The Illusion of Left And Right

What goes where?

You probably think that politics can be neatly divided into two sides, the Left, the Right, and everything else fits in somewhere between. You probably think there is some clear logical principle that will tell you where to put every political persuasion on a simple line like the one below.

A simple political spectrum

Most Americans do. To put it gently, most people haven’t got a clue on the truly meaningful dimensions of politics. That is what I hope to convince you of. It may take a couple posts to cover all the ground that needs to be covered.

I deliberately left everything off of the line above other than “Left” and “Right” because we need to think about what principle we should use to decide where each political persuasion goes. So what principle do you think we should use?

Traditionally Socialists and Communists have been seen as being on the far Left. Democrats and Liberals were also seen to be on the Left, but just not nearly as far to the Left. Republicans and Conservatives have traditionally constituted the Right, although after World War 2 the Left sought to portray Nazis and Fascists as the extreme Right wing opposite of the Communists on the far Left.

The modern political spectrum as the Left sees it

There are serious problems with the above conception. A skeptical observer might see that the Left puts itself on one side (the side of “right” belief you might say) and simply lumps everyone else as being on the Right (“wrong” belief) where they can be conveniently condemned by association with Nazis, Fascists, White Supremacists and other Deplorables.

That was the game plan of the Soviet Communists after World War 2, to portray themselves as the opposite of the Fascists and the Nazis so none of the stink of the Holocaust, the stink of German concentrations camps like Auschwitz and Dachau would rub off on them. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn however refuted that claim in the The Gulag Archipelago . The Soviet Communists had their own concentration camps and methods of “liquidating” those deemed not fit to live.

In terms of repression and mass murder it is doubtful the victims of Nazism and Communism would quibble over whether their murderers were on the Left or the Right. Death has a finality that transcends politics.

Numbers are not exact but the Nazis in World War 2 have been credited with murdering upwards of 17 million people, 6 million of them being Jews in the Holocaust. What is not often remembered is that the Soviets were also mass murderers on a huge scale. They just used lower tech methods like famines and Gulags and had decades to practice their craft unlike the Nazis who were brought to an abrupt halt in 1945.

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 but the Soviet Communists were certainly in the same league as Nazi Germany in murdering people. They just had different reasons and techniques for murdering them.

The Communists in the Soviet Union and the Fascists in Nazi Germany were both totalitarian dictatorships that committed mass murder for the purposes of ethnic or political cleansing. If one uses principles of repressive, dictatorial government and mass murder then the Nazis, the Fascists, and the Communists all belong on the same side of any imaginable political spectrum, whatever you choose to call it.

In reality the death toll of Communism also has to include Communist China where it is estimated that the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) resulted in tens of millions of deaths. Pol Pot, a Cambodian Communist, killed as much as a quarter of the population of Cambodia in an attempt to create an agrarian Socialist society (1976-1979). These are just some of the better known examples of Communist mass murder and genocide.

So do you still feel comfortable placing Communism on one side, the Left, and Nazism/Fascism on the Right? By what principle? Certainly not on any principle of human rights vs genocide and repressive totalitarian government. On that scale they both have to be on the same side. Under both Communism and Nazism you could literally end up very dead for politically incorrect speech or actions – just like in North Korea today.

Defenders of Communism today will tell you that these Communist regimes weren’t really true Communists. They didn’t really practice a true and pure version of Communism (or Socialism). They don’t seem to question if such practice is really possible without repression. Obviously they think so, but history is not kind to that belief.

The word “Nazi” is a shorthand for National Socialism which was the political party of Adolph Hitler. In German it was the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Workers’ Party). Again defenders of Socialism will tell you that it wasn’t real Socialism. In part they are right, but the part they miss is that given human nature you can’t practice Socialism or Nazism very easily without a powerful government that ultimately arbitrates who gets what, and who lives and who dies. We will talk about that in more detail later.

So where in the heck does this idea that politics can be neatly divided between Left and Right come from in the first place? That is what we will look at next. There is actually a very logical principle involved and there is a context in which it can make sense. It just doesn’t fit the modern narratives of the Left or Right very well.