The late Christopher Hitchens, the socialist writer and political commentator, was on a C-SPAN program in the 1980s when a viewer called in and, in the rambling style characteristic of most people who call into C-SPAN, began denouncing him as an anti-American liberal communist who was in league with the Soviet Union. When the diatribe had reached its conclusion, Hitchens replied that the most offensive invective in the entire thing was that the caller had called him a liberal.
That’s perfectly understandable, of course. Hitchens was not a liberal. Bernie Sanders is not a liberal. I am not a liberal. People who believe in left-wing politics--socialism, etc.--are not liberals. Liberalism and leftism are not synonymous, nor, contrary to what conventional wisdom would tell you, is liberalism the same as having left-of-center political views. In spite of this, in the media and in everyday conversations, everyone on the left is routinely called a liberal whether they are or not. Not only is it wrong to apply the term “liberal” to anyone on the left end of the political spectrum, but doing so is actually an indicator of how artificially narrow the window of acceptable political opinion in America is.
Let’s look at what it means to be a liberal. Phil Ochs, the leftist folk singer, liked to say that liberals were “ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center whenever it affects them personally.” (See Ochs’ song “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” for a crash course on liberal hypocrisy.) Liberalism is defined, as the word suggests, by support for liberties, of certain kinds: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, free market capitalism, and equality before the law. None of this sounds particularly revolutionary. Liberalism is about permitting individual freedom within a certain framework, ensuring that a people theoretically have access to opportunity while leaving undisturbed a fundamentally unequal system that prioritizes capital over benefit for humans. Socialists and other leftists question whether that capitalist economy should exist at all.
Leftism--a term encompassing ideologies like democratic socialism, communism, anarchism, social democracy, and so on--focuses on a number of goals: a society without distinctions of class, race, or gender; a society whose political and economic structures are run democratically for the benefit of all, rather than a wealthy few (usually this involves workers owning the means of production, instead of unaccountable corporations where the wealth flows to the top); a society which embraces brotherhood for all of humankind. Liberalism is a sort of petty bourgeois individualism, while leftist politics focuses not only on equality before the law, but on true equality in real terms; not just on freedom of speech, but on freedom from oppression and exploitation; not just on the individual, but on building a democratic society which benefits everyone. Leftism focuses on systemic change; liberalism does not strive to fundamentally alter anything.
Liberalism and conservatism are often paired into a sort of false dichotomy, as if they are the only two opposing ideologies relevant in American politics. This ignores the fact that not only are liberalism and conservatism not mutually exclusive, but also that they often come together. In Europe, most center-right political parties are described as “liberal-conservative,” emphasizing liberal support for free markets and civil liberties while supporting conservative views on social issues. Liberal-conservative parties--like the German CDU, the Spanish People’s Party, and France’s The Republicans--most often compete with socialist or social-democratic parties on the left end of the political spectrum. In everywhere besides the US, liberalism and conservatism represent the rightist or moderate viewpoints, separately or mixed together to varying degrees, while socialist, social-democratic, or other leftist parties comprise the left-wing alternative.
This may sound purely semantic, or that I’m complaining about the relatively insignificant problem of having the wrong political label applied to me. But I think the tendency to describe all left-leaning people as liberals is indicative of a more serious problem in American political discourse: the artificial limiting of what is or is not an acceptable opinion. In the view of the media and the political establishment, certain principles must be agreed upon by everyone: we must support capitalism, we must support foreign intervention by the US military, we must support the cozy relationship between the government and big business. One can hold both liberal and conservative principles and agree to all of these basic principles: capitalism, imperialism, and corruption are not incompatible with both liberal and conservative ideologies. Those principles are bipartisan, and the political disagreements in this country most often become a matter of degrees: whether capitalism should be only mostly or completely unregulated, whether war should be incessant or saved for special occasions, et cetera. By enforcing a false dichotomy of liberalism vs. conservatism, the spectrum of acceptable opinion in those country only permits moderate or rightist viewpoints. Leftist ideas--like anti-capitalism, prioritization of workers’ rights, environmental justice, and fighting wealth inequality--are ignored, and the people who believe in them are subsumed into the “liberal” mass. Saying that everyone in this country is either a liberal or a conservative, when in reality many Americans--myself included--don’t identify as either, only perpetuates a system where certain opinions are so unthinkable as to be unnameable. It forces people to pick between the labels of two retrograde ideologies, as if those are the only conceivable choices.
There are people in this country who believe that conservatism is a step in the wrong direction and mere liberalism does not go far enough. I am not a liberal because I believe that individuals having the freedom to achieve within a capitalist system is misguided; that systemic revolution and transition to a new model for organizing society is necessary to eliminate the injustice of the current one. I am not a liberal because I don’t believe in a diversified corporate hierarchy; I believe in getting rid of the corporate hierarchy altogether. Liberals want freedoms when convenient for the ruling class; I want freedoms always. I will never, ever, call myself a liberal.
It’s important to remember that words have meanings.