The difference between leftists and liberals

With election season around the corner, political ads can be seen all over campus and Appleton. Photo by Adam Fleischer.

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It may be a result of my personal political consciousness journey, but more and more it seems that people from both American political poles are referring to politicians in the Democratic party as “leftists.” Day after day I hear folks complaining about “leftism” taking over America and about the Democratic party becoming occupied by “radicals.” To this, I ask, where are these supposedly leftist policies? Is it a free college education? Is it a $15/hour minimum wage? Is it gun control?  

While it’s clear that these policies are not right-leaning ideas, can they really be called “left”? For far too many Americans, “left” and “liberal” are one and the same, but it is becoming increasingly important to draw a distinction between these two concepts, as they are much more different than one might think. According to the average Tucker Carlson tangent, the more disagreeable an idea is, the more leftist it is. Ask any true communist (like myself) and they will happily jump on the opportunity to tell you why “leftist” and “liberal” are not interchangeable terms. So let’s discuss.  

The simplest distinction between liberals and leftists is that liberals support capitalism and want to make changes within it, while leftists vouch for an alternative economic system entirely. For example: where a liberal would theoretically support the inclusion of gay people into the U.S. military, a leftist might oppose the military in general, believing the U.S. military to be a harbinger of death and therefore deplorable no matter which marginalized groups are represented in its ranks. Where a liberal would support laws heavily limiting civilian gun ownership, a leftist might support the arming of the masses, and particularly of the marginalized groups of society, because the disarming of those groups has historically allowed for violent government suppression.  

With election season around the corner, political ads can be seen all over campus and Appleton. Photo by Adam Fleischer.

It is helpful to consider the idea of reform versus revolution; a liberal believes that the system is overall redeemable if it is reformed through laws and social change, while a leftist believes that the system itself is the problem and only a revolutionary restructuring of that system would truly do any good. This is why the idea of, for example, a $15/hour minimum wage is not a leftist idea; a leftist view would be the idea that waged labor itself is a capitalistic concept with inherent flaws that cannot be accounted for by simply raising the minimum wage.  

The United States has a well-documented history of actively suppressing leftist beliefs and raising up capitalist rhetoric, due to the Red Scare brought on by the Cold War. This history has created a culture of anti-communism in the U.S. that does not exist in the same way in other countries, and this is why ideas like single-payer healthcare and affordable higher education are much more accepted in other parts of the world. Some of these ideas are considered radical in the U.S., which vastly decreases the political spectrum that is acceptable in American political discourse. This concept of the acceptable political spectrum is known as the Overton Window, and it can look very different for different cultures. The Overton Window is the reason why “leftist” and “liberal” ideologies are lumped together in the U.S. in the first place; true leftism (i.e., anti-capitalism) is so far outside of the American Overton Window that Americans are hardly ever taught about it except as a fringe set of beliefs.  

It is vital that, when engaging in political discourse, one has an understanding of the full political spectrum in order to have a proper conversation. I know I personally have had countless conversations with people about my own incredibly left-leaning politics where they argue with me as if I am a liberal, simply because they are not aware of beliefs more left-leaning than liberalism. Leftism and liberalism are two mightily different things, and I heavily encourage anyone who is going to enter a political conversation to know the difference between the two and know what each ideology really stands for. 

  1. Thank you for this distinction summary. I agree that how Americans are taught in school about the world, it is almost incomprehensible to envision or understand that there can be anything BUT capitalism. I had, until this summary, always felt unsure how to classify these beliefs or policies that are DEFINITELY NOT right leaning, yet still starkly different views.

  2. this is a very good article in my opinion, as it brings up differences within beliefs in the political spectrum and it immediately outlines the fact that liberals and leftists are absolutely not the same. i would have liked to see more of a discussion within this article about how leftists want more livable standards than what the capitalist society of america allows, though it it a wonderful starting point for discussions.

  3. Are you even old enough or educated enough outside of acedemia to even know what a communist is? You look like a twelve year old teen girl who found a hot pic of a General Mao in a mag and decided you were communist! Idiot!

  4. WTF, look at all the badasses! “Doesn’t even have a picture up!” This isn’t Facebook dick! What do you want? Do you have a fkn argument? No? Just trying to be a big boy? Let me guess, “Alfa {sic} Male”… What do you want? Go TF away if you have no argument.

  5. I agree with you. If she knew how many people communism has killed, she wouldn’t be so proud to call herself a leftist. These people don´t know history. They love being blissful ignorants.

  6. “If she knew how many people communism has killed, she wouldn’t be so proud to call herself a leftist”

    Bizarre statement. How many people has Capitalism killed?

  7. I really enjoyed the article. It’s crisp and got to the point and it made it super easy for me to go through. Puts a lot into perspective!

  8. Communism hasn’t really ever existed, has it? The USSR never got to the point where they were able to dismantle the socialist state and move into the final stage, autonomy of individual communes. Both socialism and its extreme, communism, have not been installed anywhere without authoritarianism and the rollback of human and individual rights, which get written off as mere “western” obsessions and ideas.

    This is why those ideas never took root in the US, which is a nation of individualist immigrants, holding personal freedom as one of its supreme values. Dragging capitalism into the argument doesn’t make any sense. I’m on the left, I want a better alternative to the current system. I’m tired of hearing we need to revisit socialism, communism, and anarchism as viable options. Toxic ideologies of the past that seem more focused on throwing out the baby (resentment of wealth and disparity) than with draining the bath water (tackling real causes of poverty).

    The leftists are to the liberals what the MAGA-right-wingers are to the conservatives: an unhinged, populist, extreme version that focuses more on taking down their perceived enemies than on building a better society. Both extremes have been very bad for this nation and it’s democracy.

  9. Thank you thank you thank you! For explaining in simple terms the difference between Liberals and leftists. It is utterly infuriating to hear people using liberal/leftist/democrat as interchangeable terms. But as long as Tucker Carlson keeps repeating his nonsense to the maga crowd, they will Unfortunately continue to believe they are the same.

  10. Lol are you even educated enough to be able to spell correctly?
    Sorry this article was beyond your comprehension.

    1. Okay, you write it then? Stop attacking others on the internet, it’s pathetic. She’s using objective definitions and true examples of real world happenings, so you’re comment was idiotic and immature.
      Oh and, by the way, she made no spelling errors.

  11. Wonderful article, amazingly written with examples and comprehensive vocabulary! The difference between liberalism and leftism is absolutely important and frankly, the only thing they have in common is the opposition to conservative principals.
    For all of those judging communism basing their arguments on the USSR, we beg you to find something new, no one is saying communism is perfect, we’re merely stating that capitalism doesn’t work and that we believe in a system that doesn’t involve working to survive basically.

    Both capitalism and communism ism have killed people, but to this day we can’t seem to wrap our minds around the face that capitalism isn’t perfect, and it is based on oppressing the working class to make a minority of the population rich.

    Also I want to add that if you have to move on to insulting others and just calling people names, you’ve lost the argument!

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