In American parlance, the word liberal generally carries a left-wing connotation. Liberals favor an philosophy which has some fairly familiar elements: a greater role for government, lessened inequality, social “liberalism” etc. This contrasts with conservatism, which favors a lesser role for government, places more trust in the workings of the market, and believes in “family values.”
The most extreme element of liberalism is communism; in contrast, the most extreme element of conservatism is monarchy and fascism. Communism is an unabashedly left-wing philosophy, with its focus on uplifting the working class, commitment to enforcing social equality, deep distrust of capitalism, etc. This is something almost everybody agrees with.
It is interesting, however, to note that Communist leaders are almost never called “liberals” – despite a philosophy based upon an extreme form of liberalism. History books never bestow the description “liberal” on the most famous Communists, men such as Fidel Castro, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Vladimir Lenin, etc.
Instead, in relation to communist countries “liberals” are generally those who oppose the system. They are dissidents such as Andrey Sakarov. When Deng Xiaoping changed China’s economic system to follow a more market-oriented policy (i.e. to be more economically conservative), people say that he “liberalized” the system.
In these cases liberalism is not used in the sense of changing the system. After all, Fidel Castro, Mao Zedong, and Vladimir Lenin all “liberalized” their countries in the sense that they brought massive change to the countries they governed. Yet when historians talk about these individuals that way, they say the men were “revolutionaries” rather than liberals.
Instead, the word liberalism here reflects an older, more fundamental philosophy: classical liberalism. The people who opposed communism constituted liberals not by following left-wing ideals (what is more left-wing than communism?) or by advocating change (so did Lenin, after all). Rather they espoused a belief in the Enlightenment philosophy of human rights and liberty, which the French Revolution turned into an enduring ideology. That is the form which “liberalism” – a word with many different, even contradictory meanings – usually takes when one refers to communism.