Are Socialists Liberals? — OR — Is Liberalism Leftist?

August 12, 2009

Are Socialists Liberals? — OR — Is Liberalism Leftist?

A funny thing happened on the way to an argument.

I was discussing various aspects of socialism and its relationship to democracy and fascism,etc, and someone spoke to me of the writings of F A Hayek.

I’m not a big fan of those who go out of their way to prop up a kind of conservative capitalism while, at the same time, disparaging all socialism as the same thing – lumping together Trotsky, Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini and Eugene Debs into one big socialist totalitarian stew.

At this point, the world still seemed definable into the Left/Center/Right spectrum or continuum. In my mind I sometimes pictured Hitler and Stalin holding hands at the Left and Right ends forming us all into a big circle.

So I did a little research into Hayek. Usually if Conservatives tell you about someone’s writings, they all point to the same work, seemingly unaware of the author’s other works. In this case I stumbled on to Hayek’s excellent “Why I Am Not a Conservative”.

What I came away with was an interesting mental image of the political ‘spectrum’ as a sort of isosceles triangle. With Conservatism in one corner, opposed by Socialism and Liberalism/Progressivism in the top corner. The idea was that the Progressive Liberals are always trying to pull the cart ‘forward’ while the Conservatives resist change. And the Socialists are there trying to collectivise everyone into a totalitarian state.

While reading this, I realised that Hayek, by not differentiating Socialists as Right and Left or Nationalist and Internationalists, had left the idea incomplete. Hayek of course saw all totalitarians the same and all Socialism ended up with Hitler or Stalin and it didnt really matter.

The problem with this is that it fails to recognise and inform as to how those extremes come about from fairly rational and normal populations. We must differentiate them to understand the perils of totalitarianism and we must understand them to seek out the ‘goodness’ that may reside within a movement.

What I came to see was more of a diamond shape, where Liberalism was at the top as a result of progressive interests. Socialism was at the left where social programs protected the individual and the marginalized from the exploiting classes and planted the seeds for equality and internationalism. Conservatism was at the right where the state protected the traditions and intangible ‘values’ and reinforced the ideas of patriotism and nationalism. On the bottom was totalitarianism where one could arrive by corrupting either the right or the left.

But what stared me in the face was this contradiction that only then came to me. Socialists aren’t really Liberals. ‘Liberal’ in the US is almost a negative term. It has come to mean a nebulous ideal that either at one time is anti-establishment or wants to spend all the taxes of the rich on Welfare. In a way, those are both fairly accurate descriptions of the Left and of Socialists or Communists in a capitalist state, BUT, they do not describe LIBERALS.

The real description of a Liberal is someone who wants to maximize personal freedom, personal success and what ever opportunities present themselves. That, however, does not describe Socialism.

A Socialist, at least an honest Socialist, should tell you that true and complete personal freedom comes at the expense of equality. This is not to say that Liberals or Libertarians are wrong, wronghearted or misguided. They simply see the world in more Darwinian terms and they probably enjoy some personal success which they would want to expand. American Libertarians, to me, seek their means through some Conservative routes – they would hold the Constitution or portions of it, maintain Capitalism and the overarching systems of the US. Socialists at the more extreme would arrive at their Utopia without those trappings if necessary. But it may happen through a revolution which leaves those institutions at the side of the road.

Socialists, therefore, seek to mellow this drive to universal personal freedom with a measure of equality. Ensuring universal equality is to some degree an artificial control. It requires a mechanism to ensure equality and opportunity. That mechanism doesn’t need to ensure SAMENESS, just equal opportunity. This means that mechanism or government may need to control, operate or oversee some of the services provided to the populace.

Communism may fall between Liberalism and Socialism, or it may fall between Socialism and Totalitarianism. It depends on what its specific mechanism or government looks like.

So if this is the case then, why would a Liberal want a helmet law? They wouldn’t. Each for themselves as they see fit. Although I cant see why a Socialist would need one either… Why would a Liberal want laws restricting guns or any sports? They wouldn’t. A Liberal would demand that the minority which abuses the right to own guns would be stringently punished but that the actions of a relatively small minority would not affect the rest.

A Leftist Socialist would never favor immigration laws, but what about the Liberal? The Liberal may become protective if true freedom may impact them in the negative. But ideally, why would the Liberal care who came and went, since everyone has the same opportunity.

The average person sits in the middle of the diamond – the Moderate/Centrist who wants things to continue on roughly the same. The Centrist is pulled at times by the Liberal to find more freedoms and less control, pulled by the Conservative to honor values or traditions or patriotism, pulled by the Socialist to care for their fellow man and seek equality. Allowing too much control by the statists on either the Conservative or the Socialist side can lead into the wilderness of Totalitarianism.

So we see that while the Left or the Right may have their Liberals, true Liberalism is progressive and outside of the Left/Right continuum. Complete Liberalism/Libertarianism leads to Anarchy. It could be the quite happiness of a true stateless and free society, or it could be the dark lawlessness where some have and some have not to include security and health.

Extremism at any point is excessive, it is important to continuously find the balance that maintains freedom and equality and honors traditions without xenophobia or paranoia.