The difference between Left and Right
So many people misunderstand the differences between Left and Right. Again and again, one can hear such statements as “Nazism was right-wing”, “Fascism is right-wing”, “General Franco’s Spain was Fascist”, “Republicans are Fascists”, etc. Tangentially related are the arguments espoused by some libertarians that “There is no such thing as Authority” or “I’m free, I can do whatever I want.” I’m now going to attempt to correct these misunderstandings. Most of the following analysis is derived from the writings of Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, with Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Bertrand de Jouvenel, and Hans-Hermann Hoppe influencing my own perspective on this analysis as well.
First, we must all agree that there are no universally accepted definitions of what constitutes Right-wing and Left-wing. In this note, I will make my case for what I believe Left and Right stand for, and subsequently Left-wing and Right-wing. I also want to stress that Rightism is distinct from Right-wing politics in a given sociopolitical environment, and Leftism is distinct from Left-wing politics in a given sociopolitical environment. Thus, in one particular political situation, a ‘Left-wing’ political party may indeed be Leftist – but in another situation, a different political party that may be considered ‘Left-wing’ is actually Rightist.
Second, some may be thinking ‘Why does this even matter?’ I think semantics do matter, and that one cannot properly engage into a conversation if one doesn’t understand the terms being presented. Confucius wrote that, “When words lose their meaning, people lose their liberty.”
Now, let us get on with it. When viewed from a certain angle, Man can be divided between two aspects of his humanity – that of diversity and that of identity.
Identity is the drive within all of us to associate amongst others that are similar to us – in age, economic class, sex, religion, philosophy, whatever. It is a drive towards conformity. It is the trait that Man shares most with the animal kingdom – a ‘herd instinct.’ Identitarianism is what I shall call Leftism.
In contrast, diversity is the drive within all of to experience the new – a curiosity for the variety in life. This is the truly human aspect of Man. Identitarianism, the herd instinct, can be seen all throughout the animal and insect kingdoms. Animals rarely show any desire to experience new things – to travel or to eat different things. A dog will be quite happy performing the same routines and eating the same food every day. This drive for diversity, this desire for uniqueness – this is what I shall call Rightism.
Why call the herd instinct Left and the individualist instinct Right? Simply because I believe, as will be shown, that Leftist philosophies are doomed to folly and destruction, while Rightist ones are the correct course of action for Man. Both of the terms ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ have a long history of usage in the West. In numerous European languages, ‘right’ is related to rightness, rightful, just (gerecht), law (pravo), and truth (pravda). Left, on the other hand, is related to awkward (gauche), clumsy, unfortunate (sinistro), calamitous, sinister, and adversity. On the Day of Judgement, the just will be situated on the right, while the damned are one the left. Christ sits at the Father’s right hand. Ecclesiastes 10:2 (NIV) states that “The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left.” Rightness then, because of the etymology of the terms, is what is best for individuals, families, and societies. Leftism is the opposite; it is what is wrong for the world of Man.
Most everyone has both Leftist and Rightist drives within them. Most anyone can relate to both a desire for conformity and a desire for change, at various times. How do these psychological understandings now relate to politics?
The drive for identity, put another way, is the drive towards equality. Anything that is identical with something else is automatically equal with it. Thus, equalitarianism / egalitarianism are fundamentally identitarian and Leftist. Again, all of us have this drive within us, this drive towards conformity, and this desire for equality. There is nothing good nor evil about this trait itself – it is a fact of the nature of Man and entirely devoid of value or morality. That being said, this animalistic desire for identity can be driven by less-than-noble emotions – fear, envy, and even hatred. This fear can be caused by the feeling that one is inferior to another. The drive for identity and uniformity is to quell that fear. The utopian vision of the Leftist – the identitarian, equalitarian, or egalitarian – is one in which no one is better, superior, richer, smarter, etc. We are all ‘equal.’ Everyone is ‘safe.’ This drive for equality also has a desire for security. The ‘unknown’, the ‘different’ are perceived dangers to this emotional equality and security. Thus, the individual - as distinct from the herd – is something to be feared. The nonconformist is a traitor. The herdist wants conformity – identical laws, identical measurements, identical language, identical currency, identical education, identical political power, identical wealth, identical intelligence, identical prestige – this is what is highly desirable.
The problem with Leftism – with egalitarianism – is that the ultimate drive for identity and equality is contrary to the nature of Man. Leftism, as a philosophy, does to the nature of Man what the legendary Greek sadist Procrustes did to his victims. Procrustes was a true egalitarian – he flung his victims to a bed, and those that were too short were stretched until they equaled the length of the bed, while those that were too tall were cut to size. Man is analogous to a mountain range – there are peaks and valleys. To advocate leveling requires blowing up the mountains, and filling in the valleys with rubble. It is only through force and tyranny that man can be made equal.
Rightism is a philosophy of diversity. It recognizes the variety in human existence, and the necessity of hierarchy. It is fundamentally a philosophy of freedom and liberty. Freedom is not equal. To use the analogy above, a ‘free’ landscape has hills and valleys. An unkempt yard is ‘free.’ An evenly kept yard requires clipping and cutting. Why is freedom so important? Because freedom presupposes diversity and nonconformity. Man is “a piece of a puzzle that never completely fits into any preestablished social or political picture.” Man needs room, space; an area to expand, to grow, to change. This is, fundamentally, what liberty is. Rightism stands for truly free, organically grown, diverse forms of life. Some men are ‘higher’ than others, some are ‘lower’; some are richer, others poorer; some are smarter. Everyone is unique and different. This principle of diversity leads to personalism-individualism: Man is unique, irreplaceable, separate. This also explains the existence of elites and of legitimate authority.
With this understanding, Leftism can be understood to be identitarian, egalitarian, ‘horizontal’ (we are all equal, no one is above anyone else), collectivist, uniform. Rightism can be understood to be diverse, free, ‘vertical’, personalist.
One very interesting fact of this analysis of philosophy is that, while appearing at first ironic, Rightism – precisely because it its individualism – leads to a plethora of authorities and sovereigns, all overlapping in jurisdiction. This creates a federalist system of governance, in the true sense of federalism – a multiplicity of authorities. This in turn leads to honor, submission, respect, and several other virtuous notions that help to ordain civil society. Leftism – precisely because of its herdism and egalitarianism – leads to a strong centralization of authority, where only One Leader and One Government is supreme. This herdist mentality within Man simultaneously alienates one man from another (“As we are all equals, what possible thing could I learn from another; he knows no better than I.”), and directly leads to hedonism, constant rebellion (“Who is this ‘tyrant’ that claims to rule over me?”), and an exaltation of the Self - all in spite of claiming to be a philosophy of the community over the individual!
With broad definitions of what Right and Left are, how does this relate to Right-wing and Left-wing politics? Before we fully answer that, let’s take a brief look at Rightism and Leftism throughout history.
Most of Western Civilization is the philosophy of Rightism. It can be seen in the writings of Aristotle and Aquinas, among most other writers. While ancient philosophers generally described Man as a ‘social animal’ – in that society was a necessary extension of individual humanity – most of them still started with their ‘center’ as the personality of Man.
However, there are several ‘aberrations’ that occurred.
Athenian Greece is an obvious example. Greece was egalitarian, democratic, Leftist. [Democracy is an inherently Leftist political form, as it requires majority rule, and shows no principled concern for the minority - the different, the unique, the nonconformist, the other.] But Greece was short lived, buried under the power drives of totalitarian Sparta, and later Macedonia and Rome.
Rome itself went through many transitions, but its height of Leftism was under Caesarism – Julius was truly a Leftist dictator that appealed to the masses and reviled the elites in Roman society.
The Middle Ages, in stark contrast, was largely a time of Rightism. Hierarchical governments formed polycentric law – there were nobles, clergy, popes, kings, ‘Free Cities’. All of these were checks upon any one man’s centralization proclivities. Absolutism and totalitarianism were unknown in the Middle Ages. Most of the entire West was a kaleidoscope of authorities, all vying each other for the respect of the people.
One of the first signs of a revival of Leftism was evident in the Waldensians. This religious sect scorned the ‘rich Church’, all luxury, power, the high and mighty – they sought punishment for the arrogant, rich, and powerful, and exaltation for the poor and lowly. They were, in a word, levelers. Another Christian sect, the Turlupins, preached radical human equality. Marsilius of Padua attacked the hierarchy of the Church and developed a democratic theory of government. The demand for equality – the rebellion against differences and privileges – was on the rise.
The first systematic Leftist revolution in Europe was Taboritism. The Taborites were hostile to all forms of hierarchies and differentiation. They were fanatical believers in democracy, nationalism, and socialism. Private property was derided, and egalitarianism was practiced. Their first leader, Jan Zizka, was a tyrant that demanded uniformity – and defectors were put to death. Eventually, this Leftist Christian sect was defeated in battle by neighboring peoples.
Alongside Taboritism, nationalism can be seen arising for the first time. Wycliffe was an “England Firster.” Hus was a Czech nationalist that spoke against the German element in Bohemia-Moravia. Nationalism is, of course, an inherently Leftist ideology. It is the craving for ‘sameness’ in blood. It is a ‘glorified’ racism.
Later on, Thomas Munzer, another Reformer, began a series of populist revolts. With a small army, he seized the Thuringian town of Muhlhausen, deposed the local government there, plundered the wealth of the convents and the houses of the rich, and attempted to establish a communist theocracy. Jan van Leyden also attempted to establish a tyrannical, communist, “Kingdom of Zion” in Munster. The Anabaptist settlements in southern Moravia in the late 1520s were communist in nature, and were hostile to all forms of hierarchy and learning: the Scriptures and the nature of the world were hard to understand for the commoner, thus only the wicked were ‘smart.’ In this region, there was no freedom or personal independence. No one owned property. Children, soon after birth, were taken from parents, given over to community wet nurses, and soon placed in the common schoolhouse. Adults were dressed and fed in an identical way, living in common, large households.
Leftism also greatly impacted England in the mid-seventeenth century. Due to the tyrannical Cromwell, there was an outbreak of populism from the lower classes. John Lilburne was a radical libertarian that defended private property and decried the authoritarianism of Cromwell. Many of his followers, however, promptly labelled “Levellers”, were far less libertarian and far more Leftist, especially the sect named “Diggers.” They preached economic egalitarianism, among other things.
Now, the idea of actual political ‘wings’ are, again, not necessarily synonymous with either Leftism or Rightism, but rather were derived from mere practice. In most European countries, the various Parliaments and Congresses gather together in a horseshoe shape, with the most ardent supporters of the government, typically reactionaries, sitting on the far right, flanked to their left by conservatives, then liberals (true liberals – a la libertarians), then parties of the center, followed by radicals, and then various Socialist and Communist parties. The first instance of political wings originated with the French Revolution, when the deputies of the various Estates would sit on either the right side or the left side of the National Assembly.
In the very beginning of the Revolution, both sides may be described as Rightist. There were individualists defending the rights of the Throne, and there were individualists defending the rights of the person. But this was short lived.
Almost immediately, the Left-wing came to represent Leftism. Rousseau was widely read, with his Leftist theories of the ‘common man’, egalitarianism, and democratic governance (even though he himself thought monarchy was more appropriate for large nations). Marquis de Sade radically preached egalitarianism, democracy, socialism, and libertine-hedonism. The Revolution quickly became, not a movement of liberty against abusive authoritarianism, but a movement of Leftism against Rightism. And Leftism won. Quickly the democracy of the Republicans led to dictatorship, as understood and foretold by Plato, Aristotle, and Polybius. Nationalism became fully inflamed, for the first time in Europe in thousands of years. The nationalists were the Republicans – the Leftists. Monarchy is inherently a supranational system, in that the monarchs married royalty of other regions for political reasons. The nationalists trusted no other – only their blood was pure and could be trusted. The entire French Revolution is a deeply engrossing study of Leftism thrust upon the West – of egalitarianism, nationalism, and socialism. Saint-Simon, Auguste Comte, and many others – these were the ones that so deeply influenced Marx and Engels.
Jumping forward in time, what are we to make of the Fascist and National Socialist movements?
When fully analyzed, it is easy to see that both movements (they are not synonymous) fit squarely on the Left. Fascism and Nazism scorned the individual and the diversity in life. They craved identity and equality. Even putting aside the obvious socialist philosophies of both Hitler and Mussolini, it’s not hard to understand that these were Leftist movements. The primary reason the National Socialists were called “Right-wing” is simply because they sat on the right side of the Reichstag, in opposition to the German Communists. But both the Red Shirts and the Brown Shirts were socialists and Leftists.
Again, in general, we can say that Leftism represents equality, identity, uniformity, and conformity. Rightism represents diversity, freedom, individuality, and hierarchy. This doesn’t mean that Leftism is ‘evil,’ per say, although I would certainly say much of it is.
Tyranny can exist in either form. I would argue that tyranny is more prevalent in Leftist societies, but tyranny can also exist in Rightist ones. The Communist, Nazi, and Fascists regimes were all Leftist regimes. Paramount to these regimes was an identity based upon community and an egalitarian approach to economics – socialism. But several Rightist regimes can be tyrannical as well – Franco’s Spain, Salazar’s Portugal, and Metternich’s Germany, for example. Both of these regimes believed in the individuality of the person, while also believing in authoritarian measures to establish society.
In my view, the ultimate logical end of Leftism is totalitarian socialism. But there are ‘degrees’ to this logical end – communism, fascism, democratic socialism, and nazism are just a few examples. The ultimate logical end of Rightism is egoist-individualist-anarchism (Might is Right). And there have been many varying ‘degrees’ of this – authoritarianism, anarchist nihilism, libertarianism, monarchism, aristocraticism, and such.
I’ll also point out that Totalitarianism is specifically a Leftist phenomenon, while Authoritarianism is specifically a Rightist phenomenon. Totalitarianism means totality - it allows no individual freedom on any level to the individual. This can only come about in an egalitarian regime. Totalitarianism has an entire party apparatus behind it, a societal element. All of society, all the people become ‘one’ with the ‘Leader.’ There is no other at all. Others must be extinguished. Authoritarianism, in contrast, is tyranny as well, but of a more ‘limited’ scope. The dictator is not one with the people, but rather the people are merely ‘things’ to the authoritarian, and likewise, the authoritarian is viewed as an illegitimate ruler to the people. The people are ‘free’ in authoritarian regimes, as long as as they follow the edicts of the ruler. Authoritarians do not attempt to regulate and control all aspects of an individual’s life – but totalitarians do.
Looking at modern American political parties, I would describe both the Democratic and Republican parties as Leftist. Of the most common forms of Leftism, I’d also say that both parties lean very heavy to Fascism (not German National Socialism or Soviet Communism). The Democrats lean slightly more to Marxism, but both are democratic-fascists, in the real sense of the terms and not pejoratively. What is not correct, however, is to label something like the conservatives in America or England in general as “those Right-wing Fascists” and the ‘liberals’ (progressives) as “democratic liberals” (in the sense of true liberalism – liberty); as if they are opposed to each other.
My ideal goal for a society is a society that is Right – individualist, elitist, and hierarchical – but that also has some qualities from the Left – a mind for society and community, and disavowing egoism (but not at the expense of celebrating God-created diversity).
I hope this makes sense. I wanted to also talk about the very different psychological aspects between a Ruler in a Monarchy and the Leader in a Democracy (or Dictatorship), and why monarchy is a preferred political system over democracy, but I think I’ve rambled enough for now. I also rarely even brought up economics, the rise of capitalism, and never even talked about the political-philosophical influences of men such as Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and others. And while I’ve been talking about Right and Left, I barely even talked about the American experience of what separates progressives from conservatives. If I were to quickly do so, I would call progressivism Leftist. The roots stem from Rousseau to Marx to Paine to Dewey to Bryan, to mention only a brief few. Conservatism in America is, ahem, quite diversified. Traditionalist conservatism has roots going back from Burke, de Maistre, and Adams, to Weaver and Kirk. Libertarian conservatism has roots with Jefferson, Nock, Mises, and Hayek. I’d classify both of these movements as Rightist. Anti-communist ‘conservatism’ (transformed today into primarily neoconservatism) is barely an ideology at all, but rather merely a program for interventionist foreign policy. Religious Right conservatism is largely Leftist for the exact reason that it pursues conformity, uniformity, populism, and democracy.