Left/Right in Context
Historicizing Bourgeois Eternity
Even as the “left/right” idiom has pervaded the world, there has been surprisingly little written on the history of this divide, something that has become so familiar that it appears to be an eternal state of affairs, “apparently making sense in utterly diverse political contexts in different societies at different stages of development.”1 When it is given a history, the left/right identification in politics is ritually sourced to the period surrounding the French Revolution in which members of the National Assembly divided into monarchists to the right side and supporters of the revolution to the left. But despite this myth of “left versus right” denoting “a continuity of struggle that can be traced all the way back to 1789,” the few rigorous historical accounts offered by scholars like Steven Lukes and Marcel Gauchet reveal that this dichotomy’s “birth and sporadic use during the French Revolution” was only “a false start” in a “long, drawn-out process that lasted more than three quarters of a century.”2
As Gauchet concludes, the modern usage of left and right as “the quintessential emblems of political identity, the fundamental categories of democratic confrontation” was “not firmly established until the beginning of the twentieth century.”3 In fact, “the predominant preoccupation” during the French Revolution was not to establish new divides but instead “to abolish all political divisions,” with left/right only catching on in the 1820s, following the restoration of the French monarchy, and slowly securing, over the next century, its role as the primary categorization of political identity.4
The left prides itself on its supposed revolutionary origins in France, often downplaying the bourgeois nature of that event, while obscuring the historical fact that the solidification of left/right in popular usage coincided not with an outbreak of revolution but instead with the more gradual naturalization of bourgeois parliament. Left and right “were the product of an anomaly relative to ‘the normal state of parliamentary government, whose mechanism runs more smoothly if there are only two parties present.’”5 And the universalization of this parliamentary logic registers the globalization of capitalist production and its corresponding political superstructure.
The bourgeois norm of a representative democracy internally divided between left and right camps indeed spread alongside “the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world-market” that Marx and Engels describe in The Communist Manifesto. For them, “the need of a constantly expanding market,” which “chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe,” also drove the development of the capitalist states that exist “for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie,” the class that “conquered for itself, in the modern representative State, exclusive political sway.”6
The insight of Marx and Engels that “each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class” applies to the globalization of its parliamentary terms, left and right, which in Gauchet’s words “have conquered the planet to become universal political categories,” concepts that “are among the basic notions that shape the functioning of contemporary societies.”7 It is no coincidence, therefore, that the language of left and right achieved its modern ubiquity in France and other capitalist states by the early twentieth century, when “the parliamentary regime” of the bourgeoisie “had taken firm hold” and transformed its specialized language into a universal political idiom.8 Far from designating some decisive struggle between revolutionaries and reactionaries, left and right are instead the terms defining the naturalization of the bourgeois system of government, “part of a process of creating a frame of reference whose purpose is to make the underlying order of society . . . more acceptable to its members.”9
The frame of reference created by bourgeois democracy’s talk of left versus right is that of a perpetually and evenly divided society that lacks any historical movement that can bring about the resolution of its contradictions. Whereas the proletariat, as theorized by Marx, is the negative force generated within bourgeois society that is impelled to abolish it, left and right affirm one another, signifying the “insurmountable coexistence of opposites,” the perpetual gridlock of a capitalist society that presents itself as having no history and therefore no possible conclusion.10 Denying the class antagonisms whose resolution would spell the end of the existing social order, left and right symbolize what Lukes calls “consent to discord,” the pluralistic acceptance “of permanent, irreducible, institutionalised conflict as inseparable from democracy and a rejection of the idea that such conflict is a pathological deviation blocking the path to a unified, reconciled society.”11
Liberal democracy’s framework of eternal left/right equilibrium is antithetical to Marxism precisely because it is unhistorical and undialectical. In their abstraction, left and right eternalize the bourgeois political horizon, allowing people to believe “that from the Girondins versus the Montagnards to the nationalists versus the socialists by way of the liberals versus the monarchists the story was always the same.”12 Although the left/right narrative, as Lukes stresses, “was (accidentally) invented at a particular time and place,” something with “its own history” that “could . . . or should come to an end,” it is in bourgeois interests that it never does.13 “In bourgeois society . . . the past dominates the present,” and two centuries worth of its accumulated left/right ideological baggage indeed “weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living,” as Marx writes in The Eighteenth Brumaire.14
Marx claims in that text that just when societies “seem engaged in revolutionising themselves . . . they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle-cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.”15 This dissolution of historical process into bourgeois eternity is the service provided by the time-honored disguise of left versus right, in whose universal grasp, even its worst detractors are forced to borrow its language. Such was the fate of the French Communists described by Gauchet whose initial denunciation of both “bourgeois blocs” in the name of class struggle did not survive their integration into the established political opposition of “an all-inclusive left opposed to the right.”16
The left/right baggage of capitalist society is worse than useless to the proletariat, for it denies its very existence and historical purpose, submerging its real social conflicts into the class-neutral terrain of bourgeois politics. It is because “right and left were artificial constructs not precisely coincident with social realities that they could be manipulated” in such a way to mystify the once-understood fact, as Gauchet writes, “that the boundary between right and left did not coincide with the boundary between proletariat and bourgeoisie.”17 Leftists retain an illusion of proletarian politics, however, by transposing the social contradiction between classes into a superficial opposition between groups, often equating the ruling class with the right and the working class with the left, but the proletariat is lost in translation.
As the two sides of liberal democracy, “left versus right” is the framework that ensures all political conflict remains within bourgeois parameters. Its very purpose is to divorce politics from class, to divide people instead based on ideas, values, beliefs, identities, etc., along the illusory fault lines, that is, of the bourgeois political superstructure. “This is why the right/left cleavage, as it has come to function in our day, is the ultimate political key to the constant advances of the capitalist order,” as Jean-Claude Michéa writes of the parliamentary logic that “makes it possible to permanently confront the popular classes with an impossible alternative” in which they affirm, either way, “the system that methodically destroys their lives.”18
Despite the arranged marriage between Marx and the left, the former does not interpret social antagonisms as a matter of competing values, but as a difference in class interest. Whereas “left versus right” dissolves class divides into moral differences between groups, Marx italicizes class contradictions in revealing the historical nature of the proletariat’s conflict with the bourgeoisie. Yet even as left/right is as antithetical to the thought of Marx as it is useful to bourgeois interests, it is the left that has historically pushed this divide into the forefront. “Clearly the division was promoted by the left, while the right, which had little use for it, tended to deny its existence or refuse to acknowledge it.”19 This is because, in contrast to the conservative right, it is the progressive left that has mastered its role of appearing to represent the transformation of the existing order, while promoting the class-neutral divisions that perpetuate it.
If the proletariat gains nothing from the burden of all the left/right baggage that has only accumulated to obscure the fundamental class conflict detailed by Marx, its interests lie not in alliance with the left, but rather in the destruction of this false friend that instinctively drives this ideological concealment into new contexts of bourgeois domination. Examining the history of this leftist art form will be the next task of this series.
Steven Lukes, “Epilogue: The Grand Dichotomy of the Twentieth Century,” in The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Political Thought, eds. Terence Ball and Richard Bellamy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 605.
Marcel Gauchet, “Right and Left,” in Realms of Memory: Conflicts and Divisions, eds. Pierre Nora and Lawrence D. Kritzman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 241, 253; Lukes, 606.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Marx/Engels Collected Works, Vol. 6. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1976), 486-87.
Marx and Engels, Manifesto, 486; Gauchet, 286.
Marx and Engels, Manifesto, 499; Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in Marx/Engels Collected Works, Vol. 11. (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1979), 103.
Marx, Eighteenth Brumaire, 103-04.
Gauchet, 273, 270.
Jean-Claude Michéa, The Realm of Lesser Evil (Cambridge: Polity, 2009), 79-80.