The term left wing originated with the seating arrangement of the French National Assembly of 1791. The deputies representing the Third Estate, the ordinary people, were seated to the left of the president’s chair on an elevated section called the Mountain, while the nobility, the Second Estate, sat on the right side of the chamber. Between them sat a mass of deputies, known as the Plain, who did not belong to any particular faction.
Originally most members of the French National Assembly seated on the left were moderate reformers who called for a constitutional monarchy and a unicameral legislature for France. On the right sat the delegates who supported the more conservative royalist, aristocratic, and clerical interests. But the Left/Right labels took on new meanings during the course of the French Revolution, which began in 1789. The Left became increasingly radicalized as Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794), Louis Saint-Just (1764–1794), Jean-Paul Marat (1743–1793), and the powerful Jacobin clubs (the most famous political group of the French Revolution) gained influence. Under their sway, King Louis XVI (1754–1793) was executed, a republic was declared in France, and the Reign of Terror (the period of the French Revolution when thousands of people were executed) commenced. Anyone who opposed the monarchy, or ancien régime (old order), was regarded as a member of the Left. Although differing on the political objectives, the Left and the Right shared similar economic views. Both factions supported laissez-faire capitalism and free markets, ideas later espoused solely by the right wing. Some radicals on the far Left, though, held that the revolution’s promise of equality could only be achieved by redistributing wealth and land. Recognizing that genuine equality could not be fully realized without government intervention on behalf of the poor, the Left in European politics generally came to embrace socialism.
Political scientists and historians typically use the Left-Right political spectrum to classify modern political ideologies. At the extreme left end of the Left-Right divide are the communists and revolutionary socialist groups, such as the syndicalists, who historically endorsed the use of armed rebellion for achieving power and totalitarian means for imposing their socialist schemes. Moving toward the left-center of the spectrum are the social democrats, Christian socialists, Fabian socialists, Proudhonists, evolutionary socialists, and various groups associated with trade union movements. These groups believe that socialism can be established through democratic and incremental methods. At the opposite side of the political spectrum are such groups as the fascists, who believe in a centralized autocratic government often headed by a dictatorial leader. The far Right typically favors a corporatist economy and the mobilization of the nation against Marxist internationalism. Often these ideologies were espoused by military dictatorships, such as that of Juan Perón (1895–1974) of Argentina. On the right-center are the royalists or monarchists, followed by other traditional conservatives, such as British politician and orator Edmund Burke (1729–1797). Anarchists and libertarians were and are difficult to position on the Right-Left political continuum, since there are left-wing and right-wing variants of each.
What it means to be a left-winger varies depending on the country, culture, and particular issue. Since the eighteenth century until the latter part of the twentieth century, right- and left-wing ideologies battled mostly over questions of economics and class. The Left sought to equalize wealth and property while the Right defended the propertied interests of the privileged classes. Left-wingers always saw themselves as defenders of the disadvantaged and oppressed against the privileged elite. For them the equality of humankind was both a biological given and a political goal. The afflictions from which people have historically suffered, such as poverty, war, strife, crime, and so on, would be eradicated, they held, as advances toward greater economic, social, racial, and gender equality were made. The Left generally opposed at least in principle the institutionalization of sexual distinctions. Since the natural equality of people is assumed, they blamed the persistence of social and economic inequalities on the maldistribution of wealth and property which fosters in turn the social prejudices that perpetuate and entrench the class system. Left-wingers tended to be social and economic levelers who believed that human nature itself can be transformed and improved through governmental action. People are born good, they held, but their natural goodness is corrupted by the environment. Hence leftists had an enormous faith in the efficacy of their political schemes to perfect human nature. Most social problems, it followed, could be remedied by economic fixes or social engineering. To achieve these ends, left-wing movements advocated central economic planning and nationalization of the economy. They were and are generally hostile to intermediary groups and associations such as local governing authorities, religious institutions, civic organizations, privately owned businesses, and traditional family structures that impede the power of the central government to reconstruct society in a more egalitarian direction.
During the French Revolution the Jacobins violently attacked the Roman Catholic Church and attempted to replace Christianity with the worship of “Reason.” Left-wing ideologies continue today to be generally secular. The separation of church and state is a basic principle to the Left. Some believe that all religious expression should either be strictly limited or suppressed, while more religiously tolerant leftists would argue only that religion should play no part in political discourse.
Beginning in the latter part of twentieth century, moral, cultural, and social issues, such as abortion, gay rights, secularism, feminism, and multiculturalism, rather than economic or class questions, have come to characterize Left-Right political struggles. The Left typically today supports the legalization of gay marriage, extending abortion rights, and opening the national borders to unrestricted immigration. Opponents of these policies are sometimes accused of being hatemongers, homophobes, male chauvinists, and racists. These cultural wars have almost totally replaced the economic class warfare that once dominated Western politics. The central creed of the post-Marxist Left, as historian Paul Gottfried (1943–) argued in his The Strange Death of Marxism: The European Left in the New Millennium (2005), is no longer the elimination of economic classes but the establishment of the therapeutic-managerial state in which all gender, ethnic, racial, and cultural distinctions have been abolished.
The Left in the early twenty-first century would include the European Social Democrat and Green parties, the Labour Party of Great Britain, the much weakened European Communist parties, and the liberal wing of the United States Democratic Party. Left-wing political movements are still strong and active on the South American and African continents. As self-proclaimed Marxist Peoples’ Democracies, the governments of Cuba and North Korea are leftist as well. American neoconservatism, some critics argue, should be considered a movement of the Left rather than the Right since it, like the French Jacobins, gives primacy to the principle of equality and supports global crusades to spread human rights and democracy.
The term left wing is rarely embraced by those who profess beliefs that would place them on the left end of the political spectrum. Rather the preferred label is progressive, which implies a commitment to egalitarianism and a willingness to promote governmental programs to help the poor, disadvantaged, and minorities. In the early 2000s the term was usually employed as a pejorative label by such right-wing political commentators as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter, and Michelle Malkin, who applied it to their ideological adversaries.
SEE ALSO Communalism; Egalitarianism; Fabianism; French Revolution; Jacobinism; Labor Union; Left and Right; Monarchy; Neoconservatism; Progressives; Republicanism; Right Wing; Socialism; Socialism, Christian; Syndicalism; Unions
Gottfried, Paul Edward. 2005. The Strange Death of Marxism: The European Left in the New Millennium. Columbia: University of Missouri Press.
Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Erik von. 1990. Leftism Revisited: From de Sade and Marx to Hitler and Pol Pot. Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway.
W. Wesley McDonald
left wing • n. (the left wing) 1. the liberal, socialist, or radical section of a political party or system. [ORIGIN: with reference to the National Assembly in France (1789–91), where the nobles sat to the president's right and the commons to the left.] 2. the left side of a team on the field in soccer, rugby, and field hockey: his usual position on the left wing. ∎ the left side of an army: the Allied left wing. • adj. liberal, socialist, or radical: left-wing activists. DERIVATIVES: left-wing·er n.