The Political Spectrum - Part 1: What “Left” and “Right” Mean

Reclaiming terms that have become empty rhetoric.

In my hopefully not fruitless attempt to bring serious philosophy to this site, this is the first in five articles on rethinking the concepts of the political spectrum.

Part 1: What “Left” and “Right” Mean

Part 2: The Fake Axis

Part 3: The Fake Left and the Reactionary Right

Part 4: What Is Conservatism?

Part 5: What Is Liberalism?

(Source: public domain)

“Left-wing” and “Right-wing,” what do those terms even mean? I don’t think many people know. People have talked about the political “left” and “right” for a long time without much conscious thought about the meaning of the terms. They have become empty rhetorical pejoratives.

There is a real left-right political divide and conflict, but there is a definite lack of adequate examination about what that conflict is. I want to clarify the meaning of the terms “left” and “right” and the left-right political spectrum in a way that helps us understand political and social conflicts.

Too Lazy; Didn’t Read (TL;DR): It’s about power.

Left and Right in Empty Popular Usage

The earliest uses of “left” and “right” in politics did not reflect political philosophies or ideologies. Instead they indicated a support for or opposition to the current government. “Left” and “right” as relative terms came from their first uses in the days of the French Revolution. In 1789 in the French National Assembly, supporters of the king chose to group themselves sitting to the right of the assembly president and opponents of the king sat opposite to them on the left. The French newspapers of the time used the terms “the left” and “the right” to describe the opposing sides, and the usage spread throughout Europe to other political conflicts. Before long, all political movements opposed to a sitting government were called “the left” with “the right” referring to those who supported that government.

Today, people’s unreflective use of “left” and “right” mischaracterize most political parties and movements. The terms ”left” or “leftist” lack consistent meanings. The corporate media, goaded on by certain political factions, equate “leftist” with being outcasts, rabble-rousers, or worse, anti-social miscreants. Left-wing political parties are at best cast as being anti-status quo, but usually castigated as subversives. What happens when a “leftist” party wins a majority in government? Out of convenience, the “leftist” label then morphs into the cliché of “big government.” But the caricatures of “bomb-throwing thug” or “big government liberal” are irrational caricatures and calling them both “left wing” is contradictory.

Similarly, how people and the media use the term “right wing” has a contradictory and ultimately empty meaning. There is a flavor of the words “right wing” expressing a desire to conserve the status quo. That is what the term “conservative” used to mean beginning with Edmund Burke around the time of the French Revolution. But what the status quo is in any given time and place is entirely relative to circumstances. What do “conservative values” mean beyond resistance to change? Today, those who self-label as “conservative” use it more as a synonym for their feelings of moral superiority over “the left.” This is particular seen today in the right wing’s current adamant “anti-woke” stance, though they have difficulty defining “anti-woke” beyond it being a synonym for “anti-left.” They oppose a caricature of the “left wing” that no leftist would recognize while not presenting a coherent message beyond oppositional politics.

Does “left” and “right” mean something other than “not right” and “not left?” Yes and no, as we shall see. All of the political rhetoric doesn’t tell us what left-wingers and right-wingers actually believe other than that both sides feel their side is correct and the other side is wrong. We especially see this dynamic in the squabbling between the supposedly left-wing Democratic Party and the supposedly right-wing Republican Party. The policy differences between the two parties are much smaller than their rhetoric would have us believe. What differences they have can’t be reduced to the caricatures of “big-government liberals” versus “small-government conservatives,” especially since both of those labels are deeply ambiguous and neither party consistently fits into them.

All terminology is relative, reflecting the nature of reality and language. What would be considered left or right in any particular time and place would differ. Nevertheless, if a term is to be useful, it needs to reflect a tangible concept. To call anything “left wing” has meaning only when and if we know what “left wing” means. Same with the term “right wing.” Rather than mindlessly reuse the same terms over and over, let’s insert some philosophy into the left-right divide and try to understand what’s going on. By doing so, we can identify some real points of contention between two different worldviews.

To set the stage for the exploration, here are two conundrums of the traditionally defined left-right divide.

(Source: CC license, Wikipedia)

The Hitler-Stalin Conundrum

The received dogma is that “communism,” including Joseph Stalin, is left wing. I remember being taught in grade school that in World War II the right-wing Nazis fought the left-wing Soviets. That depiction is still common. But there is little to nothing to distinguish between the policies of Stalin and Hitler. Both Hitler and Stalin persecuted Jews, quashed dissent, invaded neighboring countries, and ran totalitarian governments. Any suggestion that Stalin and Hitler were in diametrically opposed political systems is completely absurd. Any meaningful conception of the political left and right would have to show Hitler and Stalin on the same side.

The Abortion Conundrum

The received dogma is that “the right” wants less government interference in individuals’ lives and “the left” wants government to run people’s lives. But the abortion debate exposes this rhetoric as false. In its simplest terms, the abortion debate is whether a woman should be legally permitted to or prohibited from terminating her pregnancy. Both sides of the debate seek to establish in law their position on that question. The “right” seeks laws that prohibit a woman from having an abortion and the “left” seeks laws establishing a woman’s right to an abortion.

This is self-evidently an issue of a woman’s freedom to act on her own choice for her own body and life. The right-wing position is that the government should interfere in individuals’ lives and control women’s bodies. The left-wing position is that women’s freedom to control their own bodies should be protected from governmental interference. But these are the opposite positions that the received dogma tells us the left and right would take. This example is one of many that show that the traditional characterization of the left-right dichotomy doesn’t reflect the true conflict between the two sides on tangible issues.

What Are the Concepts Behind “Left” and “Right?”

Pulling back the curtain on the political rhetoric we can start to see what is really going on.

(Source: public domain)

The Importance of Power

What exactly are the “left” and the “right” arguing over? Well, ultimately, what is any political struggle over? Political struggles are about power — the capacity to produce or prevent change. In simple terms, there are two types of power: hard power and soft power. Hard power is the control of land and resources, including money and personnel, and the power to enact policies. Soft power is the capacity to affect recognition norms and relations and people’s perceptions and interests. Hard and soft power are inextricably intertwined in human society. For example, a marginalized minority group is deprived of both hard and soft, economic and social, power, seldom, if ever, only one. Economic power gives one social power — hard power enabling soft power.

The concept of power has some ugly connotations, but not all power is malevolent. One also needs power to be able to do good. Power is needed whether one wants to invade another country or feed the poor. When one has power, one chooses how to use it, and one is responsible for how it’s used. Some people with power use it to oppress others; some people use power to help others.

Most people would probably accept that power is central to politics. Both the left and the right say that their side uses power for good and the other side uses power for bad. Despite this “we are good, they are bad” partisan chestnut, the left-right divide cannot be so simply reduced. The issue is less how power is used by those who have it but is much more a question of who in society have power. In both the Nazi and the Soviet states, only a very few people, perhaps even only one person, had power. The structure of power is an important aspect of power.

(Source: Pixabay)

The Importance of Structure

The two conundrums I mentioned — the difference between Hitler and Stalin and the views about abortion — illustrate the central issue of power. There is no fundamental difference between Hitler and Stalin in their use of power, but, more importantly, there is no structural difference in their power. They were both autocrats who ruled by fiat. They ruled absolutely over the civil and military sectors of their society. Their decisions were not open to debate or criticism; their hard and soft powers were virtually unchecked.

You could say that Hitler and Stalin were bad people who did bad things with their power. This is only part of the issue. The bigger part is that it was the structure of political power that enabled and protected their use of power to do bad things. The structure of power contributes to consequences. Hitler and Stalin were able to commit evil deeds with their power because the structure of the power relations in their society enabled that evil. The political structure of their societies, which they helped to create, gave them absolute authority and prevented dialogue about and resistance to their actions. For example, someone can desire to kill many Jews, undeniably reprehensible, but only if one has the political power to act on that desire will one be able to commit genocide. The point being the importance of how political power is structured and to whom.

Now, let’s look at the abortion conundrum that illustrates how power structures affect individual people. As mentioned, the abortion debate is over whether a woman should be legally permitted to or prohibited from terminating her pregnancy. If abortion is legally banned, then all power over abortion rests in the hands of the state, which uses its power to prevent women from freely choosing their course of action. If abortion is legal, then power lies with each individual woman, who is free to make her own choices about her own body. The power structure on abortion could be either concentrated in the state or widely circulated among individuals. Within that difference of the structure of power is the foundation for a tangible, meaningful conception of the left-right political spectrum.

Left and Right is a Spectrum of Power Concentration

Combining these thoughts on power and structure illustrated by the two conundrums, what emerges is the presence in societies of greater or lesser concentrations of power. All societies contain structures that circulate power either broadly or narrowly among its citizens. Power is not a commodity like food or currency, but power nevertheless is something that people exchange and use in their social relations. A totalitarian society is one in which power across the society is concentrated in the hands of a very few, so power is only exchanged among and used by a very few. Particular social institutions or particular laws can also concentrate power in the hands of a few; banning abortion being a clear example. Other examples are legal and social practices of racial or ethnic segregation that concentrate power in the hands of selected groups. Also, structures that perpetuate gross economic inequality concentrate economic and social power in the hands of an elite few.

Here is a very important point: It matters less how power is concentrated than that it is concentrated. A totalitarian government, a company town, an anarchic warlord/gang leader, and an oligarchic business syndicate all share the same structure of power concentrated in the hands of the few. That necessarily means that others are excluded from power, have less freedom, and are most likely exploited by those in power. These power concentrations are all properly seen as right-wing because social structures are right-wing based on their distribution of power, not particular political positions.

Human history has been defined by struggles over whether power is to be more concentrated or more widely circulated. I mean this not in terms of the simplistic totalizing Marxist dialectical materialism, but in the reality of many different people seeking greater social and economic power for themselves. Throughout history, some people have tried to grab power for themselves and establish concentrated, exclusive power structures at the expense of others. Other people have attempted to change prevailing political structures and open up the circulation of power to a greater number of people. These rebellious movements have been both struggles for political and social recognition and struggles over material resources. What connects all of these conflicts is that they are ultimately over the circulation and concentration of power.

These struggles over concentrations of power characterize the left-wing/right-wing conflict and the political spectrum. “Left” and “right” are most descriptive when they are relative terms describing someone’s intentions as to the general direction of power concentration and circulation. In broad terms, a right-winger is someone who wishes power to be more concentrated and limited to select people, and a left-winger is someone who wishes power to be more widely circulated and thus enjoyed by more people. The goal of the left is increased social participation, and the goal of the right is a more restricted hierarchical society.

The more a society’s social and political structures restrict power narrowly, the more right-wing that society is. The more a society circulates power among its citizens, the more to the left it is. Civil rights struggles for recognition are leftist because they seek increased legal and social equality for oppressed minorities — in other words, greater power for those who are disempowered by the prevailing power structure. Feminism is leftist in its intention to end power being concentrated in men and have power be more circulated to women. Conversely, anti-immigrant, antifeminist, or white supremacist movements, are right-wing movements that seek a return to more restrictive concentrations of power. Labeling these movements as “left” and “right” are independent of any moral judgments about the people’s intentions. All of these groups would see their cause as morally just. Sincere, intelligent discussions can be had about whether particular circumstances warrant a greater or lesser concentration of power.

This clarification of what left and right mean resolves the Hitler-Stalin conundrum. Both the Nazis and Soviets were far-right because their respective power was extremely concentrated in one totalitarian ruler. This clarification also resolves the abortion conundrum and other social and economic issues by accepting that the left and right choose their positions on the basis of concentrations of power, not on notions of governmental size.

(Source: CC license, diorgn)

Applying the Power Spectrum

Applying the criterion of the concentration of power to whether particular laws and policies are left wing or right wing dissolves many apparent political contradictions. Like laws banning abortion, laws restricting free speech, freedom of religion, and so on are supported by the right and opposed by the left on the basis of how they change the circulation of power in society. This is why conservatives can support some governmental intrusions into people’s lives and not others and leftists can support some restrictions on freedoms and not others.

For example, speech is power, and freedom of speech is a particularly live issue in how much freedom people have to speak out against the power structure. The principles of citizens’ rights to publicly criticize and to make petition of grievances to government are inherently left-wing principles that tend to be featured more often in more left-wing societies. True, even the most extreme right-wing party can say, with sincere conviction, that they support free speech. That is because the question is not whether speech is allowed but rather who should be allowed the power of speech. Totalitarian regimes reserve freedom of speech for those loyal to the regime: a concentration of power.

Putting aside for the moment that left-wingers are often guilty of the all-too-common double standard as to who is allowed to criticize sitting leaders, the right-wing almost by default seeks to restrict the power of speech to those they deem worthy, while the left-wing generally seeks to expand free speech rights. This is consistent with the overall intention of the right wing to concentrate power rather than allow it to be widely circulated, which is not to say that freedom of speech is infinite. Leftist John Stuart Mill recognized that a left-wing government could and should, without contradicting its principles, restrict speech that harms others. Restrictions based on the harm principle are expressions of left-wing principles because harmful speech disempowers and silences others and the restrictions seek to increase the circulation of power.

Dismantling False Conceptions of Left and Right

Defenders of the traditional left-right political spectrum base their argument on a dichotomy of rights of individuals (the right) versus the power of the government (the left). They also tend to repeat the myth that the left is about state control of the economy and the right is about economic freedom. These portrayals are a right-wing polemic that inaccurately equates the leftist quest to expand the circulation of individual power with statist authoritarianism. It’s true that governments have had to intervene to protect the rights of minorities, but to castigate, as the right-wing does, these interventions as governmental overreach or even as tyranny is an unabashed assumption that it is wrong to extend rights and power to minorities.

The question isn’t the size of the government but the effectiveness of government in facilitating human freedom and prosperity. Unless one takes the extreme opinion that there is no role for government in society, it seems self-evident that government’s role is to defend the rights and freedoms of citizens from those who seek to deprive others of them. Who is against the basic concepts of rights and freedom? No one. Nevertheless, some people are against granting rights and freedom to certain other people. It is long established that it is a legitimate role of governmental power to protect the powerless from exploitation and abuse. This notion predates any modern conception of “liberalism” and is found in feudal and ancient societies that by today’s standards would be considered despotic.

The abortion rights issue shows that it is incorrect to associate the right wing with limitations on state power. There is no greater imposition of state power than a power structure forbidding a human being from controlling his or her own body and future. Right-wing polemics erect a strawman of the “left” as power-hungry statists eager to stamp out individual liberties. This contradicts the fact that left-wing movements, most prominently favoring civil rights, LGBT rights, and women’s rights, are motivated by the desire to increase individual liberties. How much freedom citizens should have is a large, complex set of questions. We can get past polemical rhetoric if we accept that both the left wing and right wing see liberty as a positive good and see the difference between left and right in terms of concentration of power.

Moving Forward with the Clarified Left-Right Spectrum

Understanding left and right on the political spectrum as an issue of the concentration or circulation of power is not mere semantics. This understanding puts the question of power where it belongs — as a primary motivation and goal of human political action. Political parties and movements seek political power to enact agendas that either further concentrate or further circulate power in society. Particular political issues are also about either further concentrating or further circulating power in particular circumstances. Who has power and how the use of power affects others are what are at stake in politics.

If a political movement seeks to increase the circulation of power — to include more people in possessing social, economic, and political power — that is a left-wing movement. Increasing the circulation of power is what defines the political left. If a political movement seeks to restrict the circulation of power — to reduce the number of people who have social, economic, and political power — that is a right-wing movement. Increasing the concentration of power is what defines the political right.

The power concentration clarification also demythologizes the political spectrum. Notions of a teleological struggle between Left and Right may be romantic, but such notions don’t reflect human society. Political conflict is far less about a clash of political ideologies than political theorists and the corporate media portray. We must remember that most people don’t live their lives in terms of grand political theory; they seek better lives in terms of economic and social comfort for themselves and those they love. Some people do want power over others, but most people desire only enough power to manage their own affairs successfully. The left-right spectrum as concentrations of power better reflects how people look at and live their lives.

Further Reading:

Leslie Green- “Power”

Arthur Berndtson — “The Meaning of Power”

Miranda Fricker — Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing

No discussion of philosophy of power is complete without a link to Foucault

A young philosopher’s interpretation of Foucault’s philosophy of power

Feminist Perspectives on Power

Crispin Sartwell — The Left-Right Political Spectrum Is Bogus

And if you are interested in some archaic conceptions of the political spectrum

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  1. I read part 2 first for some reason, both great reads, reading part 1 definitively clarified part 2 for me, but I now can’t help but wonder, what I image to be an expected critique, if you’ve merely, at least in part, ‘accepted the libertarian marketing ploy’ of the the 2nd axis, that is to say, the left-right axis is confounded and unclear, but the axis of autocratical-anarchical is meaningful, presuming ‘governance by everyone’ is ‘governance by no one necessarily’

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful response. I say that the only meaningful axis is the spectrum of power concentration. I understand that the libertarians/anarchists will try to claim that what I am defining as “left” is equivalent to their agenda. I don’t think that’s at all their agenda–their talk about government is disingenuous. I do not see “governance by everyone” as the same as “governance by no one.” However, what I advocate is equal access to participation in all institutions of governance, understanding that “governance” includes social norms and institutions beyond government. This is the core issue on which I cannot agree with the libertarians/anarchists. I acknowledge the need for the rule of law and for large-scale social institutions, both of which the libertarians/anarchists reject.

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