The modern usage of the political terms left and right comes from the French Revolution of 1789 when anti-revolutionary, royalist supporters of the king stood to the president’s right, and anti-royalist revolutionaries to his left.
This split between liberty and authority and split between individualism and collectivism AKA “social equality and inequality” (or more generally between liberalism and conservatism; AKA “left” and “right”) has defined the political left and right since its first usage in the French press of the time.
A simple way to see this is in terms of classical government types: The French Revolutionaries wanted a more liberal democracy (where both liberalism and democracy are the ideologies of liberty and equality) and that the aristocracy wanted a more aristocratic form of Monarchy (the ideology of hierarchies, order, and authority). So those who want Democracy, Liberalism, Equality, and Liberty are “to the political left” of those who want Monarchy, Conservatism, Authority (Illiberality), Hierarchy (Inequality), Tradition, and Order.
Today, the terms left and right still hold their original meaning, where the King is to the right of his aristocrats, who are to the right of the upper-class, who are to the right of the commoners; and where erring toward the liberty and right of the many is left, and where erring toward the authority of “the few” is right.
The right-wing wanted to the traditional order and hierarchy; the left wanted liberty, equality, and a Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen. The left got feisty and started rioting, the right came in with an army.
Then eventually we get the liberal left-right emperor Napoleon arose… and thus the story also offers an immediate out-the-gate lesson on why the answer is balance, not extremes.
Although the terms aren’t always used consistently in practice, their core meaning has never changed. Monarchy and Democracy, Conservatism and Liberalism, Left and Right, Tories and Whigs, Federalists and Anti-Federalists, Populists and Elitists, and more all very generally speak to the same thing: a naturally occurring (in my opinion) aspect of the human condition manifesting as political dichotomies. See an essay on left-right spectrums.
This is to say, The citizens who wanted democracy, individual liberty, and social equality stood to the left and, The supporters of the Aristocracy, Monarchy, and King (“the few”) who wanted order, tradition, social hierarchy, and authority stood to the right.
The above “left-right paradigm” doubles as a basic 2 point political spectrum. To simplify things:LEFT, LIBERAL, and DEMOCRACY is toward liberty and equality and RIGHT, CONSERVATIVE, and MONARCHY is toward order, tradition, social hierarchy, and authority.
This is the basic original two-way split. In practice, we want to consider liberty and equality separately rather than together because the social and classical forms of liberalism and conservatism are so different in-action.
Leftism, like liberalism in general, can be seen as a pushback against the pyramid shaped social order seen in the “estates” of France of the time.
See Left and Right: The Great Dichotomy Revisited for a more complete telling of the significance of the terms left and right. The opening chapter of the book describes the French origins of the terms in vital detail.
The Political Terms Left and Right Can be Understood by Looking at Liberal Revolutions
The division between the left and right during the English, American, and French Revolutions tell us everything we need to know about the political left-wing and political right-wing as absolute and comparative terms. We can then apply this logic to any place and time to understand any unique political atmosphere in terms of left and right (for instance we can apply it to all historical and modern parties).
Below we will explore how to understand the political left and right in historical context.
We can look to Athens and Rome (or even earlier to Egypt) and find the origins of left-right ideology, but modern usage of the terms comes from the French Revolution of 1789; a liberal revolution of the people (the left). See a history of human rights for more discussion on liberalism since Athens.
Aren’t the Terms Left and Right Subjective? While there is some room for subjectivity, when we consider history, the terms left and right are fairly objective and leave little room for debate as they accurately describe the origins of political factions in modern governments.
The confusion comes from the fact that in reality politics are complex, and it takes a good deal of authority (right) to ensure social justice for the collective (left). Likewise, one might consider the freedom to own slaves as left, but the actual act of owning slaves (thus inhibiting the liberty of others) is very far-right. There are countless examples like this.
For more reading see the birth of liberalism and the Age of Enlightenment or how to understand the political left-right spectrum.
What Do Left-wing and Right-wing Mean? – The Political Left and Right as Comparative and Absolute Terms
The simplest answer to “what do left and right mean?” historically speaking, is liberal is left (toward liberty and/or collectivism) and conservative is right (toward authority and/or individualism).
- As a comparative term left is always toward liberalism and liberty, and right is always toward conservatism and authority (from any given perspective).
- As an absolute term left means to the left of center (toward liberalism and liberty), and right means to the right of center (toward conservatism and authority).
- As a comparative term left is always toward liberalism and equality, and right is always toward conservatism and inequality (from any given perspective).
- As an absolute term left means to the left of center (toward liberalism and equality), and right means to the right of center (toward conservatism and inequality).
Comparing those liberty and equality paradigms at once adds complexity, but shows the two qualities that the democratically minded left-of-the-King in France were demanding (as we can confirm by their Rights of Man and Citizen more than their Jacobin Revolution… the Jacobin Revolution speaks more to Plato’s Democracy leading to Tyranny than the core of left-right).
In other words, the Jacobin mob didn’t just want “liberty”, they also wanted “equality”. They wanted “Democracy” (the ideology of liberty and equality, as defined by Plato in 360 BC).
With the above in mind, a democratic form of government will always be to the left, and a form of monarchy will always be to the right.
If a democratic government acts as an authoritative tyrant (an “angry mob”, say a headless Jacobin mob) that behavior is right-wing (despite the left-wing ideals of the mob), if the monarch acts like a liberal monarch, as we can say Napoleon or the Enlightened Monarchs did, then that behavior can be labeled left-wing despite the right-wing authoritarian aspects.
Or rather, in both cases their ideologies are mixed left-right in practice.
This means a single entity can span a spectrum of left-right briefs and behaviors, but can always be described as being to the left or right of another entity.
Thus, the terms left and right have historical and modern practical uses as they can be used to quickly describe how liberal or conservative a given party, ideology, action, or person is.
Enlightened Absolutism (Frederick the Great, Catherine the Great, Joseph II). What does a right-wing leftist (or left-wing right-winger) look like? Just ask Napoleon, the Jacobins, or Frederick the Great… or, let Tom Richey tell you about them rather.
The Story of the French Revolution and the Political Left and Right
The political “left” and “right” were first used during the French Revolution of 1789 when members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king to the president’s right and supporters of the revolution to his left.
One deputy, 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.” However, the Right opposed the seating arrangement because they believed that deputies should support private or general interests, but should not form factions or political parties. The contemporary press occasionally used the terms “left” and “right” to describe the opposing sides.
This is notable, as shortly after the left completely took over France via revolution. We then see the rise of two notable far-left groups. The Girondins (including the sometimes American Thomas Paine) were intellectuals that, despite being far-left, were to the right of the “common men of action,” the more radical-left Jacobins.
The Jacobins and Girondins initially teamed up to take out the right-wing (i.e. supporters of the monarchy), but by the start of the Jacobin Reign of Terror, things were sour. The far-left Jacobin Reign of Terror was spurred on by the assassination of the Jacobin political writer Jean-Paul Marat. This event snowballed. The Jacobins, led by Robespierre, feared retribution from the more right-wing groups including the Girondins. Some 25,000 – 40,000 French were killed in the reign of terror, mostly by beheading at the guillotine. The exact numbers appear to be 16,594 executed by guillotine (2,639 in Paris alone) and about 25,000 summary executions across France. The Jacobins kept accurate records as they always attempted to follow the law in their terror, so the guillotine numbers are probably fairly accurate.
In this period if you weren’t far-left you were a traitor and were up against the Revolutionary Tribunal. Those executed included the early executions we all know from histories like Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI (who were right-wing monarchs), but also say those who believed in revolution but supported religion, those who spoke out against the far-left, or those who did or said anything the Committee of Public Safety disapproved of. Oddly, the Jacobins always followed the law and championed liberalism and enlightenment, so despite the far-right authoritative beheading and lynch mob aspect; they remained a far-left group in many respects.
This story is important, as it not only displays an important time in political history, it also explains the roots of the political left and right, and clearly shows that those terms will always be able to be applied in a comparative and absolute sort of way.
In sum, the Jacobins and Girondins were both far-left revolutionary factions. The main story of the revolution from about 1791 – July 1794, when the also left Thermidorian Reaction puts an end to Robespierre and the Jacobin Club, is a story of different degrees of right-wing behavior by the left. Thus, from the outset, we see we can use the terms left and right accurately, but the complexity of politics and human behavior often requires us to apply the terms in some comparative and absolute terms per entity or ideology.
A Populist Rebellion and the execution of Peasants: Among people who were condemned by the revolutionary tribunals, about 8% were aristocrats, 6% clergy, 14% middle class, and 72% were workers or peasants accused of hoarding, evading the draft, desertion, or rebellion.
Maximilien Robespierre, “frustrated with the progress of the revolution,” saw politics through a populist lens because “any institution which does not suppose the people good, and the magistrate corruptible, is evil.” – The French Revolution by David E.A. Coles (Amazon) p. 110.
The passage also discusses the theory the rebellion was secretly controlled by political and economic elites. Hence, what with all the leftist and peasant killing, but this line of thinking is often debunked and is another conversation, either way the story has much the same morals.
The Terms Left and Right Applied to England and America
Since the terms left and right began during the French Revolution, and since that Revolution came after the American Revolution 1765 – 1783, and long after the English Revolution of 1642 – 1651, and ended with the Glorious Revolution in 1688, we won’t dwell much on England and America.
In England: The Tories are the right-wing conservative party who traditionally favor monarchy and aristocracy. The Whigs are the left-wing liberal party who traditionally favor liberty, parliament power, free trade, and the principles of enlightenment. The split in England is best felt first with the Petition of Rights and the English Civil War (AKA Revolution… unless you are from Scotland or Ireland) under Oliver Cromwell (a very right-wing liberal revolution), but the terms left and right aren’t used at this time. Later “the radical Whigs” will rebel against Burke’s old Whigs and formed a party that was farther left in England, which became Britain, or the United Kingdom, after being unified by Cromwell’s force.
The Conservative Moral Hierarchy includes King/ Queen above Man (as in the Divine Right of Kings)
In America: America didn’t have their revolution until over 100 years after England started its revolution. In fact, America had its revolution right before France did. This means America was able to pick and choose aspects of order and revolution from France and England. We cite Montesquieu’s separations of power via Madison, and also free trade Whig-like right-wing leftism under Hamilton and Washington. Jefferson and Paine talked about the right to revolt with force like the French and harkened back to Locke. America, in the end, created a representative Democracy (Republic) like England’s and not a Pure Democracy which is more “left.”
Oddly, America’s first two factions, the Anti-Federalists, and Federalists, were both left-right in absolute terms. Anti-federalists like Jefferson were what today we would consider intellectuals in the Southern bloc of small government and small business. Issues of religion and slavery had no great importance yet. Federalists would be the equivalent of New York neo-liberals, leaning left on trade and social issues and to the right economic issues and authority. They wanted a central bank, shared debt, and more federal power.
The anti-Federalists were like the French, and the Federalists were like the English Whigs. We find complex comparative and absolute usage of the terms left and right from the start. If we compare both parties to King George and the Tories, both the Federalists and Anti-Federalists are left-leaning, and George is right-leaning. This is why we say the American Revolution was a liberal revolution.
The friends-with-everyone-from-Adam-Smith-to-Thomas-Paine Benjamin Franklin, the pro-French-revolution Thomas Jefferson, and anti-Burke Thomas Paine all helped spur on the French Revolution (and the American one, and almost another English one). Specifically, Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) and Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791) are both notable in respect to influencing political culture.
Two political Sects have arisen within the US the one believing that the executive is the branch of our government which the most needs support; the other that like the analogous branch in the English Government, it is already too strong for the republican parts of the Constitution; and therefore, in equivocal cases they incline to the legislative powers: the former of these are called federalists, sometimes aristocrats or monocrats, and sometimes tories, after the corresponding sect in the English Government of exactly the same definition: the latter are stiled republicans, whigs, jacobins, anarchists, disorganizers, etc. these terms are in familiar use with most persons. – letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Wise in Francis N. Thorpe, ed “A Letter from Jefferson on the Political Parties, 1798,” (source)
- Left–right politics
- Historiography of the French Revolution
- Left and Right: The Great Dichotomy Revisited Edited by João Cardoso Rosas and Ana Rita Ferreira (NOTE: See introduction).
- Gauchet, Marcel. “Right and Left.” In Pierre Nora, Lawrence D. Kritzman (Eds.), Realms of Memory: conflicts and divisions. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997 ISBN 0-231-10634-3
- “The Terror in the French Revolution”
- The Reign of Terror
- English Civil War
- An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs
- Differences between Federalists and Antifederalists
This is part of a series which explores the Conservative Moral Hierarchy as elucidated by George Lakoff. Lakoff didn’t create this hierarchy, what he did is point out how this traditional structure explains American politics. We’ve spent so much time and effort on exploring the Conservative Moral Hierarchy because it has an enormous amount of explanatory power in today’s politics.