With all of the demagoguery and propaganda bandied about, there's quite a bit of confusion over the classifications and labels applied to different political philosophies. After all, we are taught that socialists are left-wing, yet "Nazi" is short for "National Socialist". Liberals in Britain are champions of individualism, but liberals in the US are left-wing socialists. What's a student of politics to do?
I must admit that I am still in the process of sorting it all out, but I do have a few clues. Here's the best I can come up with so far:
Socialists are authoritarians who want to use force to reshape society. They come in left wing and right wing varieties (see communists and fascists below). In the US, socialism usually means left wing, as right wing socialists have run for cover. However, anyone who wants to coerce society into any "ideal" shape rather than allowing it to acquire its own is a socialist.
Communists (left wing socialists) believe that we are born as identical, malleable "blank slates" to be programmed and shaped by our environment. They want to be the ruling elite that does the shaping of individuals and, by extension, all of society. Because we, in the socialist view, become what we are molded to be, our roles in life should not determine our rewards. Therefore, the socialists feel justified in forcefully redistributing (mostly evenly) all wealth and property.
Conservatives want government protection to keep the property and status they have, even if they can no longer afford it. That means that they oppose the sort of social mobility that would let them sink when they can no longer earn enough money to maintain life style or earn enough respect to maintain position. Inherited nobility is the epitome of conservatism. The laws that D's and R's write to shield themselves from "3rd" parties are conservative too. So are protective tariffs.
Fascists (right wing socialists), believe that we are what we are born to be, and they want to be the ruling elite that divines the qualities of individuals, shaping society to some ideal around that revelation. Like communists, fascists want to redistribute wealth and status by force. This is unlike conservatives who want to use force to keep things where they are. However, unlike the "blank slate" that drives communists to spread things somewhat evenly, fascists justify taking wealth and/or status away from "inferior" people to grant to those they view as "superior". Example: Woodrow Wilson, upon taking office, demoted or fired all blacks, replacing them with whites, in what had been a fully integrated bureaucracy under the Republicans.
Libertarians should already be familiar to all of you: We want to allow wealth and status to flow freely from where they are being spent to where they are being earned. Force should be used primarily to stop others from attacking that freedom. Libertarians would organize (form government) for that and the few problems that can't be solved without a consensus.
Anarchists don't even want a government for the few purposes that Libertarians recognize.
"Liberal" once meant "promoting liberty". It still means that in Britain and other English speaking countries. Since it was stolen and abused by socialists, it has been corrupted. Because it is ambiguous in international discussions, I now avoid the term except to reveal its history, and I recommend that others do the same. I am hoping that it will fall into disuse so that we libertarians can reclaim and rehabilitate it someday.
Communists can't distinguish between libertarians, who want the freedom to earn wealth and status, and fascists who want to take it. Therefore, communists think that libertarians are "right wing".
Fascists and communists who succeed will spawn conservatives who erect artificial barriers to keep what their forefathers stole. Similarly, libertarians can spawn some conservatives defending wealth and position that were earned. Socialists can't tell the difference, so they view conservatives as either fellow or opposed socialists, depending on their origins.
Meanwhile, conservatives born of libertarians fancy themselves libertarians even if they've never learned our principles.
Communists, conservatives, and fascists, hearing only anti-government rhetoric from libertarians, often confuse us with anarchists. This confusion is exacerbated by the fact that, for similar reasons, many anarchists are attracted to libertarian groups and then call themselves libertarians even while promoting anarchism.