“”...all illiberal left-wing ideologies, Marxist and otherwise, follow the same basic structure. These critiques reject the liberal notion of free speech as a positive good enjoyed by all citizens. They categorize political ideas as being made on behalf of either the oppressor class or the oppressed class... From that premise, they proceed to their conclusion that political advocacy on behalf of the oppressed enhances freedom, and political advocacy on behalf of the oppressor diminishes it.
The illiberal left is a talking point used by some liberals but mostly conservatives that claims some quarters on the left have somehow lost their way in regards to promoting the values of liberalism, especially in regards to free speech.
Like militant atheist or radical feminist, "illiberal left" can accurately describe a real movement, but in practice is often a snarl word. There have indeed been illiberal left-wing movements: Mao Zedong himself wrote a pamphlet called Combat Liberalism in 1937, in which he argued that pluralism and civil liberties were mere bourgeois niceties. The term's misuse begins when one starts equating Mao — a tyrant who held power of life and death over one billion people--to a vocal transgender activist on Tumblr.
Jonathan Chait characterizes the illiberal left as being fundamentalist and authoritarian in nature and compares the intensity of their beliefs to that of fervent followers of a religion. He has spoken of his experience in university of "microagressions", "trigger warnings" and "safe spaces" and how they are actively encouraging the cognitive distortions that cognitive behavioral therapy seeks to correct, such as emotional reasoning, fortune-telling and magnification. He also states his alarm at the chill being placed on freedom of speech within the humanities and social sciences. He notes however that, thankfully, the natural sciences remain unaffected.
"Liberalism", as an academic term, means something different from political discourse. It means a political philosophy built around 3 central tenets:
- "Liberty", generally meant as in "personal autonomy", best exemplified in John Locke's "Life, Liberty, and Estate/Property"
- "Consent of the governed", usually though not strictly in the form of legitimate elections
- "Equality before the law", which has had varying definitions over time, but generally means that everyone is an equal citizen, without some citizens given special advantages enshrined into law, e.g., an aristocracy, or race-based slavery.
A "Liberal Democracy" is a closely related concept, in terms of an elected government that focuses on rights for its citizens.
"Liberalism" isn't a strictly yes/no situation, as societies can be "more Liberal" or "less Liberal" on some issues. A society that only extends voting rights to men has less "equality before the law" and is thus less Liberal than one with universal suffrage, whereas a society that frees and enfranchises former slaves is more Liberal than one that maintains racial slavery. A society that decriminalizes marijuana has more "personal autonomy" than one that bans all drugs, therefore is "more Liberal". Conversely, a society that has strict gun laws is less Liberal than one with easy access to firearms, which is not something laypeople think of when they hear "Liberal" and "gun" in the same sentence. While historically the "Left" has pushed for more civil liberties and equality, "Liberal" and "Left" are not interchangeable terms. For numerous, complicated reasons, "Liberal" came to mean something very different in both Europe and the US, and in public discourse versus academia.
These tenets are not independent, as they frequently clash with each other and which should take precedence is a debate every society has constantly. For instance, allowing Interracial Marriage in the US would clearly fall under the purview of "Liberty", and arguably an "Equality before the Law" issue, but when the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v Virginia in favor of Interracial Marriage, literally 80% of the public opposed this. "Liberty" may include the right to refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding, but the right of "equality" may require that the new couple be treated the same as a heterosexual couple, and governments the world over have to decide which right is more essential.
As an actual issue
So what happens when someone on the Far-Left compromises one of the central tenets of Liberalism so much that it might as well not exist? Let's say, they believe so strongly in "Equality" that they are willing to outright reject other people's personal autonomy, or are not concerned about the consent of the governed? Well, at this point, this person is "Illiberal". A classic example of this would be the Soviet system. Ignoring that the system in effect created a new aristocracy in the form of the party elite, and therefore violated the "equality before the law" tenet, the Soviet ruling establishment didn't care one bit they didn't have the consent of the governed; they were going to be ruled by The Party for their own good, whether they liked it or not. Other Communist dictators such as Fidel Castro or Nicolae Ceausescu might not care for things such as "free speech". In these cases, they either don't care for Liberalism or oppose it outright. These Leftwing rulers would easily be a form the "Illiberal Left".
- The threat from the illiberal left | The Economist - Issue 4-9-2021
- Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics, Iain McLean and Alistair McMillan, Third edition 2009, ISBN 978-0-19-920516-5.
- Gallup poll, Approval of interracial marriage