Left-right politics

Left-right politics

Left-right politics or the Left-right political spectrum is a common way of classifying political positions, political ideologies, or political parties along a one-dimensional political spectrum.

The perspective of Left "vs." Right is an imprecise, broad, dialectical interpretation of a set of factors or determinants. "The Left" and "The Right" are usually understood to represent polar opposites for each determinant, though a particular individual or party may take a "left" stance on one matter and a "right" stance on another.

History of the terms

The terms "Left" and "Right" have been used to refer to political affiliation since the early part of the French Revolutionary era. They originally referred to the seating arrangements in the various legislative bodies of France, specifically in the French Legislative Assembly of 1791, when the king was still the formal head of state, and the moderate royalist Feuillants sat on the right side of the chamber, while the radical Montagnards sat on the left. [The Architecture of Parliaments: Legislative Houses and Political CultureCharles T. GoodsellBritish Journal of Political Science, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Jul., 1988), pp. 287-302] This traditional seating arrangement continues to be observed by the Senate and National Assembly of the French Fifth Republic.

Originally, the defining point on the ideological spectrum were the attitudes towards the "ancien régime" ("old order"). "The Right" thus implied support for aristocratic, royal, or clerical interests, while "The Left" implied opposition to the same. At that time, support for socialism and liberalism were regarded as being on the left. The earlier "left-wing" politicians were advocates of laissez faire capitalismFact|date=August 2007 and the "right-wing" politicians opposed it, until the early nineteenth century when anti-capitalism gained favour among the leftists due to the rise of socialism. Despite this, the left-controlled French National Convention decreed numerous economic interventions during the Revolution, including price controls (enforced under penalty of death), [The Principal Speeches of the Statesmen and Orators of the French Revolution, Vol. II, Henry Morse Stephens, Clarendon Press (1892), p. 51] forced loans on those with incomes exceeding 1000 livres, and the abolishment of the Paris Stock Exchange and all joint-stock companies. [Taxes and Forced Loans in the French Revolution, G. Bourgin, The Living Age, Volume CCCXVIV (Jul. 1922), pp. 452-453]

In Great Britain at that time, Edmund Burke (now generally described as a conservative) [Cousin, John William (1910). "A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature." London, J.M. Dent & sons; New York, E.P. Dutton.] held similar economic views to this first French Left. Nonetheless, he strongly criticized their anti-clericalism and their willingness to turn to mob violence for support and to overturn institutions of long standing. Burke's "Reflections on the Revolution in France" criticized the Left as excessively rationalistic and disrespecting of the wisdom of tradition. [Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France [1790] (Penguin Classics, 1986), p. 83.]

During the French Revolution, the definition of who was on the left and who on the right shifted greatly within only a few years. Initially, leaders of the Constituent Assembly like Antoine Barnave and Alexandre de Lameth, who supported a very limited monarchy and a unicameral legislature, were seen as being on the left, in opposition to more conservative leaders who hoped for a more British-style constitutional monarchy (the British monarch was a very powerful figure in 18th century British politics, unlike today), and to those who opposed the revolution outright. By the time of the convening of the Legislative Assembly in 1791, their party, now called the Feuillants, had come to be seen as on the right due to its support for any form of monarchy, and for the limited franchise of the 1791 Constitution. By the time of the National Convention only a year later, the Girondins, who had been on the left in the Legislative Assembly due to their support for external war to spread the revolution, and strong dislike for the king, had themselves come to be seen as being on the right due to their ambivalence about the overthrow of the monarchy, their opposition to Louis's execution, and their dislike for the city of Paris, which had come to see itself as the heart of the Revolution.

It should be emphasized that in these years there was little in their views of economic policy to distinguish the various factions of the French Revolution from one another. Both Montagnards on the (1792-1793) left and "Monarchiens" on the (1789) right were essentially orthodox liberals on economic matters, although the Montagnards proved more willing than other groups to court popular favor in Paris by agreeing to (temporary) economic controls in 1793, and there were indeed economic radicals to the left of the Montagnards who insisted on genuine economic redistribution to achieve the "Egalité" promised by the revolutionary slogan.

Instead, the focus of ideological differences during the revolution had much more to do with attitudes towards the Revolution itself - whether it was a horror against God and Nature to be turned back and destroyed, a necessary rupture with the past that must (at some point) be brought to a close so order and good government could be restored, or a necessary and permanent feature of French political life. For the most part, nearly all of the political figures of the Revolution itself held the middle position, and disagreed largely on at what point it was time to call the Revolution fulfilled.

After the revolution settled down in 1794 following the fall of Robespierre on 9 Thermidor, a more clear-cut political spectrum began to emerge. On the left were Jacobins, former supporters of Robespierre and the Terror, who longed to see the restoration of the democratic Constitution of 1793. The most prominent of these was Babeuf, now considered a proto-communist. On the right were the monarchists, who hoped to restore a monarchy, whether constitutional or absolute. In the center were the Thermidorians, who wrote the Constitution of 1795 and hoped that the limited republic of the Directory would stand in the middle position between these two extremes. The failure of the Directory did little to change these basic political alignments - Jacobins and Monarchists remained, and most of those who had initially supported the Directory came to support the dictatorship, and eventually the rule, as emperor, of Napoleon Bonaparte.

It was during this period of retrenchment in France itself that the idea of the left-right political spectrum began to be exported to the rest of Europe. As the French conquered and annexed lands beyond the French border, it was again the issue of attitudes towards the French Revolution, which largely determined political alignment. With the rise of Napoleon, though, matters became more complicated, as those outside France who had supported the Revolution were forced to decide whether this also meant supporting Napoleon's dictatorship. At the same time, the traditional rulers of the other states of Europe - whether Napoleon's enemies in Austria and Prussia, or dependent rulers in German states like Bavaria, often came to a nuanced position on Napoleon and the Revolution's legacy, hoping to import many of the centralizing reforms which had brought the old regime to an end and allowed, it seemed, Napoleon's great victories, without opening the way for the chaos and violence of the Terror.

It was in this spirit that the statesmen of Europe came together after Napoleon's defeat in 1814 to reconstitute Europe at the Congress of Vienna. Rather than restoring the old regime wholesale, the conservative statesmen at Vienna (men like Prince Metternich and Lord Castlereagh) hoped to arrive at the best system to maintain order, if necessary through judicious use of the reforms of the French Revolution. In France itself a similar spirit prevailed in the person of the restored Bourbon Louis XVIII, who realized that a full restoration of the Old Regime was impossible.

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 (or at least continental) context to a worldwide context.

Europe in the early 19th century found itself with a variety of political outlooks that were easily fitted into a left-right model. As described by historians like Michael Broers, we see on the far right the forces of Reaction, who hoped for a wholesale restoration of the "ancien régime", including traditional privileges and limits on central authority. Although governments - in order to retain support - frequently used these elements, in only a few cases (most notably the Kingdom of Sardinia) were reactionary policies actually put into effect.

To the left of the reactionaries came more moderate conservatives who were willing to accept some of the outcomes of the French Revolution, in particular those elements which led to greater state power, and favored autocratic central control - whether at the expense of traditional estates or liberal parliaments. To their left appear the liberals, who hoped for representative governments and respect for civil liberties.

In practice, though, the distinction between liberals and conservatives could be vague - notably, in states with parliaments, conservatives were willing to work with representative government when necessary. To the left of the liberals came various stripes of radicals and republicans, who favored the overthrow of monarchies and the establishment of universal suffrage either on the model of the Spanish Constitution of 1812 or the French one of 1793.

Over time it became clear that there was something to the left even of "that" "left": the precursors of socialism and communism. The original left, and their radical or republican descendants, had stood for a certain abstract equality of rights, but this emerging socialist left stood for a more radical notion of equality: in its more extreme forms, for an absolute leveling of wealth and a willingness to use the power of the state to achieve that postulated "equality". The traditional right views civilized society as existing primarily to defend property rights.Fact|date=May 2008

As late as 1848, even with the participation of socialists in the European revolutions of that year, many liberals, with essentially the same politics as the Girondists of 1791, and certainly the radicals and republicans, remained considered unequivocally part of the 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. The right wing of absolutist monarchism or theocracy became increasingly rare, and is practically non-existent in the west today.

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.

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.

Adam Smith's "The Wealth of Nations", one of the earliest attempts to study the rise of industry and commercial development in Europe, was a precursor to the modern academic discipline of economics. In this and other works, Smith is expounded how rational self-interest and competition can lead to economic prosperity and well-being. It also provided one of the best-known intellectual rationales for free trade and capitalism, greatly influencing the writings of later economists. Smith was ranked #30 in Michael H. Hart's list of the most influential figures in history, [harvnb|Hart|1989] and he is known as the father of modern economics. [cite book |author=Pressman, Steven |title=Fifty Major Economists |year=1999 |publisher=Routledge |isbn=0415134811 |page=20]

In nineteenth century Britain, laissez-faire capitalism found a small but strong following by such Manchester Liberals as Richard Cobden and Richard Wright. In 1867, this resulted in a free trade treaty being signed between Britain and France, after which several of these treaties were signed among other European countries. The newspaper "The Economist" was founded, partly in opposition to the Corn Laws, in 1843, and free trade was discussed in such places as "The Cobden Club", founded a year after the death of Richard Cobden, in 1866. [cite journal|author=Scott Gordon|title=The London Economist and the High Tide of Laissez Faire|year=1955|journal=Journal of Political Economy|volume=63|issue=6|pages=461–488|doi=10.1086/257722] [cite web|title=London Clubs in the Late Nineteenth Century|url=http://www.nuff.ox.ac.uk/economics/history/paper28/28taddeiweb1.pdf|author=Antonia Taddei|year=1999]

However, Austrian scholars consider that laissez-faire was never the main doctrine of any nation, and at the end of the eighteen-hundreds, European countries would find themselves taking up economic protectionism and interventionism again.

Objectivism is a right-wing philosophy [So identified by sources including::Hicks, Stephen. "Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy" (2006), s.v. " [http://www.iep.utm.edu/r/rand.htm Ayn Rand] " Retrieved June 22, 2006. Smith, Tara. Review of "On Ayn Rand." "The Review of Metaphysics" 54, no. 3 (2001): 654–655. Retrieved from ProQuest Research Library. "Encyclopædia Britannica" (2006), s.v. " [http://www.search.eb.com/eb/article-9062648 Rand, Ayn.] " Retrieved June 22, 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.] [One source notes: "Perhaps because she so eschewed academic philosophy, and because her works are rightly considered to be works of literature, Objectivist philosophy is regularly omitted from academic philosophy . Yet throughout literary academia, Ayn Rand is considered a philosopher. Her works merit consideration as works of philosophy in their own right." (Jenny Heyl, 1995, as cited in cite book|title=Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand|editor=Mimi R Gladstein, Chris Matthew Sciabarra(eds)|id=ISBN 0-271-01831-3|publisher=Penn State Press|year=1999, [http://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN0271018313&id=bei61AcYlT0C&pg=PA17&lpg=PA17&sig=FxQ177GbCkq1rn4hiipdSIjjGeE p. 17] )] developed by Ayn Rand in the 20th century. Objectivism holds that reality exists independent from consciousness; that individual persons are in contact with this reality through sensory perception; that human beings can gain objective knowledge from perception through the process of concept formation; that the proper moral purpose of one's life is the pursuit of one's own happiness through acting in one's "rational self-interest"; that the only social system consistent with this morality is full respect for individual rights, embodied in pure, consensual "laissez-faire" capitalism; and that the role of art in human life is to transform man's widest metaphysical ideas, by selective reproduction of reality, into a physical form—a work of art—that one can comprehend and respond to.

The main theoretical foundation of Eurocommunism was Antonio Gramsci's writing about Marxist theory which questioned the sectarianism of the Left and encouraged communist parties to develop social alliances to win "hegemonic" support for social reforms. Early inspirations can also be found in the Austromarxism and its seeking of a "Third" democratic way to socialism. Eurocommunist parties expressed their fidelity to democratic institutions more clearly than before and attempted to widen their appeal by embracing public sector middle-class workers, new social movements such as feminism and gay liberation and more publicly questioning the Soviet Union.

Modern international use of the terms

Most of Europe is ruled by right-wing parties. They tend to favor economic reforms and be supportive of globalization.

In Japan, the right-wing is associated with the Liberal Democratic Party, which has won most elections for half a century and traditionally identified itself with rapid, export-based economic growth; close cooperation with the United States in foreign and defense policies; and administrative reform. Administrative reform encompassed several themes: simplification and streamlining of government bureaucracy; privatization of stateowned enterprises; and adoption of measures, including tax reform, needed to prepare for the strain on the economy posed by an aging society.

Maoism is a major branch of leftism. New Leftism (zh-c|c=新左派) in the People's Republic of China is an ideological tendency in opposition to capitalism and the Chinese economic reforms and in favour of the restoration of Maoist-style socialism.

Today Maoist organizations, grouped in RIM, have their greatest influence in South Asia. They have been involved in violent struggles in Bangladesh and, until recently, Nepal. The Nepalese Maoist militant struggles have ended and the Maoists have peacefully negotiated to become the majority party in the newly formed republic. There are also minor groups active in Afghanistan, Peru [ [http://stinet.dtic.mil/oai/oai?&verb=getRecord&metadataPrefix=html&identifier=ADA255144 The Shining Path: The Successful Blending of Mao and Mariategui in Peru ] ] and Turkey. [ [http://www.rwor.org/a/v24/1181-1190/1187/mkp.htm RW ONLINE: First Congress of the Maoist Communist Party of Turkey ] ] [ [http://www.pacificnews.org/jinn/stories/2.18/960904-kurd.html [09-04-96 FRANZ SCHURMANN, MORE DESTABILIZING THAN SADDAM HUSSEIN - TURKEY'S KURDISH LEADER SPREADS MAOIST INSURGENCY ] ]

In the Philippines, the Communist Party of the Philippines, which is not part of the RIM, leads an armed struggle through its military wing, the New People's Army.

In Peru, several columns of the Communist Party of Peru/SL are fighting a sporadic war. Since the capture of their leadership, Chairman Gonzalo and other members of their central committee in 1992, the PCP/SL no longer has initiative in the fight. Several different political positions are supported by the leadership of the PCP/SL.

In India, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) have been fighting a protracted war. [ [http://www.alertnet.org/db/crisisprofiles/IN_MAO.htm?v=in_detail Reuters AlertNet - Indian Maoist violence ] ] Formed by the merger of the People's War Group and the Maoist Communist Center ("notorious for its macabre killings") originating from the 25 May 1967 peasant uprising. [ [http://www.fas.org/irp/world/para/mcc.htm Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) Maoist Coordination Committee (MCC) ] ] , they have expanded their range of operations to over half of India and have been listed by the Prime Minister as the "greatest internal security threat" to the Indian republic since it was founded. [Jo Johnson, "Leftist Insurgents Kill 50 Indian Policemen." Financial Times, March 15, 2007.] [ [http://www.nybooks.com/articles/20339 Impasse in India - The New York Review of Books ] ] [ [http://us.rediff.com/election/2004/apr/02espec.htm The biggest threat to Indian elections ] ]

The “Bolivarian Revolution” is a left-wing movement in Venezuela. Its most prominent leader is Hugo Chávez, the founder of the Fifth Republic Movement and the current President of Venezuela. The "Bolivarian Revolution" seeks the implementation of Bolivarianism in Venezuela. Proponents of Bolivarianism trace its roots to an avowedly socialist interpretation of some ideals of Simón Bolívar, an early 19th century Venezuelan and Latin American revolutionary leader, prominent in the South American Wars of Independence. Critics inside Venezuela as well as foreigners say Chávez has used the Bolivarian Revolution to consolidate his power, nationalize industries, and use the government to change vast aspects of everyday life for Venezuelans.Shifter, Michael. [http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20060501faessay85303/michael-shifter/in-search-of-hugo-ch-vez.html "In Search of Hugo Chávez"] . "Foreign Affairs", May/June 2006. 85:3] U.S. Department of State (December 1, 2005). [http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/57714.pdf "The State of Democracy in Venezuela".] Accessed 18 June 2006.]

Modern U.S. use of the terms

These terms are widely used in the modern United States, but as on the global level, there is no firm consensus about their meaning. The only aspect which is generally agreed upon is that they are the defining opposites of the United States political spectrum. "Left" and "right" in the U.S. are associated with "liberal" and "conservative," respectively, although the meanings of the two sets of terms do not entirely coincide. Depending on the political affiliation of the individual using them, these terms can be spoken with varying implications. A 2005 poll of 2,209 American adults showed that "respondents generally viewed the paired concepts liberals and left-wingers and conservatives and right-wingers as possessing, respectively, generally similar political beliefs", but also showed that around ten percent fewer respondents understood the terms "left" and "right" than understood the terms "liberal" and "conservative". [ [http://www.alternet.org/mediaculture/21354/ Right Wing, Left Wing, Chicken Wing | MediaCulture | AlterNet ] ]

The contemporary "left" in the United States is usually understood as a category including New Deal liberals, Rawlsian liberals, social democrats, and civil libertarians, and is generally identified with the Democratic Party. Due to the extensive pejorative use of the term "liberal", some parts of the American left decided in the 1980s to begin using the term "progressive" instead. In general, "left" implies a commitment to egalitarianism, support for a 'liberal' social policy and multiculturalism. The contemporary left usually defines itself as promoting government regulation of business, commerce, and industry; protection of fundamental rights (especially freedom of speech and separation of church and state); and government intervention on behalf of racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities and the poor.

The contemporary "right" in the United States is understood to mainly include Republicans and religious conservatives. Although often in disagreement with religious conservatives, some classical liberals and libertarians define themselves as part of the right, and separate themselves from modern-day liberalism; libertarian David Kelley states that classical liberals had "a concept of freedom that is entirely at odds with the modern liberal conception".Kelley, David. 1998. A Life of One's Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State. Cato Institute.] However, many libertarians insist that libertarianism does not fit anywhere on the left-right spectrum, and people who tend to divide everything into those two categories are thinking in archaic terms. The American right is broadly defined by upholding a traditionalist understanding of constitutional law, protection of fundamental rights, opposition to governmental regulation of the economy and income redistribution, immigration control, and opposition to "reverse discrimination". These stances are motivated by traditional values (conservatism), protection of freedom and the rights of private individuals (libertarianism), or doubts about the benefits or efficacy of governmental regulation of the economy.

Meaning of the terms

The meaning of the terms "left" and "right" in a political context has changed radically over time. The Right is generally against intentional political, economic and social change, the Left is in favour of it.p73 Tansey, Stephen J., "Politics: The Basics", 2000, London, ISBN 0-415-19199-8]

Some commentators, such as Norberto Bobbio, have argued that the central difference between left and right is that the left prioritises social equality, while the right prioritises individual responsibility and the maintenance of natural and inherent inequalities between people. Bobbio also makes clear, however, that "left" and "right" are not absolute terms, but vary between different countries and different periods.Bobbio, Norberto, "Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction" (translated by Allan Cameron), 1997, University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226062465]


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

Doubt about the contemporary relevance of the terms

Some contemporary political positions, such as the position known in the US as libertarianism, have been argued as difficult to characterize in left-right terms. Libertarians may reject both the leftist advocacy of government regulation of the market and the protectionism which may be associated with some on the right, as with paleoconservatives. Arguably, libertarian politics are the most similar to those of the classical liberalism of the old left of 1789; according to an Institute for Humane Studies paper, "the libertarian, or 'classical liberal,' perspective is that individual well-being, prosperity, and social harmony are fostered by 'as much liberty as possible' and 'as little government as necessary.'" [ [http://www.theihs.org/about/id.1084/default.asp What Is Libertarian?] , Institute for Humane Studies]

Many modern thinkers 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 most aspects of economic intervention by government (see also Post-war consensus and Butskelism). Similarly, many on the "left" went along with the privatization and anti-communism of the Reagan-Thatcher era.

ee also

* Political compass
* Political spectrum
* Nolan Chart
* Sinistrisme
* , an essay by Vladimir Lenin (1920)


* Charles Blattberg [http://www.mapageweb.umontreal.ca/blattbec/pdf/essays/1_Political_Philosophies.pdf Political Philosophies and Political Ideologies] (PDF); online, previous version published in "Public Affairs Quarterly" 15, No. 3 (July 2001) 193–217.

External links

* [http://www.theadvocates.org/quiz.html The World's Smallest Political Quiz]
* [http://www.politicalcompass.org/ The Political Compass] - an innovative view of the political spectrum and left/right differences

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