Why Left and Right Differ Elsewhere

by Norman Berdichevsky (March 2013)

The European democracies are much older than the United States and when our constitution was adopted in 1789, its principles of representative government and indirect election of the President (through the electoral college) and federal Senators (elected by members of the state legislatures) were all considered examples of conservative principles but were often referred to in Europe as “Liberal” because they protected individual rights and local governments from the abuses of the “old guard” of kings, aristocratic privilege, the tyranny of a state church, the restrictive nature of hereditary guilds and onerous import or export duties restricting foreign trade (and even among different regions of the same country).

Some old European political parties, for example “Venstre” in Denmark (the word Venstre means Left in Danish), still represent the moderate right “liberal” view of free trade and strong protection of individual rights and liberties. A liberal in the 19th century was someone against the established rights and prerogatives of the state church, the monarchy, the privileges of an aristocracy, for the right of women to vote, against property as a requirement for voting and against the restrictions of guilds often based on heredity and membership in the state church. At the time Venstre was established in 1870, the ruling party was called Højre (Right) and generally spoke for conservative rural interests, a strong central government and national defense. It developed into the present Conservative Party. Nevertheless, conservatives also upheld individual rights and this became a guiding principle in their 20th century platform. 

Venstre is currently the largest party in Denmark and was founded on the basis of free market liberalism and is regarded by observers as the traditional classic liberal right-of-center party in favor of lower taxes, and less government intervention in corporate and individual affairs.

In the United States, since the 1920s, the word liberal has generally meant the opposite. This of course confuses many Americans. An even greater confusion was the support in the 1960s and 70s of even the Conservatives in Denmark to legalize pornography – something wholly identified with the Left in the United States. Both Venstre and the Conservatives are “liberals” in the older sense of the word and stand for individual rights, oppose censorship of any kind, and are in favor of the free market that allows all activities that do not cause injury to others. Unlike members of the party identified with Christian values, they believed that the rights of the individual should prevail over issues involving “moral” questions. The so-called “religious party” (Kristeligt Folkeparti) stands to the LEFT of the Conservatives and Liberals on many issues involving social welfare policies and a more “liberal” approach regarding immigration.

How the Right-Left Model Began

The simple fact that the most radical revolutionaries responsible for the overthrow of the old monarchical and aristocratic semi-feudal system prevalent before 1789 and their fundamental support for the slogans they chose to symbolize as “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” left behind the indelible association of their seating position at the left side of the semi-circular shape of the Assembly Hall with other ideas identified as “radical” or “progressive” and “democratic.” The terms were borrowed by the French from the British parliamentary tradition that supporters of the government sat to the right of the speaker while the opposition party sat to the left. Sitting among one’s own party members became a practice in politics like the habit at a sports event where the home team and the visiting club fans prefer the comfort of solidarity beyond the range of physical and verbal abuse from opponents.

Eventually, after the Napoleonic period, “Far Right” and “Far Left”, “Center-Right” and “Center-Left” came into general use by 1871 with the establishment of the Third French Republic, and were later copied in many other countries. Undoubtedly the derivation of the terms has an even older origin and may well go back to the Bible where expressions like the “King’s Right hand,” or “my right hand man” as someone dependable. The right referred to the stronger, already established and morally just side or position. Forces that opposed the “natural order” and “the establishment” could thus cast themselves as forces of change, opposition or novelty by using the term Left.

In general, politicians of the Left in Europe and their imitators in the newly established republics in North and South America generally endorsed and favored this designation whereas those not ardently in favor of radical changes generally disliked the use of these designations and preferred to be called conservatives, moderates or other names. They philosophically denied that the many different issues of public policy could be neatly arranged in a semi-circle or any single line continuum that would be valid across the entire political spectrum.

Influence of the Bible

The Bible contains at least 25 unfavorable references to the left hand. In the best known example which also extols the right hand in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says:

“When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: And he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ … Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:31-34, 41).

The custom of shaking hands originated in medieval times. It was customary when two men met, they would hold each other’s right hand to demonstrate that they were not armed as weapons were usually carried in the right hand. Lefties could not be trusted because they could shake their enemy’s right hand while concealing a weapon behind them with their left hand. This tradition faulting the Left persists in many languages such as Latin (sinistra), from which we derive “sinister” indicating evil, dangerous, mistrusted, suspicious although originally meaning simply “left.” The French word for “left” is gauche, which in English means “awkward” or “tactless.” The English word left comes from Old English meaning “weak.”

Why then would the Political Left be so proud to bear this title? Apparently, it is related to the fact that the term indicates an unexpected, non-traditional and even elite status (all to be admired) since only about 10 to 12 percent of the population are left-handed yet they include notable personalities of great achievement such as Julius Caesar, Charlie Chaplin, H.G. Wells, Paul McCartney, Babe Ruth, Lewis Carroll, Nelson Rockefeller, and eight U.S. Presidents including Barack Obama.

Politicians on the Left over the past one hundred and fifty years have striven to inculcate the associations between their political views and the lexicon of politics that identifies the interests of the upper or dominant classes as “Right,” and the “Left” as the sector expressive of the lower economic or social classes, and the “Center” with that of the middle classes. These associations are however often blatantly out of touch with the reality of voting behavior in many countries (notably the United States), regions and historical periods where countless other factors such as religion, ethnicity, historical memories, national interests, ethnic solidarity, and moral and philosophical values provide countervailing weights.

The Terms Left and Right Today

Today, not just economic policy but the entire range of major political issues is often is debated under the rubric of Right and Left. “Free” Health Care, gun control, guaranteed abortion (euphemistically called Freedom of Choice), euthanasia, a more “equitable” distribution of income (sharing the wealth), generous subsidies to special interest groups, credits and welfare benefits for the needy, the growth of trade union power to enforce membership as a condition of employment, a limit on military expenditures, a hostile attitude towards established religion, and a general withdrawal from international commitments are automatically assumed today as falling within the liberal scheme of things.

Issues of economic policy are usually what are most often implied by the horizontal axis of the Right-Left continuum. On the other hand, international affairs, religious and moral convictions, and social policies  cannot be pigeon-holed into a pre-ordained Right-Left axis but demand a more sensitive, multi-dimensional and complex model or paradigm.

Slightly more sophisticated alternative models use a vertical axis representing the degree of individual civil rights and liberties so that the upper right (high on both dimensions) are conservative ‘libertarians’ and the upper left are anarchists. On the lower right are the authoritarian Fascists and the lower left belongs to the authoritarian hardline Stalinist Communists. This model too is quite inadequate in reflecting the reality of many issues and relations.

In the past, the associations of the Left with being part of a persecuted minority were doubtlessly encouraged by the real difficulties and disadvantages of being left-handed in society, especially in the use of many tools. Today, however the knowledge that Lefties are dominated by the right hemisphere of the brain dealing with music, art, perception, emotions, and other forms of abstract thinking aids in the belief that their views are culturally superior to the dominant right handed (and politically Right) majority. This view, however facetious and naïve is held by many in the younger generation who identify with the political Left and believe that their supposed greater artistic sensitivity makes them “cool” as opposed to the “square” attitudes of their parents’ generation.

Confusion About Liberals and “Libertarianism”

A major part of the problem is that “liberalism” generally regarded today on The Left originally was a view reflecting the beliefs in individual initiative, rights and liberties in both the economic and political spheres and opposed to the traditionalist, arch-protectionist and aristocratic regimes of early 19th century Europe. A “liberal” above all was in favor of a “hands off,” or laissez-faire, policy. The United States was classically seen as an example of “liberal democracy.”

Today’s popular understanding of the term “liberal” in the United States is practically synonymous with the “Moderate Left”  and closely associated with “big government,” regulation of the economy, “progressive taxation” (soak the rich), and a so called “progressive social policy,” that has come to mean gay rights, unlimited free speech, feminism, a special differential treatment of classes of citizens referred to as “Affirmative Action” and a foreign policy that provides assistance to help uplift the poor in many “third world” countries rather than any considerations of how national security interests are served.

The lack of appreciation of the importance of geography and religious values is responsible for many miscalculations in the area of alliances and strategic interests that have often been more important than the economic and social policies of leaders who were cast as “Authoritarian Right” in Austria, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Poland, but were much more determined to aggressively resist German and Italian aggression in World War II than the democratic and fragmented liberal-left coalition governments and strongly pacifist views in traditional democracies as France, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

The most determined ideological opposition to the expansionist policies of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy in the late 1930s was led by arch-conservatives such as Churchill in Britain and de Gaulle in France and by monarchists and conservative Christians elsewhere. This contradicts the usual representation in Hollywood films showing heroic resistance to the Nazis as generated exclusively from the Left.

In my book, The Left is Seldom Right (New English Review Press, 2011),  I explain how these terms in politics originated and have become stale clichés that no longer reveal the true intentions of parties, platforms, politicians and policies. They are used by those politicians for whom Left and Right are synonymous with the “good guys” and “bad guys.” We should judge issues on the basis of what is right and wrong and not what falls into the preordained mold of Right and Left and should also be aware that they may mean something else in Europe.

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Norman Berdichevsky contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome.


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