Ever since George Bush the Elder made his dismissive quip about “the L-word,” liberals have sought to rehabilitate the term and restore it to the connotation it enjoyed throughout its postwar heyday, when “western liberal democracies” were the embodiment of mankind’s progress up from the jungle, and to be liberal was to be evolved, humane, rational, grownup, and on the side of the future.
For a couple of decades, the political spectrum was essentially unipolar. Gradually, though, the “Conservative Revolution” picked up steam, and while it may not be the juggernaut now that it was in 1988 when Bush dropped his L-bomb, it definitely made the rightward end of the spectrum respectable in the public mind, or at least not as unspeakable as it was up until, say, the Carter administration.
It’s not surprising, then, that liberals’ push-back against the weaponized language of the Right desperately enlists any and all tropes that amount to “anti-Right.” And what could be more opposite of “right” than “left”?
This leaves us with the all-too-frequent spectacle of ruling-class liberals referring to their turf as “the left,” as happened recently when Salon magazine ran a liberal-pride puff piece with images of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren sharing space with its call-to-arms headline: “’I’m proud to say I’m a liberal’: How conservatives vulgarized a term — and why the left must reclaim it.”
For reasons understandable if not exactly admirable, liberal advocates have boldly assumed that since they are “not-the-right,” it means they are “of-the-left,” at least kinda-sorta some shade of left — though, heaven forbid, not like those hirsute troublemakers far enough left to be socialists. Of course, right-wingers are only too happy to go along with the conceit, no doubt getting in a couple of snickers from such an overly-fine distinction between Democrats and Commies.
Contrary to the popular American usage, however, “liberal” is qualitatively different from “left.” It is a centrist position meant to preserve the status quo by allowing a few reforms that help appease or co-opt efforts at basic systemic change sought by the left. Chris Hedges, in a pithy comment about his book Death of the Liberal Class, told one interviewer “The liberal class was never meant to function as the political left. The liberal class was meant to function as the political center.”
Part of the confusion in terminology comes from the ever-present tendency in politics toward subverting the language to make a position appear better (or worse) than it actually is. It’s a political weapon first established in the popular mind by its treatment in Orwell’s novel 1984, but is certainly alive and well today.
It goes back a lot further, of course — the politically-mindful Confucians in ancient China asserted that “good government begins with calling things by their right names.”
To get some kind of useful handle on liberalism, referring to its history is probably the best way to avoid the subjectivity and vagaries of fashion that make most of the semantic wrangling about the term so unproductive. The work of left-oriented European historians like those of the Annales school (Braudel, Wallerstein, Arrighi et al.) gives us some pretty interesting background on the matter.
As a political position and basis for policy, liberalism apparently came out of the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the start of Europe’s massive reorganization after the defeat of Napoleon, who represented the culmination (at that time) of the “Age of Revolutions.”
The powers-that-be recognized that revolutionary tendencies among the masses meant the established power structure could no longer be sustained by the current system of monarchy, so reforms were put in place with the aim of appeasing them — a program of concessions to “the dangerous classes.”
These reforms included free public education, nationalistic “patriotism” bolstered by universal military service; widening of suffrage into non-landowner classes, and somewhat later, social insurance.
Immanuel Wallerstein describes how, in response to the burgeoning masses of disenfranchised wage-workers, “political leaders of the different states began to effectuate a program of reform designed to respond to the plaints of this group, palliate their miseries, and appease their sense of alienation.”
As the reforms continued, however, revolutions did also, and as Wallerstein notes in another essay, “the revolutions of 1848 showed the potential strength of a militant left force [that was] frightening to the centrist liberals, and even though the revolutions of 1848 all petered out or were suppressed, liberals were determined to reduce the volubility of what they saw as the too-radical, antisystemic demands of the dangerous classes.”
It’s also worth noting that out of this extended program of post-revolutionary reform came our present notion of “social progress.” This brilliantly successful bid to win working-class hearts and minds did much to help stabilize the status quo, since the promise of improvement created patience among those classes who would otherwise be quicker to agitate.
Yes, it’s true that when we’re talking “liberal” or “left,” we’re talking labels, so all the standard disclaimers are hereby invoked. Still, I’d say that in functional terms, “liberal” is ruling-class, “left” is working-class. I’d suggest, too, that anyone comfortable with the label “left” would also accept — or at least, not be offended by — the label “socialist.” Certainly, that works for Bernie Sanders.