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Left and Right are benchmarks of spatial understandings of politics. Such descriptions are widely used as shorthand for communicating information about relative policy positions. The origin of the terms, designating positions of factions in the French revolutionary assembly, reflects a transformation from a vertical, or hierarchical, understanding of politics to a horizontal, or democratic, arrangement of conflict. Thus, the spatial metaphor is not just useful; it is fundamental to the way that people decipher democracy.
The terms should be used with care, however. There is some consistency in the meaning of left and right for political position across time and space. But the particular associations between left and right and definite policy positions are inexact and changeable. And many issues and perspectives correspond only loosely, at best, to a position on a stylized left-right dimension.
The first use of the left-right spatial metaphor was in France, in the period following the Revolution of 1789. Before the revolution, the polity had been divided into caste-like “estates.” The first estate was the clergy; the second was the hereditary nobility. The third estate (artisans and professionals) was more numerous but politically weaker.
French society was explicitly hierarchical, with the monarch being superior to all estates. “Position” was defined by class and station, which were in turn decided at birth. The idea of political positions as ideative views of the good, rather than simply shared interests of the estate or class one belonged to, had little place in such a system.
But the French Revolution, literally and figuratively, leveled many of the institutions of France. Historians Alexis de Tocqueville and Francois Guizot, separately looking back decades later at the impact of the French Revolution, both used the word “leveling” to describe its primary political impact. But this meant that two traditional links had been broken. First, the inherent connection between a fixed caste and its place in society was uprooted. Second, all citizens took an equal place in the society, each equally worthy of respect and equally politically powerful.
With the passing of the static caste-based conception of French society, citizens sought some effective way of mentally organizing the new, often chaotic, situation. What was required was a mental construction based on politics (the contest among equals, on a level playing field), not class or estate (immutable vertical distinctions of social privilege and political advantage). The replacing of the vertical understanding of hierarchy with the spatial metaphor of political disputes among equals may have been inevitable. Spatial imagery was the result of the new vision citizens in a democracy had of the alternatives open to them.
The French National Convention, meeting in September 1792 in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Legislative Assembly, was chaotic and unruly. A significant plurality of the deputies elected to the convention was independent. They were too poorly organized to raise issues on their own, but at more than 500 they were numerous enough to determine the outcome on most votes. They were seated in the middle section of the huge hall, an area referred to as “the Plain.”
The Gironde, the party physically located on the right of the hall (in the convention as had been true in the two previous assemblies), controlled the government in this period. They were pro-business, and advocated only mild and marginal reform of institutions. Their power base lay in the relatively conservative provinces.
The denizens of “the mountain,” the high benches on the far left of the assembly hall, were the most organized opposition to the Girondins. These overtly populist Jacobins agitated for change, for radical reform, and for anything else that made it more difficult for the Gironde to control the country. Their focus was on centralization of power in Paris, reform of banks and the monetary system, and widespread nationalization of the assets and wealth of the first two estates.
The Gironde, the party on the right, proved unable to pursue its mix of military defense, free trade economics, and fiscal restraint. By the spring of 1793, the government collapsed. The Jacobins, the party seated on the left of the hall, seized its opportunity to implement a variety of collectivist reforms and political purges. These general associations, with the party of the right defending the status quo and the party of the left attempting to implement reforms and significant changes, persists in our political language still.
General Categories of Meanings of Left and Right
Spatial descriptions of positions have become nearly generic, like using “Coke” as a name for any carbonated cola drink. But it is a mistake to think that such generic designations have more than colloquial meaning in any specific political situation. Further, the generic meanings themselves are contradictory, or at least fundamentally different.
Keeping this caveat in mind, there are at least three broad categories of meaning for the labels Left and Right.
- Divisions with respect to perspective on property. Left: Public ownership of the means of the production, government uses its power to redistribute wealth and power to achieve near-equality. Right: Private ownership, capitalist economy, government uses its power to preserve deep disparities in wealth and social status.
- Divisions with respect to status quo policy of current government. Left: Radical reformers, seek to change status quo policies and break free from outmoded or repressive rules of the past. Right: Conservative defenders of the status quo, tradition, and customary relations.
- Fairness-based divisions. Left: Emphasize fairness in terms of outcomes. In different ways, this perspective is embodied in such thinkers as Jean Jacques Rousseau, Karl Marx, or John Rawls. Right: Emphasize fairness in terms of process, and stability of use of traditional processes. Examples include Robert Nozick’s focus on historical principles, or Edmund Burke’s defense of tradition and custom.
Problems: Time, Cultural Understanding, and Strategic Action
The use of the left-right spatial metaphor makes several hidden assumptions that are arguable, at best. First, there is a single primary dimension of political and social conflict in the society. Second, this dimension and its connection to specific issues and beliefs are constant over time. Third, this dimension of conflict is transcultural, implying that the same understanding of left-right imagery and its connection to everyday politics is broadly shared.
It is more likely that, though the use of left-right as a means of organizing discourse about politics is generally useful, the actual meaning of the end points, or extremes, of Left and Right are both time-bound and culturally specific.
- Downs, Anthony. An Economic Theory of Democracy. New York: Harper and Row.
- Hinich, Melvin, and Michael Munger. Ideology and the Theory of Political Choice. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Kitschelt, Herbert, with Anthony McG 1996. The Radical Right in Western Europe: A Comparative Analysis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
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