Author: Chris de Jager
Date: February 16 - 2023

Left or right? Progressive or Conservative? NDP or UCP? Today’s political thought draws from political philosophies developed over centuries. Here’s a summary of the most enduring ones, who championed them, and what they stand for.


“Tax the rich”

Progressivism is a political philosophy that is based on the notion that progress in political and economic organization can be achieved through social reform. Progressivism advocates for the use of public initiatives to eliminate systemic forms of discrimination, form environmentally friendly policies and create social welfare programs in the name of social justice and social equality. Progressivism has shifted from an early 20th century movement originally focused on improving conditions for the working class under corporate monopolies to a movement characterized by moral purity in the pursuit of social, economic, and environmental justice. The socialist notion that free-market capitalism is responsible for economic inequality is one of the only philosophical threads that connects early progressivism and contemporary progressivism.

The history of progressivism is largely intertwined with the history of socialism. Early progressivism emerged in the late 19th century as a movement advocating against the corruption of corporate monopolies, against the abysmal working-class conditions brought on by the industrial revolution, and against both prostitution and alcohol. After the economic reforms and the regulation of corporate monopolies were successfully introduced by progressive politicians between the 1890s and 1930s, progressivism became less of a political force in the West. As the effects of globalization, economic inequality, and societal polarization increased in the West after 9/11, the 2008 recession, and the Trump Presidency, progressivism re-emerged under the guise of the New Left as a socialistically inspired movement set on eliminating all forms of social, economic, and environmental inequality in the name of progress. Progressivism has arguably become the standard political philosophy of contemporary liberalism, as evidenced by the progressive policies of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party in Canada, Former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s centre-left New Zealand Labour Party, and Joe Biden’s Democratic Party.


“The condition for the free development of each is the free development of all.”

Socialism is a political philosophy that advocates for the public control of private property, natural resources, and the distribution of income. Socialism takes issue with the concept of individualism and instead advocates for the cooperation of society at large. Socialists view capitalism as an inherently exploitative system that leads to systemic inequality in power, wealth, and opportunity. Stemming from observations on the pitfalls of free market capitalism, socialism accepts the notion that public control of resources is the only way for a society to achieve genuine equality and genuine freedom. The implementation of socialist principles could take the form of almost any type of public redistribution: from the introduction of welfare and public services to complete government control over employment, wages, and national resources. In Marxist theory, socialism is considered to be the intermediate state of transition between capitalism and communism. Marxism is essentially an intellectual attempt at developing a so-called “scientific socialism.”  

After the Russian Revolution created the Communist Soviet Union, a schism formed between communists on the one hand and social democrats and democratic socialists on the other, around the question of authoritarian or democratic governance. Communism would remain the most popular form of socialist governance until the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Tommy Douglas’s Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (later NDP) would become the first ever socialist government in North America in 1944, creating the universal health care system in Saskatchewan that would be adopted nationally in Canada by 1965.

The Soviet Union remained the archetypal socialist state throughout the 20th century, while the application of socialism in Scandinavia remains a quintessential example of social democracy today. Since 1991, support for social democracy has skyrocketed across the globe and particularly in the West. The emergence of the New Left in the 21st century has come as response to contemporary grievances pertaining to the capitalist systems in prosperous states. Following a period of increased societal polarization during the Donald Trump Presidency (2016-2020), the New Left essentially metastasized into the modern Progressive movement. Today, the legacy of the socialist political philosophy can be found in democratic socialism, social democracy, Postmodernism, Progressivism, Communism, Environmentalism, Anarchism, and leftist variants of liberalism.

Democratic Socialism

“There is no democracy without socialism and no socialism without democracy”

Democratic Socialism is a political philosophy that advocates for a publicly controlled market socialist economic structure within a democratic political system. Democratic socialists view capitalism as an inherently exploitative system that leads to systemic inequality in power, wealth, and opportunity. Stemming from observations on the pitfalls of free market capitalism, democratic socialism accepts the notion that public control of the economy is the only way for a society to achieve genuine equality and genuine freedom. Democratic socialism emerged in the 20th century when socialists who rejected the one-party authoritarianism of communist states split away and began advocating for the Marxist vision within representative democracies.

Democratic socialism is distinguished from social democracy in that it advocates for a full economic transition toward a socialist rather than capitalist economy, whereas social democrats advocate for an infusion of socialist welfare policies within a mixed economy that is still heavily influenced by capitalism. Sri Lanka’s adoption of democratic socialism and Scandinavia’s adoption of social democracy remain the quintessential examples of non-authoritarian socialist states.


“From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”

Communism is a political, social, and economic philosophy derived from the 19th-century writings of German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It advocates for class war between the bourgeoise (wealthy/middle and upper classes) and proletariat (poor/working classes). According to communist doctrine, the outcome of such a class war is a society in which all property is publicly owned, and each person works according to their abilities and needs. The objective of communism is to create a society that embodies the ideal of a socialist utopia in which social classes, money, and the state become obsolete and wither away. Common ownership of the means of production and natural resources is meant to replace the profit-based economy and guarantee of private property characteristic of conventional capitalist societies.

Communism is a progressive political philosophy that views history through the prism of Marxism, in which human society progresses from primitive communism (hunter-gather societies) through slavery and feudalism to modern capitalism. Communism is the antidote to this series of societal structures based on inequality and is the final stage of societal progress.

The concept of an egalitarian and classless society has its roots in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome, having been contemplated by philosophers like Aristotle and Cicero and described in Plato’s Republic. The modern genesis of communist philosophy can be found in the 16th-century writings of Thomas More. The Englishman published Utopia in 1516, a treatise inspired by the indigenous communities of North and South America, which describes a society based on the common ownership of property and the absence of money. Early writings on egalitarianism and common ownership were influenced by the ethos of monastic living, Christian universalism, and the social inequality between the nobility and peasantry of Europe.

Building upon a variety of philosophical works that emerged during the French Revolution, Marx and Engels repackaged the concepts of egalitarianism, common ownership of property, and classlessness within the context of the 19th-century industrial revolution. As the industrial revolution created a new class of urban factory workers, the proletariat, Marx and Engels promoted a world revolution in which each capitalist system would be overthrown and replaced by communism on a global scale. Politically influenced by Maximilien Robespierre, economically influenced by David Ricardo, and philosophically influenced by Georg Hegel, Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto in 1848.

Communism has since been adopted by some of history’s most powerful empires, from the Soviet Union to the People’s Republic of China. Communism has also developed notable variants such as Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism and North Korean Juche. Today, the legacy of the communist political philosophy can be found in democratic socialism, social democracy, Postmodernism, Progressivism, Socialism, Environmentalism, Anarchism, and leftist variants of Liberalism.


“No planet B”

Environmentalism is a political philosophy that privileges the preservation, protection, and improvement of the environment as the primary guiding principle of governmental policy. Environmentalists seek to conserve the earth’s natural resources, limit population growth, and reverse the impact of modern technology on the degradation of the global environment. Environmentalists view sustainability in resource management and ecological impact as the guiding strategy that will bring balance between the human world and natural world. The reassessment and reconciliation of humanity’s relationship with nature is paramount to this vision.

Environmentalism can roughly be split into two sub-philosophies: anthropocentric and biocentric environmentalism. Anthropocentric environmentalism views the necessity of environmental preservation as a means of ensuring the prosperity and health of current and future generations of humans, whereas biocentric environmentalism views the necessity of environmental preservation as a moral obligation to the entirety of the ecological community (i.e. living and nonliving components of the earth’s natural environment).

Early examples of ecological and environmental awareness can be traced throughout the ancient world. Fables of punishment for the destruction of the natural world can be found in ancient Greek, ancient Mesopotamian, and ancient Amerindian indigenous mythology. Observations of the negative health effects of pollution were noted as early as 3000BC in ancient Pakistan and 400BC in ancient Greece. Around 500BC in India, the revival of Jainism by Mahariva transmitted ideals of environmental protection to millions. Jainism and Mahariva’s famous declarations on the symbiosis between all living beings and the five elements of earth, water, air, fire, and space purportedly created the foundational basis for modern environmental sciences.  In London, sea-coal burning was banned by the English King Edward I in 1272 to combat increasing smog, threatening those who disobeyed with summary execution. However, these executions failed to deter most of the population. Almost 400 years later in 1661, English naturalist John Evelyn penned one of the first environmentalist manifestos that pleaded for a complete and immediate ban on the burning of sea coal.

Early modern environmentalism did not emerge until after the ecological effects of the industrial revolution became strikingly apparent in the 19th century. The rapid expansion of industrial factories ushered in a new era of environmental consciousness and various public health acts were adopted in Great Britain to further decrease air pollution. During the 1870s, anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin observed that glaciers in Siberia and Switzerland had shrunk since the beginning of the industrial revolution. These observations are often considered to be the first published prediction of the effects of human induced climate change. After the Great Smog of 1952 killed 6,000 people in London, the revolutionary Clean Air Act 1956 was passed. The progression of environmental causes evolved from concerns about air and water pollution in the 1800s, to wilderness conservation in the early 1900s, before turning to the ecological effects of pesticides in the 1960s. The United States Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970 in response to the latter. Environmentalism increased in popularity during the 1970s due to its association with the counterculture movement and the first environmentalist political parties emerged during the same decade in Australia and New Zealand. Earth Day was first observed in San Francisco in 1970. As global temperatures have continued to rise due to human-induced climate change, environmentalism has grown exponentially as a social, cultural, economic, and political force throughout the world.


“There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false”

Postmodernism is a political philosophy that advocates strongly against the validity of objective fact, reality, rationality, and truth. Postmodernists believe that objective reality does not exist, that the concept of science is subjective, and that reason and logic are inherently destructive and oppressive because they have been used by evil people to destroy and oppress others.

Postmodernists argue that all aspects of human psychology are socially determined, and that biology has no effect on human nature.

While postmodernism originally emerged as a philosophy critical of, and opposed to, all ideologies, contemporary postmodernism has become an overt ideology in its own right. Today, postmodernism has become the political philosophy of identity politics and is often associated with socialism and progressivism due to its re-packaging of the Marxist oppressor-oppressed dichotomy as a means of understanding all social inequalities in contemporary Western society.


“Libertarians value the right of all to live in whatever manner they choose, so long as they do not forcibly interfere with the equal right of others to live in whatever manner they choose.”

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that advocates for maximum individual autonomy and minimal government intervention in all facets of society (especially in the free market economy). The term Libertarianism stems from the word liberty, the guiding principle of this political philosophy. Other than liberty, Libertarians follow the non-aggression principle, which outlaws any use of force upon individual citizens unless those citizens have themselves threatened the life, liberty, or property of other individuals. Libertarianism’s focus on individualism strongly advocates for freedom of choice, freedom of speech, liberty, private property, religious freedom, and freedom of association.

Libertarianism grew from the classical liberal tradition that supports individual freedom, if it does not violate the individual freedom of others and the anarchist tradition of authority skepticism. Libertarians generally advocate against all forms government taxation.


“Our individual,God-given liberties should be preserved against government intrusion.”

Conservatism is a political philosophy that advocates for the primacy of traditional values, ideas, practices, and institutions in the political, social, cultural, and economic structures of states. Conservatism favors traditions that are inherited historically over idealistic or abstract versions of political organization and philosophy.

Private ownership and free market capitalism characterize conservatism’s economic orientation, while some variants like social conservativism place socially traditional values as the core guiding principle of their philosophy. Conservatism favors the status quo for its continuity and stability, viewing the government as the servant and not the master of its citizens. Conservatism resists revolutionary change and is highly skeptical of politicians seeking to transform or revolutionize social, cultural, or political structures in society. Change, when it does inevitably come to aspects of society, should be gradual.


“Believe, obey, fight”

Fascism is a political philosophy that emerged in the early 20th century that is characterized by its support of militarism, authoritarianism, nationalism, rigid social hierarchies, and the subordination of individuality for the good of the national community. Fascism explicitly rejects, and is in direct opposition to representative democracy, liberalism, and Marxism.

Fascism also rejects the notion that the use of violence is inherently bad, and instead argues that war and even imperialism can lead to prosperity for the nation as a whole. Economically, fascists view the pursuit of self-sufficiency as the only means of attaining national economic freedom. Furthermore, Fascists believe a mixed economy with protectionist policies to be the most prudent economic system. Fascism has often been described as nearly identical to communism in its authoritarian and organizational form and function, while differing in its views on class and economic structure.


“No God, no masters”

Anarchism advocates for the abolition of all forms of government. Anarchists consider any government to be inherently repressive. Anarchism strives to organize society on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion. Anarchism rejects all forms of hierarchy that are coercive or involuntary. Anarchists view the conventional state as undesirable, harmful, and unnecessary and instead see the ideal society as a free association of individuals and groups. Man-made laws and private property are viewed by anarchists as elements that perpetuate societal tyranny. Various strands of anarchist political philosophy take a pseudo-evolutionary approach to political philosophy, arguing that the removal of laws and governmental coercion will result in a return of human society to its natural state. According to some anarchists, primitive humans lived in harmony based on the principles of mutual aid and assistance. Having developed alongside communism as a political philosophy, anarchism is often considered to be a libertarian form of far-left radical socialism.

Some anthropologists have suggested that the genesis of anarchism is as old as mankind, with primitive hunter-gather societies having operated without formal or coercive hierarchical structures. According to this interpretation, the anarchist political philosophy only emerged after the agricultural revolution had catalyzed the creation of political institutions and class hierarchies in society. Philosophers critical of the state structure existed in both ancient Greece and ancient China. In ancient Greece in particular, Zeno of Citium contributed to the intellectual development of anarchism by arguing that the human instinct of sociability could effectively overpower the human instinct of self-preservation. The resulting society would be one based on mutual trust and void of the law, police, public worship, and money.

Through the Middle Ages, sporadic suggestions of anarchism emerged from religious dissidents in Persia and throughout European Christendom. Anarchist philosophy would re-emerge under the guise of secularism in France during the renaissance and the term anarchy became increasingly used to describe the supposedly lawless, stateless, pagan and property-less societies of indigenous America.

The French Revolution is often considered to be a significant flashpoint in the modern development of anarchism. The example of violent revolution captivated the anarchist minds of Europe and demonstrated the possibilities of lawless insurrection. Furthermore, the atrocities of the Reign of Terror vindicated the anarchist notion that once revolutionaries seize power from their oppressors, they too degenerate into the very same despots that they fought to unseat. In 1840, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon published What is Property?, effectively founding modern anarchist thought. Proudhon described a theory of mutualism that rejected the state, capitalism, and communism, with the infamous ‘property is theft’ anarchist slogan emerging from these writings.

The golden age of anarchism arrived in the 1860s and would last until the 1930s with the popularization of Marxism. At first there was a schism in the alliance between anarchists and Marxists because of the anarchist critique that a Marxist political party would simply replace their ruling class adversaries. What emerged from this schism was anarcho-communism (anarchism with private and collective property) and anarcho-syndicalism (anarchism based around collective workers unions). Anarchist terrorism (known as ‘Propaganda of the Deed’) became widespread in Europe as a means of triggering a world anarchist insurrection and anarchist revolutionary armies emerged during the Russian Civil War of 1917-1922 in opposition to both the Bolsheviks and White Armies. Anti-fascist anarchist organizations (similar to today’s Antifa) rose in opposition to Mussolini’s Black shirts in Italy in the 1920s and anarchist groups played a key role in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939. Anarchism as a political force was subsumed by the outcome of the Spanish Civil War and the beginning of the Second World War.

Anarchism’s associations with communism pushed the political philosophy even further underground during the Cold War. Today, anarchists generally organize around feminist, environmental or anti-fascist causes, remaining largely anti-war and anti-capitalist in philosophy.

Christian de Jager is a historical researcher with an MA in International Relations from King’s College, London, and an MA in history (African studies) from Carleton University.

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