The difference between liberalism and leftism

There is continuing confusion, especially in the minds of conservatives, between the terms “liberal” and “left.” I will argue here, in a tentative and introductory manner, that there are objective criteria that distinguish these two categories. Liberals, though they want to reform the historic institutions and values of America to make them more equal, nevertheless still believe in those values and institutions—though in an often conflicted and tortured manner. Leftists, by contrast, are actively hostile to those values and institutions. Liberals, however ambivalently, take the side of America. Leftists are unabashedly against America.

Thus an anti-Communist like Hubert Humphrey was a liberal. But a pro-Communist or an anti-anti-Communist was not a liberal, he was a leftist. A person who said during the Cold War, “I don’t like Communism, but anti-Communism is a greater threat to the world than Communism,” was not a liberal, he was a leftist. A person who excuses criminals and attacks the police is not a liberal, he is a leftist.

Someone who says “America has made progress in race relations but still has much racism to overcome” is a liberal. Someone who describes America as a “racist country” is not a liberal, he is a leftist.

Newly elected Congresswoman Linda Sanchez, sister of Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez, commented on the fact that this would be the first time that two sisters would serve together as House members, even though many male relatives have been members of Congress. “It’s a sad commentary on equality in America,” she said. To put America down so gratuituously for its past failure to live up to contemporary standards of equality marks Sanchez as a leftist, not a liberal.

Similarly, a liberal believes in and defends our Western heritage, while desiring to make it more egalitarian. A leftist is instinctively hostile to the Western heritage, regarding it as fundamentally unequal and therefore bad, and only redeemable through radical change.

The distinctions I have outlined here, though they touch on just one dimension of the problem, are nevertheless useful. Employing them in political debate would warn liberals and leftists that to undermine the whole history of our country and civilization is not “liberal” and “mainstream,” but radical, anti-American, anti-Western, and highly objectionable. The left has made leftism appear mainstream. This is what must be challenged.

However, while the distinction between liberal and left is valid and needs to be brought forward, it may also lead us to the uncomfortable conclusion that the number of people who could legitimately be called liberals today has greatly diminished from what it was a few decades ago. The sad fact is that most people who are called liberals today are really leftists of one type or another.

This change within the nature of liberalism was illuminated by Gregory Curtis in his unpublished 1990 essay “The Essential Liberal,” which I discussed in a speech I gave in 1991:

Curtis argues that the so-called “liberal center” in post-war America was committed to both “institutional values” and “social justice values,” seeing them as complementary, but that, starting in the 1960s, liberals began to see institutional values as an obstacle to the attainment of social justice. Demanding too much in the way of rights and equality, liberals disdain the Western institutions that they believe stand in the way of those rights. Curtis calls on liberals to moderate their extreme demands for social equality with a renewed appreciation of institutional values.

But the problem is that the excessive demand for equality is not limited to political subjects like affirmative action and quotas or misbegotten poverty programs; if that’s were all it were, liberals might be rationally willing to give them up when they saw how disastrous they were. No, the problem is part of a totalistic mind-set which demands absolute equality in every sphere of life, including “life-style,” sexuality, marriage and sex roles, religion, and language. Today’s liberals do not see their demands for equality as “hubristic” or excessive (as Curtis suggests they might be ready to see), but as essential requirements of justice. They belief in absolute racial equality (in the sense of statistical equality of results), in absolute cultural equality (in the sense of multiculturalism, as well as the denial of the distinction between high culture and popualr culture), in absolute life-style equality (every coupling or grouping, no matter how transient and no matter the sexes involved, is now to be regarded as a “family,” to be given all the rights and privileges and respect formerly reserved for the traditional family), absolute sex equality (women in combat), and absolute sex-orientation equality (legitimation and official sponsorship of homosexuality, including homosexual marriages and homosexual adoption).

The basic problem is that civilized order depends on hierarchy and differentiation. Marriage must be honored more highly than temporary liaisons. The citizen must be valued more highly than the foreigner. The language of one’s own country must be protected against foreign languages. Responsible and law-abiding behavior is respected more than irresponsible and disruptive behavior. But many people today see these basic inequalitites—on which civilization itself depends—as inhumane. In order to avoid being inhumane to homosexuals, for example, we must assert that homosexuality is as natural (and as worthy of respect) as heterosexuality.

Thus the basic motivation behind the equality paradigm is not an articulated idea of the highest good, or of the best possible good for a particular society; rather it is the feeling that to discriminate is inhumane.

Again, what the above suggests is that most liberals today are really leftists, because their commitment to radical equality leads them to conclude that our entire civilization up to the present has been fundamentally inhumane, guilty, and unworthy of loyalty or affection. Feeling alienated toward or guilty about our historic society, they end up siding with, or refusing to oppose, the declared enemies of our society.

Of course, in addition to the anti-American left, there is also the anti-American right. But that is a subject for another article.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 14, 2002 03:08 AM | Send


Good distinction. That will be useful to know.

Posted by: remus on December 14, 2002 6:41 AM

I am a bit more cynical. I think “liberal” is what a Leftist calls himself but conservatives correctly call him a Leftist.

Posted by: John Ray on December 14, 2002 8:34 AM

I find it hard to view the liberal as more than a halfway figure. At least that’s the way things look in post-60s retrospect.

Freedom and equality are in tension with every substantive standard, since substantive standards create obligations and hierarchies. The liberal, however, is the man who won’t recognize any substantive standard higher than freedom and equality. The latter outrank the former for him. It follows that in the long run the liberal will give up on every substantive standard as intrinsically repressive and bigoted. He will in fact become a leftist, for whom freedom and equality immediately trump everything and civilization is simply an evil.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on December 14, 2002 9:04 AM

Mr. Kalb is quite correct that the liberal is a “half-way” figure. But this half-wayness is not simply, as the term seems to suggest, a transitional point toward an ultimate goal of out-and-out leftism. Rather, the half-wayness is the functional essence of liberalism and of liberal society. What we call liberalism is a pragmatic compromise between pure liberal ideology (which by itself would lead instantly to the destruction of all substantive human and social goods) and the unprincipled exceptions from liberalism that liberals must continually make in order to exist in this world. One of those exceptions is a minimalistic patriotism.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on December 14, 2002 10:16 AM

A correspondent wrote: “As far as I am concerned, if one is not a rabid reactionary one is a leftist, as the failure to defend our historic civilization is identical to consenting to its destruction, given that the present correlation of social forces tend to the latter.”

This is true in the sense that anyone not opposing liberalism/leftism is on the side of the destruction of our civilization. However, in trying to identify that which distinguishes liberalism from leftism, I am not saying that there is an essential difference between them. I am saying that there is an emotional, stylistic, and functional difference. This is suggested by the fact that, despite the essential similarity of liberalism and leftism, we still tend to call some people “liberals” and other people “leftists.” Why do we make this distinction? What does it reflect? That’s what I was trying to answer.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on December 14, 2002 10:53 AM

I agree the halfway figure is not the whole-hog figure, so the liberal is not the leftist. For some purposes the distinction makes a difference. It also seems to me though that the halfway tends in the end to go the whole hog. It seems Mr. Auster agrees with that, since he says there are more leftists and many fewer liberals than a few decades ago.

Since as Mr. Auster says the halfwayness is the functional essence of liberal civilization a conclusion is that liberal civilization may be approaching a crisis. It’s been very durable so far, but the theory that it is eternal seems premature to me. So the next few decades may be far more interesting politically than most of us would like.

Posted by: Jim Kalb on December 14, 2002 11:09 AM

One of the major themes of Mr. Kalb’s writings is that liberalism, notwithstanding its current effortless ascendancy, is inherently unstable. I agree with him, and also agree, as he has sometimes said, that this provides grounds for hope.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on December 14, 2002 11:22 AM

Further refinements in our political bestiary. A correspondent writes:

“Liberals LET civilization collapse. Radicals try to MAKE civilization collapse.”

My reply:

“No. Radicals try to make civilization collapse. Liberals try to make civilization collapse half-way. Conservatives LET civilization collapse.”

(I left the word “conservative” unqualified for rhetorical effect, but that may create an incorrect impression. I mean modern, mainstream, establishment, Republican conservatives.)

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on December 14, 2002 12:32 PM

You write that another article could be written about “the anti-American right”. I suspect such an article would engage the “hearts and minds” of a number of us at VFR.

Posted by: William Wleklinski on December 14, 2002 1:11 PM

I think Mr. Auster’s article and the commentary that has followed is useful. However it is important to bear in mind that “liberal” and “leftist” are areas on a continuum in the schema. There are no pure “leftists” since leftism is self-contradictory and survives only by virtue of its unprincipled exceptionalism. A leftist is simply a liberal who is making a more earnest effort to be consistent, not recognizing that to do so is ultimately (quite literally) impossible.

This is similar to the situation with nihilism. Pure nihilism is inherently unstable because a pure nihilist will immediately destroy as much as possible and commit suicide. Liberalism/leftism is analogous to nihilism in the sense that the closer it gets to consistency with its principles the closer it gets to self-destruction.

This isn’t an attempt to gainsay anything here, but rather to add further clarification.

Posted by: Matt on December 14, 2002 3:04 PM

The problem with formalising a distinction between “left” and “liberal” is that it suggests a difference in principle between the two (and between the more right wing forms of liberalism).

If we agree to call the more conservative left or centre liberals “liberals” then what do we call the underlying philosophy which unites most people across the “official” political spectrum?

I think Matt is right to say that “A leftist is a liberal who is making a more earnest effort to be consistent”. He is, in other words, more radical in his attempts to follow through with (left) liberal principles. He is a radical left liberal.

For a similar reason, I’m a bit hesitant to allow the use of the word “conservative” to those in the Republican Party, as once again it suggests a difference in principle with liberalism.

Have you ever read a statement of principle from a typical member of the Republican Party? They are usually a very clear and straightforward expression of some form of classical liberalism. In other words, your average member of the American Republican Party, or the Australian Liberal Party, or the British Conservative Party, is, by self-conscious principle, a liberal (and proud of it!)

I think it’s helpful, in the way we label people politically, to make clear the dominance of liberalism across the official political spectrum. It’s a way of encouraging people to look at first principles, and to understand the extent of the challenge before us.

Posted by: Mark Richardson on December 14, 2002 4:42 PM

I think the overall term to cover both liberalism and leftism is liberalism, with leftism seen as a more consistent and radical form of liberalism. So “leftists” are understood as radical liberals, “liberals” are understood as moderate liberals, and “Republicans” and “mainstream conservatives” are understood as conservative liberals. While this suggested terminology is not usable in ordinary political speech, since it’s impossible to get away from accepted conventions (I’m not going to start going around calling conservatives “conservative liberals”), it helps clarify for us what the conventional terms really mean.

This terminology is not perfect, since I think we (with the exception of Matt :-) ) would have a problem thinking of Communists as liberals. I suppose we could set up a terminology in which “leftism” rather than “liberalism” is the umbrella term for all the varieties of the left and center. But that introduces its own problems, e.g., it would be hard to think of a Republican as a leftist.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on December 14, 2002 6:07 PM

Might this quote from a great man help refine some of these tricky definitions? (Gleaned from “Gene Expression,” at )

Friday, December 13, 2002
posted by Jason Soon at 3:49 PM


“One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words socialism and communism draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, Nature-cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England…

“We have reached a stage when the very word socialism calls up, on the one hand, a picture of airplanes, tractors and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete; on the other, a picture of vegetarians with wilting beards, of Bolshevik commissars (half gangster, half gramophone), or earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers.

“If only the sandals and pistachio-colored shirts could be put in a pile and burnt, and every vegetarian, teetotaler and creeping Jesus sent home to Welwyn Garden City to do his yoga exercises quietly. As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.”

~George Orwell

Thanks to “Professor Bunyip” [ ] for reproducing this quote.

Posted by: Unadorned on December 14, 2002 10:02 PM

To draw proper inferences about labels, also ask if the label is being applied to the self or another, whether the speaker agrees, in whole or part, with the label and labelled one; then measure all against the reality of the world of politics including a good dose of scepticism of the motive of the speaker. Filter it all through the prism of your experience, remembering always the perfidy of others and your own gullibility.

In a humorous nutshell I tell friends: Believe nothing that you hear and only half of what you see.That is to say, you can be wrong as easily in your senses as by your mind.

I see the spectrum of political views as a wheel or circle, at one point the totalitarian view, at the opposite, the anarchist.Nothing is easy but it all fits on the wheel..Clusters of attitudes point one way,or another.

The one constant is the lying nature of totalitarians/Leftist/Radical. All excellent liars, devious to the bone and well equipped for the battle of words, they shift their public positions out of self interest but keep a hidden agenda of radical hearts always..Call a person Liberal only sparingly and only when you believe the person has not been infected with anti Americanism. Jesse Jackson is not a liberal- he is a radical dedicated to raising his networth.Colin Powell is a liberal who has paid the price of service to America.I can disagree with liberals but revile radical leftists.Any speech secretly designed to tear America down(Chomsky-speak) is as treasonous as the content it contains.
Watch out for the single interest politician-the one who supports only one topic or subject of interest.These politicians are are always motivated by continuation of their presence in the public eye and the consolidation of power.

Posted by: Sandy on December 16, 2002 12:44 PM

I think it is a mistake to treat idealogues as liars, even though it is no doubt true that most politicians lie. I think Chomsky for example is simply saying what he actually thinks. Calling the opposition liars (even if true) and leaving it at that seems to me to be a way of avoiding a direct confrontation of ideas. Since we are in the Right there is no need to avoid such a direct confrontation.

Also like Mark Richardson in another comment I think it is a mistake to downplay the pervasiveness of liberal ideology by being reluctant to apply the term everywhere it is appropriate.

Finally, I tend to be wary of label-speak (the treatment of words as mere labels), because that provides aid and comfort to nominalism. Nominalism lies at the root of Mr. Auster’s “common sense and unprincipled exceptions” dynamic, itself the source of liberalism’s resilience despite its parasitic nature. In that sense Sandy and I agree that radicals should not be allowed to get away with positioning themselves as moderates, but I think (contra Sandy) that in the modern world there are no moderates; only radicals and those who are complicit with one or another form of radicalism.

I am beginning to understand how Sandy and I can have so much apparently in common and yet at the same time tend to run into disagreements in these comment threads. I tend to take what our enemies say seriously, since what they say is the foundation of any support they have anyway; Sandy prefer’s to view our enemies as deliberate liars. I tend to talk about liberalism as pervasive, while Sandy wants to let various sorts of less radical liberals hide in their self-constructed “moderate” boxes (e.g. the ALI in another thread). And I tend to treat words such as “liberalism” and “liberal” as referring to independent entities, capable of objective evaluation, while Sandy would apparently like us to use the words “liberal” and “radical” in a subjectively polemical fashion. These are not unimportant issues for traditionalists, despite our (at least apparent) ontological similarity.

Posted by: Matt on December 16, 2002 2:11 PM

To be more specific about the label thing, I think that whether or not a label applies to a person is not at all that person’s choice. So whether or not the person agrees with the label is objectively irrelevant. The person may have made past choices that make the label apply, and may even be making current choices that affect whether the label applies or not; but the objective fact of whether or not the label applies is not a matter of what the person wills.

If a person is objectively a liberal (one who has some sort of strong alliegence to liberal principles of freedom and equal rights as the purpose of politics) then that person is objectively liberal, all protestations to the contrary. The person can stop being a liberal by repenting of those alliegences, but that has nothing to do with whether or not the person agrees to the label.

Posted by: Matt on December 16, 2002 2:25 PM

Most all those who oppose the right, (thing to do and pun intended)but also some of us who ardently support the right thing to do, argue by weaving an elegant mixture of truth and fiction,and do so intentionally or negligently.The left’s rhetoric is either serious threats of importance or inconsequential, bumptous and of mildly passing interest.Our first duty is to assess the mix offered and decide the level we’ll engage on. It should be enjoyable where possible serious and thorough where not. Select the proper rhetorical tools,adequate to the occasion, and continue to watch for changes in the mix the left offers.They play dirty debate pool. Labels are rhetorical tools themselves, and the who, when, what ,where and how of their use by others helps sharpen our conservative wits.

Posted by: sandy on December 16, 2002 3:38 PM

Sandy, I don’t have a simplistic theory of discourse (in fact I think understanding postmodernism is an important part of any traditionalist project); I just believe it is as important to oppose nominalism overtly as it is to oppose liberalism overtly. Perhaps it is more important, since the battle over nominalism is largely implicit. For more fleshing out of this idea see the comments here:

And the American Law Institute *is too* responsible for the content of what it publishes! {razzberry}

Posted by: Matt on December 16, 2002 4:09 PM

Sorry I just disagree.
My ordinary real (reality) world experience differentiates into serious or trivial argument.Whether one of two “liberal” pronouncements or arguments stems from nominalist inconsistency may be useful, but may also be a distraction from the more important topic.Cant think of anyone that would seriously pull the word Pretty out of the context of an heroic resistance by a young black girl,except as philosophical example.

Posted by: sandy on December 16, 2002 5:42 PM

We’ve discussed the tendency to dismiss certain liberal arguments as “silly” as well:

Posted by: Matt on December 16, 2002 5:50 PM

Got a dumb question: Sandy rightly says, “They [the left] play dirty debate pool.” Why do they? Why does the left fight so dirty, dirtier than anyone on our side? Even Richard Nixon at his most devious (assuming the stories about how bad he was — which come 95 percent from liberals — can be believed, which they probably can’t) — even Richard Nixon, who was a major exception for our side in that regard, seemed like a rank amateur compared to the deviousness and dirty fighting of ALMOST ANY RUN-OF-THE MILL liberal or leftist. How can they be so totally without shame? What’s going on in their heads when they do that? Is it that they see us as the absolute epitome of pure evil and therefore any tactics are justified? Furthermore, the closer one is to being a leftist, the dirtier one fights. Thus, leftists fight dirtier than liberals, who in turn fight dirtier than neocons, who in turn fight dirtier than conservatives. (The neocons went behind Prof. Paul Gottfried’s back and torpedoed the full professorship being offered him by Catholic University; Wall Street Journal neocon James Taranto deliberately published editor Peter Brimelow’s home address — something an editor of a site like might not want every crackpot to know — as punishment for writing a favorable review of Michelle Malkin’s book; and there are other neocon examples too numerous to mention.)

What causes that? What makes leftism so nasty and dishonest, that even if someone isn’t leftist, he gets more dishonest the closer his position approaches leftism?

I think I saw Larry Auster allude to something along these lines in a recent VFR reader’s comment, to the effect that the conservatives act like they’re running a Victorian debating society while the other side acts like they’re fighting a war — or words to that effect. David Horowitz has also commented on an aspect of this difference, advising conservatives any number of times that they have to learn that they’re in war and must fight more savagely.

Posted by: Unadorned on December 16, 2002 5:51 PM

Homosexual activists attempted to get me fired from a job years ago because of my postings in a Usenet newsgroup against allowing gays in the military. Liberals believe that liberalism is identical to virtue. Therefore they are not constrained by real, objective virtue; they have substituted a lie for the truth.

I don’t see how giving up on real, objective virtue is going to help us in the long run though. It is our strength.

Posted by: Matt on December 16, 2002 6:17 PM

Thanks for the cites to the other VFTR comments on counterev.. etc.I read them before my last reply. I found them interesting but unconvincing. I prefer not to wear myself out on left liberal arguments and positions that come from twinkie-land in the view of the ordinary audience.Light hearted humor is better when possible.. My serious weapon choice is the rifle. Shotguns have their place too..

Posted by: sandy on December 16, 2002 7:22 PM

Unadorned : The short answer is that they want to win. They want to win anyway and by any means possible and available. Evil is free to enjoy no rules of engagement whatever.Good is always at a disadvantage and usually cant apprehend the depths that evil can sink to.Conservatives have been slow off the mark to pick up the gauntlet..
Look at Muslim behavior at every interface it has with the west, pure unadulterated evil in the guise of begnign religion.
Totalitarianism embraces all those who recognize no bounds of common ethical decency whether communist,fascist, one worlder, leftist or a hundred other labels.

Posted by: sandy on December 16, 2002 7:43 PM

Sandy, today’s twinkie is tomorrow’s main course; so belly up to the table. You’ll perhaps forgive me if I view your reaction as fitting in with Larry Auster’s characterization of the dismissal of left-liberal PC as “silly”:

“the failure or refusal to think about PC in a rational principled way, because to do so would mean becoming a dissident from liberal society”

The main point of those other articles is that PC is not from twinkie-land: it is of mainstream American society. (Or alternatively there is no mainstream; everything is either radical or complicit with the radical). I understand natural conservatives not wanting to face that fact — Lord only knows I haven’t wanted to.

Posted by: Matt on December 16, 2002 8:39 PM

We use rhetoric and persuasion to refute the lies of the left.We dont do this for ourselves but for the audience of readers who need our reasoned views.When the ordinary audience is able to do it for themselves our rhetoric is not necessary.Sometimes I just like to watch in silence as a leftie shoot himself in the foot.Or maybe laugh about it.

Posted by: andy on December 16, 2002 8:51 PM

Is refusing to take something (e.g. leftist PC) seriously the same thing as using rhetoric and persuasion to refute it?

Posted by: Matt on December 16, 2002 9:08 PM

There are no hard fast rules. Refusing to take some leftie P.C arguments seriously is personal and I’d keep the reason and rhetoric internal to me.Or just use the R&R to bump em with humor.
Its best to tailor the level of R&R to match what they offer.Dont need to use a high powered weapon designed to hunt Grizzly Bear just to kill a Raccoon? Keep fighting the good fight Matt.

Posted by: Sandy on December 17, 2002 8:52 PM

Matt wrote: “I don’t see how giving up on real, objective virtue is going to help us in the long run though. It is our strength.”

This is a truth that all too many people on today’s increasingly reactive right fail to understand. They think the rule of society by immoral leftists releases themselves from the moral law, whereas in fact the only way to defeat the immoral left is through a firm adherence to moral law.

Posted by: Lawrence Auster on January 21, 2003 6:46 PM
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