I have to applaud the Senator from Vermont for making it “cool” to be a part of the American Left again (was it ever?). Bernie Sanders’ marathon-like persistence in the 2016 Democratic primary owes a lot to the energy and progressive movement building generated by the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2010, which itself traces its politics of dissent against economic disenfranchisement all the way back to the French Revolution of 1789. With so many new faces to the revolutionary cause, I thought I would provide another general overview of those who came before us, even if others have already engaged in such a project, as I feel that many commentators in the United States haven’t exactly given a fair portrayal of leftist politics. Also you’re going to learn exactly why Bernie isn’t a socialist. Not even a little bit. If you’ll stick with me comrade, and take a trip down the rabbit hole of leftism, I’ll tell you the most basic fundamentals for sticking it to the status quo and locking down reactionary assholes.
Likely the best place to start with a short history is to examine what principles the varying branches of leftism choose to emphasize. Psychological studies of differing political identities in test subjects have found that the spectrum tends to operate on a fluctuating scale between emphasizing the value of empathy and the value of fairness. Keep in mind, that these each of these values, according to the subjects, are held to some degree in each ideology. Rightists, or more colloquially in the US, conservatives, see fairness as the highest virtue of their political philosophy. By contrast, leftists (the closest American analogue is the modern day self-identified “progressive”; there is not an organized radical left party or movement in the US at present – more on that later) believe that empathy, and by socioeconomic extension, equity, is at the heart of its politics. Thus, the left and the right are driven by conflict of interest – which is the material reality, the individual’s needs and efforts above the group, or vice versa?
Knowing how people psychologically frame their worldview allows us to look at the development of the Left throughout history.
Some scholars, and some socialists themselves (myself included, to reveal my bias), theorize that the principles and communities outlined within the New Testament of the Christian canon could be thought of as proto-socialist experiments, particularly with regard to the disciples in the Book of Acts. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in early Islam can also be credited with establishing more leftist principles for the Umma, expanding gender roles for women and emphasizing charity to the poor over property. Leftism thus, has always concerned itself with the problem of inequality, as Senator Sanders himself constantly hammers away on the national conscience with frequent references to how we treat the impoverished. America’s own Thomas Paine attempted to detail a plan in his 1797 pamphlet, “Agrarian Justice”, which provided for American poor by way of an estate tax on landowners. His pamphlet wasn’t the first of its kind in Britain, but it is one of the most notable. The first real organization of workers was the Chartist movement in Europe, which could consist of its entire own article, and much scholarship exists on its influence in building the modern labor movement in Britain, which by extension, went throughout the rest of the European continent. Charles Fourier, was a French utopian in the early 19th century, is widely recognized for acknowledging the necessity of liberating women, and his works led to the famous “communes” started in the United States. He wasn’t exactly a feminist or anything, but his ideas were another step along the way towards formulating a break away from the patriarchal component of capitalism.
However, for those of you who consider yourselves revolutionaries in the making, or are starting to encounter the concept of “the vanguard” for the first time outside of traditional center and center-right outlets, we should shift away from thinkers towards the turning point in the history of socialism, an event that truly separated reactionaries from progressives – that of the French Revolution of 1789, the bloody, wonderful, maddening, and terrifying period whose echoes continue to reverberate throughout scholarship, political discourse, and the struggle for liberation and self-realization among marginalized peoples. What exactly happened? Why did later theorists oppose it? How did it work and why are socialists so keen to reference it?
As with most events and strains of thought in leftism, the French Revolution really does deserve its own entry, and is upheld in socialist canon for good reason. Violent upheaval resulted due to numerous factors such as food shortages, an indebted government, and ultimately, the lower classes overthrew the absolute monarchy in favor of a republic based upon the famous words, “Liberté, égalité, fraternité”. State religion was abolished, land was divided up, the royal treasury was ransacked, and overall French society was radically transformed from the feudal era it had stagnated in for over hundreds of years towards a materially modern society that resulted in the capitalist nation-state that exists today in Paris. Many of you have probably encountered the Revolution through “Les Miserables”, whether the book or the musical or both, and in that fiction you may get a sense of how controversial it was, and how intensely people argue over the methods and events that proceeded from 1789-1799.
Eventually, even though the Revolution was usurped by the restoration of the French Monarchy, the ideas of radical equality from countless thinkers such as Maximillien Robespierre, Thomas Paine, and Olympes de Gouges inspired two individuals’ ideology whose intellectual tradition is the guiding analytic of socialists today – a German secular Jew and formerly Protestant German named Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, respectively. Their writings have served as the foundation for most, if not all, serious socialists, and in my next article, we’ll go into more detail on the implications of their ideas as well as their actual theories. For now, look towards the future for a better tomorrow, and take care of your neighbor as much as you are able.
Viva La Revolucion!