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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 a broad, dialectical interpretation of complex questions. Left-wing politics and right-wing politics are often presented as polar opposites, and although a particular individual or party may take a left-wing stance on one matter and a right-wing stance on another, the terms left and right are commonly used as if they described two globally opposed political families. In France, where the terms originated, the Left is called "the party of movement" and the Right "the party of order".

Traditionally, the Left includes: progressives, social liberals, social democrats, socialists, communists and anarchists while the Right includes: conservatives, fascists, reactionaries, monarchists and nationalists.

The terms left and right are often used to spin a particular point of view, rather than as simple descriptors. In modern political rhetoric, those on the Left typically emphasize their support of working people and accuse the Right of supporting the interests of the upper class, whereas those on the Right usually emphasize their support of individualism and accuse the Left of supporting collectivism. Thus, arguments about the way the words should be used often displace arguments about policy by raising emotional prejudice against a preconceived notion of what left and right mean.

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 Francemarker, 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. This traditional seating arrangement continues to be observed by the Senatemarker 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 and clerical interests, while "The Left" implied support for republicanism, secularism and civil liberties. 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 capitalism 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.

However, among the left-wing were not only liberals but also Robespierre, who was a protosocialist, a disciple of Rousseau. When his section of the Jacobin party got the power, left-controlled French National Convention moved to decree numerous economic interventions during the Revolution, including price controls (enforced under penalty of death), forced loans on those with incomes exceeding 1000 livres, and the abolishment of the Paris Stock Exchange and all joint-stock companies.

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 semi-liberal 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 Austriamarker and Prussia, or dependent rulers in German states like Bavariamarker, 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.

19th century and later

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.

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.

The original left, and their radical or republican descendants, had stood for a certain abstract equality of rights, but the emerging socialist left stood for a more radical notion of equality: in its more radical forms, for an absolute leveling of wealth and a willingness to use the power of the state to achieve that equality.

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 socialists . Increasingly, the economic laissez-faire views that once belonged to the left part of the spectrum 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. However, even as this original right was weakened in the course of the 20th century, various new brands of ideologies placing a heavy emphasis on authority and, to a varying extent, tradition, coupled with radical nationalism, arose; these were generally labeled as being extremely right-wing, or "far right", exemplified prototypically by fascism and Nazism.

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 Unionmarker.

Contemporary usage

In the European elections of 2009, right-wing candidates won in many elections, often on an anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic platform.

Maoism is a major branch of leftism. New Leftism ( ) in the People's Republic of Chinamarker is an ideological tendency in opposition to capitalism, the socialist market economy 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 Bangladeshmarker and, until recently, Nepalmarker. 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, Perumarker and Turkeymarker.

In the Philippinesmarker, 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 Perumarker, 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 Indiamarker, the Communist Party of India have been fighting a protracted war. 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., 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.

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.

Contemporary usage in the United States
The terms left-wing and right-wing are widely used in 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 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.

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 social policies that favor the working class, and multiculturalism. The contemporary Left usually defines itself as promoting government regulation of business, commerce and industry; protection of fundamental rights such as freedom of speech and separation of church and state; and government intervention on behalf of racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities and the working class.

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 social policies that favor the upper class, and belief in a single traditional culture for national unity. The contemporary Right usually defines itself as promoting deregulation of business, commerce and industry.

Doubt about the contemporary relevance of the terms

Some contemporary political positions have been argued as difficult to characterize in left-right terms. For example, those espousing the position known in the US as libertarianism will often reject being labeled as either "right" or "left". They emphasize that they are opposed both to the leftist advocacy of government regulation of the market and to the protectionism which may be associated with some on the Right, as with paleoconservatives. Instead, they liken the libertarian positions 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.'"

Many modern thinkers question whether the left-right distinction is even relevant in the 21st century. They argue that 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.

Typical positions

While there are many differences within both the Left and the Right, typical positions include the following.

The Left tends to favour laws against monopoly and price fixing, and laws requiring a minimum wage. The Right tends to oppose government regulation of business.

The Left tends to favour change, the Right to support the existing social order.

The Left tends to support the working class, and labour unions, the Right tends to support management.

The Left tends to be secular, the Right to support religion.

The Left tends to accept scientific research, even when it conflicts with traditional beliefs or business interests. The Right tends to be skeptical of science when such conflicts emerge.

See also


  1. JoAnne C. Reuss, American Folk Music and Left-Wing Politics, The Scarecrow Press, 2000, ISBN 9780810836846
  2. Van Gosse, The Movements of the New Left, 1950 - 1975: A Brief History with Documents, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, ISBN 9781403968043
  3. Berman, Sheri. "Understanding Social Democracy". Retrieved on 2007-08-11.
  4. 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...
  5. The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia, Columbia University Press, ISBN 0231056788 "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."
  6. David Boaz, The Politics of Freedom: Taking on The Left, the Right, and the Threats to our Liberties, Cato Institute, 2008, ISBN 9781933995144
  7. The Architecture of Parliaments: Legislative Houses and Political Culture Charles T. Goodsell Says Fuck You British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Jul., 1988), pp. 287-302
  8. The Principal Speeches of the Statesmen and Orators of the French Revolution, Vol. II, Henry Morse Stephens, Clarendon Press (1892), p. 51
  9. Taxes and Forced Loans in the French Revolution, G. Bourgin, The Living Age, Volume CCCXVIV (Jul. 1922), pp. 452-453
  11. "The elections yielded gains for far-right and extremist parties in Austria, Denmark, Finland, Greece, Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, Romania and the United Kingdom. Many of these parties openly ran on xenophobic, racist, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic platforms,” said Chairman Cardin. “At a time when we are already seeing increased incidents of violence and discrimination towards minorities in Europe, I am greatly concerned that the growth of these parties will only make the situation worse. This is a worrying trend.”
  12. The Shining Path: The Successful Blending of Mao and Mariategui in Peru
  13. RW ONLINE: First Congress of the Maoist Communist Party of Turkey
  15. Reuters AlertNet - Indian Maoist violence
  16. Maoist Communist Centre (MCC) Maoist Coordination Committee (MCC)
  17. Jo Johnson, Leftist Insurgents Kill 50 Indian Policemen. Financial Times, March 15, 2007.
  18. Impasse in India - The New York Review of Books
  19. The biggest threat to Indian elections
  20. Shifter, Michael. "In Search of Hugo Chávez". Foreign Affairs, May/June 2006. 85:3
  21. U.S. Department of State (December 1, 2005). "The State of Democracy in Venezuela".. Retrieved 18 June 2006.
  22. Right Wing, Left Wing, Chicken Wing | MediaCulture | AlterNet
  23. What Is Libertarian?, Institute for Humane Studies
  24. Davies, Stephen, Margaret Thatcher and the Rebirth of Conservatism, Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs, July 1993
  25. Worthington, Glen, Conservatism in Australian National Politics, Parliament of Australia Parliamentary Library, 19 February 2002
  26. Katwala, Sunder, My left, The Guardian, 2 February 2007
  27. Seymour Martin Lipset, cited in Fuchs, D., and Klingemann, H. 1990. The left-right schema. Pp.203-34 in Continuities in Political Action: A Longitudinal Study of Political Orientations in Three Western Democracies, ed.M.Jennings et al. Berlin:de Gruyter
  28. Lukes, Steven. 'Epilogue: The Grand Dichotomy of the Twentieth Century': concluding chapter to T. Ball and R. Bellamy (eds.), The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Political Thought.P.610-612
  29. Left-Wing Lingo, Ideologies and History
  30., Conservatism and Religion, "Religion is a key pillar in social order and the right ordering of the state requires government to recognize its proper role in regards to religious belief."
  31. Jan Herman Brinks and David Binder, Children of a New Fatherland, "German political Lutheranism as a 'state religion' has always carried the values and 'virtues' in its banner, which seemed to play into the hands of nationalism, intolerance, and violence. Germany's authoritarian, nationalist, and conservative politicians always felt attracted to the Reformer. It is accordingly probably not a coincidence that right-wing radical spokesmen in Germany appeal to the 'political Luther'.", I. B. Tauris, 1999, ISBN: 9781860644580.
  32. Levin, Yuval. Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy. Encounter Books, October 2008.
  33. Diana DeGette, Sex, Science, and Stem Cells: Inside the Right Wing Assault on Reason, The Lyons Press, 2008, ISBN 978-1599214313
  34., "Christian school teaches right-wing creationist theories, by Liz Fekete, 1 August 2002, 'The government policy of funding for faith schools has been criticised after it was revealed that the Emmanuel City Technology College in Gateshead is teaching creationism - that human origins are (relatively) recent and divine - as opposed to scientific evolution, to explain our origins.'
  35.,Muslim creationism makes inroads in Turkey, by Tom Heneghan, Reuters, Nov. 22, 2006, "Creationism is so widely accepted here that Turkey placed last in a recent survey of public acceptance of evolution in 34 countries — just behind the United States." "Darwinism did become an issue during the left-vs.-right political turmoil before a 1980 military coup because Communist bookshops touted Darwin’s works as a complement to Karl Marx. 'It looked like Marx and Darwin were together, two long-bearded guys spreading ideas that make people lose their faith,' said Istanbul journalist Mustafa Akyol.
  36. Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science: Revised and Updated, ASIN: B001OQOIPM

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