The terms Left and Right had a geographical birth, originally in reference to the seating
arrangements in the French Chamber of Deputies after the revolution. They have been used in
European parliaments since. Popular or not, politically correct or not, the Left/Right
classification reflects what I see as the basic divide in social-political thought.
Before the French Revolution society was divided vertically. Power was at the top, and filtered
down, down, down through the hierarchy to the voiceless peasant-slave, thus facilitating the rise
of history’s demon leaders. Though weaker from Power’s point of view, the horizontal Left-
Right division was more democratic, intended to limit and control Power.
Peter Kropotkin notes in his The Great French Revolution that the whole of France was then
divided into two hostile camps: on one side those who possessed property, on the other, those
who possessed nothing -- the rich and the poor.
The Right defends the status quo and is defined as conservative or reactionary. Right believes in
the superiority of its cultural heritage. Right defends traditions, the past and the nation, and as a
consequence, militarism, individualism and more recently anti-Communism. War belongs to the
Right. Fascism is extreme Right.
The Left, reformist or revolutionary, stands for emancipation from the chains of the past,
libertarianism and innovation. For example, emancipation from the binds of organized religion.
Though not universally true, especially in Europe religion is generally considered Right and
atheism, Left (symbolically the good are seated on the right of God; the evil on His left).
Communism is extreme Left.
Equality and inequality -- one or the other
Norberto Bobbio (1909-2004), Italy’s leading political philosopher, determined that the major
distinction between Left and Right is the relationship of each with equality. Bobbio’s book,
Destra e Sinistra (Right and Left), is a key reference for this article.
Though not every social-political view can be classified as Right or Left, Left as a rule tends
toward everything that strives for equality among men; Right tends toward inequality. Or,
expressed more forcefully, Right favours forms of hierarchies dividing men.
This distinction on the issue of equality is clear, uncompromising and on target.
Yet French revolutionaries themselves were hard put to come out 100% for equality even in their
Declaration of the Rights of Man. But when the popular revolution forced the new government to
finally proclaim equality in the Preamble to the (new) Constitution, the Revolution flung
defiance in the face of all of the powerful royalty of Europe.
It’s one or the other -- Left or Right. They are not interchangeable. Despite Right’s frequent
claims that it too is “Socialist” and despite Hitler’s appropriation of the word in National
Socialism, and despite Left’s frequent electoral claims that it too is moderate middle of the road,
both ideologies if they are genuine are one or the other.
Neither Left nor Right can be middle of road.
Some political philosophers like to describe the basic divide between the two with the categories
Progressive and Conservative.
Today, Left considers the Center a disguised Right; the Right believes the Center is only a cover
for the Left. And it is true; the Center or the Third Way is often a cover for one or the other.
Often the Third Way is labeled a “conservative revolution” as if the ambivalent Third Way could
prevail over genuine Left or Right. For in the long run, the Center also is obliged to assume
positions reflecting either Left or Right.
One or the other, Left or Right, predominates in a given society in a given moment, though one
does not eliminate the other. Times change but the basic divide remains.
In Italy, the Right of Mussolinian Fascism fell and after World War II the Left predominated --
though the imperialistic USA in the post-war never allowed it to govern Italy. In the confusion of
post-war Italy, both the neo-Fascist Right and the ex-Communist Left came to assume Center
positions in order to emerge from political oblivion.
The European Center today is crowded by survivors from Left and Right hanging onto crowded
political life rafts.