The Strange Etymologies of 'the Left,' 'Liberals,' 'Progressives' and 'Red Parties' (Part II)

By Luis Martínez-Fernández

May 22, 2021 6 min read

Since its origins in revolutionary France, the definition of "the left" has continuously evolved in time and space, from anti-monarchical egalitarianism, through various industrial-age socioeconomic formulations, such as socialism, communism and anarchism, through Depression-era statism to the present, when it means sharply different things in different places.

Not only are there deep contrasts in what people call "the left" in Paris, Chicago and Lima; domestically, the term is understood and used differently in Berkley, California; Batton Rouge, Louisiana; and Atlanta, Georgia. I can hop on a plane in Madison, Wisconsin, or London as a right-winger and disembark a communist in Little Rock, Arkansas, or Miami. Is it the altitude? The bad airplane food? (I'll elaborate on this in a later column.)

In the middle decades of the 19th century, "the left" and "the right" became matters of social class. On the left hand were the working classes, particularly the urban proletariat in increasingly industrialized nations like Great Britain and France, and on the other hand were the owners of what Karl Marx called the means of production (factories, land, warehouses and the like). According to Marxists — it makes perfect sense to me — members of the working classes and capitalists have diametrically opposed interests and thus are in continuous tension. It's "class struggle," in Marxist parlance.

Thus, the period's leftists formed labor unions and political parties advocating for the improvement of working conditions, higher salaries and, in its most radical iterations, gaining control of the means of production and even abolishing private property altogether. Political scientists call such goals "materialistic"; the public refers to them as issues of bread and butter.

There were, to be sure, other ideological aspects to the industrial-age left — anticlericalism and internationalism, for example.

Despite its foundational anti-monarchism — more like taxophobia (come on, Merriam-Webster) — and liberal democratic political system, America, neither in the 19th nor 20th centuries, has been fertile ground for leftist ideologies, the one salient exception being the era of the Great Depression and the New Deal.

While dubbed everything from "commie" and "pinko" to "fascist," former President Franklin D. Roosevelt does not quite fit the materialistic definition of the left and certainly did not advocate for government ownership of banks, businesses and other enterprises. For goodness' sake! Capitalism had imploded; banks failed wholesale; Wall street tanked; and hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, went hungry and became homeless. If anything, New Dealers and their Keynesian counterparts in Great Britain saved, and thus preserved, a system that had failed miserably. Roosevelt did more to uphold capitalism than former President Herbert Hoover did to destroy it.

More than the two world wars, the greatest global conflict of the past century was the seemingly unending Cold War that partitioned the world in two, like Pope Alexander VI in 1493, but this time into a U.S.-led capitalist, democratic half and a Soviet-led socialist/communist half. This is, of course, an oversimplification: The partition was not as clear-cut; not every country took sides; and in different locations (Greece, Korea, Guatemala, Cuba, Vietnam, Angola), it went from cold to boiling hot.

The '60s and '70s brought new definitions of the left in Europe and the United States and around the world. Gradually, leftist parties and movements incorporated a broad catalogue of isms: pacifism, feminism, environmentalism and other "nonmaterialist" issues only tangentially linked to class, such as abortion and gay rights.

The United States, with the exception of two moderate leftist outbursts (New Deal and Great Society), has sat historically on the center right. And by Western European standards, what passes for left in the United States is, at best, centrist. The British wrote the book on individualism, but we expanded, perfected and published it in oversized luxury editions. Individualism does not mix well with community-centered, let alone collectivist, ideas. That is why even self-professed American lefties prefer to talk about race, gender and ethnicity than about class.

Fast-forward to the era since former President Donald Trump's election. Political polarization has reached explosive levels, its biggest eruption thus far being the Jan. 6 bloody Trumpist assault on the Capitol. I look back on U.S. history to find a period of radical conservatism approximating the current situation and come up empty-handed. Likewise, a segment of the traditionally centrist Democratic Power, the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren wing, has gained considerable strength and influence.

But increasingly, I find myself agreeing with philosopher of nothingness Jean-Paul Sartre, who once said that the left and the right were empty vessels. Activists, politicians, pundits and academics are filling those vessels with whatever is expedient or purely fashionable, coherence not required.

To be continued.

Readers can reach Luis Martinez-Fernandez at [email protected] To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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