Historically, authoritarianism was an attribute of the right; during the French parliament in the momentous 1789 vote in which a decision was made regarding the veto power against the king post revolution. Later we see the Nolan model of politics, and even prior to that, which removes its right wing attribution somewhere in the 1950s. How and why did this occur? Has right and left actually shifted in paradigm from its advent and, if so, how do the terms apply today that they didn't imply before, that somehow they might remove authoritarian as an attribute of the right (if this is the common trend for the term's current use)?


The 1920s to 1940s saw the raise and fall of a new political movement called Fascism. This movement encompassed right-wing values enforced by an extreme authoritarian state. This lead to an association of right-wing political ideas with authoritarianism.

After the fascists were defeated in World War II and the unprecedented atrocities committed by them became more public knowledge, this political movement (fortunately!) became very unpopular. So unpopular in fact that "Fascist" became kind of a slur to discredit anyone trying to enforce political values one does not agree with.

But the 1950s to 1980s were then characterized by the rise of new political movements in Eastern Europe and Asia: Stalinism and Maoism. (Technically, Stalin and Hitler rose to power during roughly the same time, but World War II overshadowed the development of Stalinism in the public perception) These political movements (often called "communism" during their time, but a more accurate term might be "authoritarian socialism") were based on left-wing ideas, but also characterized by enforcing them through an extreme authoritarian state. These movements stole many of their methods right from the fascist playbook. Like a political system based on one-party dictatorship, use of mass-media for propaganda, secret police hunting down dissidents or elimination of politically undesirable people through forced labor camps. This political movement demonstrated that the political right is not the only ideology which can be enforced by authoritarianism.

But these political movements also fell out of fashion in the 90s when the iron curtain fell, the USSR dissolved and China gradually transitioned to a system more built on capitalist than socialist values (but still very much authoritarian).

So how did these historic developments affect people's association of authoritarianism with the left-right spectrum?

In Western Europe, which historically experienced Fascism but not Stalinism, authoritarianism is still more regularly associated with right-wing politics rather than with left-wing politics.

The United States, which never experienced fascism nor authoritarian socialism first-hand but opposed both movements at some point during the 20th century, now often consider authoritarianism<->libertarianism as a political axis which is orthogonal to the right<->left axis. This is visible in models of political ideology like the nolan chart mentioned in the question or the more recent political compass.

  • would you say right and left, as terms, imply the same thing they did at their advent with the exception of authoritarianism or have those terms had more paradigm changes? Is there someplace to find answers regarding these changes? Apr 7 at 14:01
  • 2
    @NationWidePants You might find some information in the answers to the question "What is meant by the “left” and the “right”?".
    – Philipp
    Apr 7 at 14:05

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