What is the real political right and left of the spectrum? Is there an “objective truth” to what makes someone on the Left or the Right? As of late some of the most ardent claimers of an objective truth to the matter are far-left people in my experience. From what I can tell their position appears to be a mixture of tribal in-grouping/out-grouping, No True Scotsman fallacy, and political maneuvering to misrepresent the Overton window for the purpose of making themselves appear reasonable rather than ideologues of a political religion.
Left and Right are a conceptual political categorization heuristic originating from the French Revolution originally distinguishing traditional monarchists who sat on the right side of the legislative chamber, and reformist monarchists who sat on the Left. There was no capitalist versus socialist dichotomy in the mainstream then. After the most extreme of the revolutionary left-wing beheaded much of those on the right, the reformist monarchists were considered Right while Republicans were the Left. Since then the idea of a political Left and Right has gone through many publicly accepted views.
It is similar to how words change their meanings change over time, and the ultimate decision comes simply from how it is most used. The common thread is that the political right generally refers to traditionalists and the left refers to people who don’t mind straying from tradition. I use the right/left concept as a simple necessary evil to convey where I stand “in-general” relative to other people on issues. Visceral hate for capitalism usually distinguishes the far-Left from the center-left. Of course, the far-right, often theocracy advocates and racists, aren’t too fond of market freedom in a lot of ways either. That’s why I think there’s some merit in the horseshoe conception of the Left and Right.
An “objective” Left/Right view?
It is my claim that there’s no such thing as an “objective” political compass. Politics describing which way someone leans has no objective existence outside of human philosophy. There’s no right and left prototype decreed by the laws of physics or evolution. Most of the far-leftists I’ve talked to have made it dogma that opposition of capitalism is the “objective” defining feature. That’s not surprising because their entire world-view revolves around class struggle and opposition to capitalism. However, such a definition is a very ideologically-grounded definition, and it’s a false dichotomy. Few people, at least in western Europe, America, and similar countries, either completely reject capitalism or completely accept the most laissez-faire anarcho-capitalistic version of it. Most people prefer some mixture of social policies, regulation, and economic freedom.
Moreover, another flaw to the claim that Capitalism is the be-all-end-all for defining the political right and left is that the origins of the concept had almost nothing to do with capitalism and almost everything to do with monarchy and vestiges of feudalism. To better understand this, we should start with an ideologue’s greatest enemy; history… from history books. Ideologues prefer blogs and testimonials of believers in their faith rather than academic chronicles written with the intent of avoiding coloring the opinion of readers outside of the facts.
In the 18th century the populace of France was growing tired of how France’s clergy and nobility had amassed so much wealth and power. The 1st and 2nd Estates, as those two groups were known, paid virtually no taxes and owned vastly disproportionate amounts of property relative to their proportion of the population. The 3rd estate was basically everyone else, the other 97% of the population; the peasants, the bourgeoisie, the industry workers, the artisans, etc. Conditions in France had actually been improving leading up the Revolution, but clearly not enough.
Things were getting rocky in France—debt they had accrued, including from helping America during its revolution, was a large factor. King Louis XVI called an États-Généraux (Estates General) in 1789, the first since 1614, to rally the country’s support. After immediately coming to an impasse, the 3rd Estate declared itself the National Assembly, Louis XVI ordered them disbanded, they met at a Tennis court after being locked out of their normal meeting chamber, the King gave in, and in 1791 the National Assembly, containing members of all three estates, completed the Constitution of 1791. This made France a constitutional monarchy with most sovereignty in with the legislative body.
Here is the part important to our topic. During this period, 1789–1791, those who thought the King should be able to veto and thus have more power and the final word, sat on the right side of the legislative chamber. Those who opposed that veto power and thus a weaker monarchy sat on the left. The original Left and Right.
Long story short, the King then tried to run away, he got caught, a coalition of monarchies marched to invade France and put the King back in absolute power, the most extreme on the Left (in large part bourgeoisie members like Maximilien Robespierre) then utilized populism and demagoguery and the threat of invasion to behead most of the original Right and Center, eventually being guillotined themselves because other people finally got tired of The Terror.
And that is the historic origin for the political Left and Right. The Left was more liberal monarchists, the Right was more conservative monarchists. Like with most populist revolutions (most revolutions in general), the bulldozer made of the people was driven by the well-to-do in order to overthrow a different group of the well-to-do. You can read more in the books I read, The Age of Napoleon (Herold, 2002), Napoleon: A life (Roberts, 2015), and Vive la Revolution (Steel, 2006).
Over the years Left and Right, conservative and liberal, have changed to mean different things than previously. Historians pretty much universally consider Hitler a member of the far-right, but not a conservative (Kershaw, 2010). Stalin (after Lenin) was the front man for a far-left ideology that initially pushed for liberal/leftist policies (Montefiore, 2003; Pauley, 2015). The picture changes though when you consider some facts expatiated by historian Bruce Pauley:
Once in power they [the Bolshevics] saw to it that divorce was made easy and that incest, bigamy, adultery, and homosexuality were all decriminalized…Women were fully emancipated during the NEP and were allowed to enter all professions. Divorce, birth control, and abortion were all easily obtained…
The principle of equal pay for equal work was also established in law. In 1920 the Soviet Union became the first country in the world where abortions were not only legal but also free. The Zhenotdel, or Women’s Department of the Soviet government, made great contributions to women’s causes, especially in the areas of health issues and literacy, before it was suppressed by Stalin in 1930.
Stalin, however, could not tolerate a libertine attitude toward such a basic institution as the family. Just as he could not allow freedom in cultural affairs to exist at the same time as he was applying dictatorial controls over the economy, so too he felt that conservative family values had to be restored to bring about a disciplined Soviet society. Oddly enough, then, the left-wing ideology of Communism began more and more to resemble the ultraconservative values of the fascists during the 1930s…
[Early on] The force of tradition among both men and women often made the [the new progressive] laws a dead letter, especially on the matter of equal pay for equal work. Moreover, Lenin and other early Bolsheviks never fully trusted women, especially women from the peasantry and working class who were assumed to be religious and hostile to trade unions and political parties. They feared that the new laws could facilitate personal irresponsibility and marital instability, which they believed were responsible for the rising divorce rate. Most Bolsheviks wanted men to lead and women to stay at home or devote themselves to more traditional “women’s work…”
So, today’s left-wingers really need to learn their history and ease way back on the delusion that the Left/Right spectrum is some immutable objective fact. It’s changed and evolved a great deal, and many of the historical figures they seem to worship today were not particularly in favor of anybody’s liberty, positive or negative, and often outwardly enforced “ultraconservative” positions.
Ideas of a political left and right are like words in a language. Their meanings change over time and are ultimately arbitrarily whatever the majority of people accept them to be at any given time. Sometimes words disappear altogether, sometimes brand-new ones are invented, and sometimes old ones are repurposed with a new meaning.
Rather than let the Overton window shift organically, the people trying to re-label Bernie Sanders a centrist and label people like me conservative are just trying to make themselves look less radical using dishonest tactics. It’s all rhetoric and no substance. It’s very similar to the bait and switch tactic right-wingers use when they want to define “socialism” as any social program proposed in the US, but deny such programs are socialism when US progressives point to Denmark and Norway as their inspiration for them.
One snarl word far-leftists use regularly is neoliberal. There is not even an agreed upon definition for that word. Left-libertarians describe it to me as ultra-free market right-wingers. Far-left “socialists” describe it to me to include a good portion of what I would consider the Left, including center-Left. I follow the Neoliberal Podcast and enjoy their combination of progressivism and economic literacy. Indeed, they’re partnered with the Progressive Policy Institute, hardly a conservative group.
All this bothers me because however you use Left, Right, or neoliberal, it should be to increase clarity and understanding among perspectives. Instead, it just seems to be used to create in-groups and out-groups, and call anyone who disagrees with you stupid. I make pictures of political compasses “according to me” as a means to show people where I’m at so they can meet me there. What matters is that we settle on a working definition at the point in time where we are having a conversation. Otherwise we would just be talking past one-another. And settling on a working definition for the conversation doesn’t mean you or I accept it to be the one correct definition.
When talking about Communism, Marx, socialism, etc., I’m approaching it the same way I approach religion; as someone who gave it a chance, but is now a non-believer because I found the arguments used by adherents highly uncompelling. I know what it is, I’m not ignorant on it. I didn’t reject it because I didn’t give it a chance. Adherents of such ideologies seem to require that everyone else is either ignorant or too inept to comprehend their ideology. That isn’t the case. I’ve read every book I cited in this article and more. Far-leftists telling my I’m not really on the left are like the Christians who tell be my apostasy proves I was never really a Christian at all.
In reference to the thumbnail picture for this article, I don’t necessarily think it depicts every person in the socialist hammer and sickle-toting groups on social media. Like any group, they are diversely filled with not only ignorant followers and fanatical leaders, but also curious people trying to decide what they believe. The snark of the thumbnail is aimed more at fanatics.
- Herold, J. C. (2002). The age of Napoleon. Mariner Books.
- Kershaw, I. (2010). Hitler: A biography. W. W. Norton & Company.
- Montefiore, S. S. (2003). Stalin: The court of the Red Tsar. Vintage.
- Pauley, B. (2015). Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini: Totalitarianism in the Twentieth Century (Fourth). John Wiley & Sons, inc.
- Roberts, A. (2015). Napoleon: A life. Penguin Books. Steel, M. (2006). Vive la revolution. Haymarket Books.