There are at least two major models for understanding politics in the West, and indeed across the world. The first is the well-known left-right spectrum, where parties are situated in terms of their leanings and policies. It’s hard to precisely define, but once you’ve got a handle on the spectrum it’s not too difficult to use: the CDU is on the right wing, Syriza is on the left, the Canadian Liberals are closer to the centre, etc. It can be applied to individuals, too: Orbán is on the right, Trotsky was on the left. If you’re reading a political blog, you know how this works.
In this model, there is something called ‘the left’: stating the obvious, it is the area to the left of the centre. At root, this left is a set of ideas and positions. You can be more left wing on one issue, and less left wing on another, and importantly the positions that count as left wing will change: the space of policies that is covered by the left of the spectrum will depend on how those policies are situated in public discourse, and not always in an obvious way.
The other model understands politics in terms of a set of political traditions. Where the left-right spectrum is about policy and political leanings, this model is much more concerned with philosophy and history. There is the liberal tradition, rooted in 19th century reform movements and emphasising individual liberty; the conservative tradition, rooted in more upper-class attitudes and emphasising, well, tradition; and so on. There are also many traditions that are more local than these (think Ba’thism, Irish republicanism, or Christian democracy). Some parties represent a single tradition, but more often different traditions and sub-traditions coexist and overlap within particular parties: there are liberal wings within conservatives parties, for example. This is true even of parties which have a central defining tradition (think the CDU).
In this model, too (although less obviously), there is something called ‘the left’: it is a tradition rooted in late 19th and early 20th century alliances between organised labour, socialists, social democrats, and (especially later on) students, although it has expanded beyond these groups. It’s associated, though not exclusively, with the tools of organised labour like demonstrations and strikes; and with dreams of a classless society, although people within the tradition differ on how seriously they take that dream.
These models are not inherently opposed to each other: they are simply different tools we use to think about the same object, politics. But nonetheless, they leave us with two ideas of ‘the left’ that don’t seem to come to the same thing, at least not by definition. As it happens, the fact that these two things have the same name is no coincidence, for they are deeply connected; but as should become clear, the nature of these connections is something that needs investigated, and not just assumed. For clarity, then, I will use the phrase ‘the left wing’ for the area of the political spectrum, and I will use ‘the Left’ for the political tradition.
The idea of the left wing predates the tradition of the Left by a long time, decades at the very least. The idea of the left-right spectrum was born during the French Revolution; the alliance that created the Left is substantially younger than that, certainly no older than the failed revolutions of 1848. And indeed, for much of the 19th century the left wing was dominated by the liberal tradition, not the Left. So there is a very real question: why did we begin to use this name for the tradition?
It has much to do with the fact that the Left self-consciously thought of itself as left wing, even before it thought of itself as a distinct tradition. Conflicts and disagreements with left wing liberals encouraged the Left to develop attacks against liberals, just as liberals developed attacks against the Left: one of the major ways the Left did this was to criticise these liberals for not really being left wing, to claim for the Left the title of true representatives of left wing politics. The name ‘the Left’ is a product of this essentialising attitude: this political tradition is the real left wing.
This is the big connection between the two: it’s not that the Left and the left wing overlap by definition, but rather it’s that it is essential to the Left’s goals and self-image that they must overlap. A similar thing is true of the concept ‘radical’: originally the name for a branch of liberalism, it became associated with the left wing and so was appropriated by the Left, who began to use it in a more and more exclusionary sense; now, ‘radical politics’ is often used to just mean ‘the Left’, or an even narrower subset of the Left.
I think this crude history goes some way towards helping us understand an ever-present phenomenon in politics: leftist infighting. Why do leftists squabble and split so often? Sometimes, this is explained by the roots of the Left in an alliance between highly ideologically diverse groups—different groups are more likely to disagree. But this can’t be the whole story. American conservatism, for instance, is based in an alliance between the religious right, small-government libertarians, and neocons; but despite the huge differences between these groups it might be the most unified tradition anywhere in Western politics today. Sometimes the claim is that the Left’s alliance has recently fallen apart due to socioeconomic developments, but this can’t be right either: leftists have been fighting since the beginning.
The real explanation is that the Left was born in infighting. The Left’s dramatic entry into all spheres of politics in the late 19th century occurred as it attempted to take support from other left wing traditions and subtraditions; in other words, as it attempted to claim left wing politics for itself. Because of this, it is part of the Left’s very self-image that it is the most authentic representative of the left wing; there should be no surprise so much fighting is created within the tradition by claims to authenticity. The very name of this tradition arose from the attempt to delineate the real left wing from the liberals; replace ‘liberals’ with ‘neoliberals’ and this is behind fights to this day (more on neoliberalism later). The Left, as a tradition, is defined by the fact that it sees itself as the true representative of left wing politics; and so conflicts arise where they might otherwise not, when different versions of left wing politics come into contact. After all, there cannot be two different sole representatives of left wing politics.
This is one example of how understanding the differences, but also the connections, between the left wing and the Left helps understand otherwise puzzling phenomena. Another example is the concept of ‘neoliberalism’. What exactly neoliberalism is supposed to be is a matter of debate, but the rough idea is that it’s something (an ideology? a process? a stage of capitalism?) that started in the 60s or 70s and became dominant in the West in the late 70s and 80s; it’s associated with the administration of Reagan in the US and Thatcher in the UK, and it was supposedly adopted by many left wing parties in the 90s, notably Labour under Blair and the Democrats under Clinton. At least until 2008, but perhaps until 2016, neoliberalism was ascendant in Western politics; and it is a deeply pernicious right wing influence on politics to this day. Or at least, that’s the idea. This narrative is so prevalent in Left circles, most notably the academy, that it goes almost universally unchallenged: the debate is less over the value of the concept and more over what it applies to.
Major political changes happened in the late 70s and 80s in the West; that much is indisputable. But the idea that there was anything approaching a politically consensus after this, one that could reasonably be called ‘neoliberalism’, is hard to square with reality. Does neoliberalism involve cuts to government spending? Well, in the US, federal government spending (even as a proportion of GDP) actually increased under Reagan; and on this account, Blair couldn’t be a neoliberal. What about privatisation? That might be a fair enough characterisation of agreement in the UK, but there had never been major public ownership in the US, so opposition to that could hardly be new. On the big policy issues of the day, the difference between left wing and right wing parties in the 90s was just as big as ever. Even those policies that did come to be shared across the political divide don’t seem to be symptoms of anything broader: a few policy agreements do not add up to a consensus.
There was a convergence on increasingly market-based policies during this era; maybe we can say that neoliberalism is associated with a turn towards more pro-market ideas. But if all ‘neoliberal’ means is ‘they kinda like markets’, then it’s not clear what analytical value it has as a concept—never mind in what sense it is ‘neo’. (On this definition, Adam Smith—who lived decades before anyone even self-identified as a liberal—was a neoliberal. It’s a bit weird if neoliberalism is supposed to be older than regular liberalism.)
If ‘neoliberalism’ doesn’t help us understand the situation, then what actually happened during this period? I think the answer is that, while there was no turn away from the left wing, there was a turn away from the Left. Formerly Left-dominated parties came to adopt much more from liberalism and technocracy (most notably, Labour); liberal parties that had at least some room for trade unionism or social democracy (like the Democrats) came to reject these; and the groups and organisations that had previously ensured Left representation lost their political capital. This isn’t the whole story, but it’s a big part of it. While there was definitely a realignment of the political landscape, it was not the defining realignment of the late 20th century; it wasn’t as big as those that took place after 1945 or 1989. But what was big was that the left wing of politics was no longer dominated by the Left; the space of public reason had shifted in such a way that the ideas from this tradition no longer had the currency they once had.
It makes sense from the perspective of the Left that this should be seen as the major epoch-defining shift of contemporary politics: after all, it was the moment they lost much of their power. And, if you measure politics in terms of your own beliefs, then it made sense why the Left should have interpreted what happened as a narrowing of the distance between other political actors: politics really did move away from the Left. ‘Neoliberalism’ was supposed to be the name for the factors that unified Thatcher and Blair, Reagan and Clinton.
But from a more impartial perspective, we can see that what ‘neoliberalism’ really means is ‘not the Left’: this is the only thing that unites these figures and all the others who are called neoliberal. Even as varying parties moved away from the Left, they didn’t really move towards each other. And they certainly didn’t abandon the left wing; all that happened was that the policies and beliefs that counted as left wing changed, as happens regularly. The difficulty was just for the Left to accept that this meant that it could not be the sole determinant of left wing politics; both the continuation of infighting and the idea of ‘neoliberalism’ are signals that the Left still hasn’t accepted this.