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

By Luis Martínez-Fernández

May 29, 2021 6 min read

Despite the increased use of political attack labels like "leftist" and "right-wing" in contemporary American politics, throughout most of the 20th century, in terminology and practice, the dominant political scale was "liberal to conservative." This in contrast with Europe, where the political spectrum is wider, and rather than insults, such extreme labels are proudly embraced by those at or close to either pole of the political spectrum.

The words "liberal" and "liberalism" have undergone their own transmutations since the last quarter of the 18th century when they were originally tied to Adam Smith's free trade ideas, which he and others believe would benefit both capitalists and workers. These terms acquired social and political connotations, as in advocating freedom and democracy, in the first decades of the 19th century.

Both strains of liberalism (the economic and the social/political) were harmonized in the late 1830s and early 1840s through the creation of the British Liberal Party, which advocated social reform, the expansion of individual liberties, limits on royal authority and, most saliently, free trade.

The United States, meanwhile, while built on liberal, republican principles, harbored the gross incongruity of slavery, which is now popularly referred to as "America's original sin." But as a good friend and fellow historian often reminds me, the sin of Native American forceful displacement and exploitation preceded the importation of the first 20 African slaves to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. But somehow, the foundational national love story of John Rolfe and Pocahontas (also in Jamestown) and the fictionalized celebration of Thanksgiving Day seemingly absolve that other (older) original sin.

The other great American foundational paradox was the fact that the South, the region most amiable to free trade (low tariffs), was less egalitarian and more undemocratic than the North. This may very well explain why the political label "liberal" did not catch on in the United States until the 1920s.

In postcolonial Latin America, the great political divide was between liberals and conservatives; the former embracing an ideological package influenced by the French Revolution, British parliamentarism and the liberal Spanish Constitution of Cadiz of 1812. It amalgamated the ideas of popular sovereignty, equality under the law, republicanism, abolition of slavery, anti-clericalism, and individual civil liberties.

After decades researching, writing and teaching Latin American history, I have not found a better source on the Latin American liberal vs. conservative divide than Gabriel Garcia Marquez's masterpiece "One Hundred Years of Solitude," where readers discover that differences between liberalism and conservatism are fluid and that blood — and other social solidarities — is thicker than ideological coherence; thus, the tongue-in-cheek maxim that in 19th-century Latin America liberals drank in public and prayed at home while conservatives prayed in public and drank at home.

By the 1920s, in Great Britain, it had become evident to trade unionists and left-inclined politicians that free trade did not deliver the promised prosperity and, if anything, increased worker exploitation and accentuated class disparities between the capitalists and workers. Thus, a new more ideologically socialist party, the Labor Party, emerged in the 1920s as Britain's opposition to the Conservative Party, which took on the mantle of "laissez-faire" economics.

Not as far to the left, stood America's late 1800s and early 1900 liberal formulations known as "progressivism." The progressive package responded against the excesses and ills of the Gilded Age, including labor exploitation, the formation of trusts, political corruption and pollution (environmental as well as moral). What we call the American left has always had a puritanical strain from prohibitionist progressivism to present-day political correctness.

Democratic presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Jimmy Carter wore the "liberal" label with pride; while their Republican counterparts Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon pushed liberal programs that today's conservatives would deem left wing and anti-American.

The 1970s saw the explosion of an anti-liberal backlash that catapulted Conservative Margaret Thatcher to 10 Downing Street (1979-1990) and Republican Ronald Reagan to 1600 NW Pennsylvania Avenue (1981-1989). Both campaigned and governed on conservative economic principles of deregulation, budget austerity, low taxes, and privatization, principles originally associated with laissez-faire liberalism but now the hallmarks of conservatism.

This was not Adam Smith's original well-intended economic liberalism but rather an updated, take-no-hostages attempt to destroy the social, economic and political advances of liberalism (in its various incarnations: classical nineteenth-century liberalism, laborism, progressivism and social democracy). Christened "neoliberalism," this new package rested on economic principles espoused by British economist Friedrich von Hayek and American economist Milton Friedman.

Four decades after Reagan and Thatcher's ascent to power, neoliberal thinkers shamefully hold on to a perverted version of Smith's promise of shared prosperity; they call it "trickle down."

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.

Photo credit: SD-Pictures at Pixabay

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