In a piece at Dissident Voice, which styles itself 'a radical newsletter in the struggle for peace and social justice', Ron Jacobs sets himself to clearing up a confusion within American political discourse, one he says is encouraged by the US media and discredits the left. He takes on the task of explaining why 'liberals are not leftists'.
The distinction Jacobs draws between liberalism and the left is familiar and of Marxian pedigree: liberalism is founded on the sanctity of private property; it is protective of capitalist interests and a dominant economic class; within liberalism, equality 'remains at best a promise'. On the other hand:
Does this mean, then, that the left ought to disavow liberalism? Should leftists draw a sharp line between themselves and the liberal tradition? Jacobs doesn't pose or answer any question in precisely these terms, though his emphasis is on drawing a necessary boundary here or hereabouts. In any case, I want for my part to say why the answer should be no. There are at least three reasons why it should be.
Unlike liberalism, leftists publicly acknowledge the fundamental nature economics plays in how political structures operate.
All [leftists]... share an understanding that capitalism is an essentially unfair economic system.
First, any large intellectual and political tradition, such as liberalism is, will be a complex thing, be composed of more than one strand, a number of broad themes and emphases, not all of them entirely consistent with one another. Liberalism, historically, has not been merely about 'the sanctity of private property'. Some of its varieties have been, but others not - for they have been open to the perception that capitalism is marked by economic injustices and indefensible inequalities. Jacobs himself acknowledges that capitalism has not been left 'unfettered', and that at a certain point 'liberalism became identified with governmental intervention into the domestic economy'. Whatever the reasons for this may be - an issue I pass over - it is not therefore accurate to characterize liberalism as wedded to an absolute right of private property.
Second, if liberalism does contain a principle of equality, even if only as 'a promise', the principle can be subjected to critical scrutiny, and the tensions it generates - between promise and performance, between the moral norm and the social and economic realities - focused upon in order to argue and press politically for changes that will make more of the promise. This reinforces what I have said above. A rich political tradition is not a monolith, and it should be embraced when it can be for what is of value in it.
Third, there are strands within liberalism to which - putting it gently - the left, historically, has not always paid proper attention, and about which a section of the left is still much too cavalier: concerning the importance of human rights, individual liberties, free speech, due process, the separation of powers, pluralist democracy, and so forth. These are resources of liberalism that no leftist should take lightly. Given the part of the history of the left that had the effect of merging it in the minds of so many people with totalitarianism and tyranny, playing on liberalism's limitations is playing a one-sided, an unbalanced, game. When Jacobs says that 'human rights can not exist for all regardless of class until economic inequality is addressed and minimized', it's important it should have the meaning he intends and not the meaning it too often came to have for a left entirely careless of rights.