Left–right politics

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The left–right political spectrum is a system of classifying political positions, ideologies, and parties. Left-wing politics and right-wing politics are often presented as opposed, although a particular individual or group may take a left-wing stance on one matter and a right-wing stance on another, and some stances may overlap and be considered either left or right-wing depending on the ideology.[1] In France, where the terms originated, the Left has been called "the party of movement" and the Right "the party of order."[2][3][4][5] The intermediate stance is called centrism and a person with such a position is a moderate.

Amongst researchers, there is a general consensus that the Left includes anarchists,[6] communists, socialists, anti-capitalists, anti-imperialists, greens, left-libertarians, progressives, social democrats and social liberals.[7][8][9] Movements for racial equality are also usually linked with left-wing organizations.[10]

Researchers have also said that the Right includes classical liberals, capitalists, anti-communists, conservatives, neoconservatives, neoliberals, right-libertarians, nationalists, imperialists, monarchists, fascists,[11] racial supremacists,[12] reactionaries, religious fundamentalists, social authoritarians and traditionalists.[13]

Published researchers have classified Christian Democrats as centrist.[14][15][16]

History of the terms[edit]

The terms "left" and "right" appeared during the French Revolution of 1789 when members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king to the president's right and supporters of the revolution to his left. One deputy, the Baron de Gauville, explained, "We began to recognize each other: those who were loyal to religion and the king took up positions to the right of the chair so as to avoid the shouts, oaths, and indecencies that enjoyed free rein in the opposing camp." However, the Right opposed the seating arrangement because they believed that deputies should support private or general interests but should not form factions or political parties. The contemporary press occasionally used the terms "left" and "right" to refer to the opposing sides.[17]

When the National Assembly was replaced in 1791 by a Legislative Assembly comprising entirely new members, the divisions continued. "Innovators" sat on the left, "moderates" gathered in the centre, while the "conscientious defenders of the constitution" found themselves sitting on the right, where the defenders of the Ancien Régime had previously gathered. When the succeeding National Convention met in 1792, the seating arrangement continued, but following the coup d'état of 2 June 1793, and the arrest of the Girondins, the right side of the assembly was deserted, and any remaining members who had sat there moved to the centre. However, following the Thermidorian Reaction of 1794, the members of the far left were excluded, and the method of seating was abolished. The new constitution included rules for the assembly that would "break up the party groups."[18]

However, following the Restoration in 1814–1815, political clubs were again formed. The majority ultraroyalists chose to sit on the right. The "constitutionals" sat in the centre while independents sat on the left. The terms extreme right and extreme left, as well as centre-right and centre-left, came to be used to describe the nuances of ideology of different sections of the assembly.[19]

The terms "left" and "right" were not used to refer to political ideology but only to seating in the legislature. After 1848, the main opposing camps were the "democratic socialists" and the "reactionaries" who used red and white flags to identify their party affiliation.[20]

With the establishment of the Third Republic in 1871, the terms were adopted by political parties: the Republican Left, the Centre Right, and the Centre Left (1871) and the Extreme Left (1876) and Radical Left (1881). The beliefs of the group called the Radical Left were actually closer to the Centre Left than the beliefs of those called the Extreme Left.[21]

Beginning in the early twentieth century the terms Left and Right came to be associated with specific political ideologies and were used to describe citizens' political beliefs, gradually replacing the terms "reds" and "the reaction". Those on the Left often called themselves "republicans", while those on the Right often called themselves "conservatives". The words Left and Right were at first used by their opponents as slurs. By 1914 the left half of the legislature in France was composed of Unified Socialists, Republican Socialists and Socialist Radicals, while the parties that were called "Left" now sat on the right side. The use of the words Left and Right spread from France to other countries, and came to be applied to a large number of political parties world-wide, which often differed in their political beliefs.[22]

There was asymmetry in the use of the terms Left and Right by the opposing sides. The Right mostly denied that the left–right spectrum was meaningful because they saw it as artificial and damaging to unity. The Left, however, seeking to change society, promoted the distinction. As Alain observed in 1931, "When people ask me if the division between parties of the Right and parties of the Left, men of the Right and men of the Left, still makes sense, the first thing that comes to mind is that the person asking the question is certainly not a man of the Left."[23]

In British politics the terms 'Right' and 'Left' came into common use for the first time in the late 1930s in debates over the Spanish Civil War.[24]

The Scottish sociologist Robert M. MacIver noted in The Web of Government (1947):

The right is always the party sector associated with the interests of the upper or dominant classes, the left the sector expressive of the lower economic or social classes, and the centre that of the middle classes. Historically this criterion seems acceptable. The conservative right has defended entrenched prerogatives, privileges and powers; the left has attacked them. The right has been more favorable to the aristocratic position, to the hierarchy of birth or of wealth; the left has fought for the equalization of advantage or of opportunity, for the claims of the less advantaged. Defense and attack have met, under democratic conditions, not in the name of class but in the name of principle; but the opposing principles have broadly corresponded to the interests of the different classes.[25]

Political parties in the political spectrum[edit]

Political scientists have observed that the ideologies of political parties can be mapped along a single left–right axis.[26] Klaus von Beyme categorized European parties into nine families, which described most parties. He was able to arrange seven of them from left to right: communist, socialist, green, liberal, Christian democratic, conservative and right-wing extremist. The position of agrarian and regional/ethnic parties varied.[27] A study conducted in the late 1980s on two bases, positions on ownership of the means of production and positions on social issues, confirmed this arrangement.[28]

There has been a tendency for party ideologies to persist, and values and views that were present at a party's founding have survived. However they have also adapted for pragmatic reasons, making them appear more similar.[29] Lipset and Rokkan observed that modern party systems are the product of social conflicts played out in the last few centuries.[30] They said that lines of cleavage had become 'frozen'.[31]

The first modern political parties were liberals, organized by the middle class in the 19th century to protect them against the aristocracy. They were major political parties in that century but declined in the twentieth century as first the working class came to support socialist parties and economic and social change eroded their middle class base.[32] Conservative parties arose in opposition to liberals in order to defend aristocratic privilege. But in order to attract voters they became less doctrinaire than liberals. However they were unsuccessful in most countries and generally have been able to achieve power only through cooperation with other parties.[33]

Socialist parties were organized in order to achieve political rights for workers and were originally allied with liberals. However they broke with the liberals when they sought worker control of the means of production.[34] Christian democratic parties were organized by Catholics who saw liberalism as a threat to traditional values. Although established in the 19th century, they became a major political force following the Second World War.[35] Communist parties emerged following a division within socialism first on support of the First World War and then support of the Bolshevik Revolution.[36]

Right-wing extremist parties are harder to define, other than being more right-wing than other parties, but include fascists and some extreme conservative and nationalist parties.[37]

Green parties were the most recent of the major party groups to develop. They have mostly rejected socialism and are very liberal on social issues.[38]

These categories can be applied to many parties outside Europe.[39] Ware (1996) asserted that in the United States both major parties were liberal, even though there are left–right policy differences between them.[40]

Usage in Western Europe[edit]

In the 2001 book The government and politics of France, Knapp and Wright say that the main factor dividing the left and right wings in Western Europe is class. The Left seeks social justice through redistributive social and economic policies, while the Right defends private property and capitalism. The nature of the conflict depends on existing social and political cleavages and on the level of economic development.[41] Left-wing values include the belief in the power of human reason to achieve progress for the benefit of the human race, secularism, sovereignty exercised through the legislature, social justice, and mistrust of strong personal political leadership. To the Right, this is regularly seen as anti-clericalism, unrealistic social reform, doctrinaire socialism and class hatred. The Right are skeptical about the capacity for radical reforms to achieve human well-being while maintaining workplace competition. They believe in the established church both in itself and as an instrument of social cohesion, and believe in the need for strong political leadership to minimize social and political divisions. To the Left, this is seen as a selfish and reactionary opposition to social justice, a wish to impose doctrinaire religion on the population, and a tendency to authoritarianism and repression.[42][43]

The differences between left and right have altered over time. The initial cleavage at the time of the French Revolution was between supporters of absolute monarchy (the Right) and those who wished to limit the king's authority (the Left). During the 19th century the cleavage was between monarchists and republicans. Following the establishment of the Third Republic in 1871, the cleavage was between supporters of a strong executive on the Right and supporters of the primacy of the legislature on the Left.[44]

Contemporary usage in the United States[edit]

The terms left-wing and right-wing are widely used in the United States but, as on the global level, there is no firm consensus about their meaning. The only aspect that 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 generally 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.[45]

The contemporary Left in the United States is usually understood as a category that includes New Deal social-liberals (in contrast to traditions of social democracy more common to Western Europe), Rawlsian liberals, and civil libertarians, who are often identified with the Democratic Party. In general, the term left-wing is understood to imply a commitment to egalitarianism, support for social policies that appeal to the working class, and multiculturalism. The contemporary center-left usually defines itself as promoting government regulation of business, commerce and industry; protection of fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion; and government intervention on behalf of racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities and the working class.[46]

The contemporary Right in the United States is usually understood as a category including social conservatives, Christian conservatives and free market liberals, and is generally identified with the Republican Party. In general, right-wing implies a commitment to conservative Christian values, support for a free-market system, and traditional family values and civil libertarians. The contemporary center-right usually defines itself as promoting deregulation of banking, commerce, and industry.[47]

Relevance of the terms today[edit]

Some political scientists have suggested that the classifications of "left" and "right" are no longer meaningful in the modern complex world. Although these terms continue to be used, they advocate a more complex spectrum that attempts to combine political, economic and social dimensions.[48]

However, a survey conducted between 1983 and 1994 by Bob Altemeyer of Canadian legislative caucuses showed an 82% correlation between party affiliation and score on a scale for right-wing authoritarianism when comparing right-wing and social democratic caucuses. There was a wide gap between the scores of the two groups, which was filled by liberal caucuses. His survey of American legislative caucuses showed scores by American Republicans and Democrats were similar to the Canadian Right and liberals, with a 44% correlation between party affilitation and score.[49]

Norberto Bobbio saw the polarization of the Italian Chamber of Deputies in the 1990s as evidence that the linear left–right axis remained valid. He thought that the argument that the spectrum had disappeared occurred when either the Left or Right were weak. The dominant side would claim that its ideology was the only possible one, while the weaker side would minimize its differences. He saw the Left and Right not in absolute terms, but as relative concepts that would vary over time. In his view, the left–right axis could be applied to any time period.[50]

Libertarian writer David Boaz argued that terms left and right are used to spin a particular point of view rather than as simple descriptors, with those on the "left" typically emphasizing their support for working people and accusing the right of supporting the interests of the upper class, and those on the "right" usually emphasizing their support for individualism and accusing the Left of supporting collectivism. Boaz asserts that arguments about the way the words should be used often displaces arguments about policy by raising emotional prejudice against a preconceived notion of what the terms mean.[51]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ MILNER, HELEN (2004). "Partisanship, Trade Policy, and Globalization: Is There a Left–Right Divide on Trade Policy?" (PDF). International Studies Quarterly. 
  2. ^ Knapp & Wright, p. 10
  3. ^ Adam Garfinkle, Telltale Hearts: The Origins and Impact of the Vietnam Antiwar Movement (1997). Palgrave Macmillan: p. 303.
  4. ^ "Left (adjective)" and "Left (noun)" (2011), Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
  5. ^ Roger Broad, Labour's European Dilemmas: From Bevin to Blair (2001). Palgrave Macmillan: p. xxvi.
  6. ^ Clay Risen, "The Bill of the Century", passim, e.g. "Southern Democrats faced three choices: they could ditch their party for the Republicans; move to the left and hope to ride a wave of an expanding post-Jim Crow black electorate; or double down on segregation and white supremacy ..." p. 168, Bloomsbury Press, 2015, ISBN 978-1608198269
  7. ^ JoAnne C. Reuss, American Folk Music and Left-Wing Politics, The Scarecrow Press, 2000, ISBN 978-0-8108-3684-6
  8. ^ Van Gosse, The Movements of the New Left, 1950 – 1975: A Brief History with Documents, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, ISBN 978-1-4039-6804-3
  9. ^ Brooks, Frank H. (1994). The Individualist Anarchists: An Anthology of Liberty (1881–1908). Transaction Publishers. p. xi. "Usually considered to be an extreme left-wing ideology, anarchism has always included a significant strain of radical individualism ..."
  10. ^ Michael J. Klarman, "From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality", "... many of the white Americans who were most sympathetic to racial equality belonged to left-wing organizations...", p. 375, Oxford University Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0195310184
  11. ^ Robert O. Paxton, The Anatomy of Fascism, passim, e.g. "The Communist International was certain that the German swing to the Right under Hitler would produce a counterswing to the Left ...", p. 128, Vintage, 2005, ISBN 978-1400033911
  12. ^ Peter Davies, Derek Lynch, "The Routledge Companion to Fascism and the Far Right", passim, e.g. "The New Right was primarily an Anglo-American phenomenon associated with neo-conservatism and free market ideology ... however the term is also used to refer to racist and extremist forms of neo-fascism.", p. 108, Routledge, 2002, ISBN 978-0415214957
  13. ^ The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, Columbia University Press, ISBN 0-231-05678-8 "Fascism, philosophy of government that glorifies nationalism at the expense of the individual. ... The term was first used by the party started by MUSSOLINI, ... and has also been applied to other right-wing movements such as NATIONAL SOCIALISM, in Germany, and the FRANCO regime, in Spain."
  14. ^ Boswell, Jonathan (11 October 2013). Community and the Economy: The Theory of Public Co-operation. Routledge. p. 160. ISBN 9781136159015. Finally, the Christian democratic parties were repeatedly drawn towards various forms of communitarian politics, partly because of their political 'centrism', partly from conviction. 
  15. ^ Hecke, Steven Van; Gerard, Emmanuel (2004). Christian Democratic Parties in Europe Since the End of the Cold War. Leuven University Press. p. 199. ISBN 9789058673770. In little more than five years, the Christian Democrat-inspired centrism that claimed to be in the opposition had taken hold in the right/left dichotomy, which it nevertheless attempted to refute. 
  16. ^ Chaliand, Gérard (23 August 2016). The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to ISIS. University of California Press. p. 236. ISBN 9780520966000. The extreme right believed that the centrism of the Christian Democrats promoted the rise of the left and extreme left. 
  17. ^ Gauchet, p. 242-245
  18. ^ Gauchet, p. 245-247
  19. ^ Gauchet, p. 247-249
  20. ^ Gauchet, p. 253
  21. ^ Marc Crapez, "De quand date le clivage gauche/droite en France?", Revue française de science politique, 48 (1), février 1998, p. 70-72
  22. ^ Gauchet, p. 255-259
  23. ^ Gauchet, p. 266
  24. ^ Charles Loch Mowat, Britain Between the Wars: 1918–1940 (1955) p 577
  25. ^ Lipset, p. 222
  26. ^ Ware, pp. 18–20
  27. ^ Ware, p. 22
  28. ^ Ware, pp. 27–29
  29. ^ Ware, p. 47
  30. ^ Ware, p. 186
  31. ^ Ware, p. 202
  32. ^ Ware, p. 29-31
  33. ^ Ware, pp. 31–33
  34. ^ Ware, pp. 33–35
  35. ^ Ware, p. 36-37
  36. ^ Ware, p. 34
  37. ^ Ware, pp. 41–42
  38. ^ Ware, p. 43
  39. ^ Ware, pp. 44–47
  40. ^ Ware, p. 60
  41. ^ Knapp & Wright, p. 7
  42. ^ Knapp & Wright, p. 9
  43. ^ Anthony Giddens, Beyond Left and Right, the Future of Radical Politics, "In many continental European countries, for example, 'conservatism' suggests the political influence of Catholicism." p. 22. "American conservatism, in some of its major forms at least, has almost from its beginnings been aggressively procapitalist in ways that its European counterparts have not." p. 23. "(However) the basic delemmas now faced by conservative and socialist thought are everywhere similar." p. 23. "Conservatism, it is often said, opposes rationalism." p. 24., Stanford University Press, 1994, ISBN 978-0-8047-2451-7.
  44. ^ Knapp & Wright, pp. 2–5
  45. ^ Right Wing, Left Wing, Chicken Wing | MediaCulture | AlterNet
  46. ^ Michael Kazin, "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation", Knopf, 2011, ISBN 978-0-307-26628-6
  47. ^ "Every facet of daily life, from what cars we drive to what food we eat is subject to government's regulatory reach. The costs are inevitably borne by consumers in the form of higher prices, restricted product choices and limited freedom. Policymakers should scrutinize new and existing rules to ensure that each is necessary and to minimize costs." http://www.heritage.org/issues/regulation
  48. ^ Ruypers, p. 56
  49. ^ The authoritarian specter, Bob Altemeyer (1996), pp.(258–298)
  50. ^ Left and right: the significance of a political distinction (1996) Norberto Bobbio, Allan Cameron, pp. vi – xiv
  51. ^ David Boaz, The Politics of Freedom: Taking on The Left, the Right, and Threats to our Liberties, Cato Institute, 2008, ISBN 978-1-933995-14-4


  • Gauchet, Marcel. "Right and Left". In Pierre Nora, Lawrence D. Kritzman (Eds.), Realms of memory: conflicts and divisions. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997 ISBN 0-231-10634-3
  • Lipset, Seymour Martin. Political man: the social bases of politics. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1960. ISBN 0-8018-2522-9
  • Knapp, Andrew. Wright, Vincent. The government and politics of France. New York: Routledge, 2001 ISBN 0-415-21526-9
  • Ruypers, John. Canadian and world politics. Canada: Emond Montgomery Publications Limited, 2005. ISBN 1-55239-097-7
  • Ware, Alan. Political Parties and Party Systems. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-19-878076-1

External links[edit]