Left and Right in western political thought

Pol 106-What is the meaning of the distinction between Left and Right in western political thought? "The words droite and gauche (right and left) are the two most frequently used words in the French political vocabulary but they defy objective definition in every sense". When Pierce uses these terms in relation to French politics it is because they were "invented" in the assemblies after the French Revolution of 1789 and from that point on left and right have been central to political discourse.

Since the French Revolution bequeathed these words based on the seating arrangements of the assemblies when the people of the 'third estate' sat on the left hand side of the king, because the nobility were seated on the right, the position of honour, the custom evolved so that the radical and egalitarian sat on the left. Left was used as a pejorative term at the time but has since been associated with radical political ideas and movements. A collection of ideologies, developed in response to the traumas of the 1770's rather than as a social movement or as an organised political force.

Admittedly an embryonic two party system was developed in Britain from 1760's but Whig/Tory and Court/Crown divisions could not be characterised by terms left and right. There are obviously extreme parties that are at each end of the spectrum but if you move away from the Anglo-Saxon two party systems of Britain and America does left and right exist as a meaningful concept in the same way. In a multi-party system such as France, Italy or especially Ireland where is the boundary? The Irish Dail has seven parties and eight independents. It would be hard to classify the two main parties as left and right.

Their origins go back to the Irish Civil War of the 1920s. Equally the Liberal Party in Victorian times was a coalition of differing views. Even at the turn of the 20th Century it still had a significant Whig element that were landowners (26% in 1868, 8% in 1906). These existed side by side with the Radical wing of the party who in social affairs were quite left wing, albeit that they did not believe in collectivism. If you look at the many ideas that we now describe as left or right ideas or ideologies fall under the guises of thoughts expressed in the works of many political thinkers throughout history.

We can see the possible suggestions of left ideology from the most unlikely sources, like the thoughts that Machiavelli might have been in favour of the welfare state. Machiavelli's feeling that the people will be won over if they feel protected can back up this notion. He suggested doing this through the army but it is feasible to suggest that a healthy nation would mean a healthier and larger army. Machiavelli is now considered to represent right wing political thought, but in his day his writings were seen by some as 'liberal'.

Rousseau was a thinker of the enlightenment but had liberal ideas that could be seen as left wing. Like Plato, Rousseau always believed that a just society was one in which everyone was in his place. He wrote the Discourse to explain how men had lost their liberty in the past; he went on to write another book, Du Contrat social (1762; The Social Contract), to suggest how they might recover their liberty in the future. "Man was born free, but he is everywhere in chains". Rousseau expressed that social inequality has come about because men have allowed their God-given right of freedom to be usurped.

Rousseau expressed ideas of everyone being equal in his utopia in 'A Discourse on Inequality'. This idea of equality has been seen in left wing writing throughout history in particular Marx. These writers were around at times of political and social upheaval and change, radical ideas often come out at such times. Distinctions of left and right are an their highest at times of poor economic climate such as Germany in the 1930's or even Afghanistan today or African nations such as Zaire. People are more inclined to go with more extremist ideas when they are financially and socially downtrodden.