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Encyclopedia > Left Right politics

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 usually is 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.

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 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 politician Mark Latham.
  • Whether human nature and society is malleable (left) or fixed (right). This was proposed by Thomas Sowell.
  • Whether living standards can best be improved by direct economic support to the poor (left) or by job creation through greater economic activity (right).
  • Whether human nature is determined by nurture (left) or nature (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.
  • 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, Garden City Publishing Company, New York, 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.

The term originated 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 régime ("old order"). "The Right" thus implied support for aristocratic or royal interests, while "The Left" implied opposition to the same. Because the political franchise at the start of the revolution was relatively narrow, the original "Left" represented mainly the interests of the bourgeoisie, the rising capitalist class. At that time, support for laissez-faire capitalism and free markets were counted as being on the left; today in most Western countries these views 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 socialism and communism, advocating the interests of wage-earners and peasants.

Evolution of the terms

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the Left was often characterized by not just a commitment to equality, but also by a belief in the ability and responsibility of the state to ensure that equality. This reflected the belief that laissez-faire capitalism -- initially embraced by the Left -- often, perhaps inevitably, led to greater inequity. This resulted in the Left being closely identified with socialism, and by implication Marxism (at least in its economic assumptions). The Bolsheviks were certainly "of the left," and the advocates of Stalinist, Soviet-style communism considered themselves to be "leftist". Most Western leftists would dispute at least the Stalinist claim to Leftism, due to the gross inequities created by Stalinists and Maoists in practice, though many leftist parties in Europe allied with Communist parties (see also eurocommunism) in order to oppose the right.

In practice, much Cold War era Leftism in the west seems to have been defined as much by its opposition to "communist states" as by their shared assumptions; since the collapse of the Soviet Union, this has led some on the left to suggest the need for a new, third way approach, perhaps focused on institutionalism or systems such as parecon rather than state 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", although there are exceptions, 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, open/loose border immigration policies, 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 democratic politics implies that there will always be polarizing issues, and at least on a regional basis the historical left and right parties will likely find it expedient to adopt opposing sides. Also, there will always be the temptation to tag your opponents as right-wing or left-wing extremists in order to position yourself as moderate. Thus, even if the terms aren't as globally meaningful as they used to be, they are likely to remain part of our political vocabulary for the foreseeable future. It remains to be seen whether groups advocating consensus-oriented approaches, such as radical centrist politics, will be able to transcend that historic polarization.

See also

  • The Political Compass (http://www.politicalcompass.org/) - an innovative view of the political spectrum and left/right differences



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