Liberal/Leftist/Progressive/Radical: What do they mean?

Liberal/Leftist/Progressive/Radical: What do they mean? March 5, 2019
La liberté guidant le peuple by Eugène Delacroix

I know these are contested terms. And that such categorization often falls short and becomes unhelpful. And it gets tricky when someone seems progressive on issues of race or gender/sexuality but is a fiscal conservative. People are rarely consistent and never entirely rational. Nevertheless, here’s how I slice and dice the terms radical, leftist, liberal, and progressive.

Being a “leftist” doesn’t just mean “super, super liberal.” Nor does being a “radical” just mean “super, super progressive.”

The difference between a leftist and a liberal comes down to who you think should be in control. A leftist wants to subvert the status quo and throw the bosses and leaders from the top of the mountain. A liberal wants to challenge those bosses and leaders to do better.

Sometimes leftists go along with liberal approaches for short term gains. And leftists and liberals often have a similar diagnosis for what’s wrong with society.

But a leftist is a “radical” because they want to cut all the way to the root of the problem: which is the very nature of the relationships that under-gird systemic oppression. They know that you can’t simply chastise systemic evil away by appealing to the better angels of the Ruler’s nature. Because, after all, the problems are inherent to the system.

Now, when I hear the word “progressive,” I assume they are either a liberal whose heart is with the radicals but they don’t really believe revolution is possible. That to search for it could do more harm than good. And so they attempt to make the best of a bad situation. OR they may be a radical who is trying to roll with the liberal apparatus until real opportunities arise.

A full-on liberal is a capitalist. They believe that this economic theory is the best we’ve got and we just need to make it work by having sound and just intervention from the government. They hate racism, but not so much that they’d sacrifice the sanctity of private property to enforce reparations. They hate sexism, but not so much that they’d stand up to our allies that treat woman as second-class citizens. They find war distasteful, but necessary. Same with policing and prisons. And on an on. They are generally content with the world as it is, but they just want it to be a bit more compassionate and civil.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!


TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Scott Ulring

    A Liberal is someone who believes in the ability to own property privately, and a rule of law that supports same, someone who follows Locke more so than Rousseau. I think this means a market based economy that functions relatively fairly, where power and capital is broadly distributed. The leveler movement would be a form of this type of liberalism that unlike pure socialist models allow for private property ownership within strict limits. I think many of these ideas are radical. To presume that only communal ownership is radical is not radical it is its own form of ideological purity and one that has yet to be propagated in a way that achieved the aims of the leveler movement. No society beyond perhaps the Kibbutz when Israel was young have achieved shared ownership with any lasting success, meaning acheiving a stable relatively just socialist model wherein the means of production “capital” didn’t end up with the capital in the hands of the few over the many…