I am currently in Germany so my views are from an European perspective. I never could quite comprehend how the definitions of "left" and "right" are used here.

Right seems to be used as a derogatory term and people constantly try to distance it from it as if it were something inherently bad, mistaking the term "right" (in my opinion) for far/extremist right ideologies.

Additionally, the economic axis of e.g. the political compass or the Nolan chart, seems to be never taken into account when taking about the left/right spectrum (see picture at the end of this post). The FDP is arguably the most liberal party in German politics, both on social as well as economic matters. Nonetheless, it is a right wing party since right wing is defined by economic matters, not by social.

However, when people talk about "gegen rechts" (against right) they typically march against the AFD, which is a national populist party with rather xenophobe views.

How then is the political spectrum defined? If you have on the right parties like the AFD, where would you place libertarians? This does not make any sense to me at all.

enter image description here

  • 6
    Right and left are relative terms rather than absolute ones, and are also context specific. The center of one country need not be the same as the center of another, nor do their concepts of right and left necessarily align. Jun 26, 2022 at 12:05
  • 5
    What's the source of that plot? Die Grünen and SPD are certainly not economically right. (that would be pro-employers but contra-employees) commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BrysonModell.jpg is the initial suggestion for this plot layout.
    – PMF
    Jun 26, 2022 at 12:59
  • 2
    The diagram is from politicalcompass.org/germany2021
    – ccprog
    Jun 26, 2022 at 13:40
  • 5
    "Right seems to be used as a derogatory term ..." For what it's worth, left too. Anyway the chart seems strange. FDP is surely the most libertarian party in parliament, Linke surely isn't libertarian. Jun 26, 2022 at 18:06
  • 3
    politicalcompass dot org seems to cluster every country's politicians as primarily "authoritarian" and "right", and incorporates a quiz that seems to be biased towards identifying people as the opposite (if mildly so). I've seen anecdotes of people who claim wild disagreement on a wide array of issues and end up in nearly the same spot on the compass; the questions are vague and often poorly phrased - the answer that one would give taking the question literally, differs from the answer that would accurately reflect sentiment in the current sociopolitical climate. Jun 28, 2022 at 1:55

6 Answers 6


(I am not going to comment on the Libertarian/Authoritarian distinction. First, because I think Libertarianism is not a very fitting term for most European political views, apart from the small minority of Anarcho-Syndicalists. And second, you specifically asked about left and right.)

There is only one objective measure of left and right in politics: the seating order in parlament. In the German Bundestag, until last year, the order was (left-to-right)

Linke - SPD - Grüne - CDU/CSU - FDP - AfD

After the 2021 election, the FDP requested to be seated left of the CDU/CSU, and that was granted. So the new order is

Linke - SPD - Grüne - FDP - CDU/CSU - AfD

Apart from that, all views are subjective. It doesn't make much sense to ask "which party is left or right?" The best you can ask is "who is calling whom left or right?"

Leaving out a lot of detail and diverging opinions, the three parties at the left side tend to call the three parties at the right "more right than us" , and the three parties at the right side tend to call the three parties at the left "more left than us".

But regarding themselves, while Die Linke and SPD would call themselves left, and parts of the Grüne call themselves "left wing", the other parties would call themselves neither "left" nor "right".

So the asymetry you observed is one of self-assignment primarily. There is a reason for that.

If a "left" viewpoint promotes economical egalitarianism, it does that as a critique on the state of society. Such a critique needs a framework of reasoning, and Die Linke, SPD and (left-wing) Grüne accept that their thinking is somehow based on the marxist materialist analysis of the structure of society. (Which certainly does not mean that they would call themselves Marxists.) While calling that base of reasoning an "ideology" has fallen out of favour for a lot of them, almost all would agree that theirs is only one standpoint of multiple possible. Giving out the labels "left" and "right" seems to be a reasonable way to acknowledge that.

European political liberalism like that of the FDP (the term "libertarian" is not used by them) also accepts that its view on society is based on a theoretical framework - measuring the state of society by the freedom that its members enjoy. But they maintain that their position is neither left nor right, because a critique of economic inequality is not part of their analysis. In a one-dimensional view of the political spectrum they are both anti-authoritarian (which would be considered left) and anti-eglitarian (which would be considered right).

Both the CDU/CSU and the AfD hold strong views of having no ideology. Quite contrary, they think of their own political views as "common sense" or "natural". The only terms they accept that would distinguish their standpoints are "bürgerlich" and "patriotic".

The case of the AfD calling themselves "patriotic" is easier explained. They see patriotism as a natural position in the order of the world - every person has its place, and should defend that place against outside influences. As it is natural, everyone is supposed to have that view, and diverting standpoints lack legitimacy. Using the labels "left" and "right" would implicate a parity between both views, and that is negated.

The term "bürgerlich" is complicated, and it has no direct english translation. It is used by the CDU/CSU and the FDP for themselves, also by parts of the Grüne and parts of the AfD. But let's stay with its use by the CDU/CSU, where it is usually paired with a second self-description, "the party of the middle". In this sense the translation "middle class" has a lot of merits: persons of average standing, in the middle of society, living an average lifstyle, content of their circumstances, are to be protected by politics, so that their way of living does not errode. But despite the obvious parallels, only parts of the party accept the term "conservative" for themselves. Others maintain that "the middle" is a moving target, and that modernization is a neccessary part of society. What all of them agree on is that what makes up "the middle" is mostly self-evident. The CSU has a more pronounced tendency to look out for average viewpoints, and then adapt them as party policy, while the Christianity-oriented parts of the CDU think more in terms of a pre-given order (while still being a long way removed from American Evangelicalism). For all of them the pair "right and wrong" holds a lot more weight than "left and right". Using the latter would label their politics as biased.

  • Maybe it should be emphasized that "bürgerlich" kind of strongly excludes lower social classes. But judging by the demography of their voters Grüne might be more bürgerlich than FDP for example. Jun 26, 2022 at 18:12
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    @Trilarion I think that is more of an outside ascription. (One I would agree with, but then I am a leftist.) For those using "bürgerlich" for themselves, describing society in terms of "class", "social strata" or "income group" is rather uncomfortable, and the much stronger vibe behind their word usage is "civilised".
    – ccprog
    Jun 26, 2022 at 19:59
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    yes, you're right, something like educated, culturally versed, good manners, loves traditions, single family homes in suburbs, protective of their wealth and standing, "spießig" is sometimes another synonym for bürgerlich and I'm not sure how to properly translate it but it includes "a bit boring" too. Jun 26, 2022 at 20:10
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    In fact, "the seating order in parlament" during the French Revolution is the origin of the terms.
    – dan04
    Jun 27, 2022 at 16:49
  • "a critique of economic inequality is not part of their analysis" - all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. When a man deliberately and willfully chooses to do nothing in the face of evil, especially as a matter of principle... we should say that he is designing his actions to lead to the triumph of evil, and is therefore evil himself.
    – user253751
    Apr 21 at 16:11

The general left right spectrum has it's origin in the sitting order of the French Parliament after the revolution and the abstraction from that is roughly around social hierarchies. So if you are in favor of considering and treating human beings as equal you'd be placed on the left, if you are in favor of social hierarchies where one group has it better than the rest or even more fine grained hierarchies you'd be placed on the right.

So if you'd look at the political compass that you've sketched out than the left-right spectrum would be the diagonal line from bottom left to top-right.

So right wingers are always in favor of a social hierarchy which as a consequence also results in authoritarian rule according to that hierarchy. However that does not mean that they are in favor of the same hierarchy. Like for a racist, fascist, xenophobe the foundation for the hierarchy is based on race, ethnicity or nationality, while for an economically right wing person that hierarchy might be drawn by income and capital. So the common factor is being in favor of viewing people as unequal they might still disagree heavily with each other.


I can't speak to Germany in particular, but the Left/Right is mainly a matter of ideological egalitarianism. Historically speaking, the Left has stood for broad social and political equality while the Right has preferred hierarchically structured societies. In the era of the French Revolution that meant the distinction between uprising populists and traditional royalists, but in the modern world leftism can range from socialism to liberal democracy, while the Right covers strong republicanism, corporitism, authoritarianism, theocratic forms, etc.

Libertarianism mainly argues for weak, decentralized government: it is intrinsically anti-authoritarian. There are both Leftist forms of Libertarianism (which advocate broad social and political equality within a decentralized government) and Rightist forms (which pushes for strong inviolate property rights for a propertied class). In the US the term 'Libertarian' has been coopted by Right-Libertarians, and has a strong anti-Marxist bent. That puts them in an odd and often conflicted relationship with more authoritarian Rightists, but... politics makes strange bedfellows. I don't know if that works the same in Germany.

Keep in mind that there's often a rift between 'how things are' and 'what people think', because most people don't do much political analysis. A number of social conditions are lumped under the rubric 'Rightism' — political oppression, religious intolerance, corporate greed, etc. — and people opposing any of them might view themselves as 'anti-Right', making the concept a bit squishy.

  • Not much in the way of FDP-AfD governments, so yeah, it does work a bit differently in Germany. (Austria doesn't even seem to have a [parliamentary] party that's libertarian even on the scale of FDP.)
    – Fizz
    Apr 19 at 17:07
  • Right-Libertarians are not in conflict with authoritarian Rightists, since they want the same thing, through slightly different means.
    – user253751
    Apr 21 at 16:13
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    @user253751: I don't think that quite captures it. Right-Libertarians want every (propertied) man to be the king of his own property, without any government interference or oversight. Authoritarians want a strong centralized government, with themselves at the center. About the only thing they agree on is that 'collectivism' is bad, which (in the US) seems to be enough. Apr 21 at 16:56
  • @TedWrigley Right-Libertarians want every propertied man to be a government with no oversight, in other words.
    – user253751
    Apr 21 at 16:57

when people talk about "gegen rechts" (against right) they typically march against the AFD

That lumping may make less sense in Germany, but it made a lot of sense in Austria when the "gegen Rechts" was formed:

in response to the coalition of the Austrian People's Party [ÖVP] and the Freedom Party of Austria [FPÖ] during the first Kurz government.

If you had an AfD-FDP-CDU coalition in Germany, it would be extremely simple to speak of being against it as being "against the Right" there too.

The FPÖ is a little different than the FDP, by the way. E.g. The former is in the ID group in the European Parliament (together with the AfD), but the FPD is in the Renew (former ALDE) group.

Austria also has an ALDE/Renew-linked party called NEOS. They were never in a national government, but at state level they formed governments with both the ÖVP and the SPÖ. In that regard, they're not so different from the FDP, which historically has made alliances with both the SPD and CDU. So, being at the libertarian "economic far right" [as you see things] is not that reliable of an indicator of political alliances, at least. And perhaps that explains why someone who is "against the Right" in Germany or Austria isn't necessarily thinking of the FDP or of NEOS as their main bugaboo. (A little aside, it seems NEOS is far less libertarian than the FDP, at least measured by what they want privatized.)

Also, it seems that at least some in the FDP don't see themselves as being on the right either, for pragmatic reasons. When they asked to swap seats with the CDU:

Members of the FDP have stated that they no longer want to sit next to the far-right party [AfD], now they have entered government.

In October, senior FDP lawmaker Marco Buschmann said his party would like to "sit in the centre" as they represent the centre of politics.

Perhaps I could add that such anti-something rhetoric is not seen just against the Right, even in Germany. E.g.

As Germany’s conservatives prepare to hand over power to a Social Democrat-led government, CSU leader Markus Söder has appealed for unity to build a “bulwark” against the left.

“With a traffic-light government, we may face a new era in politics,” Söder told newspaper Die Welt, in an interview published Saturday. “It is important that the CDU and CSU show a new unity. We have to become the bulwark against the rise of the left in Germany.”

So there's that: the FDP is now seen as [part of the] danger from the left, at least in some CSU viewpoint.

Finally, it's not totally unheard of for US libertarians to describe themselves as "radical centrists", although that's admittedly not heard that often. But as additional explainer from another American source (Reason magazine):

In Europe liberal parties, often seen as the nearest analogue of libertarian, are often perceived in just this way as occupying centrist/middle positions between labor or revolutionary parties on the left and blood-and-soil or religious parties on the right. European liberal tendencies vary but often they're secular, business oriented, pro-trade, modern, internationalist but not militarist, and interested in meliorist reform rather than street politics or national crusades.


The left-right spectrum is defined ambiguously because you cannot cram a person's political preferences into a single data point (i.e. the degree of "left-ness" or "right-ness" on a single axis).

If you try to do it, the single data point by which you measure political leaning must be interpreted vaguely to encompass all the ideological variety within the system.

As you demosntrated with the grid, it would be an improvement to introduce a second data point (i.e. two axies instead of one) to describe more nuanced ideological positioning.

But since you can introduce more than one data point, why not more than two? Such as the 8Value test which measures political leaning with 4 data points. The more data points you have, the more nuance and specificity you can have in your model.

Try plot each German party into the 8Value test and see where they land. It might produce a less confusing result than the single data point model.

In conclusion, political preferences are complex and multi-dimensional. A good model for political preference should have a data point for each identifiable dimension of political preference (e.g. social policy, foreign policy, economic policy, hierarchy of government structure, etc).

  • 1
    I mean that depends on what you want to do with that data. Like if you want to assess the political position of an individual person, then left/right would be wholly insufficient, if you want to assess your own position doubly so. But often enough you're more interested in where larger groups of people stand in general and the more variables you'd introduce the more complex and unmanageable that will become. Like a yes or no question has 2 possible outcomes or 3 if you could lack of interest, ask 2 questions means 4 or 9 possible positions. So if you're looking to find a majority less is more.
    – haxor789
    Apr 20 at 13:05
  • @haxor789 I don't think model complexity is a problem as a majority will always be generated by structural factors. In the case of Germany, approving a chancellor requires absolute majority vote in Bundestag, meaning parties (regardless of nuanced differences) are incentivized to force a majority at the end of the day. Since we know a majority is guaranteed, a meaningful model would better serve to express nuance, as voters also have compelx preferences and they want the model to help them make informed decisions. Apr 28 at 6:01
  • Again the question is what you want to do with it. Like if you wanted to sufficiently inform yourself politically you'd need to delve into the political theory and praxis of groups and people. Like what do they aim for, why do they do that, what measures do they propose and also very important what do they ACTUALLY do. Any sort of spectrum, no matter how detailed, is likely ill-equipped for that purpose. What they are good for is to give an overview of the relation of different groups concerning 1 particular subject. Usually one that has priority.
    – haxor789
    Apr 28 at 11:20
  • Also the power of the chancellor is limited. As they are not elected by the general population they have no personal mandate but they rely on the consensus of the coalition that forms the government. So they usually get together and make a Koalitionsvertrag, a treaty listing the goals and red lines for the coalition and if the chancellor would to ignore those any member of the coalition could argue the treaty null and void and vote with the opposition on issues or even support a different chancellor than the government would be a lame duck or gone entirely.
    – haxor789
    May 2 at 12:21

It is so ambiguous because of history. Left-wing and right-wing were first around during the French Revolution where during the National Assembly, the people for the revolution were to the left, and those against the revolution for 'tradition' were to the right. Since the right wanted to defend a corrupt monarchy, that is probably why plenty back then would despise the right and see it as a derogatory term for those who want people to stay socially in the past.

However, because of this, left and right are vague terms that, even academically, are vaguely defined where the definition of right-wing is "part of a political group that consists of people who support conservative or traditional ideas and policies" and left-wing is "part of a political group that consists of people who support liberal or socialist ideas and policies". That being said, if you look at the French Revolution and its effects on European history, the left can be seen as those who, while flawed, led Europe away from feudalism and outdated issues while the right can be seen as those who wanted to keep kings & strict hereditary dictatorships/hierarchies in charge of the people.

  • defining the right wing as "people who support right-wing things" and the left wing as "people who support left-wing things" is basically circular
    – user253751
    Apr 21 at 16:14
  • @user253751 Not really. It is saying those who tend to support liberal or socialist policies are generally left and those who want to stick to tradition or be conservative are right. These are admittedly vague definitions but not circular, especially in the context of how it started with the french revolution. It is not circular to say pro-monarchy/tradition were considered the right wing, anti-monarchy/pro republic and new ideas were seen as the left wing when the terms first came into being.
    – Tyler Mc
    Apr 21 at 16:22

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