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Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Left and Right: Do These Words Mean Anything?

Private property sign with Karl Marx image

Is Ron Paul a left or right winger?

He is a Republican, so on the face of it you would say he's on the right.

But his foreign policies, particularly his pacifist stance and opposition to American military interventions, place him on the left.

Not only that. He, like other Republicans and conservatives, is a libertarian.

Let me start with a little historical digression.

The first time I came across the word "libertarian" it was in conjunction with "communist". Communist libertarians is another name for anarchists: that's how many anarchists in the 19th century were called, to distinguish them from individualist libertarians like the French Proudhon, the man who wrote "Property is theft".

This association between libertarianism and anarchism should not be surprising, since anarchy, as its Greek origin indicates (privative alpha + arkhe, power), is the absence of a state, and libertarianism is the drive towards decreasing the size and reach of the state. So anarchism is, in some way, just the extreme form of libertarianism.

And here we have a clear paradox of the left-right divide in politics: anarchism is a classical leftist movement. At the time of the First International, Karl Marx and the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin famous disagreements did not focus on the goal: they both wanted the same thing, the abolition of the state. Their disagreement only concerned the means to reach that goal: Bakunin advocated the establishment of anarchism immediately after the proletarian revolution, whereas for Marx after the revolution there was to be a transitory phase, the dictatorship of the proletariat, which he (obviously wrongly) thought would eventually dissolve itself to give way to anarchism.

So, we have a political position typically associated with the right, libertarianism, which is just on the same spectrum of opinions of Marxist and anarchist aspirations.

What is ironical, of course, is also to think of classical communists wanting to abolish the state, albeit only after establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat, when today leftists the world over are trying to increase the size of governments beyond any autocrat's wildest dreams.

The problem is also to do with the meaning of the terms "freedom" or "liberty" which, like "justice", can have diametrically opposed interpretations.

In the case of justice, some people believe that what is just is that everybody, irrespective of what good or bad, much or little they have done, should get identical outcomes and have as much as possible the same: they see justice as a leveller.

Others think that justice means rewarding people for what they have done good, punishing them for what they have done bad, and doing neither if people omitted to do good or bad: they see justice as a life guidance, something that guides you to make the right choices.

The latter definition, in my view, is the one that is likely to produce better results in helping people to express the best of themselves and achieve their potential, whereas applying the former interpretation of justice almost inevitably leads to complacency and even downright abuse.

As for liberty, Marx stretched its meaning beyond recognition, in a way reminiscent of the Orwellian 1984's "War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is knowledge". He thought that liberty meant giving people everything they needed, he was thinking of freedom from need rather than freedom from the controlling power of others, be they the government or other citizens.

The latter is clearly the historical liberal interpretation and the most commonsensical use of the word.

It is no coincidence that the communist and even socialist distortion of the meaning of freedom has led to some of the most oppressive, repressive and liberty denying regimes the world has ever seen.

Since "libertarian" derives from "liberty", again it is no coincidence that the conflict of opinion surrounding the latter is transferred into the controversy around the former.

In conclusion, my answer to the question that forms the headline of this article is that the words "left" and "right" in politics still have a meaning, in the sense that they represent real differences in world views about humanity, society and government, albeit not as clear cut and defined as some would have it.

I don't expect to treat this issue exhaustively in an article, but it's fair to say that the demarcation lines are much more blurred than is usually thought.

In particular, what I find objectionable is some behaviour, much more often seen in people on the left, of referring to the opposite end of the spectrum, in this case "right wing" or "fascist", as an epithet to shut down debate in the absence of valid arguments.

The fact that there is a certain overlapping, historical and ideological, between right and left makes this behaviour even more irrational.

I started with Ron Paul as an example of a difficult definition, now I'll give the example of myself: on most things I would be classified as being on the right, but I am a supporter of animal rights. Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

Photo by George Kelly


  1. Libertarians are the enemies of conservatives.

    Libertopians are as misguided as Marxists

  2. I've always found it useful to think of the political spectrum as a circle rather than a line.

    Back in the back left and right for sort of an anti-center where left is right and right is left (or maybe wrong).

    What really happens, of course, is that we each, individually, have issues that are more important to us and so each of us is really a plethora of dots spanning the spectrum.

    I hope that made at least some sense.