Many leftists have experienced being called liberals when they loudly pronounce their hatred for it, whereas many self-identified right-wing liberals experience the confusion of being mistaken for leftists, and, to add more elements to this strange salad of political indentities, there are many leftists who self-identify as liberals who are often quite shocked when ideological comrades yell “down with liberalism”. It then seems quite an easy conclusion to draw that the word liberalism is meaningless and that it is inherently confusing, but that would be wrong. Understanding its foundations and its history, it all becomes much clearer:
Liberalism holds the following as its essence — personal emancipation, structured around a republican form of government (might I add the early liberals preferred calling themselves “democratic” to “democrats”, as “democracy” was actually used as a slur for mob rule), with the rule of law and a state that has, above all, the function of securing the basic conditions necessary for a capitalist society to function, such as safety and private property.
Liberalism is in the origin of our political system and has been the political common sense in recent times. As such, a majority of politicians in democratic nations draw from these ideas, although they do end up differing in matters such as what is the scope of the “essential conditions” for a free, democratic society. Some will include education, healthcare and basic infrastructure as an integral part of the liberal states, others, nowadays often called “neoliberals” and who also identify as “minarchists” or right-libertarians (those who want the least amount of state interference in capitalist society whilst still maintaining defense, security and property, and perhaps even foreign policy).
So, liberal means a lot of things to many people, but it generally holds a common origin. Naturally, in places like the US, where the political spectre is divided into a “Liberal” left wing and a “Conservative” right wing, to be a liberal is often synonymous with being left-wing, but the term has a very different history.
Indeed, those sitting on the left in the Estates General of the French Revolution may have been liberals. But much of liberal theory which in part inspired the revolution and grew throughout it was created in a time period where feudalism was still the way of the land, or capitalism was only just budding. Even then, it should be noted that some liberal authors were critiquing private property, such as Rousseau. It was only after the liberal revolutions failed to achieve their stated goals of “liberty, equality and fraternity” that the problems of capitalism were fully revealed, and that the ideology of liberalism became even more entangled in it.
Liberal republican government spread from Britain and France as capitalism spread, toppling kings and aristocrats, and replacing them with a system of capitalist class relations. It was according to the doctrine of liberalism that these relations were not coercive, created the most liberty, and were fundamentally just. The conservatives who initially favored feudalism changed with the times, to the point that, like Edmund Burke, they also defended capitalism reverently and only rejected the radical methods of violent revolution of the liberals to cast off the vestiges of feudalism.
It is easy to conceive of liberals and capitalism as progressive in these early days. However, when the socialists and anarchists demanded not just political emancipation, but human emancipation, the liberals balked, having ostensibly achieved all their ideological imperatives. To them, the unjustifiable feudal monarchies and aristocracies had been replaced by a meritocracy that gave people the political freedom they had originally wanted.
The leftist presses questions of the nature of private property, capital accumulation, profit, and class under capitalism, asking what they do to our world, and the liberal ignores, humming along to their own tune. Indeed, when liberals are often forced by this fundamentally pro-capitalist ideology to blame not systems or institutions but individuals for the ills in society, ensuring that any underlying issues go undressed. This is true for the centre-left liberals and the centre-right liberals.
The leftist denouncing of liberalism stems, mainly, from liberal doctrine’s necessary implication of capitalism and optimism in the formal politics of contemporary representative democracy and praise of law as the route to progress and justice, which casts aside material conditions and underlying social struggles. And often in debates between centre-left and centre-right, despite the harshness that debate between those can achieve, both can be said to be liberals, even if they have different understandings of the term.