What ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ Really Mean

Invocations of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are extremely common in political discussions. Typically, they are deployed as hopelessly vague terms of abuse or goofy indications of team loyalty, unfortunately including among anarchists, libertarians, and other radicals.

I have argued for years that these terms are so broad and multifarious in their usage that they have been bleached of almost any meaning and should be abandoned by sensible people interested in coherent dialogue in favor of a multi-dimensional political grid. Naturally, this objection is rarely heard, and I am often nonetheless pressed to answer where I stand on Left versus Right.

My usual response is to say that the Left versus Right spectrum is not merely accidentally incoherent, but deliberately so, in that its constant usage in mainstream discourse is a form of divide et impera by the power elite that is simply the next level up from the Democrat versus Republican binary. Many people recognize the latter as a bullshit choice, but nonetheless maintain that Left versus Right is a real and natural split – in my view, it is instead meant to get the politically active masses to play team sports that the power elite can regulate and broker, making all of the Little People compete with, direct invective at, and even physically assault one another rather than their wise overlords. Divide et impera is the oldest power game the elite have, and it has worked extremely well for millennia.

If I am pressed further, perhaps with a “Yes, that’s fine and well, but we all know there are real differences among these people all the same – they aren’t fighting over nothing, even if they are encouraged to fight.” There are indeed differences, but why should those be mapped with a division based on 18th-century French politics? The etymology of Left and Right is literally a reference to the French Revolution, during which attendees of the National Assembly gathered to the right of the president to indicate their support for the ancien regime, while those on the president’s left indicated their support of the Revolution. Is there really anything consistent in these groupings from that very specific time and place to today, anywhere on the planet where these terms are used?

Perhaps, but it is not usually what it is said to be. It is sometimes said (even on Wikipedia today, which can be taken as an indication of pseudo-democratic, establishment consensus opinion) that being on the Left is about valuing egalitarianism, while the Right necessarily values one or more forms of hierarchy that are seen as legitimate. This is sometimes true but ultimately points at changeable surface qualities rather than fundamentals – and it is hence easy to find counterexamples: the various State Communist regimes of the 20th and 21st centuries were or are assuredly ‘Left’ in some broad form, yet it would be ridiculous to claim that these did or do not possess crushing, parasitic hierarchies. And the various strands of Right-libertarianism or Right-anarchism are far less hierarchical than almost all forms of Leftism, even if they almost always maintain the legitimacy of meritocratic “natural elites” (Hoppe) or certain more or less voluntary or organic traditional hierarchical structures like the family or religious organizations.

Another frequent false claim is that the Left/Right spectrum really measures the ineradicable tension between equality and liberty. There are again immediately apparent problems with this notion, the most obvious being that, while certainly sometimes in tension, equality and liberty are not necessarily always at odds with one another: the cancerous growth of a State on a human population tends to decrease both equality and liberty, as it produces a rapacious power elite who hoard wealth to enrich themselves while removing civil liberties to squelch dissidents. Secondly, just as the Left is not ultimately but only circumstantially about politico-economic equality, so it is the case with the Right and liberty. Many moderate conservatives in the modern West are willing to legislate against personal liberties in favor of protecting traditional moral values. And the Fascist regimes of the 20th century enormously subordinated individual liberty to State and Nation (it is sometimes argued that Fascism is actually an oddball offshoot of Marxism and therefore more appropriately placed on the Left – I think this contention has considerable merit, but in my view it is best to consider Fascism a Left/Right hybrid and thus still exemplary of certain Rightist values. I will write more on this in the future).

If we grant that this distinction has any meaning, then, what is it? Having dismissed the above politico-ethical distinctions, I believe we can now show that the real differences between Left and Right, and the reason that people tend to group themselves in these camps across widely differing times and places, is the disagreements are not in political or ethical views per se, but in ontological and metaphysical views. These differences are at least three-fold. 

The first and second differences concern questions of human nature. The paleoconservative scholar Paul Gottfried has suggested – correctly, in my view – that a core tenet of Leftism, whether held consciously or not by any given adherent, is that the differences we observe among human beings (in abilities, in quality of life outcomes, in beliefs, etc.) are primarily (or even, at the outer limits of Leftist ideology, entirely) the result of social and environmental conditioning rather than inborn constitution of some kind. Right-wingers, correspondingly, tend to believe that the inborn character of people (be it conceived of in material, spiritual, volitional, or other terms) matters more in whom they ultimately become. This elegantly simple observation of Gottfried’s is sufficient to explain how vastly different views like an anarcho-capitalism that wants to abolish all States and a Neo-Reactionism that wants to restore hereditary monarchies are both recognizably ‘Right-wing’ – one justifies difference on nothing but merit, the other on royal blood or divine right, but both believe different people are entitled to different social outcomes because difference is real, natural, and just. Gottfried’s point also helps to illuminate, as another example, why so many Left-wing people, no matter how much they may disagree with each other about political or economic questions, will unite in being averse to the concept of heritable IQ, since it suggests the existence of potentially ineradicable, socially important, and objectively measurable natural differences in ability.

The second question of human nature, related to but nonetheless separate from the first, is what the Chicago School economist Thomas Sowell called the “constrained” versus “unconstrained” visions of humanity, which he outlined in detail in his 1987 book A Conflict of Visions. The “unconstrained” vision is utopian, believes in the essential good of humanity, and strives for the perfectibility of the human creature and the social order. Thus, Rousseau believed man was born free but chained by society, the Soviet ideologues postulated the coming of the morally perfect “New Soviet Man”, and John Zerzan maintains we need only throw off all domestication in order to arrive at an Edenic communion with nature and one another that is our natural birthright. Conversely, the “constrained” vision is essentially tragic, views the human as a fallen creature who irremediably tends toward corruption, and believes society can never be perfected, but only carefully steered to keep the worst at bay. Thus, Hobbes referenced the Roman proverb homo homini lupus (“Man is wolf to man”) in describing human attitudes toward strangers and foreigners, René Guénon lamented that all of the efforts of ‘progress’ in technology and democratization were Icarian misadventures, and Murray Rothbard excoriated the legitimacy of the State primarily in terms of moral hypocrisy relative to natural law. The widely divergent conclusions of these thinkers are rooted in a common premise on a single issue.

The third and final difference, I will contend, is purely metaphysical and often unarticulated. Consciously or not, every person has to answer essential questions that implicitly undergird the answers to all more derivative questions: What is the relationship between the human mind and the world it seems to encounter? Are the boundaries between ideas clear and objective, or are they fuzzy and indeterminate? Do transcendental entities inform the world, or are we making it up as we go? 

Roughly speaking, one can be a realist or a subjectivist on a number of core issues. On the one hand, we have moral realism, a teleological Nature, a Platonic view of concepts as actually-existing things, and an epistemic optimism that sees human beings as essentially capable of knowing the world. And, on the other hand, we have moral relativism or nihilism of some kind, a belief in Nature as aimless and accidental, an instrumental view of concepts as personal or social constructs, and an epistemological skepticism that doubts whether so-called knowledge is more than a set of pragmatic fictions. Again, roughly speaking, we have a Traditional metaphysical view on the one end, a Modernist view in the middle, and a Postmodern or nihilistic view at the other extreme. 

As an aside, it is worth noting in case it is not obvious that none of the above are fully binary choices. We thus have phenomena like the famous (but frankly rather dull) Chomsky-Foucault debate in which two Leftists’ argument turned on the fact that Chomsky was a moral realist and an essentialist about certain aspects of human nature, whereas Foucault indulged in the nihilistic epistemic and moral conclusions of postmodern deconstructionism. And of course there are hybrid characters like Renzo Novatore, who very obviously had an unconstrained Rousseauvian desire to destroy all social chains as quickly as possible, but who also maintained a Nietzschean personal elitism that scorned the avolitional slavishness of the NPCs of his day, be they bourgeois or proletarian. 

It has been a personal irony for me, as someone who considered himself to be on the far-Left beginning as a teenager, to have realized in the past few years that I actually come down decidedly on the Right on all three of these questions. This three-fold schema also helped me to understand why the ‘Post-Left’ tendency in anarchism, in spite of breaking with anarcho-leftism on so many ethical and strategic questions, nonetheless has a dyed-in-the-wool leftism about it when it comes to certain questions. 

4 Replies to “What ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ Really Mean”

  1. Wikipedia defines the left=egalitarian and the right=legitimizing hierarchy. You are proposing via Gottfried that the left (roughly) believes people=nurture while the right that people=inherent nature of some stripe. Doesn’t this particular insight seem completely compatible with Wikipedia’s definitions? Am I missing something?

    1. Yes, but, as I tried to express above, the hierarchy versus egalitarianism distinction is derivative and contingent, not fundamental. The Left is sometimes pro-hierarchy and the Right is sometimes anti-hierarchy. And that is because their *fundamental* differences are to do with the differences of *ontological* (not ethical) disagreements of nurture versus nature, utopian versus tragic, relativist versus absolutist, even if these views are held as entirely or partially unconscious premises that are never explicitly articulated, but are instead only indirectly voiced as contingent ethical disagreements.

  2. I am confused by the last distinction you make here, it’s not clear to me what the lines are between left & right. Aren’t the left & right a bit all over the place when it comes to metaphysics? As is the case in the one example you gave, Chomsky vs Foucault?

    1. Yeah, I think that last one is more dubious – that was my own invention and not drawn from any scholarly source. In retrospect, while I think it is true of the United States today, it may be more a feature of current sociopolitical contingencies than anything firm and lasting. Thanks for the question.

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