What's left? What's right? Does the distinction mean anything anymore in the current mixed-up ideological stew of irate "populist" Tea Partiers demanding gummint keep its hands off their Medicare and "socialist" preznits bailing out private corporations with billions in public money?
Does anyone know what they're talking about anymore?
I've got to admit, this comment thread shocked me a bit:
Ron Paul is a leftist....
Yes, a thoroughgoing Leftist on matters of foreign policy and military and Patriot Act and using police powers.
It's true that Ron Paul is an isolationist in terms of foreign policy, and against excessive state intrusion into personal privacy, and that he shares these positions with most currently on the left side of the spectrum. But does that make him a leftist? Of course not. But why not? And what does 'left' mean anyway?
The nut of the distinction between left and right comes down to, as wiki puts it: "Those on the Left seek social justice through redistributive social and economic intervention by the state. Those on the Right defend private property and capitalism."
The terms "left" and "right" appeared during the French Revolution of 1789 when members of the National Assembly divided into supporters of the king to the president's right and supporters of the revolution to his left. (The seating may have been influenced by the tradition of the United Kingdom Parliament, where the monarch's ministers sit to the speaker's right, while the opposition sit to his or her left.)...
When the National Assembly was replaced in 1791 by a Legislative Assembly composed of entirely new members the divisions continued. "Innovators" sat on the left, "moderates" gathered in the center, while the "conscientious defenders of the constitution" found themselves sitting on the right, where the defenders of the ancien regime had previously gathered.
The conservative right has defended entrenched prerogatives, privileges and powers; the left has attacked them. The right has been more favorable to the aristocratic position, to the hierarchy of birth or of wealth; the left has fought for the equalization of advantage or of opportunity, for the claims of the less advantaged.
As a social democrat (as opposed to a progressive, social liberal, socialist, or communist, the main categories of those on the left), I'd say that the distinguishing characteristic of what defines a position as 'left' is whether or not it involves using the power of the state to aid, support, defend, promote, etc. the interests of the average person as opposed to privileged groups or persons.
To me it's clear that Ron Paul, for instance, is in no way, shape, or form a leftist, because while he opposes an interventionist foreign policy, he does so because he doesn't believe in the right of government to make such decisions and to draw on the resources of the people in order to intervene around the world. He thinks those resources are most properly left in the hands of private individuals to do with what they will. In other words, he advocates what he does on foreign policy for reasons from the right, not the left. Similarly, he opposes government surveillance, but he does so because he believes it's beyond the legitimate power of government to do so, i.e., for reasons from the right, not the left.
From the left you'd take the position that the government shouldn't be intervening militarily around the world because it takes resources away from the legitimate needs of average people (health care, education, transportation, income assistance, etc.) and gives them to a specific well-connected sector of corporations that produce goods and services (drone missiles, fighter jets, soldiering, etc.) that may benefit a few who directly work in those industries, but don't benefit the broader society. From the left you'd oppose government surveillance because of the fear that the information being gained from it wasn't being sought legitimately but was being used to oppress and control the population, making people fearful that the immense powers of the state would be used to crush rather than benefit them.
I think that those who like The Political Compass, for example, don't think a simple left-right dichotomy works any more are simply confused. This statement from them is very representative of the confusion:
On the standard left-right scale, how do you distinguish leftists like Stalin and Gandhi? It's not sufficient to say that Stalin was simply more left than Gandhi. There are fundamental political differences between them that the old categories on their own can't explain. Similarly, we generally describe social reactionaries as 'right-wingers', yet that leaves left-wing reactionaries like Robert Mugabe and Pol Pot off the hook.
Gandhi helped organize and empower ordinary people, which makes him a figure of the left. Stalin might have talked about empowering the proletariat, but what he actually did was oppress, starve, imprison, and murder millions of ordinary people, and he did it to keep himself and those of his inner circle in power. He can call himself a socialist all he likes, and talk about empowering the left, but to me he was a king, a dictator, a tyrant - in other words, a figure of the right, maintaining and protecting the status quo that benefited him and his inner circle. Robert Mugabe? Pol Pot? Sorry, not leftists. Tyrants and oppressors of ordinary people in order to benefit themselves and the entrenched group they established in power around them, hence figures of the right.
I think a lot of confusion on this question was generated by the changes introduced by the New Left in the 1960s. The New Left produced a lot of interesting and beneficial disruptive ferment, including a revived feminist movement, environmentalism, and so on. But where those newly energized interests conflicted with those of labor, there was a schism. Instead of a clear class analysis of 'us' versus 'them,' with organized labor as the vanguard in the struggle for a more equitable society, issues of culture and personal identity became added to the mix, and ended up splitting the left on cultural and generational lines.
The uprising in Wisconsin, in which labor is being supported by a broad coalition of groups on the left, is one of the most hopeful things I've seen in a long long time that maybe the fracture on the left can be healed and that average people are starting to throw off the right-wing lies they've been fed for a lifetime, and beginning to see what their actual interests are, and who's really fighting for them, and who's not.