The 20th Century – Left vs. Right

In The Illusion of Left And Right we saw that in politics the terms “Left” and “Right” originated in the French Revolution of 1789. We also saw that probably the most basic principle that differentiated these political positions was change. Those on the Right wanted to preserve the existing order while those on the Left sought radical change.

Those on the Left in the French Revolution declared the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and in the Reign of Terror quickly set about murdering or imprisoning anyone they thought might disagree with them. The end result was the dictatoship of Napoleon and wars that decimated much of Europe.

Good Intentions

There is an important principle here. Good intentions do not guarantee good results (or as the old saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions!“).

Jumping ahead to the 20th century now we have the Russian Revolution of 1917 which led to the Soviet Union and another bloody mess. In The Illusion of Left And Right we saw the Soviet Union was right up there with Nazi Germany in murdering its own citizens.

No one debates that Communism, Socialism, and the Soviet Union were solidly on the Left. Before World War 2 National Socialism and Fascism were mostly seen as belonging on the Left. This changed radically after the war and discovery of the horrors of the Nazi death camps.

Somehow the Nazis and the Fascists had to be put on the Right so as not to taint the Left with the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau. It is now politically “correct” to see the political spectrum something like this:

One view of the political spectrum

The official name of the Nazi Party in Germany was Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei  (NSDAP) which translated means “National Socialist German Workers’ Party.”

Were the Nazis on the Left or the Right?

Despite having “Socialist” in its official name, detractors will say that the Nazis were not true Socialists. It is true that Hitler murdered some of the more radical Socialists in the Nazi Party who wanted to nationalize industry in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. However this had little to do with Hitler being a fan of Capitalism or the Right. It had everything to do with eliminating any rivals or threats to his absolute authority.

Some will argue that some business leaders in Germany supported Hitler and the Nazi Party before the war. It is true that some business leaders were a significant factor in Hitler’s rise to power. Although that is true, one has to fully understand the motivation of at least some of them. The late Ludwig Von Mises put it this way:

“The fact that the capitalists and entrepreneurs, faced with the alternative of Communism or Nazism, chose the latter, does not require any further explanation. They preferred to live as shop managers under Hitler than to be “liquidated” as “bourgeois” by Stalin. Capitalists don’t like to be killed any more than other people do.”

“Progressive” Attacks on Capitalism Were Key to Hitler’s Success, Ludwig Von Mises

There was no option of “free enterprise” for these owners in Germany at that time. Hitler allowed them the illusion of still owning and running these enterprises so long as they did the bidding of the state. The alternative was to end up in the concentration camps themselves. Many large companies in Germany utilized slave labor during the war and more than a few German businessmen were less than repentant after the war.

The point is not that German businesses were blameless or just victims of the Nazis. The real point is that whatever else one may say about it, it was not an example of free enterprise or a market economy. It was most certainly not what American Conservatives stand for.

No one knows what the Nazis would have done if they had won the war. Would they have kept the same system where titular business owners were kept as “shop managers” (Betriebsfuhrer) or would they have went ahead and nationalized businesses? Like I said, no one knows the answer to that because very fortunately they lost that war.

Communists & Nazis – More Alike Than Different

The Nazis under Hitler and the Soviet Communists under Stalin were very much alike in that both were absolute, totalitarian states run by ruthless dictators. Both murdered millions of their citizens. Neither allowed truly free enterprise or had any real respect for individual rights or private property. The socalled “ownership” of private business could be revoked at any time if it was no longer convenient to the state.

So if the Nazis and the Soviet Communists were both on the Left why did the Nazis try to destroy the Communists? Again the answer should be obvious. It had nothing to do with Nazis being on the Right. It was simply a fight over who would run things. No matter who won you would have a totalitarian state where everyone and everything would be subservient to the state.

There is another obvious reason why the Nazis (and Fascists) were on the Left. Like the Left in the French Revolution they were for radical change. The Nazis were not fans of protecting the existing order of the Weimar Republic which Hitler despised. To Hitler large businesses were just a tool to achieve his goals of power and conquest.

In reality, in the 20th century “Left” vs. “Right” may not have been really useful ways of understanding states like Nazi Germany or even the Soviet Union. It may not even be very useful to understanding our own politics today right here in America in the 21st century. That will the subject we will look at next.

The Illusion of Left And Right

What goes where?

You probably think that politics can be neatly divided into two sides. There is the Left and there is the Right. Everything has to fit in somewhere on that line. You probably think there is some clear and logical principle that will tell you where to put every political persuasion on that line.

A simple political spectrum

A lot of people do see it that way. 

The reality though is that things are not that simple. The reality of human thought and political belief can’t be captured on a single one-dimensional line. There are many dimensions by which we can measure political persuasions. 

Before we look at those other dimensions we need to understand where this one came from. It is a surprisingly simple story.

Left & Right comes from where people sat.

The terms “Left” and “Right” in politics come from where people sat in the French National Assembly leading up to the French Revolution in 1789. Those who supported the rights and privileges of the King, the aristocracy, and the clergy were on the right of the president  (the “Right Wing”). Those who were on the left (the “Left Wing”), angered by those same privileges for the elite sought to establish a more egalitarian society. 

That happened over two centuries ago. So how did that work out? 

It didn’t end well.

Not very well actually. The First Republic dates to 1792. In 1793 they executed King Louis XVI. The dictatorship of the Committee of Public Safety and the Reign of Terror soon followed with some 17,000 public executions. As many as 10,000 died in prison without a trial. After interminable turmoil, Napoleon Bonaparte took control in 1799, and was declared Emperor in 1804. This led to the Napoleonic Wars that finally ended in 1815 with the final defeat of Napoleon.

The French Revolution started out with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. It ended with a bloodbath, dictatorship, and wars that decimated France and Europe. 

In America

But again how does all of that apply to America today? This country has never had a legally established aristocracy. Churches in America have never had the privileges and power once held by the Catholic Church in France. Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution specifically prohibits the granting of titles of nobility by the United States government. The United States Constitution was ratified in 1788, a year before the French Revolution. It has been a model for limited government and respect for individual rights since the ink first dried on it.

No one is arguing that it was perfect, or was perfectly followed in principle. It was a model of an enlightened government regardless of any criticisms of its implementation. It was the ideals in that document that eventually led to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery in the United States. 

Nevertheless, there is a clear principle to be drawn from the French Revolution. That principle can still have some applicability in the politics of the modern world. The principle is about conservation vs. change. The Right seeks to conserve and the Left seeks change. If we are to use this principle consistently then any political movement seeking to change the status quo is on the Left. Those seeking to preserve the existing regime are on the Right. Simple, right?

Neither protecting what is established or changing it into something else has in itself any inherent good or evil. We can only impute moral good or evil when considering what is to be preserved or the changes some wish to make. We also need to examine how likely it is that those goals will actually be achieved in reality. 

The road to hell

We need to consider the old proverb that “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Nowhere is that fact more evident than in the French Revolution and in the Russian Revolution that followed in the 20th century. We have already mentioned the blood bath of the French Revolution. 

The Russian Revolution led to the Soviet Union. Estimates of how many died in the Soviet Communist Gulags vary from several million up to 12 million. Another 7 million victims are credited with state planned famines to collectivize agriculture in the Soviet Union between 1932 and 1933.

We will never know the exact numbers. The Soviet Union was certainly in the same league as Nazi Germany in murdering its own people. The Communists just had different reasons and techniques for murdering them. 

In their own minds many of the Russian revolutionaries, like the French revolutionaries, saw themselves as champions of humanity. The results, however, did not live up to their ideals and that is an important fact to consider. History teaches that good intention more often than not leads to disaster without plans grounded in the reality of human nature.

Up next

In this article, we have seen where the political terms of Left and Right originally came from. In the next article, we will examine the meaning of Left and Right as it evolved in the 20th century