On The Difference Between Left And Right

Yes, I know. Terrible title. I’m not that enthusiastic about where this post is going to go either. I’ve witnessed so many discussions of this topic that drift off into pointlessness. So please bear with me.

Yesterday I saw this graph and accompanying tweet.

The background is the recent election results in Ireland. Some people have voiced the opinion that the big drop in support for the big parties that have governed in the Irish State for decades may give way to a genuine left-right split in Irish politics.

The difference between the two not-so-big-now parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, dates back to the Civil War, and, as many representatives of parties in recent days have themselves noted, there is very little difference between the two on ideological grounds when it comes to economic and social policies. This is true: both of them are populist parties who claim to be acting in the interests of the whole country whilst pursuing policies on behalf of the capitalist class, and are mostly men in suits and ties. Both of them have their fair market share of altar-rail eaters, landlords and racists, and both of them hate the poor and suck up to the rich, but Fianna Fáil are generally better at concealing this. Both of them are mainstream. Both of them are centrist.


Now that the Civil War differences may be conclusively set to one side so that the two parties might properly collaborate in governing the country, there is something of an expectation that their merger will open up a real and meaningful divide in the parliament on matters of public policy. This is most commonly expressed in terms of left and right.

Some people do not think dividing things in terms of left and right is a good thing. They think politics is a matter of uniting, not dividing. Some of these people are in fact fascists, but not all of them. WB Yeats, who had a bit of a sneaking regard for the fash himself, provides a vivid expression of this anxiety in his poem The Second Coming. If the centre cannot hold, that is, if there is a centrifugal force that impels political actors to extreme positions, then things will fall apart. Next thing you know, people will be eating swans, maybe worse. So it is a good thing, from this general perspective, that Irish people remain in the centre.

In geometric terms, however, the centre is only relative to other points. You have to define the space around the centre. A lot of the time, in standard political parlance, this is defined by Stalin at one extreme and Hitler at the other, and, as the saying goes, les extrêmes se touchent.

At both ends, men with moustaches and armies, living parallel lives but somehow diametrically opposed. So the goal of politics, from this point of view, is to keep things in and around the sweet spot in the middle between Hitler and Stalin.

If you think this is a caricature, let me remind you that a recent article by Irish Times political correspondent Stephen Collins, an evaluation of the Irish political landscape, was illustrated by a cartoon depicting Hitler and Stalin. Mind you, you do get the occasional brain surgeon arguing that Hitler was in fact a socialist because he said he was. The consideration he may not have been telling the whole truth here does not usually count for much. Nor, for that matter, the fact that Hitler believed in a master race called upon by History to wage grand racial war, and that this isn’t really compatible with socialism.

I digress.

What does it mean when someone says they are left-wing or centrist or right-wing? It’s actually quite hard to tell, unless you get them to elaborate on how they feel about a whole range of matters. It won’t do to say that someone is left-wing because they say they are.

Most parents, I suppose, will tell you they have a child of above average intelligence. Regardless of how you define intelligence, you can’t conclude from this that most children are above average intelligence, no matter some parents might complain that there are a few kids in the class dragging everyone else down.

You have to have some sort of agreed objective measure for these things, and the trouble with this, when it comes to defining left, right and centre, is that it largely relies on subjective definition. You can choose what you think is the appropriate measure, but to do that requires subjective input, and that means figuring out what you think is important to include, and what you think should be ignored.

To complicate things further, the common understanding of left and right changes over time, and it looms in people’s minds to varying degrees, depending on time and place. If you read the works of James Connolly, for example, there’s very little mention of the left at all. (I say ‘very little mention’, but I couldn’t actually find any, so I’m being conservative here). Let me put it in clearly Marxian terms: ‘the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force’.

So common ideas about left and right are -if you think Marx is correct here, and I certainly do- inevitably shaped by the ruling class, to the extent that it ‘controls the means of mental production’. If you ever listen to a debate or read an article about ‘the left’ in an Irish media outlet, you will see that no time is devoted to what ‘left’ actually means, and those who are identified as on the left are continually interrupted, whereas the right is scarcely even mentioned.

How we perceive left and right, the sense of what we think possible within those boundaries, the whole range of images and associations that goes with these words, the way in which we locate ourselves along such a spectrum: all these things are bound up with the way in which politics is represented.

In so far as we ourselves ‘lack the means of mental production’ -in so far as we’re unable to think beyond the narrow political gauge we are supposed to travel, in so far as we lack alternative sources of communication and access to communities of political interest that think differently, our ideas about left and right are not going to get us very far: we will mostly oscillate between Hitler and Stalin, and, like the indecisive donkey standing equidistant between two stacks of hay, we will likely fall somewhere in the middle.

Left and right, in political terms, are not eternal categories that stand outside history. In fact, in political terms anyway, they have been around for less than 250 years, and originate in the Estates-General in France. Socialist ideas, communist ideas and ideas about democracy have been around for a lot longer. In recent years in Europe there have been many instances of parties laying claim to a left-wing nomenclature and tradition while pursuing policy after policy that concentrated ever greater power and influence in the hands of the rich and helped undo a century of progress won through popular struggle. In most cases, claiming there is a ‘real’ or ‘true’ left in this context waiting around the corner to put things right, so to speak, does not have much purchase. In a way, it fixes the site of decisive political action in a parliamentary assembly. So I am not that enthusiastic about ‘the left’ as a name for a collective political force, whilst recognising both the need to insist on the distinction between left and right whenever it is denied, and the importance people attach to it as the name of a particular group of people and a collective memory.

I certainly don’t think people should stop using it, but I don’t think the fundamental opposition, the most important political one, is between left and right but between capitalism and democracy. If I had some greater control over both history and the means of mental production, I would get people to talk less about ‘the left’ and more about ‘the democracy’ instead: James Connolly’s name for ‘the sum of all the forces and factors of social and political discontent’. Sadly, I don’t.

The recent election results have likely been far more traumatic for the political establishment as a whole than it is willing to let on. Neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil are likely to fall prey to a composition fallacy: that by combining they somehow become stronger than the sum of their parts. In all likelihood they will be weaker, because the traditional back-and-forth that has characterised the political spectacle for generations has come to an end.

Even if they come to some sort of arrangement whereby one operates as part of a minority government but with the support of the other, they will appear less as two contending political forces and more as two components of a regime that operates on behalf of big business first and foremost. The back-and-forth between Fine Gael and Fianna Fail, I think, has less hold on people’s political imaginations now than any time in living memory.

Both parties still appear moored to a conservative consensus -the preservation of draconian abortion laws to a greater or lesser extent, the protection of the rights of banks, tax avoiders and property speculators- that sits at odds with the daily reality growing numbers of people have to endure. There’s only so much chest-beating about ‘the national interest’ that such people can take before they recognise it as a malignant fraud.

So another scene is in order. In the elections, this was the choice between stability and chaos. On the one hand, the parties of good sense, prudence and progress. On the other, the violent terrorists, criminals, scruffs and rabble-rousers. Whilst fans of the West Wing might prefer that there were some sort of dividing line between right and left, but with a heavy weighting towards the centre, it may well be that stability versus chaos will go on for a bit yet. But it is conceivable that Irish politics starts to appear as a contest between right and left, but within a very narrow horizon of possibility. If it does, it’s up to the left -whoever feels part of that- along with a great many others, to lay bare that the fundamental conflict is between capitalism and democracy. Otherwise we are left with theatre.


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4 responses to “On The Difference Between Left And Right

  1. Darren

    Left and Right wing certainly mean different things on different fields, Looking at it from an Economy point of view, Fianna Fail would be centre right with a history of favouring the better off, Fine Gael are a step or two further right and shamelessly push what’s best for the Rich and hold back what’s in the interests of the Less well off – the Media need to be honest and call Fine Gael a Right wing party and stop trying to feed us the Lie that they are somehow a Centrist party despite shamelessly favouring the Rich !

  2. Peter James

    Labels can of course be confusing. But we must use some words to describe where we stand. The early Marxists used the term Social Democracy, but that’s a total fudge now, those using the term about themselves have lost their imagination. Now it means ” I’d like things to be a bit fairer, but see no need to change things fundamentally”. And we’ll do this by taxing working people more in order to pay for a few redistributive programs. But we’ll leave the rich alone because they deserve it.! In the Dail today JoanBurton spit out the term “Ultra Left” as a term of abuse , see she really hates anyone who actually wants to change things. I’d prefer Fighting Left myself but could live with radical left. Militant anyone?

  3. Conor McKinney

    So Dan O’Brien’s the go-to barometer of public opinion? Take a look at his track record & note how much he gets wrong. This desperate fool is Capitalisms last gasp fraudulent poster-boy!

    • I didn’t say he was. At any rate he is quoting from a survey where this self-identification is treated as a valid object of interest. So it’s not just him. And I wish he were capitalism’s last poster-boy, but capitalism has proved quite effective in generating as many as it thinks it needs.

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