By Paolo Cossarini
The term ‘left-wing’ has to be understood within the left-right spatial metaphor, and the ideas associated to the two poles of the metaphor.
Importantly, today’s left carries an important historical legacy linked to its origins, and its geographical and contextual implications. Being born within the French Revolution – where left was associated to a strong anti-clerical approach, and to the support of the separation of church and state –, the term has then been associated to a series of different phenomena during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The left has been used to describe socialism, communism, the labour movement, anarchism, Marxism, social democracy, and a variegated array of social movements in the 20th century, such as the civil rights movement, anti-war movements, LGBT rights and feminist movements, and more recently the environmental movement. These phenomena also show the different positions within the spectrum of left-wing politics. Depending on the view about the relationship between the economic and the social realms – that is, the acceptance or rejection of capitalism – the left span from centre-left to far- or extreme-left.
Economic beliefs within the leftist spectrum have long been pivotal in the left thought, and include a varieties of viewpoints, ranging from Keynesian ideas about the welfare state, to radical anarcho-syndicalist and libertarian approaches to capitalist production, going through central planning and nationalization of the economy. Here key is the role that the various strands of the Left attribute to the State, and ultimately the same idea of (private or public) ownership. What is nowadays known as centre-left (i.e. social democrats, social liberals, parts of green parties) tends for instance to accept market economy, limiting the public intervention to matter of great public interest, and advocating for a link between public and private sectors. Whereas, far-left and radical left parties are normally associated with a variety of alternative perspectives, ranging from anarchism, autonomism, (neo)communism, including the anti-globalisation or alter-globalisation movements which stress the negative consequences of corporate economic globalisation.
In this context, it is important to highlight the ‘contested’ nature of the left, being its nature and very definition a matter of political and theoretical discussion. Different branches of social sciences have long studied left politics, from historical, normative, and empirical perspectives. Historically and normatively, the fall of the Soviet Union and the process of globalization have raised, among other issues, the question of the very nature of the left – since most left-wing parties in the Western countries have since accepted the market economy. Likewise, the ‘end of ideology’ in Western democracies has been claimed, since people – it is said – tend to adopt more centrist positions in their political behaviour.
Bartolini, Stefano. 2000. The Political Mobilization of the European Left, 1860–1980: The Class Cleavage. Cambridge Studies in Comparative Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bell, Daniel. 2000. The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties. Harvard University Press.
Eley, Geoff. 2002. Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000. Oxford University Press.
Losurdo, Domenico. 2011. Liberalism: A Counter-History. Verso Books.
Cite this entry as:
Cossarini, Paolo. 2022. ‘Left-Wing’. In Populisms and Emotions Glossary, edited by Cristiano Gianolla and Maíra Magalhães Lopes. Available at https://unpop.ces.uc.pt/en/glossário