What Is This “Radical Left” I Keep Hearing About?

This is an exploratory essay I wrote for my English Composition I class (ENGL 1301) at Blinn College. Take it as seriously as you wish, but consider that it is an essay written by a career engineer and math major, not someone with a formal education in political science.

Many media organizations like to throw around the term “radical left,” apparently characterizing some political movement or stance . These organizations make it seem as if there is some “radical leftist” cabal, supported by the Democratic Party, plotting the downfall of American values and virtues. Is this the case, or do those on the left believe something much different?

The political spectrum

The political spectrum is complicated. Just because someone stands for one position on one issue doesn’t necessarily mean they stand for another position on another issue. Regardless, many people have simplified this down to a single axis structure: the axis structure from left to right . In modern American discourse, the right is typically associated with capitalism, conservatism, and reactionism, while the left is typically associated with socialism, progressivism, and egalitarianism.

The left-right axis structure can be used to describe many political axes, though it is typically expressed as a social axis and an economic axis. In this way, for example, one could be on the social left (advocating for protections for minorities, for example), while being on the economic right (advocating for reduced welfare programs, for example)1.

On the right hand of the economic axis falls capitalism – an economic system built around the free, efficient market, and the ability of any individual to participate in the market intelligently in order to rise in class2. On the left hand of this axis falls socialism and related systems – systems built around distributing ownership of capital, the means of production, to the individuals of the system . To one further extreme, communism, a socialist system, aims to abolish “private property,” or the private ownership of capital, entirely.

On the right hand of the social axis falls fascism and nationalism – social ideals characterized by raising an in-group while excluding an out-group, among other ideals . On the left hand of this axis falls progressivism – the idea that society can improve for all who live in it, instead of just specific in-groups.

The real radical left

Leftism in general is characterized by a belief in social and economic equality. Possibly the most succinct description of leftist economic policy was given by communist forefather Karl Marx in a letter to a German socialist party: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” . Instead of a society where individuals are granted wealth, treatment, and status based on their inheritance, luck, or even work, leftists seek a society where individuals are granted their needs (and indeed many of their wants) in exchange for what they are able to return to this society.

This is a surprisingly rather popular belief under different names. Some even going so far as posing that Jesus of Nazarath, founder of the largest religious movement in the modern day world, may be considered a socialist were he alive today . When polled, Americans actually tend to like left-leaning policy . After all, leftist ideas were potent enough for the Bolsheviks to revolt in furtherance of communism.

In recent years, the left-leaning labor movement has grown in popularity , and organization of new labor unions has skyrocketed . This is leftist economics at work – the proletarians are in the process of seizing some control of the means of production from the bourgeoisie.

The “quiet quitting” trend is also a part of this labor movement, and it’s causing some upset with capitalists . Interestingly however, they don’t resort to calling it leftist or communist – likely because they know the young people who are apt to “quiet quit” aren’t all that scared of either of those terms .

Really getting into the radical left requires travelling far beyond the labor movement, though. Radical leftism is where terms like “Marxist,” “Leninist”, and “Maoist” come into play. The real radical left is largely comprised of a few well-read activists that love their labels, and really pose little to no threat to the existing establishment.

Leftist discourse often consists of squabbling about which particular brand of leftist policy is the best. Sometimes, the squabbling becomes meta-squabbling where leftists argue about whether the current method of discourse is effective . In essence, until leftists end up having to interact with people from outside their bubble, leftist policy isn’t threatening anybody.

The “radical left” in America

In American political discourse, the sides of these axes are traditionally associated with each of the two major political parties. The Republican Party (or the GOP, the “Grand Old Party”) is widely associated with the right hand side (or right “wing”), and the Democratic Party is similarly widely associated with the left hand side (or left “wing”). Indeed, for many Americans these parties may as well be the endstops of the axes – this may be the origin of the term “radical left” referring to the Democratic Party, and “far-right” referring to the Republican Party. Across a more diverse political landscape, however, these labels fall apart. And in the worst cases, they may even be entirely incorrect.

Performative leftism

The Democratic Party is not a significantly left-wing party. It sits further right than nearly every European “left-wing” party on many issues, but it’s as far left as serious American politics get . It does, however, practice a form of performative leftism in order to suppress and placate real leftist politics.

Democratic politicians are great at saying they care about things and pretending they’re egalitarian. But when push comes to shove, these politicians don’t actually pass policy corresponding to their speech . The Democratic Party is a capitalist establishment party, funded by and backed by those who benefit from the current establishment . Sure, they may pass some small policy from the social left, but they refuse to touch the economic left and will likely never deliver any significant reform to the system that would make any leftist proud.

The Democratic Party survives because people hate the alternative more and they try to seem progressive .

Beyond the endstop

It is common for right-leaning media to refer to rather moderate capitalist Democrats as being of the “radical left”, being “Neo-Marxist”3 , or being a “communist” . Even if the Democratic party is used as an endstop of the economic axis and therefore considered far-left, it is blatant misinformation to refer to them as Marxist or communist as those are directly opposed to the Democratic Party’s self-avowed dedication to capitalism .

It’s likely that the overuse of the terms “radical left,” “socialist,” “communist,” and others can be traced back to the Red Scares. Under the Red Scares, there was a growing sentiment that anything leftist was un-American and therefore should be shut down, and there was a growing trend of labelling anything the establish didn’t like as communist to provide a (dubious) reason to shut it down.

The “radical left” that right-wing media loves to talk about simply doesn’t exist at the scale they make it seem like, and what little of it does exist has little to no influence. They simply use it to prey on fear of socialism, but that fear is slowly disappearing. We may yet see the dysfunctional left sort itself out and rise again, but now is not that time – for now, we have to put up with the center-aligned Democratic Party.

Works Cited

Shigeo Hirano and James M. Snyder. 2007. The decline of third-party voting in the United States. The Journal of Politics 69, 1 (2007), 1–16. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2508.2007.00490.x
Young people’s ambivalent relationship with political parties. Tufts University. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/young-peoples-ambivalent-relationship-political-parties
Michela Tindera and Giacomo Tognini. 2019. Here are the billionaires funding the Democratic presidential candidates, as of September 2019. Forbes. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://www.forbes.com/sites/michelatindera/2019/11/18/here-are-the-billionaires-funding-the-democratic-presidential-candidates-as-of-september-2019/
Jon Schwarz. 2021. Everything Democrats didn’t do in 2021. The Intercept. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://theintercept.com/2021/12/31/democrats-biden-2021-failures/
Sahil Chinoy. 2019. What happened to America’s political center of gravity? The New York Times. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/06/26/opinion/sunday/republican-platform-far-right.html, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/06/26/opinion/sunday/republican-platform-far-right.html
Mike Figueredo. 2021. Why Terminally Online Leftists Need to Chill Out and Log Off of Twitter. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zfpb-nbxNeo
Lydia Saad. 2019. Socialism as popular as capitalism among young adults in U.S. Gallup. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://news.gallup.com/poll/268766/socialism-popular-capitalism-among-young-adults.aspx
Gili Malinsky. 2022. Don’t try quiet quitting, says Kevin O’Leary: It’s “a really bad idea.” CNBC. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://www.cnbc.com/2022/08/20/kevin-oleary-quiet-quitting-is-a-really-bad-idea.html
Richard L. Cassin. 2022. Five reasons ‘quiet quitting’ is bad for compliance | The FCPA Blog. The FCPA Blog. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://fcpablog.com/2022/09/01/five-reasons-quiet-quitting-is-bad-for-compliance/
Josh Bersin. 2022. Why quiet quitting is a really bad (dumb) idea. Josh Bersin. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://joshbersin.com/2022/08/why-quiet-quitting-is-a-really-bad-idea/
Jennifer Elias and Amelia Lucas. 2022. Employees everywhere are organizing. Here’s why it’s happening now. CNBC. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://www.cnbc.com/2022/05/07/why-is-there-a-union-boom.html
Heidi Shierholz, Margaret Poydock, John Schmitt, and Celine McNicholas. 2022. Latest data release on unionization is a wake-up call to lawmakers: We must fix our broken system of labor law. Economic Policy Institute. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://www.epi.org/publication/latest-data-release-on-unionization-is-a-wake-up-call-to-lawmakers/
Eric Levitz. 2019. Here are 7 ‘left wing’ ideas (almost) all Americans can get behind. Intelligencer. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/08/poll-marijuana-legalization-data-for-progress-radical-ideas-popular-aoc.html
Peter Dreier. 2016. Jesus was a socialist. The Huffington Post. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/jesus-was-a-socialist_b_13854296
Daniel Walden. 2020. Was Jesus a socialist? Current Affairs. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://www.currentaffairs.org/2020/09/was-jesus-a-socialist
Karl Marx. 1875. Critique of the Gotha Programme. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/
2017. House minority leader Nancy Pelosi in town hall meeting. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from http://kidd.blinn.edu:2048/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=n5h&AN=32U2426238862CNEV&site=eds-live
Ben Shapiro. 2020. Ben Shapiro: Bernie Sanders is not a social democrat, he’s a lifelong communist. Dems have no gatekeepers. Fox News. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://www.foxnews.com/opinion/bernie-sanders-social-democrat-communist-ben-shapiro
Charles Creitz. 2021. Levin: “Neo-Marxist” Democrat “enemies” seek to destroy US, as Biden engages in “radical cultural attacks.” Fox News. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://www.foxnews.com/media/levin-neo-marxist-democrat-enemies-destroy-us
Dave Renton. 2020. Fascism: history and theory (New and updated edition ed.). Pluto Press, London. Retrieved from http://kidd.blinn.edu:2048/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=2630670&site=eds-live
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. 2011. The communist manifesto. Penguin Books, New York.
Crispin Sartwell. 2014. The left-right political spectrum is bogus. The Atlantic. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/06/the-left-right-political-spectrum-is-bogus/373139/
Adam Ellwanger. 2022. Call Them Groomers. The American Conservative. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://www.theamericanconservative.com/call-them-groomers/
2022. Radical Left’s phony January 6th narrative designed to divide Americans. One America News. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://www.oann.com/radical-lefts-phony-january-6th-narrative-designed-to-divide-americans/
Hannah Grossman. 2022. Ingraham: Here’s how Republicans can defeat Biden and radical left. Fox News. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://www.foxnews.com/media/laura-ingraham-how-republicans-can-defeat-joe-biden-radical-left
2022. Bongino: Radical Left can’t be written off as “just bad politics.” Fox News. Retrieved September 10, 2022 from https://www.foxnews.com/media/bongino-radical-left-good-evil-liberals
  1. There exists a common notion that this particular combination, especially at this extreme, is essentially self-defeating in that economically right policies tend to disadvantage those that a socially left individual would want to be advantaging . Nevertheless, this particular stance appears to persist amongst many. ↩︎
  2. This is often referred to using the idiom “to pull oneself up by their bootstraps,” an interesting contronym that evokes parallels with the reality of attempting this in modern capitalist systems . ↩︎
  3. This term appears to be fabricated by those on the right, as there doesn’t appear to exist any left-leaning or neutral definition. ↩︎





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