Left, Right, and Center…How These Became Political Descriptions

Kinda Like How You Choose a Seat in the Cafeteria

The National Assembly and Political Thought

You’ve heard the terms before. It’s Thanksgiving. Uncle Larry says something about those less fortunate. Uncle Charlie says, “typical lefty!” Uncle Larry responds by calling Uncle Charlie a Right Wingnut…and there it is. The annual Thanksgiving Day argument.

But what do Uncle Larry and Uncle Charlie mean by these terms? When did directions become political insults?

Well, if you think there’s a history to this…then you might be in Mr. Andoscia’s Class. Lucky you!

It all started with the French Revolution. Actually, just a bit before the French Revolution to be precise. France had some problems in the 1780’s that the King, Louis XVI, was expected to fix. Turns out, Lou was way over his head. And his wife wasn’t much help, either. Let me explain.

Seriously. Have you ever seen a more punchable face?

France was broke. The coffers were dry. The ledgers were bare. There were a couple of reasons for this. One big reason is that the French had spent beaucoup (that’s French for “a lot of”) money on a foreign policy venture. Namely, they spent it on helping the American colonies gain independence from Britain. Problem is, the United States wasn’t really in a position to pay that money back anytime soon. Most notably because there wasn’t yet a United States. At the time, the newly free colonies were nothing more than a confederacy of independent states, none of whom felt all that responsible for paying back the French.

So France had to wait. But they couldn’t wait because they had also suffered a serious drought that hammered their food supply. That, and they pissed off Britain, the most powerful nation on Earth. And Austria and Spain didn’t really like them either. Then there was Prussia. Look, it was mess.

Second problem was that French kings had…well…an expectation of a certain lifestyle. They spent lots of (beaucoup) money on themselves. Especially the Queen, Marie Antoinette. If there were an Amazon.com, you’d never be able to get into Versailles with all the boxes in the way.

Marie Antoinette was a bit extra!

Did I mention that Marie Antoinette was also Austrian…and the French really didn’t like the Austrians?

Well, anyway. For the king, the solution was simple. If you need money, and you are the state, you simply tax the folks who have it. So who was that? Well, there were a few groups. The first group was the Roman Catholic Church. They had beaucoup money!

Problem is, you couldn’t tax the Church because then God would get mad at you, and that’s the last thing you need when you are in debt and facing a drought.

The second group was the nobility, but you needed their support, so you couldn’t tick them off too much. Furthermore, if you taxed the nobility, they would only turn around and tax the people who lived in their lands. They wouldn’t be paying much of the tax at all.

The final group was a bunch of commoners with no real political power. They were known as the Bourgeoisie. They were your merchants and industrialists and investors and they had beaucoup money. And who cares if they got mad? Win/Win. Just tax the bourgeoisie.

Well, it turns out that when folks control your nation’s factors of production and finance markets, they have a little more clout than you thought. The bourgeoisie got really mad. Like, really mad. So the King had to figure out a way to deal with them. He did it by calling a body called the Estates General. See, France was divided up into three Estates. The Church was the First Estate. The Nobility was the Second Estate. The Commoners, including the Bourgeoisie, were the Third Estate.

Problem is, nobody really knew how to do an Estates General. There hadn’t been one for a hundred and seventy five years. I know, right! Traditionally, each Estate had one vote. So here’s how it worked. Someone would propose, “Hey, I say we raise taxes on the Bourgeoisie. All in favor?” First Estate, representing 1% of the population would say “Aye!” Second Estate, representing 2% of the population would say “Aye!” Third Estate, representing everybody else would say, “Hold on…Wait…”

“Two to one, we win!” the First and Second Estates would celebrate. Problem solved…and with such equanimity.

So the Third Estate got a bit testy. They decided that, since they were representing pretty much everyone, they would make the rules themselves. They invited the First and Second Estates to participate, but proceeded to hold their own votes. King said, “What do you think you’re doing? You can’t do that?”

Third Estate said, “Oh yeah. Just try to stop us!”

So the King tried to stop them by locking them out of the chambers when they gathered to vote the next day.

Undaunted, the Third Estate went into a Tennis Court next door, declared themselves the National Assembly and took the Tennis Court Oath to come up with a Constitution for France.

And the King realized he was in trouble.

Here’s where we start to answer the question in the title. Where did Left, Right and Center come from?

Well, when the National Assembly met, they represented a bunch of different interests. Some were what were known as liberals. They wanted to make changes to society to make it more fair and free and just and equal. Some were what we would call radicals. Radicals believed the entire Estate System sucked. The king sucked. The nobility sucked. And all sucky things need to go. Finally, you had your royalists or monarchists. They supported the king and the nobility and liked the Estate System just the way it was, thank you very much.

Well, just like when you walk into the cafeteria on that first day of school, what do you do? You look for your friends and you sit with them. Well, that’s what the representatives of the National Assembly did. They looked for like minded individuals and sat with them and, in doing so, they divided themselves along political ideologies. The most radical sat in the back left hand corner and became known as leftists. Some liberals didn’t so much mind sitting by the radicals, though your more moderates sat closer to the center while your more zealous liberals stretched to the left. Your folks who wanted to keep the monarchy, but limit its power sat in the center right next to the moderate liberals while the die hard King lovers sat to the right. Bam! That’s it. It was pretty much an accident.

The rest, as they say, is history. This chapter of history is called The French Revolution. People heard rumors that the nobility was storing up arms in the Bastille to use against the National Assembly, so the people of Paris stormed the Bastille. The King, miles away at his palace in Versailles said, “I’m staying right here in Versailles where it’s safe.” So the women of Paris figured the King should be in the capitol rather than in his superluxury condo. They marched on Versailles, broke through the palace gates, grabbed the King and dragged his butt back to Paris. Yeah, that happened! As things continued to go downhill, the King tried to escape to Varennes–and didn’t quite make it.

So what does this have to do with Uncle Larry and Uncle Charlie?

So the French Revolution didn’t turn out so well. At first the liberals seemed to do a really good job. They put limits on the King. Came up with the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man (not women…we don’t want to get out of hand). They imparted rights. They created freedom of the press. Then, it was like shaking up the soda can and pulling the tab. Things got wet and sticky in hurry. The radicals started to push their agenda. Overthrew the Estates System. They took many high level offices and a lot of people got mad at them. They started to see conspiracies all around them…not without reason. Then the xenophobia set in. Mass arrests. Public beheadings via the new invention called the Guillotine. You have a reign of terror.

The great radical writer and statesman, Jean-Paul Marat was murdered in his bathtub by the daughter of one of his political opponents. Times were tough!

This period of the French Revolution was called, The Reign of Terror! Imagine that!

A young General Bonaparte protecting the Republic of France

All of the other nations, fearing revolutions in their own countries…and more than a bit concerned that Louis XVI was one of the fellas beheaded. As was his wife, Marie Antoinette. Did I mention she was Austrian, and Austria was offended by her beheading? They decided it was time to move in. France was saved…um…ish by the rise of a brilliant military tactician, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Well, kinda. Napoleon brought the revolution to an end and secured France as a military power. Many of the goals of the Revolution were preserved, but Napoleon became a dictator and, ultimately an emperor crowned by the Pope, who elevated his family and friends to royalty. So much for the republic.

When Napoleon was defeated…uh…the second time (long story), the European powers decided that liberalism was way too dangerous and had to be tempered with tradition and a return to the old values. This became the political ideology we refer to today as conservatism.

A somewhat older Napoleon, destroying the French Republic by being crowned Napoleon I

And conservatives did pretty well in the beginning of the 19th century. They restored the monarchies, redrew the boundaries of Europe and settled in to enjoy a world that was back in order what with the American Revolution and the French Revolution and all this talk about individual liberty and stuff.

Here’s the thing. Liberalism pretty much won by the beginning of the 20th century. Turns out, there’s something to be said about democratic principles and sovereignty of the people, individual rights. With Napoleon’s conquests, many of the rules of the revolution were put into place in conquered lands. People had experience with popular government, at least for a few years. The American Revolution became an inspiration to colonies all over the New World, not the least of which was Haiti, Mexico and South America. For people throughout the world liberalism, based on Renaissance humanist values and Enlightenment principles of reason and science, were pretty popular. These liberal ideas became impossible to stop.

First, was the scientific revolution. By the 19th century, science was coming of age. Most of the rules of modern science were formed during this time. New inventions and innovations were just gushing out of the minds of men using the scientific method. Not the least of which was improved methods by which machine power could be used to help people produce stuff. This became industrialization, and industrialization transformed the world landscape. Think about it. The 19th century started much the same as the 18th and the 17th before it. But the 20th century opened up with railroads and telegraphs and automobiles and airplanes. A germ theory of disease that sparks a revolution in modern medicine. If you were born in 1700 and transported to 1800, you would get along quite well. But if you were born in 1800 and transported to 1900, the world would be a strange and alien place.

The biggest and most successful liberal idea, however, was really hard to beat. Capitalism. You see, the Bourgeoisie, or the middle class, were largely merchants and professionals. They didn’t just disappear because the French Revolution didn’t go well. They stayed around, and they invested in the new sciences that were developing. And they liked this radical new idea that was presented in the late 18th century. That idea was summarized by Adam Smith in his great book The Wealth of Nations. That is, the wealth of a nation is best held by individuals rather than by the king or the landed gentry. If individuals owned the factors of production, they would find the best ways to use these factors of production to benefit them. In doing so, they would maximise benefits for everyone. This is an idea that we call capitalism, and it caught like wildfire.

Pretty soon, capitalists were the central members of society, and with revolution or without revolution, they were changing the rules. Indeed, the 19th century could be seen as a period in which the old nobility became obsolete and the capitalists became ascendant. This played out most dramatically in the United States where the old landed aristocracy, located in the South, were challenged by increasingly powerful industrialists, located in the North. The result was an incomparably bloody Civil War…which the industrialists won. Fortunately, most other countries resolved these differences with less bloodshed. Regardless, by the 20th century, capitalism was the uncontested heavyweight champion economic system.

So, during the 19th century these principles of humanism, reason–which also included concepts like the rule of law and rationalism–and capitalism were pretty much taken for granted by every advanced nation. In nations that were not quite so advanced, they experienced movements that also wanted to participate. It appeared that liberalism was ascendent and there was no stopping it. We were looking at the end of history!

Well, not quite. History has this way of kicking you in the teeth. Liberalism had some issues it needed to answer for. These issues inspired critiques from the political left as well as the political right, and these critiques are, pretty much, the foundations of Uncle Larry’s and Uncle Charlie’s Thanksgiving argument.

From the right, Uncle Charlies argument, is that liberalism, with its emphasis on social change, efficiency, process and science is often destabilizing to cultures and alienating to individuals. Conservatives point out that shared traditions and values are the things that hold societies together. But liberals have no problem with just introducing new ideas that challenge those traditions and values. They are critical of things like national identity and religious belief. They are skeptical of rituals and symbolic performances. They are open to multiculturalism and internationalism that opens the borders (both symbolically and literally) to outside ideas that may not be beneficial to a particular cultural and social order. Without clear boundaries, rules, traditions and an overall consensus on the norms and values of society, society breaks down and becomes a free for all–and you can’t have freedom, justice or equality in a free for all.

So conservatives want to put more emphasis on old school ideas like the traditional family, a common religious adherence, the military, and a cultural preference to self-discipline and personal responsibility. They also advocate for a more strict attention to and respect for the rules of society.

The left, on the other hand, premises most of its critiques of liberalism on the consequences of capitalism. Now, nobody can deny the capitalism is a really, really good way for a nation to generate lots of wealth and to stimulate innovation. By the numbers, it’s the most successful economic innovation in human history with the possible exception of the Neolithic Revolution. Even Karl Marx believed this to be true. But the benefits of capitalism were woefully poorly distributed. On one hand, you had people who became so obnoxiously wealthy under capitalism that they couldn’t possibly spend everything they had–so they bought political access. On the other hand, you had people who were living in extremely wealthy societies, often the people doing most of the actual physical work associated with capitalism, and yet they were destitute, barely surviving.

According to the left critique, if you believe in ideals like humanism and reason, liberal values like freedom and justice and equality, then you cannot accept the disparities found in capitalist systems. After all, people living in poverty are oppressed in ways that are very similar to our most totalitarian systems. And it’s often very difficult to free oneself from poverty.

Now “The Left” is a pretty big umbrella and includes beaucoup ideas for solving this problem. More moderate leftists believe that the negative consequences of capitalism can be mitigated with some political reforms that help to redistribute the wealth better. They don’t want to do away with capitalism, but they do want the wealthy to pay more into the system and use that money to provide better wages and social safety nets and public opportunities to elevate oneself out of poverty. These are your Social Democrats in Europe and Progressives in the United States.

Other leftists are called socialists. They believe that capitalism is inherently abusive and cannot be reformed. It must be done away with completely. Now there are many different kinds of socialism, though Uncle Charlie insists that all socialism means Soviet style drudgery and dictatorship. Socialists disagree with Uncle Charlie. Socialists do agree, however, that the factors of production should not be owned by individuals out to pursue their own profit. Rather, the factors of production should be owned publicly and the benefits from development should be shared by all.

Then there are the anarchists. They extend the narrative a bit. They agree that capitalism is a problem, so anarchists are socialists. But they also point out that the underlying problem is power and how power is distributed according to rules of authority that really don’t make much sense. According to anarchists, any system in which there’s a separation between those who make the rules and those who must obey the rules is an unjust and unsustainable system. For anarchists, all forms of authority or hierarchy, whether it’s in the family, among your peers, in church, in the market place or in government, are illegitimate if they require coercion to sustain. Think about the consequences of that thinking!

Now left wing ideas are not the only ones playing on the so-called slippery slope. As much as leftists want to, more or less, radically change society, there are also those on the right who are equally dedicated to their ideas of traditional values. This right-wing politics seeks to oppose any kind of liberal interventions in the national order. They see any changes to traditional values as dangerous and likely to result in chaos and collapse. Some on the right believe that liberalism has already done enough damage. They think that the only recourse is to go back to the original traditional values that once made the nation great. By doing so, the nation will be made “great again.” To do this, they should get behind a charismatic leader with superior capabilities who will take charge, suppress all of the liberal elements of the society, kick out all of those identified as outsiders undermining the national order, and will restore the erstwhile glories of the nation. These are fascists.

So, Uncle Charlie and Uncle Larry have to be aware that both of them could, in the end, find themselves supporting totalitarianism, or a system of government in which all power is vested in the state. The former Soviet Union, for instance, is an example of a leftist attempt to radically change society that resulted in the rise of a brutal dictatorship. Obviously, fascist Italy and Nazi German are lessons in right-wing extremism resulting from those who wished to restore the Roman Empire, or the glories of some mythical “Aryan” race. Regardless, the end result was the same–incalculable human suffering ending in ruin for both systems.

So there you have it. Everything you wanted to know about Uncle Larry the leftist and Uncle Charlie the Conservative. Bet you didn’t know that this was so involved. Well, this is Mr. Andoscia’s class and the class motto is quod complicatus est–it’s complicated!

The Test!

So here’s the test for you. I have a pool of 200 extra credit points. I will divide this 200 points to everyone who emails me Mr. Andoscia’s Class Motto. If you are the only one to email me the motto, you get all 200 points. If two people email me the motto, each of you gets 100 points. If all thirty people in the class email me, I’ll round up to 7 points apiece. So if you actually read this all the way to the end, do you share this information with your friends? Hmmm. A moral quandry!

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