What is the Origin of the Political “Left” and “Right”?

There is a general and popular division of the political scene into Left and Right. The basic idea is that there is a political spectrum that you can use to explain political orientation with Left on one side of the political center and Right on the other. Everyone uses these terms but they are poorly defined and there are a lot of arguments about what they “really” mean. The political scene is so complicated in reality that there are a lot of additional terms appended to Left and Right to clarify positions such as the “New” Left or the “Far” right. Where did this use of Left and Right as applied to politics come from?

During the French Revolution, the representatives who sat on the right side of the Legislative Assembly were supporters of the aristocracy and the monarchy. The people who sat of the left side of the Assembly chamber opposed the old order and supported the interests of the bourgeoisie or rising merchant class. The peasants did not vote and were not represented in the Assembly. Ironically, support for capitalism and free markets were considered to be Left-wing during this time period.

As time passed, the Left came to be identified with socialism and communism and was seen to support the concerns of the working class and the peasants. Capitalistic sympathies migrated to the Right. Those on the Left were no longer in support of laissez-faire capitalism. They supported social equality and felt that unregulated market places led to great inequality of income and wealth to the detriment of society.

Today in the United States, the Left is usually seen to include social democrats, socialists and communists and even anarchists. Liberals are usually thought to be on the Left. Since the word Liberal was turned into a curse word by those on the Right, the Left now prefers the term “progressive”. Those on the Left in general are committed to social equality, help for the less fortunate, multiculturalism and civil liberties. Unlike the original French Leftists, today’s Left advocates that involvement of Government in the monitoring and regulation of businesses and economic activity.

Today’s Right opposes redistribution of wealth, restricted immigration, restriction of civil liberties, religious involvement in the public sphere, unregulated capitalism, low taxes and little government involvement in business affairs.

Many political writers and commentators question whether the old Left-Right distinction is really useful today. Movements like Libertarianism don’t really fit as Left or Right but seem to be a blend of aspects of both. And the truth is that there are so many different dimensions of political concern that it is really ridiculous to think that a simple Left-Right spectrum can really capture and do justices to the complexity of the world we live in today.

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