Many commentators and analysts, or just plain ordinary observers of the sociopolitical scene, confuse the two terms, ‘Leftist’ and ‘Liberal’.
Some of these commentators, such as the influential American radio pundit Michael Savage, or the American print journalist and pundit Ann Coulter, tend to use ‘Liberal’ almost exclusively when in my view they are really talking about (and nicely excoriating) the phenomenon of ‘Leftism’.
A little clearing up of confusion, then, is in order.
First off, it should be noted that I am aware of the more sophisticated critique of the terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’—a critique that tends to breathe the more rarified air of the dispassionate historian and philosopher in his ivory tower. On one level, I agree with this critique (particularly insofar as it emanates from the virtually impeccable Eric Voegelin): the terms and the polarity they invite tend to simplify the complexity of the larger arc of deformation of political science and the degradation of symbolisms that deformation has entailed.
On the other hand, I believe if the analyst is sufficiently aware of the complexities and nuances, and of the historical background, he will be able to use the terms (and many other sociopolitical labels) in a skillful, limited manner. Furthermore, there is the ostensible fact that many people put themselves in the categories of which those labels are markers, either willingly, or unwittingly. The skillful employer of the terms, then, can simply be noticing one important feature of the complex process of the deformation of political science, and will be using it in gingerly fashion in his analyses.
A final thing to note by way of our introductory remarks here is that, generally speaking, it is usually Leftists themselves who are the ones who belittle the concept and application of the categorization of Left and Right. In one important sense (as the conservative blogger Lawrence Auster has noted), one can say that in many circumstances and contexts, the very critique of the terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ is itself a Leftist conceit. This is worth examining: why would Leftists, far more often than Right-wingers, tend to disparage and even discount this categorization? One answer is that the latter tend to be more candid about their underlying motivations and ultimate goals, and will proudly admit that they are ‘Right-wingers’ or ‘Neo-cons’ or whatever is the label du jour. The former, on the other hand, tend to be more circuitous and serpentine—usually because they tend to come out of an education that has imbibed deeply of the calculated use of complexity in order to obfuscate (such as Deconstructionism), where obfuscation is used either to deceive in order to pursue the Revolution in disguise, or in the rather hopeless Gnostic endeavor to deconstruct the Cosmos itself—and so any analysis or observation of simplex common sense will be avoided and even disparaged or attacked.
Now, to get to the meat of our post:
The proper definition of ‘Liberalism’ harks back to former centuries in the modern West, particularly the 17th and 18th centuries. (One demonstration of the suppleness and fungibility of these terms would be to point out that Edmund Burke, vaunted as one of the ‘Godfathers’ of modern conservatism, was also in many significant respects a Liberal; what he wasn’t was a supporter of such Gnostic outbreaks as the French Revolution, whose extremism Burke rightly saw as, in fact, an enemy, not a champion, of liberal Progress.) It may also be called ‘classical Liberalism’, though I think this is a redundancy. Where ‘Liberalism’ ceases to be classical, it ceases to be itself and becomes ‘Leftism’. ‘Leftism’, then, we may define as the deformation of ‘Liberalism’.
Leftism deforms Liberalism in a variety of ways, but perhaps the most important is that it deforms the concept of Progress which is central to Liberalism. Progress, as conceived in Liberalism, is the gradual amelioration of the ills of society and of the limitations imposed by Nature, with the following two caveats engraved in stone:
1) Progress is not a purist enterprise: it is never free of imperfection. As such, Progress participates in the tension between perfection and imperfection whose origins are mysterious, and whose end is unknown and not to be found in this life but only in a transcendent eschaton. That transcendent eschaton is the source of the limited perfection we experience in this life that informs and inspires one half of the tension, but it can never be accessed in purity (except in the rare case of the saint or the mystic).
2) In Progress, we as individuals and as societies are changing our selves, and only by extension are we changing structures, institutions and other people. We therefore try not to externalize, as enemies or as evil forces, the limitations and wrongs that obstruct Progress. The corollary to this is that we acknowledge our faults, we acknowledge that we will never be faultless, and within this humble, modest and rational self-knowledge, we are able to proceed with the most pragmatic and efficient model for the best change possible, which nevertheless, by its nature, will tend to have its ups and downs, its single steps forward and its two steps back, etc.
Progress as conceived in Leftism, on the other hand, is the diametrical opposite (attenuated only when the Leftism itself happens to be attenuated in the individual or group in question). Progress in Leftism is
1) radical (it is pathologically impatient with incremental, rationally modest stages and compromise),
2) purist (it is intolerant of imperfections in life and lusts after a life of perfection), and
3) is based upon an externalization of the impediments to Progress (seeing these impediments in other people deemed to be evil and in other institutions and structures deemed to be created by those other evil people).
A note on #3 above: the Leftist’s externalization of the impediments to Progress almost always takes on the peculiar paradoxical twist of externalizing what is really inextricably interior—Leftism tends to attack a part of its own self, by attacking its own culture (the West). For more on this peculiar paradox, see my previous post, Spelunking the Leftist Psyche.
How did Liberalism devolve into this grotesque deformation of itself? Here is where the phenomenon becomes too complex to rely too heavily on the simplex categorization of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’. The Liberalism out of which its deformation devolved was not a simplex phenomenon but was, as we intimated above, a complex combination of what we now intend in our use of the clumsier categories of what have come to be understood in our day as ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ (though again, insofar as our analysis is simply noticing and reporting the facts as they present themselves, and if significant sectors of our sociopolitical landscape in fact comport themselves in fidelity to these clumsy categories, then analysis need not avoid using them out of some fastidious disinclination to dirty one’s hands).
Nevertheless, there are, in the history of this process, indications that certain predilections that ultimately belong to the Leftist nebula—including the anti-Catholic and anti-monarchical movements of modern Western history—were instrumental in this deformation process. The deformation of Liberalism into Leftism in the last approximately two centuries has involved, essentially, a monstrous distortion of the good qualities of Liberalism. The causes for this distortion cannot be located centrally in Liberalism itself; rather, it must have involved some larger process of Gnostification in the modern West. Thus, we can say that Leftism, and its fabulously successful child PC multiculturalism, have been symptoms of the Gnostic deformation of the modern West, and have somehow, for reasons too complex to explore now, exploited and found congenial Liberalism as a vehicle for their career.