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What’s in a Word? “Leftist”? “Liberal”?



 An academic from the United States politely asked us to check a reference he made to LALIT in an article he was due to submit to a learned journal. All was fine in his draft except he had described us as “leftist”. I replied that we would perhaps prefer “left” or “left-wing”. We think “leftist” is perhaps a little derogatory. It includes, we think, those who only pretend to be left-wing. (1)

 I then gave a brief narrative of our discussions in LALIT about key-words for files in our archives. We had had as a key-word “Left organizations”. Over the years, we ended up according this key-word to groups that members did not, or did no longer, consider “left” at all. “Left”  had become wrong for describing them. But, some still paraded as “left”, considered themselves “left” and were still considered “left” by many. So, we eventually agreed to change the key-word to “left and leftists”, instead. The new key-word has stuck until today. “Leftist” we took to mean “seemingly left-wing”, or “posing as left-wing”, or “once left-wing”. So, it is not the same as “left” or “left-wing” – to us. So, I explained.

 The researcher agreed to the change. In discursive style, he mentioned that he had originally used the term “left-wing”. He had changed it to “leftist” because he had suddenly recalled an interview in which Nadine Gordimer had once said she would prefer being called “leftist” to being called “liberal”.

 Interestingly, we in LALIT would, too.

 So, this brought up a new source of confusion.

 Why would we (and Nadine Gordimer) not like to be called “liberal”? (2) And why does the US academic not get it?

 So, anyway, this little chit-chat between two of us about the word “leftist” had, in turn, brought up another, much more interesting term: “liberal”.

 And this term provides much more serious confusion. Total confusion!

 Thus, this light-hearted article.

 It seems to me that in the USA, a “liberal” is someone who objects, for example, to the State locking up a girl-in-a-tight-corner who has had no choice but to have an abortion. Or someone who has no desire for the State to prevent a man marrying his male lover on grounds that the gods disapprove. Or a “liberal” is someone who does not mind someone else smoking a joint without the police arresting him. Am I right with this broad-stroke definition of how the term “liberal” is used in the US?

 In many other countries, a “liberal” is not very often this. The term is rather more often used for someone who is ultra-capitalist. It is someone who wants entrepreneurs to be free to invest anywhere. This means, as came up notoriously at Trump’s last visit to Britain, even freedom to invest in the National Health Service. It is someone who wants the State to remove restrictive laws that curb the freedom of businessmen to mine coal and use oil a go-go. It is someone who is in favour of privatising everything in sight – even jails and the military, water and, in the long run, air – so that investment opportunities are opened up. This meaning comes directly from the 19th Century “liberalism” that was capitalists getting freedom to invest in what had previously been feudal kings and queens’ chasse gardée.

 This 19th Century liberalism was finally curbed only in the early 20th Century by, mainly, the fear that struck into the hearts of the capitalists world-wide at the spectre of the successful seizing of power by the working class in the Russian Revolution of 1917. From then on, there was a bourgeois current – against the liberal current – in favour of workmen’s compensation by law for accidents, old age pensions, even if only in order to prevent more uprisings like the Russian Revolution. Later, under similar threat of mass working class rebellions during and after the 1929 economic crash, those against liberalism (although pro-capitalism) set up social security and systems like the NHS in Britain. This anti-liberal current also imposed some State control over banks (separating people’s banks from investment banks), nationalised essential services ( like electricity, railways and telegraphs) and so on. This curbing of 19th Century liberalism continued to hold sway – in most of the world, both East and West in different ways – for 70 years or so.

 But come the early 1990s, with the simultaneous fall of the social democratic systems in Europe, the Soviet system and most of the Third World nationalist forms of “socialism”, we saw the rise to power of the “neo-liberal” system. It was literally a new wave of the old liberal capitalism, free for capitalists to do as they pleased. This push to power of neo-liberalism was begun by the Reagan-Thatcher tandem on the political front, but it followed the economists, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, and their Chicago Boys and their CIA-backed coup d’état against the elected government in Chile, which became a model for neo-liberalism.

 Neo-liberalism became IMF-World Bank policy world-wide as well.

 It – this neo-liberalism – went hand-in-glove with, or is almost synonymous with the recent so-called “globalization” of capital. Neo-liberalism means freedom for capital to move as it wishes around the globe and into everything – private owning of land, water, sea, health systems, social housing, outer space, life itself – thus privatising all and sundry. It also means that gradually the capitalists from other countries are free to move across all national boundaries, and the Rules for this were set up by the new WTO in January, 1995. And 20 years continued the process of neo-liberalism and ultra-capitalism.

 During the last three years, Trump (following Duterte and Modi) is curbing this new liberalism by the imposition of nationalist limits to it. Trump thus introduces a “US nationalist-US imperialist” power centre that literally trumps liberalism. Trump is thus organizing a take-over by the US capitalists of the “neo-liberal” project (and offering a trickle-down for US workers – of course for electoral purposes only). So Trump’s is a weird form of “liberalism” with protectionist barriers of a nationalist nature against anyone else but “my capitalists”. An oxymoron, you might say, to paraphrase what Rex Tillerson famously said about Trump. (3) So, Trump puts tariffs up. He constructs barriers to freedom for other capitalists. And, to go with this, he generally acts like the emperor in the emperor’s new clothes story – all must follow him, twitter him, and flatter him. So, while “liberal” is an insult when it is the system imposed after the coup in Chile, it is probably preferable to the Trump “liberal for my capitalists only” doctrine. The “my” is both his country’s capitalists, and no doubt also his own family capitalists, who advise him on both the US State’s Affairs and the Trump business affairs.

 So, you can see why in LALIT we don’t like being called either “leftists” or “liberals” – and why it is for different reasons.

 Lindsey Collen


(1) In any case, the terminology of “left-wing” and “right-wing” are perhaps more at-home in a Francophone reality, where they were born, than elsewhere.

(2) We assume Nadine Gordimer objected to being called a “liberal” for reasons similar to ours, but she may well have other reasons.

(3) Rex Tillerson, US Secretary of State, called Trump “a fucking moron” in July 2017.