By Gaither Stewart
After the fall of Soviet Communism some political scientists came to believe that the terms Left and Right no longer made sense, that they were actually the same. Before his death in 1980, Jean-Paul Sartre went so far as to speak of Left and Right as “empty boxes,” as if they had been buried by Stalinism. Other political thinkers began using in their place terms such as progressive and conservative.
Though the Democratic and Republican parties in the United States contain both, a little of this, a little of that—with the result that both parties are the same—no political movement with a genuine ideology is and can be both Left and Right. Some positions and values can be exchanged and integrated in diverse systems, but there is after all a limit. For example, war cannot be peace.
In these times these two words are often considered old-fashioned. They shouldn’t be. Besides they are not as old as some would like us to think; the two words were in vogue from the French Revolution up until a few years ago when at the onset of the American counter-revolution they became somewhat politically incorrect.
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 fundamental polarity in social-political thought.
The two simple words work fine. They distinguish an entire Weltanschauung, the vision of life and social relations of human beings.
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 despots. 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. Just as the property holders and the landless, Left and Right are by definition mutually exclusive.
Diverse criteria distinguish between the two visions of life. 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.
The Left, reformist or revolutionary, stands for emancipation from the chains of the past. 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).
War obviously belongs to the Right. The position on war of America’s Democratic Party today is a Right position, as is its position on social justice. Right positions inevitably result in clash, in war and increased social injustice. The pro-war position of European Social Democracy at the outbreak of World War I led directly to its decline and the predominance on the Left of the Bolsheviks and thus to the birth of Stalinism.
War is no minor political oversight, a slipup, a boo-boo, as American Democrats must by now know. War is historically all-determinant. War has already destroyed the foundations of the American republic and undermined American democracy itself.
Equality and Inequality-One or The Other
Norberto Bobbio (1909-2004), a major Italian 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 favors 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 unequivocally 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 dichotomy between the two with the categories Progressive and Conservative. Those common words are not satisfactory. The words recall Sartre’s empty box. Right can be progressive on certain limited themes, while Left to achieve and maintain political power easily becomes conservative as seen in the Left of America’s Democratic Party or at times in European Socialism. Again, the extreme Right of Nazism and Stalinism used the word Socialist freely and in the end created parodies of socialist states.
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, also the Center is obligated 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 dichotomy 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.
Like Washington, the European Center today is crowded by survivors from Left and Right hanging onto crowded political life-rafts.
The worst and most blatant and disturbing example of ignoring the obvious is the USA, the world’s most powerful country controlled by a one-party system, where the very words Left and Right are shunned. America’s Republican and Democratic parties stand comfortably shoulder to shoulder on the Right, bolstered by religious extremists and a myriad of secret militias—those in the woods and those abroad like Blackwater—and the usual flag-waving patriots.
In order to devaluate the other, each party has devaluated itself.
The result is that today America’s two parties are interdependent, one on the other. They have exchanged political and social values as if they were merchandise. The two-component one-party system on the basis of the great euphemism, democracy, now a façade, fake and mendacious, today heads the great American Counter-Revolution.
The one-party system and mainstream culture have meanwhile coined less threatening words for Left such as: “Alternative” or “Indy”, which today is America’s Left. The active Left. Independent bookstores and publishers, alternative press and culture.
-Gaither Stewart is a Senior Special Contributing Editor at Cyrano’s Journal. He lives in Rome. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.