The Left-Right Divide Since the French Revolution

Viewpoint by Jonathan Power

LUND, Sweden (IDN) — It goes back to the French revolution of 1789. At the Revolutionary Convention the most radical of the insurgents decided to seat themselves on the left side. “Why not on the other side, the right side, the place of rectitude, where law and the higher right resided, when man’s best hand could be raised in righteous honour?” wrote Melvin Lasky in Britain’s intellectual monthly, Encounter. “Anyway, they went left, and man’s political passions have never been the same.”

When Oskar Lafontaine, the West German finance minister, broke with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in the early days of the last Social Democratic government, he explained it was “because my heart beats on the left.” The right could never say that. When Humpty-Dumpty insisted on his own “master-meanings” he reassured Alice, “When I make a word do a lot of work like that, I always pay it extra…….”

Those who want to study the ambiguities and contradictions of intellectual leftists should be informed that once upon a time—a hundred and seventy years ago—there was a writer, a philosopher, who spent most of his time in the British Museum and who moved his family from London’s down-at-heel Soho to posh Primrose Hill. He wanted his maturing daughters to have the chance of meeting a better class of men. His wife too was pleased because she could now invite ladies to tea. A suitor of one of his daughters was given the door as he seemed unstable with his revolutionary opinions. He wrote soon after that he thought the “historical” process had already started to undermine “bourgeois society”.

One of the most important disciples of the above lived in 1916 as an émigré in Zurich. According to acquaintances he lived an exemplary bourgeois life. Each morning he would clean his room in the fastidious Swiss way. In the evening, his writing finished, he refused to listen to classical music, which he enjoyed, because it might excite his emotions. He would complain about the noisy behaviour of fellow émigrés who lived down the hall, especially one who constantly smoked and spent much of his time going to the cinema, which our bourgeois character refused to do. In fact, friends called them the cineastes and the non-cineastes, and some of the sly among them sometimes translated this as the Semites and anti-Semites.

Our three characters were all ardent leftists, the first Karl Marx, the second V. I. Lenin and the third Julius Martov (the Menshevik leader).

Are political views, whether left or right, influenced by different personality constellations? Marx and Lenin were natural authoritarians. Martov (and we could have added Frederick Engels) were not. So, this effort at political classification doesn’t work.

Who’s left? Who’s right? Mao Zedong thought he had solved the problem by unmasking in the Communist Party what he called rightists. “Capitalist-roaders”, he called them. They were people like fellow Long Marchers and apparent backbones of the party—Liu Shao Chi, the head of state, Lin Pao, the minister of defence and Deng Xiaoping, at that time a convinced Marxist, but later a capitalist convert, who became the supreme boss of China, and the “Gang of Four” who later tried to overthrow Deng.

How does one describe the political leanings of Manmohan Singh, the ex-prime minister of India, who presided over both a big build-up of anti-poverty programs but also of a big increase in the acquisition of expensive armaments including nuclear weapons, or the ex-prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, or Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar, or ex-president Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria? Or, as the French election looms, what about the views of Emmanuel Macron or Marine Le Pen?

Or, reaching backwards a couple of decades, what about southern Democrats in the U.S. Senate, Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt, Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, prime minister of Sri Lanka (the first female prime minister to be elected in the world) or, come to that, Charles de Gaulle? Today we can add Barack Obama who was left in his books and was a sometimes confusing and ambiguous mixture of left and right as US president. I’d certainly like to know if President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine considers himself left or right.

Thinkers can also have their problems of identity. As Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell once pointed out, Noam Chomsky has been hoisted by the Marxist petard. Some years ago, he was accused by a Canadian Maoist revolutionary periodical of being a right-wing “agent of American imperialism”. It stood to reason. Chomsky’s theories that language capacities are innate, and that mankind generates rules through the properties of mind, were characterised, quite correctly, as philosophical idealism.

As every Marxist knows, idealism is the reactionary philosophy of the bourgeoisie, as opposed to revolutionary materialism. More than that Chomsky had mentioned that the publication of his early research had been financed by the Office of Naval Research. Why should the American military finance such research if it did not realize that idealistic philosophy would serve to confuse the masses?!

Who’s left? What’s right? Speaking for myself, I don’t know what I am.

About the author: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers. Visit his website: [IDN-InDepthNews — 19 April 2022]

Image: The political construction of the left-right divide in French Parliament. Source: Ideology Theory Practice.

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