from its ruins. And if the success of such revolutions was contingent upon immense suffering, so be it. No purgative campaign -- whether entirely nonviolent, or the very embodiment of unrestrained savagery -- would be too dear a price to pay for the vaporization of the old order and the creation of a “progressive” future.

Toward the realization of this “progressive” future, the contemporary left has formed a broad alliance, or united front, composed of radicals representing a host of demographic groups that are allegedly victimized by American capitalism and its related injustices. Each constituent of this alliance -- minorities, homosexuals, women, immigrants, the poor -- contributes its voice to the chorus that aims to discredit the United States as an abuser of the vulnerable.
Nor is the left’s list of victim groups limited only to human beings; even certain species of shrubs, trees, insects, and rodents qualify as victims in the worldview of leftwing environmentalists and animal rights activists.

Calling themselves “liberals,” today’s leftists claim the moral high ground as self-anointed avatars of compassion and enlightenment—counterweights to the supposedly “reactionary” conservatives they depict as heartless monsters. In his book Homegrown Democrat, author and radio personality Garrison Keillor gives voice to this perspective. He writes: “I am a liberal, and liberalism is the politics of kindness. Liberals stand for tolerance, magnanimity, community spirit, the defense of the weak against the powerful, love of learning, freedom of belief, art and poetry, city life, the very things that make America worth dying for.” Keillor classifies conservative Republicans as people who seek to create a “new privatized low-tax minimal-services society” where “politics will be so ugly and rancid that decent people will avoid expressing an opinion for fear of being screeched at and hectored and spat on”; who feel no sense of “Christian obligation toward the poor”; who have “too much money and too little character”; who have no “honesty” and no “idea of serving the public good”; and to whom “human misery is all a fiction, something out of novels, stories of matchstick people.”

Keillor’s remarks typify the manner in which contemporary leftists characterize themselves and, in stark contrast, their “conservative” ideological foes. But the term “liberal” as Keillor intends it bears no substantive resemblance to the classical liberalism that originally grew out of the dramatic intellectual strides that Western culture made during the 17th-century Age of Reason and the 18th-century Enlightenment.

The modern left understands that it must avoid, as much as possible, engaging in openly combative, revolutionary rhetoric about an ideological “war”; and that in order to win the hearts and minds of Americans, it must present its totalitarian objective -- the uncompromising destruction of the status quo -- in the unthreatening lexicon of traditional Western values. That is, the left well realizes that it must cite, as its animating purpose, the promotion of such lofty ideals as “human rights,” “civil rights,” “civil liberties,” and above all, “social justice,” or the “correction” of the free market’s inherent inequalities through political interventions of a Marxist nature. As the perennial Socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas once said: “The American people will never knowingly adopt socialism. But under the name of ‘liberalism,’ they will adopt every fragment of the socialist program, until one day America will be a socialist nation, without knowing how it happened.”

Toward this deceitful end, the left co-opted the good name of “liberalism,” long honored in the West as the movement that had brought freedom, dignity, economic opportunity, and legal protections to millions of people who had been denied those advantages everywhere on the globe since the very dawn of history. Draping their programs and objectives in the glittering vestments of so-called “liberalism” and “progressivism,” leftists embarked on the revolutionary enterprise of redefining, ever so subtly and incrementally, what most Americans understood liberal policies to be. Over the course of years and decades, the leaders of the left championed crusades and ideals that bore ever-decreasing resemblance to the liberal causes of a prior era, yet they invariably identified both themselves and their evolving causes as “liberal.” Most significantly, they were largely successful in getting the media and academic elites to parrot their redefinition of that designation at every stage along the way.

Thus programs that were in fact leftist and socialist were enacted by legislators and social reformers in the name of “liberalism,” whose reputation for noble intentions served not only to shield those programs from public criticism, but in fact to win wide public approval of them. Because the left invariably presented its crusades as efforts to help one victim group or another -- blacks and other minorities, women, homosexuals, immigrants, unwed mothers, the poor -- many Americans were persuaded to pursue the ruinous policies of leftism/socialism under the false flag of “liberalism.”

Exactly what was the classical liberalism whose name the left has cunningly hijacked? Liberalism, as noted previously, grew out of the 17th-century Age of Reason and the 18th-century Enlightenment. This was a period:

  • when the Western world issued its first bold challenges to the then-entrenched dogma that Aristotelian scholasticism (the teachings of Aristotle as interpreted by the Catholic Church) ought to guide and circumscribe the scope of human thought forevermore;
  • when an entire culture broke its long-held faith in the presumptive and everlasting authority of the past, and embraced instead the notion that human beings were capable of progressing beyond the knowledge and insights of the ancient masters;
  • when legislators, philosophers and the common man alike endeavored to devise better ways of governing and of treating their fellow citizens;
  • when skepticism gained unprecedented prestige, making it acceptable to doubt every tenet of conventional wisdom or tradition that could not be readily justified by a valid criterion of truth;
  • when man’s willingness to admit his ignorance about things that could not be proved by scientific method, was seen as a proper humility preferable to feigned certainty;
  • when the culture came to believe that “natural” human motivations such as the pursuit of happiness -- which eventually would be enshrined in the Declaration of Independence -- were every bit as constant and predictable as the natural laws that governed the orbits of the planets;
  • when the West came to understand that one’s knowledge and customs were limited to one’s experiences and surroundings, thereby promoting the development of tolerance for the world’s great diversity of cultures and belief systems;
  • when it was widely believed that a commercial, secular, and religiously diversified state was much to be preferred over a state dominated by the elite of any single faith; and
  • when a free-market, laissez faire economy was seen as the system best suited for the creation of wealth.

These views were proposed and advanced by a host of giants in the fields of philosophy, economics, and science -- among them Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, the Baron de Montesquieu, David Hume, Joseph Butler, Denis Diderot, and Adam Smith.

When the term “liberalism” (from the Latin word liberalis, meaning “pertaining to a free man”) first emerged in the early 1800s, its hallmarks were a belief in individual rights, the rule of law, limited government, private property, and laissez faire economics. These would remain the defining characteristics of liberalism throughout the liberal epoch (generally identified as the period of 1815-1914). “Until August 1914,” wrote British historian A. J. P. Taylor, “a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state.”

et the modern left, which portrays itself as the agent of enlightened commitment to “liberal” or “progressive” causes, in fact stands for the antithesis of each of the foregoing liberal ideals. Contrary to its self-definition, the left is neither “liberal” nor “progressive,” but rather a reactionary force that seeks to resurrect the traditions that characterized the epoch which preceded the rise of classical liberalism.

Consider these easily verifiable truths: The modern left is the stalwart champion of group rights rather than individual rights (e.g., the racial preference policies known as affirmative action); the circumvention of law rather than the rule of law (as exemplified by the flouting of immigration laws and nondiscrimination laws, and by a preference for judicial activism whereby judges co-opt the powers that rightfully belong to legislators); the expansion of government rather than its diminution (favoring ever-escalating taxes to fund a bloated welfare state and government control over virtually every aspect of human life); and the redistribution of wealth (through punitive taxes and, again, a mushrooming welfare state) rather than its creation through free markets based on private property.

Another hallmark of classical liberalism was its spirit of toleration for different beliefs and ideas, and of respect for individual freedom of thought. Yet in modern leftism, we find precisely the opposite: intolerance of opposing viewpoints, and the promotion of groupthink. The left interprets as treason any deviation from its own intellectual orthodoxy, if exhibited by a member of a so-called “victim” group who theoretically ought to occupy a place in the phalanx of revolutionary agitators. We see this phenomenon manifested with particular clarity by notable leftists in the African American community. A few examples will serve to illustrate:


  • In 2002 NAACP chairman Julian Bond referred to Ward Connerly, a black California Board of Regents member who led the 1996 fight to end affirmative action in California’s public sector, as a “fraud” and a “con man.” Bond likened black conservatives in general to “ventriloquists’ dummies” who “speak in their puppet-master’s voice.”
  • Jesse Jackson once called Connerly a “house slave” and a “puppet of the white man.” He also condemned Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s vote to place limits on affirmative action programs, characterizing Thomas as an “enem[y] of civil rights” and likening his black judicial robes to the white sheets of Klansmen.
  • The late columnist Carl Rowan sarcastically suggested, “If you give Thomas a little flour on his face, you’d think you had [former Klansman] David Duke.”
  • San Francisco mayor Willie Brown called Thomas not only “a shill for the most insidious form of racism,” but also a man whose views are “legitimizing of the Ku Klux Klan.” Brown added that Thomas “should be reduced to talking only to white conservatives,” and “must be shut out” by the black community.
  • Political scientist Manning Marable asserts that Thomas has “ethnically ceased being an African American.”
  • Movie director Spike Lee calls Thomas “a handkerchief-head, chicken-and-biscuit-eating Uncle Tom.”
  • Author June Jordan characterizes Thomas as a “virulent Oreo phenomenon,” a “punk-ass,” and an “Uncle Tom calamity.”
  • Columnist Julianne Malveaux told a television audience, “I hope [Thomas’s] wife feeds him lots of eggs and butter, and he dies early, like many black men do, of heart disease. . . .He’s an absolutely reprehensible person.”
  • The Reverend Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference once said, “I have told [Thomas] I am ashamed of him, because he is becoming to the black community what Benedict Arnold was to the nation he deserted; and what Judas Iscariot was to Jesus: a traitor; and what Brutus was to Caesar: an assassin.”
  • Missouri Democrat William Clay labeled black conservatives as “Negro wanderers” whose goal is to “maim and kill other blacks for the gratification and entertainment of ultraconservative white racists.” Clay described black conservative Gary Franks -- when the latter was a Connecticut congressman -- as a “Negro Dr. Kevorkian, a pariah,” who exhibited a “foot-shuffling, head-scratching brand of Uncle Tomism.”
  • Former NAACP executive director Benjamin Hooks denounces black conservatives as “a new breed of Uncle Tom [and] some of the biggest liars the world ever saw.”
  • Afrocentric historian John Henrik Clarke calls black conservatives “frustrated slaves crawling back to the plantation.”

Such “liberalism” in no way resembles the classical liberalism of which toleration was the most visible emblem. Yet every one of the foregoing speakers would identify him or her self as a liberal.

By calling themselves “liberals” or “progressives,” leftists have entirely redefined the terms of debate. And as noted earlier, the media and the public have largely gone along with this fraudulent self-identification, as evidenced by the fact that few people nowadays draw any distinction between liberalism in its original and authentic sense, and leftism -- or socialism posing as “liberalism.” Thus we witness the travesty of the “liberal” label being widely attached to leftists like Michael Moore, George Soros, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Jane Fonda, Tom Hayden, Leslie Cagan, Angela Davis, Ramsey Clark, Dennis Kucinich, Ted Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. Yet the ideals of each of these individuals are utterly antithetical to the tenets of classical liberalism outlined above.

To understand how such a transformation in the meaning of “liberalism” came to pass, it is useful to examine a tangible, real-world illustration. Consider the evolution of affirmative action, a concept that originally grew out of the premise that the racist barriers preventing talented blacks from getting good jobs and attending good schools should be eliminated, and that a condition of genuine equal opportunity -- without preferential treatment or lowered standards -- should be instituted. The precursors of the term “affirmative action” were such phrases as “positive effort” and “affirmative program,” which by 1960 were already in wide use among civil rights activists. The seemingly innocuous entry of “affirmative action” into the American lexicon occurred on March 9, 1961 when President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, which stated that because discrimination was “contrary to the Constitutional principles and policies of the United States,” federally funded projects should “take affirmative action” to ensure that their hiring and employment practices were untainted by racial bias.

“As initially presented,” writes sociologist Thomas Sowell, “affirmative action referred to various activities, such as monitoring subordinate decision-makers to ensure the fairness of their hiring and promotion decisions, and spreading information about employment or other opportunities so as to encourage previously excluded groups to apply -- after which the actual selection could be made without regard to [group] membership.” Affirmative action, in other words, was synonymous with equal opportunity, not with equal outcomes.

But before long, prominent leftwing organizations were offering alternative definitions of what was meant by “affirmative action.” In 1961, for instance, a National Urban League official announced that “being colorblind … is no longer a virtue. What we need to be is positively color-conscious.” A year later, the Congress of Racial Equality began pressuring employers to give hiring preferences to blacks as compensation for past discrimination, while Urban League President Whitney Young candidly recommended, for similar reasons, “a decade of discrimination in favor of Negro youth.” The NAACP also joined the chorus of those pushing for preferences, just a few years after having passionately advocated colorblindness in the Brown v. Board of Education case.

Today, of course, affirmative action (which began as a liberal ideal for equal opportunity) is synonymous with the leftist ideal of achieving equal outcomes by any means necessary, including group preferences and double standards. Thus the left, in the name of “social justice” and “civil rights,” has resurrected from yesteryear the practice of racial discrimination -- the only difference being that the roles of “oppressor” and “victim” have been reversed. Paralleling the classic leftist/Marxist model, whites fulfill the role of the “ruling class” that must be overthrown, while blacks represent the proletariat that must rise up to forcibly demand its rights and depose its oppressors. Under the banner of “liberalism,” the left has become the passionate advocate of policies that were neither endorsed nor even foreseen by the pioneers of “affirmative action” in the Sixties.

The core of today’s radical left consists of the ideological descendents of the communist/progressive left that wanted the West to lose the Cold War to the Soviet Union. And upon its firm foundation of hatred for the United States, the left has most recently forged an added alliance with radical Islam, whose wellspring of anti-American hatred runs every bit as deep as that of the American left. This is largely (but not exclusively) a de facto alliance, much as Stalin’s pact with Hitler was an alliance of convenience based on a common interest: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Unlike the pact with Hitler, however, many leftists regard the alliance with Islamic jihadists as one welded by common purposes. They see their collaboration as a shared effort to bring down the great imperialist Satan, the capitalist gulag where the common man is enslaved from day he is born until the day he dies.

For the socialist left and the Islamofascists alike, American society is to be rejected and despised as a social hell; its institutions are to be subverted and destroyed. Just as the radical Islamist’s ultimate goal is to subdue the “infidel” nations and therein institute Islamic law so as to redeem the world for Allah, so does the socialist left advocate revolution as the means of achieving its ends -- eliminating capitalism and creating a socialist paradise on earth. Just as Islamic radicals seek to purify the world of heresies and of the infidels who practice them, so does the left seek to purify society’s collective “soul” of the vices allegedly spawned by capitalism. And just as Islamic radicals seek to impose their religion on the rest of the world in a totalitarian fashion, so does the left seek to create an omnipotent socialist state that will control every aspect of daily life and impose a universal brand of “social justice” on all mankind.

American leftists may find the religious bigotry of Islamic radicals repugnant, but their desire to rid the world of U.S. “imperialism” and capitalism overrides this revulsion and beckons them to forge their alliance. As Osama bin Laden himself declared in a fatwa which he issued in March 2003: “The interests of Muslims and the interests of the socialists coincide in the war against the crusaders.”

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