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When discussing political issues and parties, I often hear mention of a party being "left", "centre-left", "right" or "extreme right". In broad terms, what do these designations mean?

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    The fact that someone speaking uses "extreme right" but not "extreme left" should be a clear indication that the terms used are extremely subjective and in the eye of the beholder. 95% of people consider themselves politically moderate. – user4012 Dec 5 '12 at 12:20
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    The list including "extreme right" was meant to be just examples, as the "extreme left" certainly does exist - Communism is considered far- or extreme- left – Graham Wager Dec 5 '12 at 18:49
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    In Europe, "left" tends to mean the same as "socialist/socialdemocratic" and everything else gets lumped together as "right". – Lennart Regebro Jan 17 '13 at 5:35
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    maybe we now need a 2d model (left front, right back) or even a 3d model (left front top, right back bottom) or even a 3d axis model (5 left, 3 back, 8 top). – Kinjal Dixit May 6 '13 at 5:55
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    @KinjalDixit: politicalcompass.org splits politics up into a 2D plane: authoritarian-libertarian, and left-right (which is a bit vague, I personally associate it with collectivist vs. individualist). – naught101 Mar 2 '15 at 0:58
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The standard terms of left and right politics originate from the seating arrangement of the French National Assembly of 1789. They are often considered overly simplistic for today's complex political landscape.

In the 1789 at the French National Assembly the First Estate (noblemen) sat on the right side and the Third Estate (revolutionaries) sat on the left side. Thus, the left wing of the room was more liberal, and the right wing was more conservative.

Today you often use the terms left or extreme-left to describe social and progressive measures and right or even extreme-right the more conservative and nationalistic approaches. Those terms as I stated in the first paragraph however are too simplistic for a modern world where libertarians are often very progressive (left) on social issues such as gay marriage but are fiscally very conservative (right).

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    Therefore, the Nolan Chart is popular among libertarians. The chart tries to characterize political positions on a two-axis model, one axis being "social authoritarian vs libertarian", the other "economically left vs right". – clstaudt Dec 4 '12 at 22:24
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    @cls: And two dimensions is twice as good as one, but since once dimension is near useless.... :-) The Nolan chart also is very bad because it's still based on the concepts of left and right, which mean nothing. So in fact it only really has one dimension as opposed to zero. Which of course can be claimed to be infinitely better. ;-) – Lennart Regebro Dec 5 '12 at 13:32
  • @cls: No sorry, I was thinking of the political compass, not the Nolan Chart. The Nolan Chart is OK. It actually has two dimensions. – Lennart Regebro Dec 5 '12 at 13:35
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    Note that "progressive" is no more definitive then "left", and "conservative" adds little more than "right" unless applied to specific question (i.e. gay marriage or raising taxes) but in these questions the same person can be conservative and not conservative at the same time. – StasM Dec 10 '12 at 8:42
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    Gay marriage has nothing to do with left-right destinction. It is a US invention that so-called "left" support feminism and gay rights so to divert attention from economic issues and make the "left" inappropriate for normal people. In the USSR homosexualism was punished by a term in prison. – Anixx May 1 '13 at 2:25
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To quote from my own answer on History SE, the terms "left" and "right" have no objective meaning in today's global politics (unlike their historical usages covered by other answers) - they are 100% subjective, AND extremely varied across polities even when attempted to be used objectively.

To give some examples of complete inconsistencies:

  • In post-USSR Russia communist hardline parties are considered "Right Wing" and pro-Western economically liberal ones (e.g. pro-capitalist) are "Left Wing".

  • A somewhat related but separate problem is historical drift. As a classical example, originally support for laissez-faire capitalism and free markets were counted as being "on the left"; today in most Western countries these views would be characterized as being "on the right".

  • Gay Rights are commonly considered a property of the Left Wing (and opposition to them Right Wing). Leaving aside the usual imprecision of lumping together people with diverse views with a simplistic label ("right wing" libertarians in USA are strongly anti-gay-discrimination), let's not forget that SA was strongly pro-homosexual all the way to the top (Rohm). Sturmabteilung wasn't exactly an example of what people commonly refer to "left wing", though technically speaking, being against the established order, they should be. Also, many Marxist/leftist governments (e.g. USSR, Cuba) were strongly anti-gay for a variety of reasons, some of which were... "being gay is a bourgeoisie thing".

It's very hard to define "Right Wing" today, especially since most people referred to as "Right Wing" today not only have nothing in common with the historical origin of the term (French Monarchists after French Revolution), but don't have much common politically with each other aside from opposing some or all of the policies labeled "Left Wing", and even that for a wide variety of reasons.

  • People lump together on the right anyone from staunchly anti-religious "sex maniac" Ayn Rand to "Family Values" Christian fundamentalists some of whom literally wouldn't agree with Randian Objectivists about anything other than statists/Communists being a common opponent.

  • Even single-country party affiliations don't help much either, for a variety of reasons. "USA Republicans are Right Wing" is a nice soundbite, except you just lumped together Ron Paul, Pat Robertson, Martin Luther King Jr., Trent Lott and Abraham Lincoln. Again, not really all THAT much in common between the 5 of them.

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    It's hard to define right-wing, not because it has nothing in common with the historical term, but because the opinions/ideologies regarded as "right" have nothing in common with each other. – Lennart Regebro Jan 17 '13 at 5:37
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    And parties shift their positions over time. There were a lot of positions taken by both parties that would embarrass them today. – kleineg Apr 28 '15 at 17:41
  • But generally aren't Communists considered leftists? – adithskv Apr 6 '18 at 16:41
  • @adithskv - They like to consider themselves leftists - especially when they arbitarily decide that fascists were "rightists". However, 100% of attempted states governed by Communist parties ended up being far closer to right wing totalitarianism than theoretical left wing communism. – user4012 Apr 6 '18 at 22:13
  • A good example of right wing parties being different is the difference between Australia and the USA. In Australia, the major right wing party were the advocates and implementers of gun control policies. The left wing party were the ones who floated the dollar and dropped the tariff walls of the 60s and 70s. In fact tariffs in and of themselves are contentious amongst the right in the USA. Until 2016, tariffs were an anathema to right wing beliefs. Now, the right are the ones who are trying to bring them in. – Stephen Jun 13 at 23:13
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These terms vary greatly by country. In the US, currently "left" is identified with people that believe in:

  • Redistribution of wealth by means of taxation and welfare spending
  • Expansive treatment of rights - i.e. right to housing, right to specific level of income, right to medical care, etc.
  • Positivist approach to rights (government can create or destroy rights)
  • Laissez-faire governmental approach to social life and public morals
  • Government control for the behaviors that are considered harmful to the society, and governmental encouragement of the behaviors that are considered beneficial for the society
  • More diplomatic and appeasing approach to international conflicts
  • Primacy of international law and mores over the national peculiarities and traditions
  • Collectivism more than individualism

On the other hand, the "right" is identified with:

  • Laissez-faire approach to economic activity
  • Restricting the role of the government to ensuring economic activities are not violating the rules of "fair play" but not promoting any specific goals or activities
  • Private responsibility for one's welfare
  • Governmental and public control over morals and social life
  • Great reverence to tradition, religion, etc.
  • Negativist approach to rights (rights are absence of violation of small number of principles)
  • More forceful and aggressive approach to international matters, including intervention in places that do not directly influence internal US matters
  • Nationalism and primacy of national law and mores over the international ones
  • Reducing taxation and discouraging using taxation for governmental projects beyond defense, internal policing and such
  • Individualism more than collectivism

You may notice that some of these items seem somewhat contradictory or inconsistent, and some are vague. This is what it is - people do hold contradictory or inconsistent beliefs and some of their positions are vague or fluid. You may also notice many people that vote right hold some left views, and many people that vote left have right views. That happens a lot.

About the "extreme" and "far" labels - except for a small variety of cases (like neo-nazis, anarchist gangs and such) they usually mean exactly nothing. In 99.9% cases this label would be applied by a politician to an opposing politician and would mean no more than "this is a very bad man, you should vote for me, not for him".

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    Is increasing alimony and making quotas for women a left or right thing? – Anixx May 1 '13 at 2:32
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    @Anixx increasing alimony would be neutral since it depends on one's opinion about how much it costs to raise a child, which is not really ideological. Quotas are definitely left thing, since it is a government intrusion into private economic activity to promote particular behavior. – StasM May 1 '13 at 18:11
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    The 3rd point on the "right" shows a lack of understanding and a leaning towards the common narrative. It should read, "Private, family, community, local and state responsibility for one's welfare". The next point, "Governmental control over morals and social life" would be better placed under the left. The right felt gay marriage should be left to the states but left appointed judges have now deemed that all states must abide by their moral interpretation of what is right when it comes to gay marriage. Same could be said about abortion. – Helzgate Aug 24 '15 at 7:57
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During the French revolution the most radical politics were sitting on left site, the most conservative on the right. So traditionally the conservatists (the ones who want to preserve existing order) are considered rightists, while the people who want to change it are considered leftists.

This divide functions quite well in USA, where rightists (conservatists) are fighting for traditional American values such as right to possess arms and corporation-friendly law.

In Europe the situation is much more complicated. Where the Nazi rightists or leftists? They wanted to overthrow the existing order. But they are considered rightists, because they glorified the right of the strong over the weak. In Europe someone who cares for weak and want to protect them from stronger is considered leftist.

There comes also the attitude towards religion. The politics who consider religion as basis of social relations are considered rightists and those who oppose - leftist. However, there are christian-socialist parties which are both religious-driven and concentrated on the poorest and the weakest. On the other side we have radical liberal parties, which are both against religion and for the lower taxes and low social expenses, which are hard to classify as leftists or rightists.

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    This is even more complicated. In russia, the pro-market people are "left" and hardline pro-communist people are "right". – user4012 Dec 5 '12 at 12:19
  • There is a reason why I reflected mostly on the historical nature of the terms and did not try to make statements about the current situation which is much more complex ;) – Sven Clement Dec 13 '12 at 2:01
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Another interpretation of left and right that one may come across relates to the distribution of power. In a simplified way, the right is associated with a top-down power structure, whereas the left is associated with an egalitarian distribution of power. This distribution fits with what most people would associate with left and right in daily life.

Right-wing ideologies favour power structures that are top-down. This can be power by the church, the state, corporations, etc. The most extreme example of this are extreme-right ideologies such as fascism, which is the ideology of anti-democracy. Depending on interpretation of power, also models that allow for very large corporate freedom (such as anarcho-capitalism/libertarianism) are far right, because corporations are not normally democratically controlled. See also wage slavery.

The left, then, favours egalitarian power models. As society originates in top-down power models, such ideologies are often radical or revolutionary in nature. In its extreme, this can be expressed by the utopian German (double negative) slogan Keine Macht für Niemand, which literally means no power for nobody. The ideal expressed by this phrase is that nobody holds power over anybody else. This is not limited to politics, but also to other aspects of life, most notably at work. In such a distribution of power, work is not associated with shareholder-owned corporations, but with worker-owned cooperatives.

The division above is consistent with the traditional distribution of ideologies in left and right. Left-wing is big government and right-wing is small government, because in our society the government is more or less the only institution under some democratic control, so if power is transferred from a democratically controlled government to uncontrolled corporations, power becomes more top-down; if power resides with a democratically controlled government, power becomes more egalitarian. Of course, this breaks down if a government is not democratically controlled.

In this model:

  • Fascism is far-right because it explicitly strives for a authoritarian distribution of power.
  • Anarcho-capitalism can be considered far-right because it takes away almost all power from democratically controlled organs, but whether this leads to a vertical distribution of power depends on where this power goes. If this power is taken by shareholder-owned corporations, it means power distribution becomes more vertical.

  • Theocratic systems favour a strong power for religious institutes. I think those are mostly hierarchical in nature; I'm not aware of strongly democratic religions. That would put theocracies on the right (see also conservative below).

  • Communism is far left in theory, because it puts workers in control of the factories and of the state. In practice it turned out quite authoritarian, so rather right-wing and in its extremes alarmingly close to its ideological opposite, fascism. However, even if the situation turned out similar in practice, the propaganda, what the nations claimed to be, was still vastly different between the worst era of Stalinism and fascist states.

  • Socialism and Social-democracy tend to empower workers, but to a lesser degree than communism, and are therefore less far left on the scale.

  • Anarcho-syndicalism is perhaps the most far left, approaching the utopia where nobody holds power over everybody else, by putting the means of production in hands of democratic councils, e.g. factories are owned by the workers etc. The power of the state is minimal, but contrary to anarcho-capitalism, this power is transferred to small-scale democratically owned organs, not to huge multinational shareholder-owned corporations.

  • Conservative ideologies tend to the status quo. The status quo is usually a quite top-down division of power, so those can be considered right-wing.

  • Progressive and revolutionary ideologies favour to change society. Most of those ideologies are on the left, such as communism and anarcho-syndicalism. However, nazism was also revolutionary in nature, although left-wing revolutionaries may choose to use the term reactionary, as nazism was also strongly anti-revolutionary in nature.

Now this interpretation is not unique, but I think it works well to describe most important ideologies. Your mileage may vary :)

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    Given the fact that USSR - arguably the most left-wing state observed in recent history (and lauded as such by progressives) had orders of magnitude worse power structures AND in-egalitarianism than typical Western capitalist democracies - BOTH on a state level AND work level - this answer is 100% wrong from the get go. The "right" as you define it is in no way, shape or form associated with "top-down power structure", given historical realities. – user4012 Dec 8 '12 at 1:49
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    Just for reference, a typical large factory boss in USSR (even after Stalin), or in China, has infinitely more power over random worker than any CEO of a western company. So much for socialism (which you acknoweledge being on the left) having anything to do with LESS top down power at work. – user4012 Dec 8 '12 at 1:59
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    @DVK, the USSR has never been a communist nation and was certainly not left-wing state, nor is it lauded by progressives. That's why I made a difference between "communism in theory" and "communism in practice". The USSR claimed to be democratic and communist, but both were big lies. I don't think any socialist state has ever existed. – gerrit Dec 8 '12 at 11:47
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    That doesn't seem to work at all. For example, modern left is often promoting federal powers over state powers, which is in no way egalitarian, and may members of the Republican party, which is universally considered "right", believe in reducing the size of the government and restricting its power. How big government is equal distribution of power is beyond comprehension - did you see any big government in action? Do you sincerely believe all citizens under such setup have equal power? The only equality you can achieve with such setup is equal powerlessness before the bureaucracy. – StasM Dec 10 '12 at 8:45
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    I was not aware that the modern left in the US promotes that. In Europe, the left promotes the exact opposite, less power in Brussels because it lacks democratic control. I sincerely believe that citizens have more power in the case of big government than in the case of big corporations, because governments can be sent home in elections with one man, one vote, whereas in corporations, the situation is one dollar, one vote, which is considerably less democratic. Therefore, a big government is a more equalised distribution of power. – gerrit Dec 10 '12 at 8:51
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A great visualisation of the left vs. right concept can be found here:

Left vs. right visualisation (by David McCandless): http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/visualizations/left-vs-right-world/

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    Welcome to Politics! We typically frown on naked links - you never know when they are going to disappear. I would invite you to edit this into a better answer, then flag me to put it back up! – Affable Geek May 6 '13 at 15:48
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    This is ingenious. I wonder how accurate it is. – Slazer Oct 28 '15 at 8:17
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    @Slazer agreed. I like how many of the terms on the left and right sound similar on first reading. – Mark Hurd Nov 12 '16 at 0:22
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While these criteria are normative, there are solidly defended norms out there for these meanings. A number of the other current norms have been covered, so I'm going to concentration on the broadly Marxist normative system for these terms that arises out of the issue of control over productive property in society.

Such a schema results is a very rapid classification: Those acting or claiming to be in favour of workers control of production: Left Those acting or claiming to be opposed to workers control of production: Right Those acting or claiming to be indifferent or deliberately seeking an accommodation between worker and boss that significantly empowers workers: Centre

In this scheme almost every political party lies between right-centrism and the far, but not revolutionary, right. Most current parliamentary "Communist" parties, such as Eurocommunism or most self-announced "revolutionary" Trotskyite parties are actually right-centrist. Their platforms describe minor adjustments to capitalism in favour of "fairness" or "it working better."

This comes across a number of problems in the post-1789 world, and can't functionally apply to a pre-1789 world (The Party and the Faction, for example); it pre-supposes a bourgeois triumph over the aristocracy in terms of the dominant mode of production and property form.

So what about reactionaries? Most 19th century reactionaries were supporting a kind of state led capitalist development, much like the fight over Corn between Tory and Whig.

The other major problem is the difference between ideology and practice by political parties. The simplest Marxist way to deal with the Bolshevik parties is to observe the vigorous critique of their substitutionalism prior to 1917—a large number of people knew what this party was—and the fight over what a ruling Bolshevik Party would look like, worker or boss, between 1917 and 1921. More interesting is the long term collapse to the right of Labourism; from a right-centrist to a centre-right movement, while there are some delightful early marxian analyses ("I believe the worker and their boss should keep their present station" IWW, "Bump me into parliament"), this tends to submerge the long march towards Blair of the UK party.

tl;dr: These meanings are dependent on a theoretical perspective, media commentators usually fail to announce their theoretical perspective, understanding the variety of theoretical perspectives present can let you discover which theory the analyst is using, above is an example of the Marxist theoretical perspective on left/right.

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    A little too long winded IMHO but quite precise nevertheless. +1 – user4012 May 2 '13 at 1:53
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    There is a balance between waffle and precision that needs to be struck. I think it would help in general if we announced the perspective of our answer, "Within Neo-Realist international relations..."; "Within 'Workerist' Marxism..." etc. to clarify both the term sets and the limitations on the answer we provide. – Samuel Russell May 2 '13 at 23:52

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