What do we mean by ‘left’ and ‘right’?

The idea of a political spectrum defined by ‘left’ and ‘right’ wing views has been around ever since September 1789, when they were invented. The revolutionaries had set up a National Assembly – meeting initially in a tennis court – which they declared indissoluble until they had resolved their issues with the King Louis XVI. In late 1789, while they were developing a constitution, they became divided over how much power to give the monarch.

The upshot of that was that two broad factions formed, defined by where they were in the assembly hall. From the perspective of the presiding officials, those on the left wanted to reduce the power of the King. Those on the right side of the floor wanted to preserve that power. The point here is that what they were actually divided over wasn’t economic philosophy or any of the views we now associate with ‘left’ and ‘right’, but over authoritarianism.

The terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ to describe differing opinion-sets disappeared after the revolution, but re-emerged in France after the Bourbon Restoration in 1815. They spread into the west only much later, largely on the back of the rise of workers’ movements in the nineteenth century. These were a reaction to the unbridled cowboy capitalism of the industrial revolution. That same left-right division, in France, also became associated with ongoing efforts to adjust their constitutional position – notably the division between church and state, which was a major issue at the turn of the twentieth century.

In the very broadest sense what was happening was an expansion of the definition of ‘left’ and ‘right’ into something that was political, ideological, and involving a wide raft of human ideas and behaviours. It was defined, refined, and reduced to a spectrum with gradations; ‘centrist’, ‘centre left’, ‘centre right’, ‘hard left,’ ‘hard right’ and so forth. But it also contained built-in contradictions and issues that were never fully resolved.

In the western democracies of the twentieth century, for instance, politics typically veered between centre-right and centre-left – all largely in reaction to economic fortunes and the way that the social changes of the second industrial revolution and the end of the old order during the First World War played out. Within that context the definitions of left and right seemed axiomatic: among intellectuals by the 1930s, for instance, there was an implicit supposition that to be ‘left wing’ was also to be a thinker, tolerant, discursive and humanitarian; whereas the ‘right wing’ were intolerant, selfish, polemic and authoritarian.

And yet, through much of the twentieth century, some of the most brutal authoritarian dictatorships were those of governments which – overtly – declared themselves communist and thus, hard left. Oddly, the rest of the brutal authoritarian dictatorships of the period overtly declared themselves fascist or Nazi and thus, were hard right.

The execution of Louis VXI in Paris, 1793. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

I saw contradictions myself among the student community when I was at university in the 1980s, when the student community styled itself liberal, left-wing and humanitarian. This was enforced by the student leaders who demanded that everybody intolerantly spew all the vicious hatred they could muster at anybody who wasn’t a left-wing humanitarian liberal. Those who failed to comply with the shouted demands of these student leaders risked being told they were authoritarians and dubbed a ‘Nazi’. The hypocrisy was, of course, lost on those doing it.

I get concerned, today, by the way labelling goes on: just the other day, somebody commented on this blog about the ‘hard left’ – but didn’t define what that meant to them, other than an implication that it meant intolerance and lack of critical thinking. And yet – weren’t the ‘left’ supposed to be associated with tolerance and reason?

All this makes sense if we consider that the ‘political spectrum’ and its associated labels is only a partial view of the wider human condition and its expression within the wide and complex societies we build. It has never really been a case of ‘economic left vs economic right’, ‘communism vs capitalism’, ‘humanitarianism vs selfishness’, and so on. People are complex beings, societies even more so. The very terms defining ‘left’ and ‘right’ have a fluid and socially defined meaning, shifting as societies themselves change; in the last two generations, for instance – largely on the back of neoliberalism – the whole western political spectrum has slid to what, in mid-twentieth century terms, was the economic and political right.

Within that complex and shifting array we also have all the other behaviours that people express, both individually and as groups. And while we can label these behaviours, they are – themselves – all expressed in shades and variations. Broadly, though, we can see tolerance vs intolerance, conviction vs reason, polemic vs discussion, authoritarianism vs libertarianism, humanitarianism vs individualism and so on. I think it’s risky and misleading to associate any of these with a stereotype of someone who is ‘left’ or ‘right’, because people will display all of these facets in various ways.

Still, that hasn’t stopped an absolute melange of labels emerging of late in which – by earlier standards – all the old stereotypes of what defines ‘left’ and ‘right’ seem to have been mixed up. Much of this, as far as can tell, is behaviour along the authoritarian spectrum – but of course, there will be more to it than this.

I think we need a new paradigm for the twenty-first century. And my proposal is that we define people and societies, instead, on a much simpler spectrum. A spectrum with just one measure; which is the extent to which people forget to be reasonable, forget to discuss things, forget to be tolerant of others, and instead validate themselves with various degrees of anger, polemic and bullying in a zero-sum game where they must prevail at all cost.

I call this spectrum ‘stupidity’. And, I fear, humanity seems to have a limitless capacity for generating it. More on that soon. Meanwhile – any thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

19 thoughts on “What do we mean by ‘left’ and ‘right’?

  1. You prompt a quote from the great Frank Zappa: “There’s more stupidity in the universe than hydrogen and it has a longer shelf life”. Division between the actual left and right sides of the UK House of Commons is by length of a sword, if that’s not stupid what is?

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  2. Well, I’ve expressed some of my thoughts in my latest post. Thing is — I’ll be most of us would agree that there is a lot of stupidity among us humans, but not about who is actually demonstrating it. “Present company excepted,” and all that.

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    1. What worries me is that the stupidest people are too stupid to know they are stupid (as it were) – viewing themselves instead as ‘stable geniuses’. At the other end of the spectrum, some of those we uphold as being ‘intelligent’ because of academic qualifications also seem to behave in ways that, if viewed objectively, are deeply stupid – such as pursuing academic feuds to the point of idiocy; a loss of perspective in which, it seems, intelligence is one of the engines by which human stupidity is generated.

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      1. I know this isn’t very scientific, but don’t you think world politics is a bit like a boil? It festers and festers until suddenly one day it pops and we have a major war. Eventually, the crap drains out, along with masses of blood, and humanity settles down again, for a while.
        I fear this particular boil has been festering for quite some time.

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        1. I can’t unthink that image now! I think you’re right, though. It’s true for all the history I can think of – I suspect something to do with the way we tend to build inequitous societies in which a few gain the power and wealth. After a while, they behave as if they are entitled to it and, a little later, the peasants turn up with pitforks, torches etc to knock over the rulers and set up new ones. And the cycle begins again. Modern systems have made the process perhaps a bit more civilised than that, but I suspect not by much…


          1. lol – apologies, and no, not by much.

            I’ve always been fascinated by China, and China’s 2000 plus year history of dynastic change, often with transition periods during which warlords divided the country up amongst themselves. In the end though, the cycle would begin again.
            In Chinese history, the Confucian bureaucracy was remarkably successful at smoothing over the transitions and providing a degree of continuity from one dynasty to the next.
            Hopefully our democratic institutions will provide a similar, ‘cushioning’ effect.

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    1. Absolutely. The scary bit is that, as Einstein apocryphally remarked, ‘only two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity… and I’m not sure about the universe’.

      OK, it’s apocryphal… but hey… 🙂 (And Frank Zappa actually DID say that physicists claim hydrogen is the most common element in the universe – but he figured, actually it was stupidity – I have his autobiography…)

      As an aside, if you can get hold of a copy, read it: ‘The Real Frank Zappa Book’. It’s an astonishing exercise in writing-as-dada.

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  3. I find that people who label humanity as stupid are being are doing the intellectual equivalent of eating comfort food: It feels good, isn’t particularly well though out, and hurts you in the long term. Give yourselves some credit for being thinking beings, for goodness sake. Most our problems come from being unaware of our emotions and how we tick, not any lack of intelligence.

    If you ever get discouraged, see Niven’s sixth law (paraphrasing): It easier to destroy than to build, the fact that any human creation is still standing shows ahumans’ strong penchant for creating and preserving.


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