Philosophy Politics

A Philosophic Overview of “Left” and “Right”

The “Left”-“Right” paradigm is famous in political science though generally eschewed in political philosophy as generally meaningless and unsubstantial, at least without important qualifications.  The history of the Left-Right paradigm arose during the early days of the French Revolution where the opponents of the monarchy sat to the king’s left in the National Assembly and supporters of the monarchy sat to the king’s right.  This established the most rudimentary understanding of the paradigm as the Left being equated with reform and the Right being equated with the status-quo.  The problem with the Left-Right paradigm is not only is it unphilosophical and, therefore, unsubstantial, it is highly relativized which is something that propagandists use to their advantage which distorts the philosophical reality of political movements. 

We can ask ourselves these questions from the basic understanding of Left-Right as from its historico-political context: What is reform?  Is reform always “leftward”?  What is the status quo?  Are you conservative if you seek to defend a liberal or socialist status-quo?  Such questions poke immediate holes into the Left-Right paradigm.

This is not a post on the philosophy of politics—that will come another day.  To highlight how the Left-Right paradigm is easily relativized and abused to score political points and used to distort philosophical reality, let us review some of the basic assertions about the Left-Right paradigm.  There is the common trope on the political right (especially in America and the English-speaking world more generally) that the “Left” favors total government while the “Right” favors less government (to no government).  There is also the common trope that the “Left” favors reform while the “Right” favors the establishment or defends the status-quo as hitherto explained.  There is another trope that the “Left” is “collectivist” while the “Right” is “individualist” (again in a largely American and English-speaking context).

These basic frameworks of the Left-Right are deceitfully misleading.  The association of the Left with “total government” places fascism, socialism, Stalinism, Nazism, and monarchy on the Left and libertarianism and anarchism on the Right; as if this tells us anything substantial and philosophical about these schools of political thought.  The association of the Left with reform and the Right with the status-quo equally distorts and relativizes well-known and established schools of political philosophy.  Take, for example, how this definition permits the Right (and therefore “conservatism”) to be potentially aligned with anti-reform Stalinism before Gorbachev’s reforms because anti-Gorbachev Stalinism defended the status-quo.  Also note how the Right becomes “liberalism” in countries where liberal institutions dominate and are defended as the status-quo establishment.  Jonah Goldberg might fancy this definition of relativization, but true students of philosophy know better. 

If the Left-Right paradigm has any merit it is generally understood from a metaphysical and ontological perspective rather than a purely ideological one.  The Left, simply puts, believes in a world that is egalitarian.  The Right, by dialectical contrast, believes in a world of hierarchy.  Much follows from this.  The Left, in its egalitarianism, erases distinctions and moves in the direction of universality and homogeneity.   The Right, in its hierarchism, defends and makes distinctions and moves in the direction of particularism and pluralism (in the truest sense of the word: difference (based on preceding distinctions and particularity).

This is the basic understanding of the Left-Right that philosophers prefer because it grounds the Left-Right distinction in something substantial and philosophical rather than hollow and abstracted as most political science definitions.

Take, for example, how this definition of the Left-Right drastically changes the relativization of the Left-Right distinction common to the plebeian world and the know-nothing media.  Fascism and Nazism, in their metaphysical acceptance of hierarchy and distinctions, are properly placed on the Right and kept separate from socialism, communism, and liberalism which all accept equality as their metaphysical foundation.  This also shows how views of government are irrelevant to the Left-Right paradigm—like the assertion that the Left favors total government and the Right favors no government.  There are those on the Right, such as libertarian-conservatives and various schools of racialism, that favor a limited government that doesn’t alter the natural order of hierarchy that emanates from human behavior and association believing that large states engage in the business of forced social engineering that erases distinctions and particularities.  There are those on the Right, such as fascists and Nazis, that accept a more statist principle to governance where the state is that which enforces and maintains said distinctions and particularities.  The same goes on the Left where there are those who see the State as the best engine to achieve equality (liberals) and those who see the State as the construction that maintains inequality (left-anarchists and orthodox Marxists).  One’s views on the legitimacy and size of the state doesn’t affect whether one is “Left” or “Right.”

The dialectic between Left and Right takes on new meaning from this metaphysical understanding.  Since the Right identifies Nature as hierarchal, hierarchy is natural and the natural is good therefore egalitarianism is bad because equality would be a forced imposition over the hierarchal state of nature.  The Left identifies Nature as equalitarian, equality is natural and the natural is good therefore hierarchy is bad since hierarchy is unnatural and a forced imposition over the egalitarian state of nature.

While this is not the post to delve into the philosophical underpinnings of philosophical schools, first and foremost, and the nuances to them, what we can take away from the Left-Right paradigm—properly understood from this metaphysical foundation—is this: The Left would include liberalism (“classical” and “modern”), socialism, communism, and anarchism; The Right would include conservatism, traditionalism, and fascism.  There is no “center” in this paradigm either (and as if “center” means some sort of pragmatic moderate as if “not radical”).  One either falls squarely in the camp that nature is egalitarian, or that nature is hierarchal.  Universalists are therefore in the egalitarian camp (and the political left) and pluralists in the hierarchal camp (and the political right).


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor of VoegelinView and a writer on art, culture, literature, politics, and religion for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Diseases, Disasters, and Political Theory. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and theology (biblical & religious studies) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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