I often hear the expression "far-right extremist" to identify a person who goes on a killing spree based on his/her political beliefs. Examples would be Breivik and the perpetrator of the Trollhättan (Sweden) school attack.

The news says the attacker was "a Hitler admirer". Therefore I think it has something to do with facism, nacism or racism. Or is it extremism in general?

What is the exact definition?

Why is it the right side? I reckon the left side has something to do with communism. Are there any "far-left extremists"?

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    Possible duplicate of What is meant by the "left" and the "right"? Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 11:29
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    As I always say in response to these kinds of questions, the "left" and "right" divide is illusory. There's no such thing, and is a consequence of people oversimplifying the hugely complex field of political philosophy. My answer would be that there is no single answer that people will agree on. Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 14:48
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    Yes. There are far-left extremists also.
    – Anixx
    Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 20:23
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    "The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable""
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Nov 7, 2016 at 21:17
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    @AndrewGrimm which is awfully convenient for Fascists. Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 0:59

6 Answers 6


Generally, words like "extremism" are pejorative and there really is no substance. However, there are some general categories of definitions in political science.

I had the fortune to meet Dr. Haider-Markel while at the University of Kansas. This section is taken from my notes for a graduate course in political extremism and terrorism he taught in 2011.

What is Extremism?

Within political science, there are two general approaches to the idea of terrorism: people are either extremists because of their opinions or because of their (in)ability to flex on those opinions.

The first view is that opinions themselves can be extreme, and so a person who has those extreme opinions is an extremist. This definition tends to fall apart fairly quickly. How do you know that an idea is extreme? Usually because it is different than the speaker's opinion. Some people would say it's because an idea is statistically unusual, however having an unusual opinion is not a strong predictor of engaging in extremist activity (like blowing up a building or hijacking a flight, etc.).

The second definition is somewhat more robust: a person isn't an extremist because of their belief, but because of how they maintain it. They are unwilling to compromise or change their beliefs, even in the face of evidence or reason. They are passionate about their beliefs, even in times when it is otherwise socially unacceptable. Anyone with a different view is the enemy. Their ideology explains everything of importance with no possibility of being wrong.

The question uses Nazis as an example, so I will jump the shark and start with Nazis (this content is an application of the ideas above and not directly from Dr. Haider-Markel). Nothing about the content of the Nazis belief was particularly extreme: eugenics, forced sterilization, social Darwinism, anti-Semitism, and many more of their beliefs were all normal (although obviously not shared by 100% of the world) at their time. Many rational people could buy into any of these positions: a person might support eugenics for an infinite number of reasons. Many Nazis were not extreme in-and-of-themselves - they could be normal people with normal beliefs and entirely functional in society.

The course materials included a Youtube video that I can't locate. It was a man in a city council meeting (in the US) angrily supporting some view. When questioned with some fairly innocuous questions, his face literally turned red and he started shaking from the rage of having his viewpoint questioned. That is an extremist.

Is that it? What about violence?

We often hear about extremism in the news through an association to political violence. Extremists are great candidates for radicalization. Radicalization is social and educational process that makes a person capable of extreme actions to support their views.

A great example of radicalization is the Weather Underground, a terrorist group active in America in the 1960s-1970s. The group was composed of Ivy League students. They didn't have any experience with crime or violence. However, they were led by extremists: people absolutely dedicated to ending the United States' military involvement in Vietnam.

Because of their strong opinions, they could be radicalized. They became ingrained with others with similar opinions and isolated themselves from people who didn't agree (effectively amplifying their world view and conviction). They learned to build bombs, use guns, incite riots, smuggle, and many other things. Eventually they put their plans into action.

So extremism is linked to political violence. It's a kind of conditioning factor.

Is it a left or right issue?

No. There are extremists on both the left and right - if the left and right exist! There is no certain kind of belief that is extreme (see the first section, "What is Extremism?"), so there is no connection between the "left" or "right" and extremism.

Additionally, the terms "left" and "right" are imprecise for any rigorous thinking. They are a kind of social shorthand that is really only useful for talking to people who generally understand the world the same as you.

However, because you asked, here are some examples people generally consider to be far-left extremists:

  • Don't really agree with this, but at least it manages not to be racist, so +1
    – Ne Mo
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 9:24
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    This answer (especially the " They are unwilling to compromise or change their beliefs, even in the face of evidence or reason") seems to fly in the face of most findings of modern cognitive psychology. MOST people are "unwilling to compromise or change their beliefs, even in the face of evidence or reason" - there are specific neural mechanisms that prevent it, which reflect in things like motivated reasoning, backfire effect etc... which apply to vast majority of people, not just "extremists".
    – user4012
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 18:35
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    @user4012 - This is based on the state of political psychology as I learned it. There might be some disconnect between the two literatures, or things might have changed since I was in grad school. Do you have some citations I can take a look at? Commented May 15, 2017 at 18:53
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    @indigochild - I posted a couple of paper links in main Politics.SE chat room "Agora", to stop this thread from becoming a log of research links :)
    – user4012
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 19:48
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – user4012
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 19:49

What is "the right?" The only consistent answer is "a group of people who oppose the left."

For example, consider a law that makes it illegal for a business to kick out a person of a certain race or ethnicity. The majority of the people who society identifies as "the left" support this law because they want to protect that minority. Some libertarians oppose this law, because they see it as infringing on private property and fear its abuse. Business owners might oppose this law, because it makes it harder for them to remove unruly patrons for profit motivated reasons. Traditionalists oppose this law, because they don't think we should change the way things are when things seem to be working just fine. Racists oppose this law because they're racist. This diverse group of people of varying motivations who all oppose the left's law are then dubbed to the "right" on this issue.

Now consider a second law that makes it illegal for people of a specific race to enter a specific type of business. The left opposes this law because it deliberately hurts minorities. Libertarians oppose this law because they see it as infringing on private property rights and free association. Business owners oppose this law because they will lose money, no longer being able to sell to this clientèle. Traditionalists oppose this law because they were raised not to treat people that way, and they think things work just fine right now. Racists support this law because they're racist. The racists now oppose "the left." The racists also now oppose "the right," a bunch of people who oppose the left on lots of other issues. Since the racists fell into the "right" category on other issues, but disagree on this one, some call them "far to the right" or even your term "far right extremists." Naturally, many people who fall in the "right" category are deeply offended to be lumped in the same category as these people and would prefer to simply call this group the more descriptive term "racists." This is just one example, there are other belief systems that could lead one to oppose the "left" on many issues and also diverge into territory that most on the right and left both find distasteful.

Since on this issue, racists oppose both "the left" and what we had previously called "the right" it's very subjective as to who they are closer to on other issues. If we look at the example of radical religious terrorists. They might agree with many on the right when they say the government should be allowed to support religious charities. They might also agree with the left when they say banks should not be allowed to make large profits from money-lending. They disagree with both the right and left on whether infidels should be forced to convert to the religion they support. It's now tricky and subjective to classify them as right wing extremists or left wing extremists.

As you can see, this simplistic left-right dichotomy lumps lots of people together with complicated and very different motivations and belief systems. What is right and left is highly society centric. The policies of the right in the USA are very different from that of Europe. In a majoritarian system, however, its often convenient to lump different sides of an issue as left or right, and so we do.

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    I'm not sure I follow. I would say that anything involving the plotted death of another human naturally falls into the 'extremist' category, though. It's a pretty extreme option--often the most extreme.
    – user1530
    Commented Oct 30, 2015 at 5:11
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    @blip I agree, for almost all modern societies. I'm just interested in the why. I think who qualifies as an extremist is a rather democratic and society specific designation. If you disagree with a vast majority; you're an extremist. Within mainstream politics in America members of ISIS are extremists. Perhaps within ISIS the majority are fine with extra-judicial killings, extremists within that group would then be people with especially thin standards for evidence or who kill for especially mundane crimes like holding hands.
    – lazarusL
    Commented Oct 30, 2015 at 13:40
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    The right in the US have their traditions and belief patterns of the Enlightenment, which by and large the Left has either abandoned or is out and out disdainful and hostile to. If anything, the rise of the Left, which has it's legacy much more closely tied to Hegel and Marx, and especially the New Left, which is the animating but incoherent ideology of the left today, is in reaction to conservatism and to the fall and failure of communism, not the other way around.
    – user9790
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 14:25
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    It's also worth pointing out that the 1964 Civil Rights Act had more Republican than Democrat support in both Houses of Congress and by considerable margin.
    – user9790
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 14:32
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    @KDog I don't think the right can be reduced the ideas of the enlightenment. I think there is a serious religious component to the American right, starting with religious dissenters who escaped persecution by fleeing to America and which now is influenced by Catholic and even Mormon ideas. American conservatism has also been influenced by the conservatism of Edmund Burke, which while harmonious to some enlightenment ideas, is a harsh rebuke against the enlightenment idea that society can be reformed with rational abstraction instead of building on tradition.
    – lazarusL
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 14:49

Historically speaking the "left" / "right" paradigm started in revolutionary France and depended on where they sat in the assembly.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Left%E2%80%93right_politics#History_of_the_terms https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/26029/what-is-the-origin-for-left-being-used-to-indicate-socialist-liberals-and-right

The political ideology of the people who sat on the left were more liberal which at the time tended to mean anti monarchy, pro democracy, pro free trade and in America it meant smaller federal government and stronger states rights. The people on the right were more aristocratic which tended to mean pro monarchy, pro mercantilism, which involved a lot of tariffs on goods. In America it was a little different though because the aristocratic society tended to be the slave owners in the south and they also tended to be anti monarchy but pro federal government, pro standing army, and pro collecting taxes from states. Take this all with a grain of salt though because there were people like Jefferson who was from the south, an aristocratic slave owner but wanted no army, more state power, and was initially hesitant to abandon the monarchy. And Adams was working class, pro strong federal government, anti slaves from New England. So there are different combinations depending on who you are talking about and where they're from.

It gets more complicated because the terms morphed around the WWII era when the leftists started to support more "entitlement" programs like social security, which would mean bigger government and higher taxes, not necessarily tariffs on imports, or support for a monarchy but still more federal spending. The dictators in communist nations tended to take the place of monarchs but that never really caught hold in the US even though there's still that relationship in the minds of many. The right kept the standing army part, and they kinda go back and forth on pro states, pro federal government and pro tariffs depending on whether they're being patriotic or want a tax break. At about that time the parties were switching also so the democrats, the party that took up Jefferson's/Jackson's legacy, who used to be a pro segregation, pro states rights started to become Republican. And vice versa for the Republicans. So the racial stereotype kinda stuck even though both parties were pretty racist up to JFK and LBJ and beyond to some degree. And the association with Hitler is only related to isolationists really. The current right wing in America is pro themselves the same way Hitler was pro Germany but has little else in common with fascism. The current right wing in America wouldn't identify with anti capitalism, doubtful they would all be in favor of tariffs and obviously even though they're both white, the right wing in America isn't going to put German interests above American, or above their own local communities.

So currently the stereotypes are that the left is big government with socially oriented populist strong men running the show. The socialist governments in South America are usually the most current examples. Chavez, Castro, types but also Gadaffi in Libya who run their economy almost entirely from their capital sometimes poorly and put that money back into populist agendas like health care and social security. Far left extremists like Castro and Gadaffi were the heads of military revolutions. You would include Stalin typically in that list maybe not the current Russian leaders though because their economic policies tend to be more about stuffing their own pockets.

On the right the stereotype is typically more racially focused probably because most economies are capitalist markets, and most of the right wing is older so the social programs like social security and medicare don't really offend them. The only other associations with the right wing are racial because with the rise of globalism we have had an influx of different races migrate all around the world and the competition is more difficult for right wing areas to cope with. So even though free trade means open global markets and free trade the migrations are seen as a problem to people who feel displaced by immigrant labor.

TLDR: As people have already said, labels are inherently hypocritical. There is no historically consistent ideology because individuals never fit stereotypes. People mostly care about themselves and they will adopt whatever economic or social theory that gives them the most things. If their ideology is out of favor, they will slander the other side despite obvious contradictions. They may even adopt the opposing beliefs and deny it. A right/left wing extremist is just a person who has some associations with a demonized group of people and is a convenient scapegoat to make the left/right appear favorable for upcoming elections. Everyone is compared to Hitler. It has very little to do with his policies and how he implemented them and more to do with how they offended the person making the accusation.


To give a cynical answer, a "far-right extremist" is anyone who did something bad and can be associated in some way with the politics of opponents of the (equally loosely and uselessly labeled) "left". In other words, it's a loose slur not used in a precise way and lacking any formal definition.

A prime example of that is the nutcase who attacked Gabrielle Giffords in 2007. Left wing sources immediately labeled him "right wing" and aidded by the friends in mass media successfully tarred Republicans and specifically Sarah Palin with it (even putting that into Wikipedia). Of course, anyone who bothered actually looking at the fact would have noted immediately that the attacker held radical left political views, inasmuch as his mess of "views" can even be characterized.

Then of course we have the constant accusations that libertarians (you know, people whose political philosophy is based on non-violence) are "far right extremists". Example from the very top of the left: http://www.politico.com/blogs/ben-smith/2010/01/dccc-cato-institute-is-right-wing-extremist-group-024380.

More examples are easy to Google.

Another, more out-there example, is of course someone calling Julian Assange (the Wikileaks guy) a right wing extremist. (reasoning: he praised Pauls and apparently dared not protesting taxes too much and didn't think that anti-abortion position is pure evil). So apparently simply not vitriolically hating libertarians makes you a far right extremist. Q.E.D.

In reality, "left" and "right" in general are oversimplified concepts with very little relation to actual political dynamics.

To address your later paragraphs:

  • Fascism was in some ways partially offshoot of Socialism (and thus more left than right) - its father Mussolini used to be a Socialist before deciding on a new movement that was neither right nor left. To steal a Mussolini quote from my own earlier answer (quite relevant to your question):

    fascism ... is a movement that would strike "against the backwardness of the right and the destructiveness of the left". - Benito Mussolini in 1919

  • Nazism comes from "Nazi" party, whose official name was "NSDAP" - "National-Socialist German workers party". Details in this answer.

  • Racism as a defining thing of the "right" is again an imagination of the left (Soviet Union was far more racist than the most racist KKK area. Che Guevara was a racist. I can continue this list indefinitely).

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    This is fine as a cynical biased definition. Which I only think reinforces the idea that there is no exact definition.
    – user1530
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 16:30
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    Are you seriously falling for that simple propaganda? rs-wies.hd.schule-bw.de/cms/jupgrade/images/Unterricht/… (That caricature is from 1931! Jacobus Belsen)
    – user45891
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 19:09
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    This answer's sources don't support its conclusions. See e.g. the linked article on Loughner who is clearly neither right- or left-wing, but rather merely a very unstable individual.
    – Era
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 19:27
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    @Era - "A former classmate, Caitie Parker, who attended high school and college with Loughner, described his political views prior to 2007, prior to his personality transformation, as "left wing, quite liberal,"[42] "radical."[43]" - Wiki
    – user4012
    Commented Nov 4, 2016 at 21:13
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    @MoziburUllah - read Che's biography "The Motorcycle Diaries".
    – user4012
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 13:29

I like to think of left versus right as several bar graphs:

Government Democracy <-------------------------> Authoritarianism

Economy Socialism <-------------------------> Capitalism

Now, these words can be used in any position, the point here is that every nation on the planet, past and present, has been at some point on these two bar graphs and can be moving to and fro throughout their history. Democracy can exist using both a Socialist and Capitalist economic system (see the Northern European nations versus the US as a prime example). Authoritarianism also can work with both economic models as seen in history (USSR for the Socialist side, modern day China for the later).

For government, no nation has ever reached complete Democracy (Norway was ranked first with a 9.87 out of 10 in 2017) nor has any reached complete Authoritarianism (North Korea is ranked last with a 1.08, 0 being the lowest score possible). Source: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2018/02/nordic-countries-top-democratic-rankings-2017/

For economy, is China fully Capitalist? Not even, nor is the US all the way to the right of the bar graph, perhaps it was when it was originally founded but one could argue that no state has ever achieved being completely to the left of the right on the economic bar graph. Now some may argue that China is not Capitalist at all since it has a Communist government and this is where the two bar graph system comes into play. China has an Authoritarian government but a Capitalist (for the most part) economic system. Source: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/06/8-facts-about-chinas-economy/

So if nations can exist at any point on either bar at any point in time, what constitutes left versus right? For that, we need to look at a third bar graph which I label idology and the two main ideologies we need to discuss are Communism and Fascism (Nazism is considered to be Fascist also) which is detailed here: https://www.diffen.com/difference/Communism_vs_Fascism

Now, if we only look at the first two bars, government and economy, you will note that both Communism and Fascism appear identical. Both are authoritarian politically and both socialist economically, it is only after we add the third bar, ideology, do we see the differences (and why Fascism is considered extreme right wing), here are a few examples:

Ownership Structure

Communist The means of production are commonly-owned, meaning no entity or individual owns productive property. Importance is ascribed to "usership" over "ownership".

Fascist The means of production are nominally privately owned but directed by the State. Private ownership of business is contingent upon submission to the direction and interests of the State.

Social Structure

Communist All class distinctions are eliminated. A society in which everyone is both the owners of the means of production and their own employees.

Fascist Strict class structure believed necessary to prevent chaos (Italian Fascist). All class distinctions are eliminated (German Nazi). Nazism believes in a “superior” race. Italian Fascism was not racist in doctrine originally.

Economic System

Communist The means of production are held in common, negating the concept of ownership in capital goods. Production is organized to provide for human needs directly without any use for money. Communism is predicated upon a condition of material abundance.

Fascist Autarky (national self-sufficiency). Keynesian (mostly). Large public works, deficit spending. Anti trade union and syndicalism. Strongly against international financial markets and usury.


Communist In theory, all members of the state are considered equal to one another.

Fascist Belief in one superior race (Nazism). Belief in a superior nation (Fascism & Nazism). Gender (F & N). Mental or physical handicaps. Mental illness. Alcoholics. Homosexuals. Roma. Jews (Nazi). Ideological and political opposition, trade unions (F&N).

View of the world

Communist Communism is an international movement; Communists in one country see themselves in solidarity with Communists in other countries. Communists distrust Nationalistic nations and leaders. Communists strongly distrust "big business."

Fascist Fascists are ultra-nationalists who identify strongly with other Nationalistic nations and leaders. Fascists distrust internationalism and rarely abide by international agreements. Fascists do not believe in the concept of international law.

These ideological differences are what makes Communism a far left ideology and Fascism (or Nazism) a far right ideology. This is also the reason why the two have been such bitter enemies throughout history and have fought many wars with one another. The answer to your question is to look at Fascism (and Nazism) and understand the ideology contained therein and you will understand what "far-right extremism" is rooted in. This also goes for Communism and understanding where "far-left extremism" also has its roots.


While this may seem like an exaggeration, I'll explain why the definition I will present is actually accurate.

A far-right extremist is someone who is willing to take extreme steps to fight any (if not all) ideals espoused by the far left.

The reason for this is that, while what is left is clearly defined, it is not clearly defined what is right. Extreme left is the set of ideas arising from Marxism.

There are many different criticisms of Marxism and there are many directions in which movements, and schools of thought, oppose Marxism.

For example, a theocracy may run a completely socialist society, but it would be opposed to Marxism. So would a society leaning towards hands-off capitalist approach, but which demands a complete separation of church and state. Fascism would also be a right-wing philosophy from the Marxist perspective because it mixes socialism with capitalism economically and leans towards ethnocentric nationalism in opposition to Marxist internationalism.

Regardless of which particular direction of the opposition to Marxism a movement takes, it is the veracity of the opposition that makes it right-leaning or right-wing or an extreme right-wing.

Edit: the ideas above were my own. But I just came across a video by the Harvard professor Steven Pinker. He coined an interesting term for this. He calls it a "left pole". It's meant to be an analogy to the "north pole". When standing on the north pole, any direction from where one happens to be is south. Similarly, any direction from where the left finds itself is a "right wing" direction. Even if these are completely different directions.

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    That seems like a limited way to perceive it, anti-left is not the same thing as pro-right (regardless of how you define those terms).
    – user_42
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 17:39
  • @user_42, I don't think Marxists view it theft. They see it as taking back what was stolen. I am not saying I agree with them, but that's how they would likely view it. And strong property rights is considered a right-wing standing in the US. So is support for law enforcement (which is the prime institution opposing property theft).
    – grovkin
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 19:15
  • I assume you read anti-theft rather than anti-left, but I understand where you are coming from. This answer just shows more evidence for why "right" and "left" are useless labels. Fascism is right-wing compared to Marxism but far left-wing compared to Libertarianism.
    – user_42
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 19:44
  • @user_42, yes, I did misread your comment. But can you give an example of an anti-left group which has not (at some point) been called right-wing? BTW, in response to your second comment, I would disagree as well (sorry). My point is that it's not a scale. It's a number of scales all of which have 1 fixed point. And all who deviate (even if in diff directions) from this fixed point of Marxism (or at least being on the side of Marxists) are branded right-wing. I gave examples of groups which are completely opposed ideologically, but both of which would get branded right-wing.
    – grovkin
    Commented Jun 23, 2018 at 6:07
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    I don't think setting Marxism as the standard from which to compare is a good idea. Marxism and all its derivations is a fairly recent concept. All of history would be considered extreme far right with respect to Marxism or even current standards. I meant only that the left right scale is not useful and I would agree with you that there are many scales/nuances on which people can hold opinions. Having said that, I agree with you that the current media establishment labels everything opposing Marxism as right-wing or a hate group.
    – user_42
    Commented Jun 26, 2018 at 13:52

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