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In politics, left-wing, leftist and the Left are generally used to describe support for social change with a view towards creating a more egalitarian society. The terms Left and Right were coined during the French Revolution, referring to the seating arrangement in parliament; those who sat on the left generally supported the radical changes of the revolution, including the creation of a republic and secularization. The concept of a political Left became more prominent after the June Days Uprising of 1848.
The term was applied to a number of revolutionary movements in Europe, especially socialism, anarchism and communism. The term is also used to describe social democracy. Roderick Long, an anarcho-capitalist professor, summarises left-wing politics as "concerns for worker empowerment, worry about plutocracy, concerns about feminism and various kinds of social equality".
In politics the term left wing derives from the French Revolution, as radical Montagnard and Jacobin deputies from the Third Estate generally sat to the left of the president's chair, a habit which began in the Estates General of 1789. Throughout the 19th century, the main line dividing Left and Right in France was between supporters of the Republic and those of the Monarchy. The June Days Uprising during the Second Republic was an attempt by the left to assert itself after the 1848 Revolution, but few of the (still predominantly rural) population supported them.
After Napoleon III's 1851 coup and the subsequent establishment of the Second Empire, Marxism began to rival Radical Republicanism and the "Utopian socialism" of Auguste Comte and Charles Fourier. Particularly influential in this regard was the publication of the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848, which asserted that the history of all hitherto existing human society is the history of class struggle. They predicted that a proletarian revolution would eventually overthrow bourgeois society, and by abolishing private property create a classless, stateless, and post-monetary society.
In the mid 19th century, nationalism, socialism, agitation in favour of greater democracy, and anti-clericalism (opposition to the role of the church in controlling French social and cultural life) all became features of the French Left. In the United States many leftists, social liberals, progressives and trade unionists were influenced by the works of Thomas Paine, who introduced the concept of asset-based egalitarianism, which theorises that social equality is possible by a redistribution of resources, usually in the form of a capital grant provided at the age of majority.
The International Workingmen's Association (1864-76), sometimes called the First International, brought together delegates, from many different countries, with many different views about how to reach a classless and stateless society. Following a split with supporters of Marx and Mikhail Bakunin at the First International, the anarchists formed the International Workers' Association. The Second International (1888-1916) divided over the issue of the First World War. Those who opposed the war, such as Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, saw themselves as further to the left (see Zimmerwald Left).
In the United States after Reconstruction, the phrase "the Left" was used to describe those who supported labor unions, the civil rights movements, and anti-war demonstrations. In more recent times, in the United States, left-wing and right-wing have often been used as synonyms for Democrat and Republican, or as synonyms for liberalism and conservatism. In the United States the Democratic Party is generally perceived to be a center-left coalition, but outside the USA many on the left view it as comparatively right-wing.
Karl Marx described the working class as the revolutionary class. What became known as the New Left however sought to de-emphasize the economic determinism which Marx advocated in Das Kapital, and focus instead upon what they perceived to be the more humanist Marx of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. The New Left came to prominence in the West after the student-and-worker revolts of 1968.
The spectrum of left-wing politics ranges from centre-left to far left (or ultra-left). The term centre left describes a position close to the political mainstream. The terms far left and ultra-left refer to positions that are more radical. The centre-left includes social democrats, progressives and also some democratic socialists and greens (in particular the eco-socialists). Centre-left supporters accept market allocation of resources in a mixed economy with a significant public sector and a thriving private sector. Centre-left policies tend to favour limited state intervention in the economy in matters pertaining to the public interest. The centre-left also often favours moderate environmentalist policies and generally, though not universally, supports individual freedom on moral issues.
In several countries, the terms far left and radical left have been associated with communism, Maoism, Autonomism and many forms of anarchism. They have been used to describe groups that advocate anti-capitalist, identity politics or eco-terrorism. In France, a distinction is made between the left (Socialist Party and Communist Party) and the far left (Trotskyists, Maoists and Anarchists). The US Department of Homeland Security defines left-wing extremism as groups who want "to bring about change through violent revolution rather than through established political processes."
In China, the term Chinese New Left denotes those who oppose the current economic reforms and favour the restoration of more socialist policies. In the Western world, the term New Left refers to cultural politics. In the United Kingdom in the 1980s, the term hard left was applied to supporters of Tony Benn, such as the Campaign Group and Labour Briefing, as well as Trotskyist groups such as the Militant Tendency and Socialist Organiser. In the same period, the term soft left was applied to supporters of the British Labour Party who were perceived to be more moderate. The present day British Labour Party (also known as 'New Labour') is generally considered to be less left-wing than it has been in the past. Politicalcompass.org places them to the right of centre, although more left-wing than the Conservative Party.
Leftist economic beliefs range from Keynesian economics and the welfare state through industrial democracy and the social market to nationalization of the economy and central planning. During the industrial revolution, left-wingers supported trade unions. In the early twentieth century, the Left were associated with policies advocating extensive government intervention in the economy. Leftists continue to criticize what they perceive as the exploitative nature of globalization, such as sweatshops, the race to the bottom and unjust lay-offs. In the last quarter of the Twentieth Century the belief that government (ruling in accordance with the interests of the people) ought to directly involve itself in the day to day workings of an economy declined in popularity amongst leftists.
Other leftists believe in Marxian economics, which are based on the economic theories of Karl Marx. Some distinguish Marx's economic theories from his political philosophy, arguing that Marx's approach to understanding the economy is independent of his advocacy of revolutionary socialism or his belief in the inevitability of proletarian revolution. Marxian economics does not exclusively rely upon Marx, it draws from a range of Marxist and non-Marxist sources. The dictatorship of the proletariat or workers' state are terms used by Marxists to describe what they see as a temporary state between the capitalist and communist society. Marx defined the proletariat as salaried workers, in contrast to the lumpen proletariat, who he defined as outcasts of society, such as beggars, tricksters, entertainers, buskers, criminals and prostitutes. The political relevance of farmers has divided the left. In Das Kapital, Marx scarcely mentioned the subject. Mao Zedong believed that it would be rural peasants not urban workers who would bring about proletariat revolution.
Left-libertarians, Libertarian socialists and left-wing anarchists believe in a decentralized economy run by trade unions, workers' councils, cooperatives, municipalities and communes, and oppose both government and private control of the economy.
The question of nationality and nationalism has been a central feature of political debates on the Left. During the French Revolution, nationalism was a policy of the Republican Left. The Republican Left advocated civic nationalism, and argued that the nation is a "daily plebiscite" formed by the subjective "will to live together." Related to "revanchism", the belligerent will to take revenge against Germany and retake control of Alsace-Lorraine, nationalism was sometimes opposed to imperialism. In the 1880s, there was a debate between those, such as Georges Clemenceau (Radical), Jean Jaurès (Socialist) and Maurice Barrès (nationalist), who argued that colonialism diverted France from the "blue line of the Vosges" (referring to Alsace-Lorraine), and the "colonial lobby", such as Jules Ferry (moderate republican), Léon Gambetta (republican) and Eugène Etienne, the president of the parliamentary colonial group. After the Dreyfus Affair however nationalism became increasingly associated with the far right.
The Marxist social class theory of proletarian internationalism asserts that members of the working class should act in solidarity with working people in other countries in pursuit of a common class interest, rather than focusing on their own countries. Proletarian internationalism is summed up in the slogan, "Workers of all countries, unite!", the last line of The Communist Manifesto. Union members had learned that more members meant more bargaining power. Taken to an international level, leftists argued that workers ought to act in solidarity to further increase the power of the working class.
Proletarian internationalism saw itself as a deterrent against war, because people with a common interest are less likely to take up arms against one another, instead focusing on fighting the ruling class. According to Marxist theory, the antonym of proletarian internationalism is bourgeois nationalism. Some Marxists, together with others on the left, view nationalism, racism (including anti-Semitism), and religion, as divide and conquer strategies used by the ruling classes to prevent the working class from uniting against them. Left-wing movements therefore have often taken up anti-imperialist positions.
The failure of coups in Germany and Hungary ended Bolshevik hopes for an imminent world revolution and led to promotion of "Socialism in One Country" by Joseph Stalin. In the first edition of the book Osnovy Leninizma (Foundations of Leninism, 1924), Stalin argued that revolution in one country is insufficient. But by the end of that year, in the second edition of the book, he argued that the "proletariat can and must build the socialist society in one country". In April 1925 Nikolai Bukharin elaborated the issue in his brochure Can We Build Socialism in One Country in the Absence of the Victory of the West-European Proletariat? The position was adopted as State policy after Stalin's January 1926 article On the Issues of Leninism (К вопросам ленинизма). This idea was opposed by Leon Trotsky and his followers who declared the need for an international "permanent revolution". Various Fourth Internationalist groups around the world who describe themselves as Trotskyist see themselves as standing in this tradition, while Maoist China supported Socialism in One Country.
Some link left-wing nationalism to the pressure generated by economic integration with other countries encouraged by free-trade agreements. This view is sometimes used to justify hostility towards supranational organizations such as the European Union. Left-wing nationalism can also refer to any nationalism which emphasises a working-class populist agenda which seeks to overcome perceived exploitation or oppression by other nations. Many Third World anti-colonial movements adopted left-wing and socialist ideas.
Social progressivism is another common feature of the modern Left, particularly in the United States, where social progressives played an important role in the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage, civil rights, and multiculturalism. Progressives have both advocated prohibition legislation and worked towards its repeal. Current positions associated with social progressivism in the West include opposition to the death penalty, and support for legal recognition of same-sex marriage, distribution of contraceptives, public funding of embryonic stem-cell research, and the right of women to choose abortion. Public education is a subject of great interest to social progressives, who support comprehensive sex education, and making condoms available to high school students.
Various counterculture movements in the 1960s and 1970s were associated with the "New Left". Unlike the earlier leftist focus on union activism, the "New Left" instead adopted a broader definition of political activism commonly called social activism. U.S. "New Left" is associated with the Hippie movement, college campus mass protest movements and a broadening of focus from protesting class-based oppression to include issues such as gender, race, and sexual orientation. The British "New Left" was an intellectually driven movement which attempted to correct the perceived errors of "Old Left".
The New Left opposed prevailing authority structures in society, which it termed "The Establishment", and became known as "anti-Establishment." The New Left did not seek to recruit industrial workers, but rather concentrated on a social activist approach to organization, convinced that they could be the source for a better kind of social revolution. This view has been criticised by some Marxists (especially Trotskyites) who characterized this approach as 'substitutionism'- or what they saw as the misguided and apparently non-Marxist belief that other groups in society could 'substitute' for the revolutionary agency of the working class.
Many early feminists and advocates of women's rights were considered left-wing by their contemporaries. Feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft was influenced by the radical thinker Thomas Paine. Many notable leftists have been feminists, such as: the Marxists Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai, Helen Keller, anarchist Emma Goldman, and Annie Besant, who was involved in various socialist groups. Marxists such as Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai  however, though supporters of radical social equality for women, opposed feminism on the grounds that it was a bourgeois ideology.
In more recent times the women's liberation movement is closely connected to the New Left and other new social movements that challenged the orthodoxies of the Old Left. Socialist feminism (e.g.Freedom Socialist Party, Radical Women) and Marxist feminism (e.g. Selma James) saw themselves as a part of the left that challenged what they perceive to be male-dominated and sexist structures within the left. Liberal feminism is closely connected with left-liberalism, and the left-wing of mainstream American politics. (e.g. the National Organization for Women).
The original French left-wing was anti-clerical, opposing the influence of the Roman Catholic Church and supporting the separation of church and state. Karl Marx asserted that "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." In Soviet Russia the Bolsheviks originally embraced "an ideological creed which professed that all religion would atrophy" and "resolved to eradicate Christianity as such." In 1918 "ten Orthodox hierarchs were summarily shot" and "children were deprived of any religious education outside the home." Later communist governments, such as the People's Republic of China, have also been hostile to religion and have promoted atheism.
Religious beliefs however have also been associated with some left-wing movements, such as the American abolitionist movement and the anti-capital punishment movement. Early socialist thinkers such as Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, and the Duc de Saint-Simon based their theories of socialism upon Christian principles. From St. Augustine of Hippo's City of God through St. Thomas More's Utopia major Christian writers defended ideas that socialists found agreeable. There is a strong thread of egalitarianism in the New Testament. Other common leftist concerns such as pacifism, social justice, racial equality, human rights, and the rejection of excessive wealth can be found in the Bible. In the late 19th century, the Social Gospel movement arose (particularly among some Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and Baptists in North America and Britain,) which attempted to integrate progressive and socialist thought with Christianity in faith-based social activism, promoted by movements such as Christian Socialism. In the 20th century, the theology of liberation and Creation Spirituality was championed by such writers as Gustavo Gutierrez and Matthew Fox.
There are also left-wing Islamic movements such as Islamic socialism. There have been alliances between the Left and anti-war Muslims, such as in Respect – The Unity Coalition and the Stop the War Coalition in Britain. In France, the Left has been divided over moves to ban the hijab from schools, with some supporting a ban based on separation of church and state, and others opposing the ban based on personal freedom.
Environmental degradation can be seen as a class or equity issue, as environmental destruction disproportionately affects poorer communities and countries. There have been alliances between left-wing trade unions and environmentalists over development issues, such as the Green Bans movement during the 1970s in Australia.
In Europe, some 'Green-Left' political parties combine traditional social-democratic values such as greater economic equality with demands for environmental protection, such as the Nordic Green Left. In the 21st Century, questions about the environment have become increasingly politicized, with the Left generally accepting the findings of environmental scientists about global warming, and many on the Right disputing those findings.
The Global Justice Movement, also known as the anti-globalisation or alter-globalization movement, protests against global trade agreements and the negative consequences they perceive them to have for the poor and the environment. This movement is generally characterised as left-wing, although some on the right, Pat Buchanan for example, oppose globalization on nationalistic grounds. The Global Justice Movement does not oppose globalisation per se, on the contrary, it supports some forms of internationalism. Its main themes are the reforms (or abolition) of international institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and the creation of an international social and environmental justice movement. It rejects the leadership of any political party, defining itself as a "movement of movements."
Third-worldism regards the inequality between developed, or First World countries, and the developing, or Third World countries as of key political importance. It supports national liberation movements against what it takes to be imperialism by capitalist nations. Key figures associated with Third-worldism include Frantz Fanon, Ahmed Ben Bella, Andre Gunder Frank, Samir Amin and Simon Malley. Among the New Left groups associated with Third Worldism were Monthly Review and the New Communist Movement.
Third worldism is closely connected with Pan-Africanism, Pan-Arabism, Maoism, African socialism and Latin American socialist trends. The Palestine Liberation Organization and the Sandinistas are or have been particular causes célèbres. Some left-wing groups in the developing world, such as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Mexico, the Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa, and the Naxalites in India, argue that the First-World left takes a racist and paternalistic attitude towards liberation movements in the Third-World. There is particular criticism of the role played by NGOs and the assumption by the Western Anti-globalization movement that they should seek to influence the politics of the Third World.
Left-wing post-modernism opposes attempts to supply universal explanatory theories, including Marxism, deriding them as grand narratives. It views culture as a battleground, and via deconstruction seeks to undermine all pretensions to knowledge. Left-wing critics of post-modernism assert that cultural studies inflates the importance of culture by denying the existence of an independent reality.
In 1996, physicist Alan Sokal wrote a nonsensical article entitled "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity". The journal Social Text published the paper in its Spring/Summer 1996 issue, whereupon Sokal publicly revealed his hoax. While this action was interpreted as an attack upon leftism, Sokal intended it as a critique from within the left. He said he was concerned about what he saw as the increasing prevalence on the left of "a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking... that denies the existence of objective realities". Gary Jason, a philosophy professor, claims that "the failure of socialism, both empirically and theoretically...brought about a crisis of faith among socialists, and Post-modernism is their response."
In politics, left-wing means an attitude that sees social equality as very important.
What a person means by left-wing depends on where the person lives.
Those people in Western Europe who believe in Marxism-Leninism are often called the "Far-Left".