How ‘Left Vs. Right’ Came To Mean What It Does Today
A choice between the left and the right could mean so many different things; which way you turn at an intersection, which hand you use to pick up a pen, which side of a train carriage you could sit on.
But if you Google what the left and the right is, one of the first things that comes up is a description that says ‘the Left seeks social justice while the Right defends private property and capitalism’.
That political definition can feel unavoidable. The news bats around ‘the left and the right’ freely, and social media is flooded with polarising opinions. Because the left and the right isn’t just a simple political system anymore; it’s a splintered and divisive one that’s also become synonymous with social identity.
Being ‘left’ or being ‘right’ now represents someone’s entire belief system on complex issues like class, race, and religion, or even world leaders and pandemic vaccines.
But it didn’t start like that. So, how did this divide evolve over time? How did it seep into the darkest corners of the internet and political systems around the world?
How The Left And Right Got Their Names
The story of the left and the right starts way back in the summer of 1789 in the Palace of Versailles.
The Bastille had just been stormed. The French Revolution was gaining force, and a group called the National Assembly had formed to lead that revolution. They wanted to act as a new government, and to write a new constitution for France.
But something that the National Assembly couldn’t agree on was how much power the French King should hold in their new system. Some people thought the King should continue to hold more power, and others thought the opposite.
But the debate was far bigger than that. Really, this was an argument between French traditionalists who wanted to maintain christian faith and the authority of the monarchy, and modernists who wanted to move away from that and separate church and state.
Those two opposing groups were the first versions of what we now call the ‘left’ and the ‘right’. And that happened purely because of which side they sat in Versailles.
During the debate, the traditionalists grouped together on the right-hand side of the president leading the meeting, and the modernists on the left.
Ultimately, the French Revolution led to France’s monarchy being overthrown. It was replaced by a democratic republic, and France’s political system changed from then on.
And after the revolution, this new system of terminology between a left-view and a right-view extended beyond France’s politics, and onto the country’s wider social issues too.
Some people began pushing for more socialist ideas, like freedom and equality. A Freedom of the Press law was passed in 1881, and three years later trade unions that could fight for workers’ rights were made legal.
But other people continued to defend catholicism right up until the turn of the 20th century, and favoured economic liberalism over socialism.
It took a long time before anything that was happening in France reached other countries.
In fact, a French historian called Marcel Gauchet wrote in 1996 that the ‘left’ and ‘right’ terminology didn’t really crossover to greater Europe in a popular way until the early 20th century.
And by the time it did, two things had happened to the left and right system. On one hand, the distinction between the two had become kind of blurred.
And on the other hand, both the left and the right had become more divided in their fundamental beliefs, splintering and making space for more radical ideologies in the far corners of both sides.
Take the Bolsheviks for example. They wanted to do in Russia something similar to what the French Revolution had done in France. And so, in 1917, they pushed for an abolition of the imperialism that had ruled over Russia for centuries.
But by the time the Bolsheviks came around, sub-categories of the left and right had developed because there were just too many different beliefs for people to sit comfortably on either side.
The Bolsheviks were defeated by a rise in independents and socialists who really pushed the idea of equality, and eventually re-established themselves as the Communist Party.
Communism is what we would call today the far–left, and Russia’s Communist Party showed that the more radical people got with their political ideologies, the further they could move away from the centre.
Left, Right And Centre In Australia
Australia’s framework of governance is called a federal parliamentary constitutional monarchy.
Organised national political parties have really been a part of our political landscape since Federation.
Australia’s political left and right divide has very much been between the Labor and Liberal parties.
They’ve played a significant role in the division between what was historically the working class and the anti-Labor parties, which were the businesses, middle class, and increasingly rural populations.
David Smith (The University of Sydney): “Then we have other parties that are on the left and rights. So, the Greens in Australia would be widely considered as the left … and on the right, we have parties like One Nation and Family First, and what now calls itself the Christian Democratic Party – these are rights in terms of their stance on social issues.”
Politically, Australia has sort of stuck to the left and right at its top levels. But over time, just like in France and Russia, Australia’s left and right have become more divided themselves, and the distinction between them blurrier.
Australia’s Labor party for example, which was historically the working class, is becoming even more of a centrist party with its stance on issues like border protection and even coal.
Independent parties, like Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, have never had any real success in parliament. But their cultural and social impacts have been significant.
In fact, right-wing extremists now make up around a third of all ASIO domestic investigations. And that’s because there’s been a lot for the world to be divided about.
It’s not uncommon now to hear the left and the right being used in discussion of polarising issues, like abortion or vaccines.
That ASIO report actually noted that the increase in far-right ideology in Australia was really noticeable once the pandemic hit.
And some experts warn that Australian conservative politicians downplaying the impacts of Trump’s presidency on the far-right movement, is really quite dangerous because it could lead to these movements mobilising further in politics.
DS: “On that most heated issue of people arriving by boat, the major parties basically do what the far right wants them to do. Just because there are limits on what the far-right can do politically in Australia, nonetheless, in policy terms, sometimes it does get what it wants.”
For a labelling system that was set up in Versailles centuries ago, today, the left versus the right is now the world’s dominant political binary. It’s a system that offers both a political identity, and a social one. And it’s an increasingly diverse and splintered space – one with more complexities to it than an 8-minute video can cover. But as much as it has helped some countries maintain stability, in others it’s led to disarray and terror. Which is why we really need to continue trying to understand the meanings behind left and right labels, how left and right terminology can be weaponised, and what the impacts of increasing political division could mean for the future.