I've read many times that Left and Right in politics came from the French Revolution.

But reading the Dao De Jing, chapter 31, it looks like a very similar definition, considering Left as "the people" and Right as "the king".

The left is the place of the "second commander", the "ordinary", the "folk", the "festivities".

The right is the place of "war", "first commander" closer to the king, the "mourning" and elaborate/artificial/sad rituals of the noble families.

Other translations get to an even closer resemblance (examples here).

So, is this just a coincidence? Or perhaps both sources (Chinese and French) have drank from the same spring? Where exactly the concepts of Left and Right in politics were first used in a way similar to those we use today? Or what are the supposed reasons for the similarities observed above?

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    Most humans are right handed and (citation needed) it's a VERY common thing in human culture to seat those more important to the right and less important on the left. Royalist top creme de la creme would be on the right, from king's point of view
    – user4012
    Aug 19, 2017 at 23:55
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    I think some of your generalizations aren't really accurate. Really the right just means conservative and the left just means liberal. Even in the french revolution the 'left' wouldn't always be going for the most people-centric approach. There were times that the left opposed a republic (the French revolution had a lot of phases...). All that being said, the origin of the words Left and Right in politics really is the French revolution, specifically how in their legislative sessions the conservatives would sit on the right and liberals on the left Aug 20, 2017 at 3:17
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    @Nat So how do you explain the dw-nominate score? See also this beautiful graphic illustrating it (you can click to zoom in). I'll give you my interpretation. We have an economical pyramid, with a few wealthy people on the top, and lots of poor and miserable people on the bottom. It's not a star, it's not a dodecahedron, it's not a sphere, it's a pyramid with a top and a bottom. Some favor the top (Right) while some favor the bottom (Left). If you don't believe/think about it, you're already favoring the top.
    – Rodrigo
    Aug 20, 2017 at 18:04
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    @Rodrigo, Your conclusions or not correct. Like anything else is human society it is not black and white so left is not good and right is not bad. To summarize (also not this easy) the current western political spectrum, right is more local control as in regional government and left is more central control, such as federal. Both sides have good and bad. NOt to be confused with ideology where it may fit in one side of the spectrum or the other depending on many things Aug 21, 2017 at 15:32
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    @Rodrigo, political spectrum in wikipedia, and no, you definition is incorrect. Left is not for the people and right is not for those in power. You can reason this out for yourself since it does not make sense. To accomplish the goals of the people, there has to be leaders in power who are now in power and will not be for the people. American Conservatism is not to conserve those in power, it is to conserve individualism. This definition will also change if you go back in time or change societies. Aug 21, 2017 at 15:47

4 Answers 4


The daodejing reference to left and right (and other similar references you'll find, such as in the Arthurian tales) have less to do with political philosophy than with court etiquette within old-school kingdoms. Most humans are right-handed, meaning that kings wielded a weapon in their right arm and a shield on their left. Metaphorically then, the person seated to the right of the king was his trusted sword-arm: the 'first commander' who would oversee wars, attend to nobles in the king's stead, and take on ritualistic or honorific duties. Likewise, the person seated to the left of the king was (metaphorically) his shield arm: the 'second commander', who oversaw defense of the palace and the surrounding lands, kept the population both quelled and protected, attended to civilian functions in the king's name, and the like.

It's entirely plausible that the 18th century French parliament adopted the left/right distinction as a hold-over from the (defunct) French royal court, with the aristocracy and clergy on the right (as defenders of the old regime) and the populists on the left (as protectors of the populace); that would have effectively recreated the French monarchic court without the monarch. But I haven't actually heard someone make that argument, so... It might be a good master's thesis for someone in PoliSci.


There are several points :

  • During the French Revolution, the left-right divide of the parliament was used to separate (to simplify) the side defending aristocracy and church and the side defending the "Tiers Etats" (those that were neither priests nor aristocrats). Note that it is not the same as "the king against the people", because there has been historical conflicts between the king and the aristocracy (see e.g. the Fronde).

  • When we speak about political parties, we have a tendency to use the idea of "side" (e.g. "take your side"). So it seems logical that right and left are used as figures for parties. But the French Revolution is the event after which those terms were widely and consistently used.

  • "Right" does not mean side of the rich and "left" does not mean side of the poor. During the French Revolution, those who were rich but were not member of the nobility were member of the "Tiers Etat". Nowadays, politicians of the left have sometimes rich donors while politicians of the right get sometimes the vote of the poorest.

  • "Left" and "liberal" are not the same thing ; "right" and "conservatives" are not the same thing. It seems the same for an US citizen, because he is used to think at "liberal" and "conservatives" as sides, while they are terms related to precise ideologies. Communism is a left ideology, and fascism is a right one. However, communists are not liberals and fascists are not conservatives.

  • If you want to define what are precisely right and left, you will fall into huge difficulties. The only wise and short answer I know to this question is that they are two networks of alliances between ideologies to get in power position. Note that those networks are not always working, and that there are possibilities of a centrist alliance. The only thing that seems impossible is to get allied the far left and the far right in one country (it is possible to get them allied in different countries though: see the german-sovietic non-aggression pact).

I am sorry for this post who answers more than the question, but I think there was mistakes in the comments that deserved to be fixed.

  • (Much needed) citations would improve this answer. Aug 21, 2017 at 19:08
  • There are rich people with a genuine interest in helping the poor, so they help the Left. And there are lots of poor and ignorant people who have no idea how to defend their own interests, and end up voting on the Right. It looks like a contradiction (and really is), but it happens all the time. Anyway, even in a loose sense the Dao De Jing use of the terms is similar with the French Revolution use, and your answer didn't shed a light on it.
    – Rodrigo
    Aug 21, 2017 at 20:22
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    The answer is that there is no link between those two events. The people of the right could well have chosen to seat at left and then we would not been having this conversation.
    – Distic
    Aug 21, 2017 at 21:02
  • Maybe there's no link.
    – Rodrigo
    Sep 19, 2021 at 15:20

There is likely little to no relation between both examples you've mentioned. If debating philosophy throughout human history you'll find several examples of schools of though or societies that approached modern concepts of what is today seen as left and right. However I've never seen any scientifically backed claim to the same origin for those concepts.

To better understand the context of what is left and right nowadays...

Let me start by saying I'll be using the Wikipedia definition of the several relevant schools of political philosophy (because it seems, to me, accurate):

Anarchism: Anarchism is a political philosophy that advocates self-governed societies based on voluntary institutions. These are often described as stateless societies, although several authors have defined them more specifically as institutions based on non-hierarchical free associations. Anarchism holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful.

Communism: In political and social sciences, communism is the philosophical, social, political, and economic ideology and movement whose ultimate goal is the establishment of the communist society, which is a socioeconomic order structured upon the common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes, money, and the state.

Social Democracy: Social democracy is a political, social and economic ideology that supports economic and social interventions to promote social justice within the framework of a capitalist economy, as well as a policy regime involving a commitment to representative democracy, measures for income redistribution, and regulation of the economy in the general interest and welfare state provisions.

Also important are the two most relevant economic systems in the modern world:

Capitalism: is an economic system and an ideology based on private ownership of the means of production and their operation for profit. Characteristics central to capitalism include private property, capital accumulation, wage labor, voluntary exchange, a price system, and competitive markets.

Socialism: is a range of economic and social systems characterized by social ownership and democratic control of the means of production,6 as well as the political theories, and movements associated with them.7 Social ownership may refer to forms of public, collective, or cooperative ownership, or to citizen ownership of equity.

For some context on how ancient sources are seen int the light of modern philosophy...

Taoism is, indeed, seen by some people as an anarchist concept (link):

Taoism, which developed in Ancient China, has been embraced by some anarchists as a source of anarchistic attitudes. The Taoists sages Lao Zi (Lao Tzu) and Zhuang Zhou whose philosophy was a kind of philosophy based on a "anti-polity" stance and rejection of any kind of involvement in political movements or organisations and developed a philosophy of "non-rule" in the Zhuang Zhou and Tao Te Ching and many Taoists in response lived an anarchist lifestyle.

in wikipedia

Its not the only example. Author Leo Tolstoy (writer of War and Peace) is a well known example of a person who is believed to have been an advocate of a form of anarchism (based in Christianity):

Tolstoy believed being a Christian required him to be a pacifist; the consequences of being a pacifist, and the apparently inevitable waging of war by government, are the reason why he is considered a philosophical anarchist.

If you keep digging you'll find many other examples mentioning Jesus, Siddhartha, among other religious or ideological figures.

As for the evolution to what is today mainstream Left and Right...

Most modern democracies today are (in terms of philosophy, and not how they are usually called by political commentators; see the definitions at the top) Social Democracies where the "Social" is either a bit less (USA, UK, Chile, etc.), leaning towards capitalism, or a bit more (Sweden, Denmark, etc.), leaning towards socialism.

This weird mixture of systems and philosophies is the consequence of events that had a significant impact in modern society. The first example (that I know) of a true social welfare system was made in "Bismarck" Germany (State Socialism, 1880s), which at the time it was monarchy. The really important point here, however, is that Bismarck implemented these "Social" reforms to prevent socialist parties and trade unions from gaining ground. See Anti-Socialist Laws:

The legislation was passed after two failed attempts to assassinate Kaiser Wilhelm I by the radicals Max Hödel and Dr. Karl Nobiling; it was meant to curb the growing strength of the Social Democratic Party

An example of an "ideology" implementing the concepts of another to avoid loosing power. Other great example (this time prompted by economical circumstances) is the recovery of the USA from the great depression and the Social Security implemented by Roosevelt [Second] New Deal.

Its important to notice that nowadays we see a lot of "Capitalist" this (typically USA), and "Communist" that (typically Russia/USSR). Neither is really accurate. Russia did indeed implement a version of State Socialism (forget the philosophical Communism, it was just a convenient word to legitimize further developments) which quickly declined to a Totalitarian regime. And the USA has a fairly comprehensive mechanism of social welfare with strong regulations in many areas (inf fact I don't know any example of a fully functioning Laissez Faire).

So the conclusion is...

This is a personal opinion from my analysis of history. But the origin for the modern definition of what is Left and Right is probably the late 19th century Germany (particularly in Europe). In the case of the USA I would argue that the Great Depression has had a fundamental role. A lot of very important philosophy was produced during the French Revolution but its actually complicated to make an assessment of its actual role for modern definitions (specially because Napoleon Bonaparte came immediately after, and the period itself was extremely turbulent).

  • So do you think that the similar usage of Left/Right in the Dao De Jing is just a coincidence? By the way, I noticed you have used the word philosophy nine times in your answer. It makes me think why this question wasn't accepted in philosophy.stackexchange.com...
    – Rodrigo
    Aug 24, 2017 at 22:56
  • @Rodrigo Not related, but not a coincidence also. The same circumstances usually give rise to the same outcomes. Although I don't think this is the case for Dao De Jing. I've read the book (one of my personal favorites) and its teachings seem to me far more about individual mindset and personal development than a political statement. My answer is about the modern definition of Left and Right. For the names themselves I do feel that: "Revolutionaries sit on the left and Supporters of the King on the right" in the French Revolution is the likely origin.
    – armatita
    Aug 25, 2017 at 7:47
  • Dao De Jing is both for individual development and national governance. It has lots of counsels for kings (as Zhuangzi also has). In the case of war, read again chapters 30 and 31 (chapter 3, 57, 80 and others are also counsels for governments).
    – Rodrigo
    Aug 25, 2017 at 12:13
  • @Rodrigo Its subjective so I won't argue. For the sake of knowledge exchange: personally I think most chapters give analogies to the principle of non-action (Wu Wei) (including the ones you've mentioned). You'll find similar philosophical traits in other works such as Bhagavad Gita, a few Gospels, among others (I remember seing it somewhere in Buddhist teachings but can't recall the exact source). I don't interpret any governance or politics in those works.
    – armatita
    Aug 25, 2017 at 12:55
  • There's nothing subjective in it. Those are the chapters in Dao De Jing where the following characters appear: 政 government 8, 58; 治 to govern 3, 8, 10, 57, 59, 60, 64, 65, 75; 王 king, emperor 32, 37, 39, 42, 66, 78; 君 monarch, nobleman, leader 26, 31, 70; 军 army 30, 31, 50. It's definitely not only (or far more) for "individual mindset and personal development", it's both. Taoism is also a way to govern the country, and this gets even more explicit in Zhuangzi (e.g. chapter 7: "The Normal Course for Rulers and Kings", though other "inner chapters" also give instructions on that).
    – Rodrigo
    Aug 25, 2017 at 13:24

You can consider the Optimates and Populares in ancient Rome. Optimates were for the ancient nobility and privilegies while the populares were for the masses. Obviously, in modern terms they would be right-wing and left-wing respectively.

There were other struggles before that, for instance that between plebeans and patricians.

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    (Much needed) citations would improve this answer. And it doesn't seem to answer the question. Aug 21, 2017 at 19:09

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