What is the left?

published 30 Jul 2013
Kheel Center, Cornell University

In the last episode of my narrative, I described the Fédération Anarchiste’s mobilisation in response to the fascist attack on the Plume Noire. This pulled me into active, explicitly political activism for the first time and exposed me to a whole new world which I had only been vaguely aware of until then. For, while I had been moving within counter-cultural anarchist circles for a couple of years, the FA existed in a different world altogether – the far-left – and there was little in common between the two worlds beyond the shared word “anarchist”. This far-left world quickly became my new home.

At this stage, I had read a reasonable selection of the history and theory of the various strands of the left, but the experience of practically dealing with real organisations is always informative above and beyond what can be read in books. I found it particularly interesting to see how the different groups on the left responded to the call for solidarity from the anarchists because, on the face of it, one would expect that the left should be pretty unambiguously opposed to fascists burning down left-wing bookshops. However, this was not the case.

Different left-wing groups responded in a variety of way. The Socialist Party did not support the anarchists in any way – their only response was an article in their daily paper, Libération, which poured scorn and derision on the anarchists for having reported the attack to the police. The Communist Party, for their part, wrote a supportive article in their daily paper, Humanité, and one of their members, the mayor of one of Lyon’s regions, helped carry the banner at the front of the march. However, they did not mobilise any of their members, nor did the CGT trade union, which they controlled, mobilise its large membership. The counter-cultural anarchists supported the march, but their cortege was small and relatively badly organised. The great bulk of the support came from the far left – anarchist and Trotskyist groups. At the time, I did not understand how any of this stuff worked - but over the subsequent years, I gradually came to understand the contours of the left and the attitudes they took to various different issues. Before launching into my account of my journey through the left, I will introduce a basic overview of what I discovered for those who are not familiar with that world.

Understanding the Left

The left is famously byzantine. There are many small political groups, often bitterly divided by apparently subtle differences in political analysis. It can take many years to understand the complex family trees of ‘isms’ that ties any given leftist organisation back to its favoured bearded ancestral gurus. Most people are not interested enough in political theory to put themselves through the pain of reading lots of century-old political history and theory in order to figure out the differences. However, on another level, the left isn’t really all that complicated. The differences between countries and continents are smaller than the similarities. The behaviours, relationships and outlooks of the various strands of the left obey regular patterns. The patterns vary from place to place and time to time, but they are deviations from the same basic pattern which changes surprisingly slowly. In short, a fairly simple model is sufficient to gain a useful generalisation that goes a long way to understanding the political left.

"those organisations and individuals who work for greater social equality, compared to the status quo, with a particular focus on economic equality."

But before introducing the model, I need to describe what I mean by “the left”. An explicit model that rests on a vague concept is no improvement over a vague concept. By the left I mean: Those organisations and individuals who work for greater social equality, compared to the status quo, with a particular focus on economic equality.

It’s a reasonably narrow definition which only includes those who actively work towards equality and not those who are merely sympathetic to the concept. I’m sure many people could raise justifiable objections to it as a general definition, but I’m happy with it. In any case, it describes what I’m talking about here when I refer to the left.

A very small planetary system image: chekov

The diagram above illustrates the model. It divides the left into five distinct categories with slightly tongue-in-cheek labels. They are: the Far Left, Team USSR, Social Democrats, Hippies and Freedom Fighters. The size of each circle represents a rough approximation of the relative “social weight” of the groups and individuals who occupy that category. Social weight includes things like membership, support base, influence, media output, and resources. The colouring of the nodes distinguishes between those who have a structural analysis of social inequality (red) and those who do not (green). The Social Democrats are coloured in slightly reddish brown to indicate that they generally represent a coalition between those who have a structural analysis and those who do not.

By structural analysis I mean a world-view which holds that inequality is a consequence of current economic, political and social structures. In practice, this separates out those who follow Marx’s basic model of capitalist dynamics from the rest because there really is no competing theory in broad circulation which provides a systemic explanation of economic inequality without seeking to justify it. In a nutshell, Marx’s structural theory holds that there is a basic conflict of interest between the owners of capital and those who depend upon wages to survive and that economic equality can only be advanced by taking part in this conflict, on the side of the workers: participating in the class struggle.

Far Left

by their papers they shall be known image: See-ming Lee (flickr)

The first group is the Far Left. It is highly fragmented, consisting of many groups, most of whom are tiny. The far-left tends to be very concerned with political theory and fine-grained details of historical theoretical programmes. It has very little social weight with negligible influence within trade unions or other broad organisations and a tiny reach in terms of communications. What it does have is a highly committed membership who often sacrifice large parts of their life for their political activity. The membership tends to be predominantly young, intellectual men. Tactically it is highly confrontational, hoping to translate discontent into outright social conflicts in order to bring about a crisis and revolution which will overthrow the current political and social system. The most distinctive feature of the far-left is probably their practice of selling their newspapers on the streets or in other public places.


No mistaking these guys image: Nick Walker / nic0 (flickr)

The second group is Team USSR. The name refers to the fact that this group supported the USSR during the cold-war and were affiliated to the third International, also known as the Comintern and later to its various successors. Team USSR tends to be fairly coherent, with only 1 or 2 organisations per country, often, but not always, called the Communist Party. Strategically, it is primarily concerned with gaining influence in mass organisations, particularly trade unions. It is socially conservative and tactically cautious with a focus on structural economics and industrial development. Compared to the far left, it has significant social weight, primarily via the trade unions, although it also has some communication resources, infrastructure and something of a social support base. The membership tends to be older and less intellectual than the far-left, although males still predominate. The most distinctive feature is the hammer and sickle and the images of Marx, Engels and Lenin, which often adorn their flags and banners.

Social Democrats

Karl Kautsky, the great theorist of Social Democracy image: paukrus (flickr)
The third group is the Social Democrats. Like the above two groups, they have a basic Marxist understanding of the world. However, they are gradualist, constitutional, social liberals with a primary focus on parliamentary elections. There are many organisations and independent political actors in most countries that belong to this broad group, but normally there is one that is a very large political party, which describes itself as social democratic but actually represents an alliance with forces that are either not on the left, or do not have a structural analysis. Examples are the Labour Parties of Ireland and the UK, the French Socialist Party and the German Social Democratic Party. The Social Democrats have the greatest social weight on the left through their influence in parliament, and normally have experience of grand-scale organisational problems, through participation in government. Like Team USSR, they are active in unions, but it is far less of a central focus of their work and is often mainly focused on opposing Team USSR, with whom they have long had an intense rivalry. Much of this rivalry stems from the fact that the Social Democrats supported NATO during the cold war. Beyond parliament, their greatest social weight is in the NGO sector and the various institutions of the welfare state where they are deeply implanted. Their membership is diverse and cuts across gender and social status lines.

Non-structuralist left

Although, the majority of the political left can trace their origins back to the structural analysis of Karl Marx, in practice if not in theory, the Left includes other groups that do not have a structural analysis of the world. Some would probably exclude these forces from the Left, on account of the lack of a strong theoretical basis for their opposition to social inequality. However, in practice, they are to be found involved alongside the structuralist left in many of the real-world campaigns and movements in favour of economic equality. They do not have an understanding of social inequality that is rooted in the world's structural dynamics, but oppose it all the same. These groups have instead an idealist or eclectic analytic framework. There are two groups that belong to this category.

Freedom Fighters

The icons of Irish left-wing freedom fighters image: PPCC Antifa (flickr)
The major focus of freedom fighters is the liberation of their people (however that is conceived) from external domination. Many Freedom Fighters do not belong to the left, but some do - mostly because the people for whose liberation that they are fighting are significantly poorer than those who are dominating them and thus, in order to win their support, support for social and economic equality is a necessity. Mostly their project is one of national liberation, but it doesn't have to be - it could be in favour of a specific social group, such as the peasantry outside of a nationalist framework. They are typically socially conservative and have an unusually rural base compared to the rest of the Left, which is predominantly urban. In place of a structural understanding of the world, they often substitute some sort of mystical idea of the nation and its traditions as their basic analytic framework. Their social weight varies much more than the others - they are strong in colonial and post-colonial societies and much weaker in industrialised countries.


Lastly, we have the hippies. This label is a little unfair as hippy is generally considered a pejorative term nowadays, but I think it is reasonably apt and conveys the core features of this group better than any other label that I can think of. Hippies are culturally bohemian, typically well-educated and draw ideas from an eclectic mix of philosophies. Many hippies are not on the left, but some are, often simply due to them having significant empathy with the poor and having strong sympathy for more collective and communal modes of living - the commune based on sharing and cooperation is a powerful utopian idea within this group. On the other hand, they have a strongly individualist ethos and, although they may support economic equality in the abstract, they are often suspicious of mass organisations such as trade unions. Rather than seeing the problems and solutions of the world as stemming from structural dynamics, they often consider current social problems as stemming from failings in inter-personal relationship patterns or even in failings in collective relationship patterns such as that between humanity and the environment, or between humanity and spirituality. They often have highly idealistic or mystical views as to how social change can come about. They are typically badly-organised, with relatively weak and unstable organisations, a consequence of their eclectic philosophical roots. Although they are reasonably numerous, their poor organisation and lack of a coherent analysis means that they have relatively little social weight despite their numbers. What social weight they do have is normally expressed through ecological movements or alternative cultural spaces.

Applying the model

The model presented above is, obviously, a great generalisation and simplification of the actual left that one might find in any real country. However, it is still a very useful model as a first approximation because the left in the real world tends not to diverge all that greatly from the model. Almost wherever you are, in any given country or broad left wing campaign, you will find active representatives from each of these groups and there are very few real world organisations that are active on the left that cannot be easily mapped to one of these abstract groups. As a demonstration of this, I'll apply it to Ireland, the country that I am most familiar with.

The far left is made up of a half-dozen tiny organisations: the Socialist Workers Party, the Socialist Party, the Workers Solidarity Movement plus a bunch of others whose active memberships rarely grows beyond single figures. Although they have a couple of members of parliament, the social weight of their organisations is virtually non-existent - no media resources, no entrenched popular support bases, no significant influence in the trade unions.

Ireland's Team USSR consists of the Workers Party and the Communist Party of Ireland - tiny organisations, much reduced from their heights, but still with some social weight through their influence in the trade unions and their resources - bookshops, meeting spaces and magazines that are far beyond what the far left has to offer.

The social democrats in Ireland exist as a minority within the Labour Party, which gives them some social weight through having elected representatives in parliament and in local councils. However, their real social weight is mostly manifested through NGOs and the institutions of the welfare state - where they exert significant influence.

Ireland's left wing Freedom fighters exist within the broad republican movement as tendencies within Sinn Fein and its various off-shoots (Eirigi, 32 Country Sovereignty Movement). Their social weight is leveraged mainly through traditional family based networks and their armed wings which give them the capacity for violent action that the other strands of the left lack. While Sinn Fein does have some weight in parliament, the left wing of the organisation has little presence there.

The left wing hippies in Ireland generally exist as a disorganised network of individuals who are active in single issue campaigns around environmental, anti-war, or cultural issues. Most people who identify primarily as 'activists' belong to this group. They are extremely marginal and have very little social weight beyond the counter-cultural networks in which they move.

A stable model

At first glace it might look like the model is somewhat antiquated - surely Team USSR has been in rapid and radical decline since the fall of the USSR? However, if one looks more closely, it is the entirety of the left that has suffered the decline, which has occurred almost uniformly across the board. The Social Democrats are now little more than a small fringe within their parties. The Labour Party in Ireland and England, the Socialist Party in France and the Democrats in the US, which once contained strong social democratic wings, are now dominated by apolitical electoralism with little or no remaining structural analysis of inequality. On the other hand, while it may look like the Communist parties have disappeared from the scene, it is still the case that wherever there is a large movement to the left of the social democratic parties, one will find a core formed from the remnants of the old Team USSR parties. The French Communist Party is the organisational bulwark on which Mélénchon achieved almost 12% of the vote in the most recent French presidential election. Similarly, a splinter from the Greek Communist Party was instrumental in establishing the Syriza party, which achieved 27% of the vote in the general election of 2012. Germany's Die Linke Party, which won 12% of the vote in the Federal elections of 2009, was also formed around the core of the old communist party. Although many on the far-left expected that the demise of the USSR would open the path to greater influence, this proved to be a false hope, almost everywhere. There are a couple of countries where they have established some influence, but the general trend has been for small groups to become smaller and even more marginalised.

The stability of the planetary model of the left, in terms of the relative size of the groups and their common features suggests that they occupy environmental niches which define their character, as much as do their specific beliefs. The relative size of the various groups is mostly a consequence of what segments of society they appeal to, how confrontational their tactics are and what organisational forms they favour, rather than the correctness of their theoretical propositions. The Far Left are small because intellectual young men are not a very large cohort within society and the mix of confrontational tactics and deep theory that characterises their practice is unappealing to many beyond this core demographic. Team USSR are much bigger because their tactical caution and focus on mass, practical organisations are more in tune with a broader swathe of society. The Social Democrats are the biggest because their mix of social liberalism, gradualism, constitutionalism and broad social insertion most closely reflects the inclinations of the population.

There are, of course, organisations which do not fit neatly into one of these groups, and span more than one of them, but history suggests that they are unstable and that they will tend to gravitate into one or other of their constituent groups. A good example is Ireland's Sinn Fein. They split in 1969 into the officials and the provisionals, representing Team USSR and Freedom Fighter factions respectively - and the respective groups were relatively stable thereafter (in terms of their character, if not the specific organisations).


The model presented here is very much a simplification and an approximation of the actual left that one can find in any country. It does not refer to the beliefs or 'isms' of the organisations in these groups and while these are undoubtedly important, the sociological overview of these groups is much more illuminating in gaining a basic understanding of the configuration of the left. This is, of course, insufficient for understanding the details of the political relations between specific groups in specific countries, but it is a pretty good first approximation which allows one to understand what is going on without having to read a great deal of dense theory and it does at least provide some context for those who are not familiar with the intricacies of left wing politics.

Comments (10)

Paul B

Although it's a good approximation to the contemporary state of affairs, the implicit assumption that the social environment - within which the different left socio-cultural groups find their "niches" - is exogenous to the model is the most obvious limitation. Particularly if we bear in mind that the same applies to groups of the radical (and not-so-radical) right as well. To the extent that political tendencies have any relevance at all, other than anthropological curiosity, it is (or was?) that there are/were times and circumstances where their interaction with broader society contributes in some way to the evolution of the latter, for better or worse.

chekov's picture

Yup - it's not a perfect model, and it only really applies to the post 1917 world, but I think the interactions with the shape of society are reasonably simple - if left-opposition is suppressed, the constitutionalist, social democratic wing tends to be less popular (e.g. 1930's Spain, dictatorship-era South America) but it tends to reassert itself pretty quickly once the suppression relaxes. I think the major thing that changes is the overall size of the system - that waxes and wanes (mostly wanes in the last century!) with the strength of collectivist versus individualist ideas in the overall population.


Where does feminism fit into your model? Many of the pro-choice campaigners of the last twenty years are both feminists, left-wing and activists.

chekov's picture

It's orthogonal to this model - I think it is a function of social liberalism rather than leftism - where the left is socially liberal, feminism is an important component (social democracy, hippies), where the left is socially conservative (Team USSR, freedom fighters), it is not. Many feminists are not in favour of broad economic equality: e.g. Naomi Wolf and her gender-quakes and, more recently "Lean in". Of course it all depends on how you define feminism (there are many definitions) but if you take a reasonably broad definition of it as it manifests itself nowadays, I think social liberalism is clearly a much more important component than leftist ideals of generalised economic equality.


I started a comment but it went on too long, I've posted it on my own blog instead. Makes a few criticisms, I'd be interested to hear what you think of them.


chekov's picture

I'll have a look when I get a chance and let you know what I think - it may be a while as I'm on holidays this week and will be away from the computer a bit, but I will get around to it eventually..


and no rush, enjoy holidays

James O'Brien

Kautsky was one of the main theorists of Social Democracy but he was so when Social Democracy occupied a rather different niche in a rather different terrain than the one which obtained after 1917.

Briefly, prior to the October Revolution what was to become Team USSR and, indeed, the far left in general were usually part of the Social Democratic organisations. Even the anarchists were not averse to participation, e.g. they only left the Austrian Social Democrats only in the mid-1890s and the Swedish anarchists made their departure even later.

In any case, Kautsky was a major theorist of that broad church version of Social Democracy, which encompassed everyone from Rosa Luxemburg to Friedrich Ebert. Given the continuing existence of the Absolutist regimes on the continent, all wings of the then Social Democracy had a common interest in democratising society.

Thus, their organisations were able to tolerate a considerable amount of creative ambiguity when it came to ‘revolution’, which in itself facilitated unity and scalability. This became a virtuous cycle where the sheer size and momentum of the Social Democratic movement became an attractive force in itself.

One aspect of the ancestral trail that is especially confused is the shifting of Team USSR, in the immediate post-World War period, from something akin to modern far leftism, with its emphasis on insurrection, to something more like Kautsky’s ‘Strategy of Attrition’ — albeit with the more acceptable imprimatur of Gramsci’s rarely acknowledging copying of Kautsky in his ‘War of Position’.

So poor old Kautsky, for all his polemics with the Bolsheviks, ends up closer to their institutional descendants than to the Social Democratic organisations to which he remained loyal.

Then again, it’s probably not as bad a fate that fell upon Bakunin, who, incidentally, founded an organisation called The Alliance for Social Democracy :)


Hi. Enjoying the blog. Disappointed with your take on feminism or is there more to the model that would account for feminists who are in favour of broad economic equality? For example, where would Hilary Wainwright, Selma James or Silvia Federici fit here?

chekov's picture

To James on Kautsky: I pretty much totally agree with you in that the model only really applies in the post 1917 world and, even then, it took a decade or so for things to generally settle down into the above pattern. The choice of Kautsky as an image was poor. In my defence, post-bolshevik social democrats generally worked inside big parties and within the welfare state, both of which are resistant to easy summing up in an image. In my next version of the article, I'll replace Kautsky with Tony Benn - a better representative of what I'm talking about for sure. As you say, the Team USSR planet is closer to Kautsky than the later day pro-NATO social democrats ever were.

To Hilary on feminism: there is of course a place for feminism on the left! And there were a great deal of feminists who were leftists, but there were also a great deal who were not. I would also emphasise that I'm talking about what is (or was) rather than what should be. From that point of view, I think it is much more accurate to say that feminism is much more closely associated with social liberalism than with leftism (and social liberalism is also somewhat associated with leftism in that leftists tend to be less socially conservative or traditionalist than the general population). I should also add that I'm not using social liberalism as it is often used on the left (i.e. s/he's just a liberal *spits*). I'm personally a big fan of social liberalism (and, according to how the term is generally understood, you are too!) To me it is a seperate axis to that of the left-right one - you can have socially conservative leftists and socially liberal economic right wingers. The problem is that all of these different axes of variation tend to get squashed down into a single political dimension where liberals and leftists are different and opposed things - in reality there are multiple different axes of political difference which interact in complex ways and nothing can be reduced to single dimensions without destroying all analytic power.

To Sapteuq: there are a number of points which you raise that I'll address in turn.

Firstly, the title of your comment doesn't, to my mind, contradict my model. Dynamic equilibria are still dynamic. A process which produces a stable configuration is still a process and my contention is that for most of the 20th century, the processes in play on the left created a relatively stable internal configuration - people and groups moved between planets, but the relative size of the planets remained stable.

Secondly, I disagree with you that both the SWP and the SP have more social weight than the WP or the CPI - they have more members sure, and their members are more active but they have essentially zero passive support as parties (actually I would say that their social weight beyond their immediate ranks is negative - lots of people despise them or treat them as life-of-brian jokes). Nobody reads their publications and their voters vote for individuals with ragbag social democratic and Keynsian slogans, not for anything resembling their actual programmes (whatever they are). LookLeft, the magazine controlled by the WP, has, by itself a greater reach into the general population, even though it is tiny, than either of the far left parties have. Similarly, Connolly books and the New Theatre give the CP more broad social weight than the far left parties simply because they are accessible and used by a much broader swathe of the population. Maybe I'm wrong - we're dealing with microscopic quantities in all cases which are difficult to measure accurately.

Thirdly, I think you are quite wrong that the differences in ideas, outlooks, activities and methods make all that much of a difference to the success of far-left groups. I don't think there are any real historical examples of groups from the far left outgrowing their small planet without changing their nature profoundly and effectively joining another planet. If you want to be big, you simply have to have a much looser approach to theoretical agreement and levels of commitment because, most people devote very little of their brain-power and energy to political theory and groups whose activities are premised on subtle theoretical points cannot retain broad membership. One of the most fundamental errors of the far-left is hoping to turn the population at large into political intellectuals - which is both impossible and a bad idea anyway for a bunch of reasons that I'll address in a future article.

The one minor exception to this rule is during times of systemic crisis and break down which concentrates the population's attention on political matters and they will gravitate to whoever seems best placed to deliver food, security, etc. This always dissipates quickly after the crisis is resolved.

Fourthly, I think that the idea that the fundamental problem for the left is a lack of leadership who are up to the challenge is really not saying anything. Why is there this lack of leadership? If current leaders are so despised, why do people vote for them? Why does nobody vote for far-left programmes? What's different now that the leaders will be up to the challenge? Etc, etc. As far as I can see, Trotsky's theory of the crisis of leadership, which I'm guessing informs your critique, is one of the most profoundly disproved political theories that has ever been. Maybe I'm wrong, but I am very, very confident that I'm not. If you can devise any reasonably testable hypothesis to support your position, I'd happily wager anything on me being right.

Finally, I should say that I don't think that this model is eternal and the major weakness of this article is that it doesn't address the likely future directions of such a change. In my opinion political cultures (which is really what defines the planets in this model) change very slowly, in a timescale measured in generations. From this point of view, we should be expecting the model to start breaking down any time now (25 years or so after 1989, which changed the environment entirely) and I think there are definite signs that this is starting to happen. I have some ideas of how this is likely to play out which I will return to before too many moons have passed. For the moment, I'll limit myself to the safe prediction that, absent an apocalypse, the future will not see anything resembling a 20th century far-left party becoming large.