The meaninglessness of ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ labels

The cultural obsession to pigeon-hole one’s entire world view within a single word or term is a regrettable phenomenon in my eyes, and reflective of the complete lack of nuance within society’s political discourse. In Britain (I can’t claim to know whether this is the same in the rest of the world, though I suspect so), the infatuation to label people ‘left’ or ‘right’ wing and judge them accordingly is a development that should be highly resented. For convenience I shall use these terms descriptively, and to avoid confusion I shall use them in the fashionable way that readers will understand. However, in any future articles I shall try to avoid the phrases as much as possible.

The terms are comparatively modern. They have their origins in the 18th Century French National Assembly, where the revolutionaries would sit on the left-hand side of the President, and those who supported the status quo (including the royal family) sat to the right-hand side of the President. The phrases only caught on at the beginning of the 20th Century, to such a point where the political battle lines are now drawn between these terms. Label yourself ‘right-wing’ and expect to be loathed by one half of society. Label yourself ‘left-wing’ and expect to be patronised by the other half. If we are to use these terms as they were originally meant, those who are ‘right-wing’ simply keep the existing condition, and the ‘left-wing’ are those who want to change it. Nowadays however, all sorts of different beliefs and ideologies fall within these labels and has skewed them to such an extent as to render them meaningless.

For instance, none of the main parties are ‘left-wing’ if you were to use this term as it was originally intended. In fact, all of the main parties in Britain are technically ‘right-wing’; they are all pro-establishment, pro-monarchy, pro-Westminster, pro-First Past The Post, and pro-Capitalism. This is probably because, if not for any other reason, they remain powerful and so benefit from keeping the system in its existing state. This is not a critique of any of the so called ‘left-wing’ parties, simply an illustration of how fallacious it is to use these terms in regards to political parties today.

And before everyone calls me out on Jeremy Corbyn, yes he is genuinely left-wing. He supports all sorts of liberation movements, is anti-monarchy, and should he have it his way, he would seek to change the status quo by making Britain into a socialist state. The problem is that he is a left-wing politician leading a right-wing party. The party will not let him stray that far left. Labour may be more left-leaning than the Tories but that doesn’t make them ‘left-wing’.

Are you pro-establishment? Right-wing. Anti-establishment? Left-wing. It’s easy to see how these terms have become so skewed and meaningless when anti-establishment UKIP supporters are seen as more right-wing than some pro-establishments Labour supporters. And here we have the crux of the issue, one is judged ‘right’ or ‘left’ according to a variety of views that really have no place in the argument.

Even if one were to accept that views on immigration, rent controls, welfare etc had some legitimacy in designating a person ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’, it would still be incredibly difficult to place anybody within these brackets because the conditions are constantly changing. They are in constant flux and are never fixed. Take nationalism for instance. Thanks to the Nazi’s, nationalism was seen as straying into fascist territory. However, nationalism has now revived itself through the ‘left-wing’ parties of the SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales.

Furthermore, look at the section of the supposedly ‘left-wing’ attacking our most sacred weapon, free speech. Originally, it was the right-wing who would impose limits on what we could and couldn’t say. It used to be so that one could not say anything they wished; that to speak against the King was a treasonous offence, that women could not speak back to their husbands or hold a political view. Thanks to so-called ‘left-wing’ movements we changed this around. We were the first country to execute our own King for goodness sake. They understood the danger of allowing people to be unaccountable and immune to criticism. Yet now, it’s a portion of the ‘left’ (those we have taken to calling the ‘regressive left’) who would seek to censor us, and dictate what we can and can’t say.

Principles that could make you ‘left-wing’ one day could make you ‘right-wing’ another, depending on the fashion of the time. Clearly, arbitrary labels like this that are prone to such fluctuation can’t have any real meaning.

Another problem with these labels is the idea that one’s entire political identity can be wrapped up in this way – it’s too simplistic and easy. It pressurises those who identify with ‘left’ or ‘right’ to be completely consistent with these labels – and as such it’s very easy to get kicked out of the crew, and indeed many do, if one holds a belief that is inconsistent with these labels. Similarly, if one articulates a view consistent with a political label, people very quickly label them thus – and there are particularly sensitive points where a single view transcends and overrides all their other beliefs and ideologies. Nowhere is this more prevalent than within the debate around Western foreign policy.

The outlook one holds on intervention in the Middle East seems to be uniquely important in whether people are seen as ‘left-wing’ or ‘right-wing’. Oppose the Iraq war, intervention in Syria, Lybia etc and you’re left. Support intervention and you’re right. That is the gold standard in political labels. Where you stand on this issue supersedes all else, and it makes a mockery of the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’.

Additionally, the ‘left’ are supposed to support liberation movements are they not? Yet they don’t support intervention in Syria to overthrow Assad, they didn’t support intervention in Libya to overthrow Gaddafi, they didn’t support intervention in Iraq to overthrow Hussain (although admittedly we were given separate reasons for invading Iraq), and they don’t support intervention to eradicate ISIS. It seems they are happy to let those at the mercy of these tyrants continue to be oppressed. Yet, the supposedly ‘right-wing’, those who are supposed to believe in the conservation of the status quo, are the most willing to the support liberation movements against the oppressor. Those who speak out against some of the vile regimes in the world are labelled as ‘neocons’ or are seen as ‘right-wing’, when in fact they are the opposite.

So where does that leave us? Well, I’d argue most people hold a mish mash of views traditionally both ‘left’ and ‘right’. There are very few people these days that are genuinely consistent with these labels. Most people hold what I’ll call the ‘common ground’ (the phrase centre ground fails in the same way ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ do, that no-one is truly centre ground). For instance, in Britain many could be considered ‘left-wing’ in their support of the NHS and state education. Yet many could be considered ‘right-wing’ in regards to immigration. Any difference between The Conservatives and Labour are comparatively mundane as they are both appealing to the ‘common ground’. If they were truly ‘left-wing’ and ‘right-wing’ then the differences between them would be substantially more obvious.

As a result, I’d like to suggest we use the term ‘left’ and ‘right’ as little as we can get away with in political discourse. The terms can be very misleading, lack nuance and lead to great petulance. Instead, we should be using phrases such as ‘liberal’, ‘progressive’, ‘conservative’, or ‘reactionary’. These terms are more descriptive, less arbitrary and are less confusing.

2 responses to “The meaninglessness of ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ labels

  1. What this essay touches on and deserves to be underlined and bolded is that ‘left’ and ‘right’ only make sense politically when they are the political expressions of social and class forces clashing with one another or in opposition to each other. Once ‘left’ and ‘right’ are detached from living struggles and social forces these terms do indeed become meaningless which is why there is so much meaningless drivel coming from outfits like Jacobin and other ‘left’ outlets on topics like Syria — they are not only completely divorced from the living forces engaged in struggle there, they have zero interest finding out the thoughts and opinions of people fighting and dying there since those opinions (especially those of the YPG) contradict their anti-interventionist, anti-Western dogmas that are ‘left’ in form but ‘right’ in essence, internationalist in theory but isolationist in practice.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “It seems they are happy to let those at the mercy of these tyrants continue to be oppressed”

    Many respected academics have produced highly regarded works explaining why we should all oppose attempts by the U.S. to invade a country in the name of “liberation”. A good place to start is;

    ‘Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance’ written Noam Chomsky

    ‘Breaking The Silence: Truth And Lies In The War On Terror’ a documentary by John Pilger


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