Left-Right politics

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Left-Right politics is the traditional terminology used to describe the two ideological poles of a political spectrum in a society, especially in a democracy.

In modern Western countries, the political spectrum is usually described along left-right lines. This traditional political spectrum is defined along an axis with conservatism ("the right") on one end, and socialism ("the left") on the other. (In the United States, the term liberalism refers to a wide range of left-of-center politics, with the left edge corresponding to what in Europe is commonly termed social democracy; in Europe, this same term liberalism can refer to a wide range of center-right to left-of-center politics.) The term left and right was also used to describe politics in China starting in the 1920s until the 1980s, although the issues often were very different from the ones in Western nations.

George Orwell once argued that the difficulty in classifying left versus right is due in part to the propensity for nascent factions of an ideology to be disavowed and labelled as being on the opposing side of the left-right divide by their erstwhile comrades—or they may so choose to label themselves to highlight their disagreement. This results in incremental or evolutionary doctrinal distinctions being placed in opposition in the popular perception of the left-right political spectrum. The best known example of this is schism between the Communists, Syndicalists, and Fascists in Italy.

See Multi-axis models for other views that de-emphasize the left-right axis.


Meaning of the terms

Despite the prevalence and durability of these terms, there is little consensus on what it actually means to be Left or Right. There are various different opinions about what is actually being measured along this axis:

  • Support for the economic interests of the less privileged classes (left) or of the more privileged (right). Originally, this meant the rising bourgeoisie (left) vs. the aristocrats (right), but it rather soon came to mean, more commonly, the working class and unemployed (left) versus all wealthy and/or aristocratic classes (right). As discussed in the next section, this issue of class interests was the original meaning of the dichotomy.
  • Whether the state should prioritize equality (left) or liberty (right). Two writers who characterize the distinction along these lines are Norberto Bobbio in Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction (ISBN 0226062465) and Danielle Allen [1] (http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20041220&c=7&s=forum). Note, however, that both the left and the right tend to speak in favor of both equality and liberty - but they have different interpretations of each of the two terms. Many self-described leftists (and most anarchists) argue that liberty and equality are inseparable from each other, since people cannot be truly equal unless they are free. Also, there have been many governments opposed to both liberty and equality, but which are nevertheless characterized as "left-wing" or "right-wing".
  • Whether law creates and subordinates culture (left), or culture creates and subordinates law (right). This formulation was put forward by US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
  • Whether the government's involvement with the economy should be interventionist (left) or laissez-faire (right). For example, the Nolan chart proposes this as one of its axes of distinction between left and right. However, it does not take into account the leftists who wish to limit or abolish the government, such as the anarchists.
  • Whether the government should promote secularism (left) or religious morality (right). This is the other axis of the Nolan chart.
  • Fair outcomes (left) versus fair processes (right). This view has been expressed at times by Australian Labor Party ex-leader Mark Latham. The distinction seems to correlate with Robert Nozick's own distinction between "historical" and "end-result" principles (see Anarchy, State, and Utopia, New York, 1974, pp. 153-155).
  • Whether human nature and society is malleable (left) or fixed (right), or whether human nature is determined by nurture or nature. This was proposed by Thomas Sowell.
  • Whether living standards can best be improved by transferring the produce of other workers to the poor (left) or by job creation through greater economic activity (right).
  • Priority for collective rights (left) versus priority for individual rights (right).
  • Preference for a larger government (left) versus a smaller government (right). Again, this does not take into account such leftists as the libertarian socialists, or anarchists, or such rightists as traditional Conservatives Red Tories or economic nationalists.
  • Whether one embraces change (left) or prefers rigorous justification for change (right). This was proposed by Eric Hoffer.

Writers, especially popularizers, have also been known to use the term more loosely and perhaps anachronistically, as did H. G. Wells's when, writing of the Jews of the Roman Empire, he refers to the Pharisees as "on the right" and Hellenized Jews such as the Sadduccees as "of the left." [The Outline of History, New York, Garden City Publishing Company, 1931, p.527]

Historical origin of the terms

The terms Left and Right to refer to political affiliation originated early in the French Revolutionary era, and referred originally to the seating arrangements in the various legislative bodies of France, specifically in the French Legislative Assembly of 1791, when the moderate royalist Feuillants sat on the right side of the chamber, while the radical Montagnards sat on the left.

Originally, the defining point on the ideological spectrum was the ancien rgime ("old order"). "The Right" thus implied support for aristocratic or royal interests and the church, while "The Left" implied opposition to the same. At that time, support for laissez-faire capitalism and free markets were counted as being on the left whereas today in most Western countries these views regarding personal economic freedom would be characterized as being on the Right. But even during the French Revolution an extreme left wing called for government intervention in the economy on behalf of the poor.

In Great Britain at that time, Edmund Burke (now generally described as a conservative) held similar economic views to this first French "Left", although he strongly criticized their anti-clericalism and their willingness to overturn institutions of long standing.

As the franchise expanded over the next several years, it became clear that there was something to the left of that original "left": the precursors of atheistic socialism and communism.

Evolution of the terms

The meaning of the terms Left and Right has evolved over time; it has also spread from a specifically French context to a European context to a world-wide context.

The original Left in the very first years of the French Revolutionary era represented the interests of a rising French bourgeousie and generally advocated a politics that came to be known as classical liberalism, although with a willingness to make expedient decisions such as public distribution of bread or suspension of certain rights in wartime; the original Right represented the interests of the entrenched French royalty, nobility, and upper clergy, and for preservation of at least large aspects of the old order, and for gradualism in any political and social changes. The French masses were only beginning to articulate a politics of their own; as they did so, the politics that arose were, effectively "left" of the original Left.

The original left had stood for a certain abstract equality of rights, but this emerging, mass-based left stood for a more radical notion of equality: in its more extreme forms, for an absolute expropriation of property, in many cases, a willingness to use the power of the state to achieve that equality.

As late as 1848, even with the participation of socialists in the European revolutions of that year, liberals, with essentially the same politics as the Girondists of 1791, remained considered unequivocally part of the revolutionary Left. However, the increasing importance of socialist, anarchist, and especially Marxist Communist politics over the next century would steadily move the scale farther to the left, so that by the time of the Russian Revolution, many would confine the use of the term Left to Communists, or at least socialists. Increasingly, and especially in economics, the laissez-faire views that once defined the Left came to be characterized as a rightist position.

As with Left, the meaning of Right changed over time. By the late 19th century, virtually no one in Western Europe advocated a return to the societal organization of the Ancien Rgime; instead, Right generally came to refer to those who wished to uphold any form of monarchy or aristocracy, those who held traditionalist religious views, or those who merely wished to defend the now-entrenched interests of that same bourgeoisie that had been coming into its own in 1789. Later, in the 20th century, Right would also come to refer to certain less traditionalist nationalist or even racialist politics, most notably fascism and its offshoots.

The Bolsheviks were certainly "of the left", and the advocates of Stalinist, Soviet-style communism considered themselves to be "leftist". Most Western leftists would now dispute at least the Stalinist claim to Leftism, due to the general suspension of even non-economic liberties and the gross inequities created by Stalinists and Maoists in practice, though many leftist parties in Europe still will ally with Communist parties (see also eurocommunism) in order to oppose the Right.

In the United States, the term Right particularly became disabused because of its European origin. Originally it was associated with a titled nobility. No such thing ever existed in the United States, and in fact was prohibited by the United States Constititution. Hence, Europeans today have an extrememly discolored view of the "American right".

In different countries at different times, Left and Right have been differently understood, and the farther one gets in time and space from late 19th-century Europe, the less likely there is to be clear consensus on the use or even the applicability of the terms. For example, in speaking of 1930s Europe, there is little consensus on what is meant by Right beyond an opposition to Bolshevism. Although Adolf Hitler in Germany and Winston Churchill in the United Kingdom were both characterized in their own countries as right-wing, there was obviously a tremendous difference between the two leaders' policies, and even their understanding of socialism was expressed in radically different ways. The Left-Right theory does not explain how international coalitions come about. For example, the Atlantic Charter which gave birth to NATO, was a statement of common objectives inaugurated by the progressive Franklin Roosevelt and monarchist Tory, Winston Churchill. Nor the common objectives pursued by George H. W. Bush and Shimon Peres of the Isreali Labor Party. Nor the alliance of George W. Bush and Tony Blair, to name only a few from a multitude of examples.

Similarly, during the Cold War in the United States, there was no significant socialist presence in electoral politics, and very little overt social democratic presence. Instead a politics known domestically as "liberal" and blending elements of classical liberalism with elements of social democracy constituted the electoral left. Virtually every elected official during this period in the United States took a stance of anti-Communism; it was not until the mid-1960s that the New Left arose and, in some cases, proclaimed its "anti-anti-Communism", without, for the most part, actively embracing Communism.

Meanwhile, in Western Europe, social democratic parties often participated in, or even led, governments; in several Western European countries, Communist parties remained an important part of the political landscape, to the point where what constituted the "left" of U.S. electoral politics would be considered "centrist" in Europe.

The late 1970s and especially 1980s saw a dramatic fall in the support for Communism, not only in the developed capitalist countries, but increasingly in less developed world and ultimately in what had been the Communist world. Today, and especially since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, in very few places does "left" connote support for the type of communist states that so recently dominated much of the world. While it can still refer to any of a number of varieties of socialism, it often refers to advocacy of some form of participatory economics or even green politics rather than statist socialism.

Modern use of the terms

Today, these terms are widely used, but without any firm consensus about their meaning. They are probably more often embraced by those who would characterize themselves as being "of the left" than "of the right", as "right-wing" now often carries with it negative associations of fascism. Thus, most groups that openly proclaim themselves to be "right wing" tend to be parties such as the Romanian neo-fascist group Noua Dreapta ("New Right").

The contemporary left is usually defined as a category including social democrats, socialists and communists - and some anarchists. In the United States, liberals are also commonly thought to be on the "left", although American leftists usually prefer the term "progressive". In general, left implies a commitment to social equality, support for the class interests of the less privileged, and support for a liberal social policy of individual cultural freedom, though not necessarily equally concerned with individual economic freedom. In contrast to the original meaning of "left", the contemporary Left is usually characterized as having a willingness to engage in government regulation of business, commerce, and industry, and in government intervention on behalf of the less privileged (the poor; racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities; et cetera). In recent years, even some representatives of the anarchist tradition have argued that government regulation may be a lesser evil than what anarchist intellectual Noam Chomsky characterizes as the "private tyranny" of the corporations.

The contemporary right is usually defined by its opposition to economic redistribution, social liberalism, and/or government mandated cultural diversity. This opposition is usually either in the name of tradition (conservatism or nationalism), of economic freedom and the rights of private property, or of pessimism about the possibility of governments successfully achieving positive effects by legislation.

Doubt about the contemporary relevance of the terms

See main article political spectrum.

Some contemporary political positions, such as the position known in the US as "libertarianism", are very hard to characterize in left-right terms. These libertarians are socially liberal, but reject the leftist advocacy of government regulation of business. Arguably, their politics are the most similar to those of the bourgeois French left of 1789.

Many modern writers question whether the left-right distinction is even relevant in the 21st century. After all, in most countries left-right appears more a matter of historical contingency and local politics than any coherent statement of principle. After World War II, in order to remain politically relevant, the Western European right embraced some traditionally "leftist" aspects of government intervention in society. Similarly, many on the left went along with privatization during the Reagan-Thatcher era; more recently, in post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe, even the parties of the left all seem to advocate a relatively limited state role in the economy. We also see the emergence of movements such as the Green party and feminism which certainly have more in common with the traditional left than the traditional right, but are defined largely by their rejection of the leftist tendency toward reductionist economism.

However, the nature of political mobilisation favours polarization. Parties claiming to represent the historical left and right often adopt opposing sides on issues regardless of their general policy stance. In countries which favour centrism or political moderation in their political discourse, the polemic temptation exists to label oppositions as right-wing or left-wing extremists. Additionally, there are political movements, such as radical centrism, which explicitly seek to transcend the historical left-right polarisation.

See also



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