The Broken Language of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’

** FILE ** Writer George Orwell poses in this undated photo at an unknown location. George Orwell's left-wing views and bohemian clothes led British police to label him a communist _ but the MI5 spy agency stepped in to correct that view, the writer's newly released security file reveals. The secret file the intelligence agency kept on the author from 1929 until his death in 1950 was declassified by the National Archives. (AP Photo)


Geoffrey M. Hodgson


The terms Left and Right have become ambiguous and self-contradictory. Today the term ‘right-wing’ is applied to diverse and opposed views such as the following:

♦ Those who favour private ownership and markets are often placed on the political Right, including those who are strong supporters of democracy and human rights.

♦ Those who put private property above everything, and care less about democracy, are also described as Right.

♦ Pro-market libertarians, who are so strongly against states that they oppose wars, are also described as Right.

♦ Nationalists that venerate the national state are also described as Right, even if they support democracy and individual rights.

♦ Fascists and racists are also seen as Right, including those who would pursue wars and would limit individual freedoms or rights

Hence the debased term Right now covers democrats and despots, peace-mongers and war-mongers, nationalists and individualists, and defenders and opponents of human rights. There is nothing about private ownership and markets that necessarily implies racism or belligerent nationalism. Yet these different things are conflated under the same label.

The word Left has also slipped into various contradictory usages:

♦ Advocates of substantial state intervention in the economy, typically with some planning and nationalized enterprises, are described as Left.

♦ Advocates of a minimal state, with autonomous communes instead of nationalized industry, are also described as Left.

♦ People who care less about democracy or liberty, and much more about public ownership, national planning or the abolition of poverty, are often described as Left.

♦ Champions of extended democracy, decentralization, popular sovereignty, individual liberty and freedom of expression are often described as Left.

Accordingly, the term Left is now applied to both statist centralizers and communitarian decentralizers, to both totalitarians and ultra-democrats, and to both minimizers and maximizers of liberty.

FascesBoth the Left and the Right have advocated forms of collectivism. The word fascism derives from its symbolic use of the fasces of Ancient Rome, with rods bound together to signify collective strength. Fascism subjected individualism to the collective whole. Similarly, nationalism extols the nation over the individual. If you insist that collectivism is Left, be warned that fascism and nationalism also incline in the same collectivist direction.

Also, as shown below, both the Left and the Right have been aligned with forms of individualism and private property. These terms have become confused and unclear.

The original Left

French National ConventionThe origins of the political terms Left and Right are in the French Revolution. In 1789, in the National Constituent Assembly, those deputies most critical of the monarchy began to congregate on the seats to the left of the President’s chair. Conservative supporters of the aristocracy and the monarchy would congregate on the right side of the Assembly. The Baron de Gauville explained:

‘We began to recognize each other: those who were loyal to religion and the king took up positions to the right of the chair so as to avoid the shouts, oaths, and indecencies that enjoyed free rein in the opposing camp.’

Those seated to the left of the Constituent Assembly wished to limit the powers of the monarchy, and eventually to create a democratic republic.

Those on the right wished to maintain the authority of the Crown by means of a royal veto, to preserve some rights of the aristocracy, to have an unelected upper house, and to maintain major property and tax qualifications for voting.

By contrast, the Left demanded an end to aristocratic privileges, limitations to the power and privileges of the church, a single-chamber legislature in which all power rested with democratically elected representatives, and a broad popular – but wholly male – franchise.

JacobinsIn 1789, Jacobin Clubs sprung up all over France. Originally the Jacobin Clubs were an inclusive forum for all revolutionaries; people later described as Girondins and Montagnards were among their number.

The Girondins acquired that name because a number of them came from the départment of the Gironde. The Montagnards were a radical faction within the Jacobins: they took their name from their occupation of the higher seats behind the President of the Assembly.

By 1791 the Jacobin Clubs were dominated by Girondin intellectuals and orators. Hence Girondins such as Jacques-Pierre Brissot and Thomas Paine were also Jacobins.

At least from 1789 to 1792, when the label was most inclusive, the Jacobins as a whole were the Left. Like other radical Enlightenment thinkers, they believed that ideal governments were founded on natural rights and by the will of the people, rather than on religion or tradition.

Accordingly, the Left and Right divided on the question of the legitimate source of authority for government, and on the question of universal and equal human rights. To be Left was to reject aristocracy or religion as sources of authority, and instead claim authority in the will of the people.

The Girondins and the Jacobins supported the use of force to defend the gains of the Revolution and took an aggressive stance against hostile foreign powers. More militant Jacobins argued for suspensions of democratic powers to facilitate a more rapid purging of feudal or aristocratic powers. Some supported the execution of the King, despite a prominent earlier Jacobin sentiment in favour of the total abolition of the death penalty.

French TerrorThe Girondins had a majority in the National Convention; they controlled the executive council and filled the ministries. But the Montagnards controlled vital Parisian institutions including its National Guard.

On 2 June 1793 the Parisian National Guard was deployed to purge the National Convention of the Girondins. Most leading Girondins were imprisoned and executed, and thus began the Reign of Terror, with many thousands of killings by the guillotines, militias or mobs.

After the coup against the Girondins, the term Jacobin acquired a narrower meaning, connoting vigorous, uncompromising, and violent revolutionary action, in line with the Montagnards.

What the Left was not

If energy and determination are Left, then the Montagnards were to the Left of the Girondins. But degrees of fanaticism, activism and violence are poor criteria to differentiate political doctrines. We should be concerned more with the nature of an ideology than the manner it is pursued or expressed.

Caute Left in EuropeA prominent attempt to delineate Left from Right was proposed by David Caute in his popular volume The Left in Europe since 1789. Caute argued that the defining and enduring feature of the Left is its advocacy of popular sovereignty, against the supremacy of the monarchy and the church, as upheld by the Right.

Caute depicted Maximilien Robespierre as the main campaigner for universal suffrage. For Caute, ‘the Left in 1793 constituted those to the left of the Girondins.’ He wrote of the ‘moderate liberal’ Girondins and the ‘radical democratic’ Jacobins. But Caute’s claims are easily refuted.

Consider two influential Girondins. Jacques-Pierre Brissot played such a central role among the Girondins that for a while their whole group were called Brissotins. Before 1789, in advance of Robespierre, Brissot advocated a democratic republic in France. He argued against electoral qualifications based on income or property and instead proposed a representative government based on universal male suffrage. This then became Jacobin orthodoxy. Brissot also took the abolitionist lead in campaigning against slavery.

Nicolas de Condorcet

Nicolas de Condorcet

Nicolas de Condorcet was another leading abolitionist and also aligned with the Girondins. Condorcet was one of the first few advocates of female suffrage. He was not followed by Robespierre in that respect.

Contrary to Caute’s depiction, the prominent examples of Brissot and Condorcet show that leading Girondins were earlier and more inclusive in their proposals for a democratic franchise than Robespierre. The Girondins as a whole were no less radical in their democratic aims than Robespierre and other Jacobins.

Generally, the Girondins argued against the suspension of democratic powers. By contrast, Robespierre and other Montagnards were more willing to suspend democracy in times of alleged emergency.

Otherwise, in terms of ends (but not means) there was little to distinguish between Brissot, Condorcet and other Girondins, on the one hand, and Robespierre and other Montagnards, on the other.

The original Left and private enterprise

In pre-revolutionary France under King Louis XIV there were numerous corporations, closely tied up with royal power and bureaucracy. The sale of corporate offices provided an important source of royal revenues. In return, numerous corporations and guilds received privileges from the king.

In search of an individualistic utopia, and against the despised institutions of the Ancien Régime, from June 1791 the French revolutionary authorities enacted laws that prohibited organizations of workers, professionals and entrepreneurs, and ended much state regulation of business. Business coalitions, guilds and even business corporations were abolished. Individuals were free to pursue their business interests but forbidden to join together for business purposes.

But this revolutionary experiment in free-market, ultra-individualism was short-lived. There were no civil mechanisms to set standards or codes of conduct. Consequently and necessarily, corporations were later reinstated.

Crucially, from the Girondins to the Montagnards, the Left leaders of the French Revolution advocated an individualistic, property-owning, market economy, just as the English Levellers had done in the 1640s and the American revolutionaries in the 1770s. Under the monarchy, the French revolutionaries had experienced the ill effects of state monopolies and other large agglomerations of economic power. They wanted none of them. They defended private property and private enterprise. As the Fabian socialist R. H. Tawney put it: ‘the dogma of the sanctity of private property was maintained as tenaciously by French Jacobins as by English Tories’.

Gracchus Babeuf

Gracchus Babeuf

Some see Gracchus Babeuf as the ultimate Leftist of the French Revolution. Babeuf supported the Reign of Terror and was imprisoned in 1794 for his criticism of the group that ended the Terror and executed Robespierre.

After his release from prison in 1795, Babeuf advocated common ownership and the abolition of private property, to be achieved if necessary by the methods of terror. He was the first revolutionary communist of modern times. He aimed at the equal distribution of income and wealth. Babeuf and his followers planned to seize national power, and then rule on behalf of the masses, until the people were educated and deemed able to rule through locally-elected bodies. Babeuf’s conspiracy was uncovered in 1796 and he was then executed.

Babeuf had a point. How could equality of rights, equality under the law, and the abolition of inherited privileges, be squared with the concentrated inheritance of wealth, much of it being a hangover of the feudal era? How could the abolition of feudalism be reconciled with the persistence of such juxtapositions of luxury with squalor?

But by focusing on this problem alone, Babeuf and his followers pushed the revolutionary slogan of equality far beyond the matter of equivalent treatment under the law. They negated several other important rights that the revolution had enshrined, including the rights to individual property and of freedom of expression and assembly.

Although linked with the thinking of the time, the short-lived conspiracy of Babeuf was hardly representative of the Revolution as a whole. While his slogan was absolute equality, the abolition of private property went against prevalent Jacobin opinion. He was a product of the Revolution, but he was not typical of it.

Using Babeuf to establish a Left lineage, is no less absurd than suggesting that mass executions, terror, dictatorship and Bonapartism are all Left. It is more sensible to apply the term Left to the doctrines that prevailed in 1789-1792, rather than to the bloody upheavals and transgressions that followed.

Changing the meanings of Left and Right

Robert Owen

Robert Owen

When socialism emerged in the 1830s, with the ideas of Robert Owen and others, it underlined equality and solidarity, but sometimes to the detriment of liberty, autonomy or even democracy. Owen opposed parliamentary democracy, lawyers and legal institutions, and the 1832 Reform Bill. Prominent early socialists wanted rational, harmonious communities, and saw division and debate – in courts or parliaments – as counter-productive. This was the first wrong turning for the post-1789 Left.

In the 1840s, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels joined their version of socialism to the predicted victory of the proletariat in the class struggle, and its expropriation of the capitalist ruling class. In his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels described the principles and rights of the French Revolution as ‘nothing more than the idealized kingdom of the bourgeoisie’. These principles and rights were sacrificed at the altar of class struggle. This was another wrong turning.

Soviet PosterThe first Marxist government was established in Russia in 1917, and it quickly evolved into a one-party state. Purges and terror ensued. But many on the left supported the Soviet Regime. The Left label became associated with totalitarianism, with minimal human rights, sham trials, mass executions, limited freedom, and arbitrary confiscations of property. The original meaning of Left was turned upside down.

As noted above, state-sponsored monopolies were strongly opposed by the French revolutionary Left in 1789. Hence the original Left would have been opposed to the nationalisation of enterprises. For these and other reasons, by the original meaning of the term, there is a case for regarding Stalinism and Maoism as Right.

The term Right has long been linked with authoritarianism, discrimination, the repression of popular sovereignty and the denial of equality under the law. In this vein, it was coupled with the rising fascism of the 1920s and 1930s, in Italy, Germany, Spain and elsewhere. Both Left and Right acquired repressive and authoritarian connotations.

Benito Mussolini & Adolf Hitler

Benito Mussolini & Adolf Hitler

While Marxists since 1848 had wrenched the term Left from its Enlightenment roots, the militant nationalisms and fascisms of the first half of the twentieth century delayed any major shift in the meaning of the word Right. As late as the 1960s it still had strong associations with traditionalism, nationalism, theocracy and fascism. Conservatives in Europe and America supported dictatorships in Latin America, or were apologists for South African Apartheid: these conservatives were appropriately described as Right.

But eventually the term Right also shifted massively, from nationalist and traditionalist apologies for the privileges of aristocracy, to greater advocacy of free markets and private ownership, which ironically had been the territory of the original Left in the French Revolution.

With the collapse of the Keynesian-welfare consensus in the 1970s, a confident free-market neoliberalism took ground. By 1980, some thinkers on the Right had captured a swathe of liberal territory that had been long vacated by the original Left. Both free-marketeers, as well as condoners of dictatorships, were seen as Right.

Ronald Reagan & Margaret Thatcher

Ronald Reagan & Margaret Thatcher

But many on the Right – including US President Ronald Reagan and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – were inconsistent in their promotion of individualism and liberty. They championed large corporations. They also supported dictatorships and opposed sanctions against South African Apartheid.

Rightly or wrongly, their claimed free-market views were compromised by their negative attitudes to drugs and prostitution and their devotion to conservative and non-individualistic ‘family values’. But many libertarian advocates of free-markets support democracy and oppose dictatorships.

This book by G. M. Hodgson elaborates on some of the political issues raised in this blog:

Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost

Published by the University of Chicago Press in January 2018

The abandonment of major ‘socialist’ experiments in China and the Soviet Bloc in the 1980s led to a further seismic shift. Within the Eastern Bloc countries, the rising radicals promoted free enterprise and democracy: they were against the status quo. By contrast, promoters of nationalization and comprehensive planning on the contemporary Left were seen as reactionary defenders of a doomed social order. This bewildered some 1960s radicals from the West, who discovered in the 1990s that the Eastern European revolutionaries were libertarian advocates of free enterprise and private property.

At least since 1990, the term Right has meant support for market solutions, alongside its enduring alternative associations with nationalism and authoritarianism. For over a century, the Left has been associated with state intervention and ownership. Ironically, in key respects, these terms have now swapped places. In 1789 the original Right advocated state monopolies and some state intervention, while the original Left advocated free markets.

Vitenam War ProtestMany 1960s radicals were critical of Soviet-style totalitarianism. Many also opposed the military confrontations of the Cold War. There was a huge movement of opposition to the war in Vietnam. There were also demonstrations against the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The 1960s sensitized many on the Left against militaristic attempts by major powers to impose their will on others.

By the 1970s, some on the Left went further, to oppose any exportation of Western ideas, and to reject any notion that poorer countries deserved to enjoy the same human rights that were promoted and (partly) realised in Western Europe and North America. Even peaceful proposals to extend these rights or values were seen as apologies for ‘Western imperialism’ or for the ‘US Empire’. Ambitions to export Western-style democratic institutions or rights were seen as ideological covers for capitalist imperialism.

Hence, for many on the Left, their anti-militarism turned into opposition to any attempt to spread Western values, peaceful or otherwise. Universal principles and rights held up by the French revolutionary Left of 1789, were seen by some of the 1970s Left as mere excuses for Western militarism or oppression.*

Following Marx and Engels much earlier, many leftists came to see such Enlightenment principles and rights as a sham. They abandoned central defining ideas of the original Left. This was yet another wrong turning.

The language of politics is now broken. Any project to revive the Left must look at its own origins and the wrong turnings it has taken in its journey since 1789. Of course, the world has changed, and some words can reasonably reform their meanings. But the original Left stood for equality under the law, representative democracy and universal human rights. These principles are as important now as they were in 1789.


5 June 2016

Minor edits: 13, 27 December 2016, 1 May 2017


* For the record, I opposed Western aggression in Vietnam. I was also against the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The fact that US President George W. Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair attempted to justify the 2003 invasion in terms of the exportation of human rights and democracy does not mean that the invasion was justified. Promoting commendable institutions or values does not imply that they can or should be imposed by military force.



Caute, David (1966) The Left in Europe Since 1789 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson).

Cohen, Nick (2007) What’s Left? How the Left Lost its Way (London and New York: Harper).

Doyle, William (2002) The Oxford History of the French Revolution (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (1999) Economics and Utopia: Why the Learning Economy is not the End of History (London and New York: Routledge).

Hodgson, Geoffrey M. (2017) Wrong Turnings: How the Left Got Lost (Chicago: University of Chicago Press) forthcoming.

Lavoie, Donald (1985) National Economic Planning: What is Left? (Cambridge, MA: Ballinger).

Stewart, John Hall (1951) A Documentary Survey of the French Revolution (New York: Macmillan).

Tawney, R. H. (1921) The Acquisitive Society (London: Bell).

June 5th, 2016 by