Sowell: The Left-Right Dichotomy

From Intellectuals and Society: Revised and Expanded Edition, by Thomas Sowell. pp 98-108:


One of the fertile sources of confusion in discussions of ideological issues is the dichotomy between the political left and the political right. Perhaps the most fundamental difference between the left and the right is that only the former has even a rough definition. What is called “the right” are simply the various and disparate opponents of the left. These opponents of the left may share no particular principle, much less a common agenda, and they can range from free-market libertarians to advocates of monarchy, theocracy, military dictatorship or innumerable other principles, systems and agendas.

To people who take words literally, to speak of “the left” is to assume implicitly that there is some other coherent group which constitutes “the right.” Perhaps it would be less confusing if what we call “the left” would be designated by some other term, perhaps just as X. But the designation as being on the left has at least some historical basis in the views of those deputies who sat on the left side of the president’s chair in France’s Estates General in the eighteenth century. A rough summary of the vision of the political left today is that of collective decision-making through government, directed toward—or at least rationalized by—the goal of reducing economic and social inequalities. There may be moderate or extreme versions of the left vision or agenda but, among those designated as “the right,” the difference between free market libertarians and military juntas is not simply one of degree in pursuing a common vision, because there is no common vision among these and other disparate groups opposed to the left—which is to say, there is no such definable thing as “the right,” though there are various segments of that omnibus category, such as free market advocates, who can be defined.

The heterogeneity of what is called “the right” is not the only problem with the left-right dichotomy. The usual image of the political spectrum among the intelligentsia extends from the Communists on the extreme left to less extreme left-wing radicals, more moderate liberals, centrists, conservatives, hard right-wingers, and ultimately Fascists. Like so much that is believed by the intelligentsia, it is a conclusion without an argument, unless endless repetition can be regarded as an argument. When we turn from such images to specifics, there is remarkably little difference between Communists and Fascists, except for rhetoric, and there is far more in common between Fascists and even the moderate left than between either of them and traditional conservatives in the American sense. A closer look makes this clear.

Communism is socialism with an international focus and totalitarian methods. Benito Mussolini, the founder of Fascism, defined Fascism as national socialism in a state that was totalitarian, a term that he also coined. The same idea was echoed in the name of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in Germany, Hitler’s party, now almost always abbreviated as Nazis, thereby burying its socialist component.

Viewed in retrospect, the most prominent feature of the Nazis—racism in general and anti-Jewish racism in particular—was not inherent in the Fascist vision, but was an obsession of Hitler’s party, not shared by the Fascist government of Mussolini in Italy or that of Franco in Spain. At one time, Jews were in fact over-represented among Fascist leaders in Italy. Only after Mussolini became Hitler’s junior partner in the Axis alliance of the late 1930s were Jews purged from Italy’s Fascist party. And only after Mussolini’s Fascist government in Rome was overthrown in 1943, and was replaced by a rump puppet government that the Nazis set up in northern Italy, were Jews in that part of Italy rounded up and sent off to concentration camps.45 In short, official and explicit government racist ideology and practice distinguished the Nazis from other Fascist movements.

What distinguished Fascist movements in general from Communist movements was that Communists were officially committed to government ownership of the means of production, while Fascists permitted private ownership of the means of production, so long as government directed the private owners’ decisions and limited what profit rates they could receive. Both were totalitarian dictatorships but Communists were officially internationalist while Fascists were officially nationalist. However, Stalin’s proclaimed policy of “socialism in one country” was not very different from the Fascists’ proclaimed policy of national socialism.

When it came to practice, there was even less difference, since the Communist International served the national interests of the Soviet Union, despite whatever internationalist rhetoric it used. The way Communists in other countries, including the United States, reversed their opposition to Western nations’ military defense efforts in World War II, within 24 hours after the Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler’s armies, was only the most dramatic of many examples that could be cited.

As regards Fascists’ supposed restriction of their interests to those within their own respective countries, that was belied by both Hitler’s and Mussolini’s invasions of other countries and by Nazi international networks, operating among Germans living in other countries ranging from Brazil to Australia46—all focused on Germany’s national interest, as distinguished from seeking ideological hegemony or the interests of Germans living in these other countries. Thus the grievances of the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia were pressed during the Munich crisis of 1938 as part of Germany’s national expansion, while Germans living in Italy were told to squelch their grievances, since Mussolini was Hitler’s ally.47

While the Soviet Union proclaimed its internationalism as it set up various officially autonomous nations within its borders, the people who wielded the real power in those nations—often under the official title of “Second Secretary” of the Communist Party in these ostensibly autonomous nations—were typically Russians,48 just as in the days when the czars ruled what was more candidly called the Russian empire.

In short, the notion that Communists and Fascists were at opposite poles ideologically was not true, even in theory, much less in practice. As for similarities and differences between these two totalitarian movements and liberalism, on the one hand, or conservatism on the other, there was far more similarity between these totalitarians’ agendas and those of the left than with the agendas of most conservatives. For example, among the items on the agendas of the Fascists in Italy and/or the Nazis in Germany were (1) government control of wages and hours of work, (2) higher taxes on the wealthy, (3) government-set limits on profits, (4) government care for the elderly, (5) a decreased emphasis on the role of religion and the family in personal or social decisions and (6) government taking on the role of changing the nature of people, usually beginning in early childhood.49 This last and most audacious project has been part of the ideology of the left—both democratic and totalitarian—since at least the eighteenth century, when Condorcet and Godwin advocated it, and it has been advocated by innumerable intellectuals since then,50 as well as being put into practice in various countries, under names ranging from “re-education” to “values clarification.”51

These are of course things opposed by most people who are called “conservatives” in the United States, and they are things much more congenial to the general approach of people who are called “liberals” in the American political context. It should be noted also that neither “liberal” nor “conservative,” as those terms are used in the American context, has much relationship to their original meanings. Milton Friedman, one of the leading American “conservative” intellectuals of his time, advocated radical changes in the country’s school system, in the role of the Federal Reserve System, and in the economy in general. One of his books was titled The Tyranny of the Status Quo. He, like Friedrich Hayek, called himself a “liberal” in the original sense of the word, but that sense has been irretrievably lost in general discussions in the United States, though people with similar views are still called liberals in some other countries.

Despite this, even scholarly studies of intellectuals have referred to Hayek as a defender of the “status quo,” and as one of those whose “defense of the existing state of affairs” has “furnished justifications for the powers that be.”52 Whatever the merits or demerits of Hayek’s ideas, those ideas were far more distant from the status quo than were the ideas of those who criticized him. In general, people such as Hayek, who are referred to in the American context as “conservatives,” have a set of ideas which differ not only in degree, but in kind, from the ideas of many others who are said to be on the right politically. Perhaps if liberals were simply called X and conservatives were called Y there would be less confusion.

Conservatism, in its original sense, has no specific ideological content at all, since everything depends on what one is trying to conserve. In the last days of the Soviet Union, those who were trying to preserve the existing Communist regime were rightly referred to as “conservatives,” though what they were trying to conserve had nothing in common with what was advocated by Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek or William F. Buckley in the United States, much less Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, a leading conservative in the Vatican who subsequently became Pope. Specific individuals with the “conservative” label have specific ideological positions, but there is no commonality of specifics among “conservatives” in different venues.

If we attempt to define the political left by its proclaimed goals, it is clear that very similar goals have been proclaimed by people whom the left repudiates and anathematizes, such as Fascists in general and Nazis in particular. Instead of defining these (and other) groups by their proclaimed goals, we can define them by the specific institutional mechanisms and policies they use or advocate for achieving their goals. More specifically, they can be defined by the institutional mechanisms they seek to establish for making decisions with impacts on society at large. In order to keep the discussion manageable, the vast sweep of possible decision-making mechanisms can be dichotomized into those in which individuals make decisions individually for themselves and those in which decisions are made collectively by surrogates for society at large.

In market economies, for example, consumers and producers make their own decisions individually and the social consequences are determined by the effect of those individual decisions on the way resources are allocated in the economy as a whole, in response to the movements of prices, incomes, and employment—which in turn respond to supply and demand.

While this vision of the economy is often considered to be “conservative” (in the original sense of the word), in the long view of the history of ideas it has been revolutionary. From ancient times to the present, and in highly disparate societies around the world, there have been the most varied systems of thought—both secular and religious—seeking to determine how best the wise and virtuous can influence or direct the masses, in order to create or maintain a happier, more viable or more worthy society. In this context, it was a revolutionary departure when, in eighteenth-century France, the Physiocrats arose to proclaim that, for the economy at least, the best that the reigning authorities could do would be to leave it alone—laissez-faire being the term they coined. To those with this vision, for the authorities to impose economic policies would be to give “a most unnecessary attention,” in Adam Smith’s words,53 to a spontaneous system of interactions that would go better without government intervention—not perfectly, just better.

Variations of this vision of spontaneous order can also be found in other areas, ranging from language to the law. No elites sat down and planned the languages of the world or of any given society. These languages evolved from the systemic interactions of millions of human beings over the generations, in the most varied societies around the world. Linguistic scholars study and codify the rules of language—but after the fact. Young children learn words and usage, intuiting the rules of that usage before they are taught these things explicitly in schools. While it was possible for elites to create languages such as Esperanto, these artificial languages have never caught on in a way that would displace historically evolved languages.

In law, a similar vision was expressed in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ statement that “The life of the law has not been logic: it has been experience.”54 In short, whether in the economy, language, or the law, this vision sees social viability and progress as being due to systemic evolution rather than elite prescription.

Reliance on systemic processes, whether in the economy, the law, or other areas, is based on the constrained vision—the tragic vision—of the severe limitations on any given individual’s knowledge and insight, however knowledgeable or brilliant that individual might be, compared to other individuals. Systemic processes which tap vastly more knowledge and experience from vastly more people, often including traditions evolved from the experiences of successive generations, are deemed more reliable than the intellect of the intellectuals.

By contrast, the vision of the left is one of surrogate decision-making by those presumed to have not only superior knowledge but sufficient knowledge, whether these surrogates are political leaders, experts, judges or others. This is the vision that is common to varying degrees on the political left, whether radical or moderate, and common also to totalitarians, whether Communist or Fascist. A commonality of purpose in society is central to collective decision-making, whether expressed in town-meeting democracy or totalitarian dictatorship or other variations in between. One of the differences between the commonality of purposes in democratic systems of government and totalitarian systems of government is in the range of decisions infused with that commonality of purpose and in the range of decisions reserved for individual decision-making outside the purview of government.

The free market, for example, is a huge exemption from government power. In such a market, there is no commonality of purpose, except among such individuals and organizations as may choose voluntarily to coalesce into groups ranging from bowling leagues to multinational corporations. But even these aggregations typically pursue the interests of their own respective constituents and compete against the interests of other aggregations. Those who advocate this mode of social decision-making do so because they believe that the systemic results of such competition are usually better than a society-wide commonality of purpose imposed by surrogate decision-makers superintending the whole process in the name of “the national interest.”

The totalitarian version of collective surrogate decision-making by government was summarized by Mussolini, who defined “totalitarianism” in the motto: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State.”55 Moreover, the state ultimately meant the political leader of the state, the dictator. Mussolini was known as Il Duce—the leader—before Hitler acquired the same title in German as the Führer.

Democratic versions of collective surrogate decision-making by government choose leaders by votes and tend to leave more areas outside the purview of government. However, the left seldom has any explicit principle by which the boundaries between government and individual decision-making can be determined, so that the natural tendency over time is for the scope of government decision-making to expand, as more and more decisions are taken successively from private hands.

Preferences for collective, surrogate decision-making from the top down are not all that the democratic left has shared with the original Italian Fascists and with the National Socialists (Nazis) of Germany. In addition to political intervention in economic markets, the democratic left shared with the Fascists and the Nazis the underlying assumption of a vast gap in understanding between ordinary people and elites like themselves. Although both the totalitarian left—that is, the Fascists, Communists and Nazis—and the democratic left have widely used in a positive sense such terms as “the people,” “the workers” and “the masses,” these are the ostensible beneficiaries of their policies, but not autonomous decision-makers. Although much rhetoric on both the democratic left and the totalitarian left has long papered over the distinction between ordinary people as beneficiaries and as decision-makers, it has long been clear that decision-making has been seen as something reserved for the anointed in these visions.

Rousseau, for all his emphasis on “the general will,” left the interpretation of that will to elites. He likened the masses of the people to “a stupid, pusillanimous invalid.”56 Godwin and Condorcet, also on the eighteenth century left, expressed similar contempt for the masses.57 Karl Marx said, “The working class is revolutionary or it is nothing”58—in other words, millions of human beings mattered only if they carried out his vision. Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw included the working class among the “detestable” people who “have no right to live.” He added: “I should despair if I did not know that they will all die presently, and that there is no need on earth why they should be replaced by people like themselves.”59 As a young man serving in the U.S. Army during the First World War, Edmund Wilson wrote to a friend: “I should be insincere to make it appear that the deaths of this ‘poor white trash’ of the South and the rest made me feel half so bitter as the mere conscription or enlistment of any of my friends.”60

The totalitarian left has been similarly clear that decision-making power should be confined to a political elite—the “vanguard of the proletariat,” the leader of a “master race,” or whatever the particular phrase that might become the motto of the particular totalitarian system. In Mussolini’s words, “The mass will simply follow and submit.”61

The similarity in underlying assumptions between the various totalitarian movements and the democratic left was openly recognized by leaders of the left themselves in democratic countries during the 1920s, when Mussolini was widely lionized by intellectuals in the Western democracies, and even Hitler had his admirers among prominent intellectuals on the left. It was only as the 1930s unfolded that Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia and Hitler’s violent anti-Semitism at home and military aggression abroad made these totalitarian systems international pariahs that they were repudiated by the left—and were thereafter depicted as being on “the right.”*

During the 1920s, however, radical writer Lincoln Steffens wrote positively about Mussolini’s Fascism as he had more famously written positively about Soviet Communism.62 Nor was he the only prominent American radical or progressive to do so.63 As late as 1932, famed novelist and Fabian socialist H.G. Wells urged students at Oxford to be “liberal fascists” and “enlightened Nazis.”64 Historian Charles Beard was among Mussolini’s apologists in the Western democracies, as was the New Republic magazine.65 The poet Wallace Stevens even justified Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia.66

W.E.B. Du Bois was so intrigued by the Nazi movement in the 1920s that he put swastikas on the covers of a magazine he edited, despite protests from Jews.67 Even though Du Bois was conflicted by the Nazis’ anti-Semitism, he said in the 1930s that creation of the Nazi dictatorship had been “absolutely necessary to get the state in order” in Germany, and in a speech in Harlem in 1937 he declared that “there is today, in some respects, more democracy in Germany than there has been in years past.”68 More revealing, Du Bois saw the Nazis as part of the political left. In 1936, he said, “Germany today is, next to Russia, the greatest exemplar of Marxian socialism in the world.”69

The heterogeneity of those later lumped together as the right has allowed those on the left to dump into that grab-bag category many who espouse some version of the vision of the left, but whose other characteristics make them an embarrassment to be repudiated. Thus the popular 1930s American radio personality Father Coughlin—who was, among other things, an anti-Semite—has been verbally banished to “the right,” even though he advocated so many of the policies that became part of the New Deal that many Congressional Democrats at one time publicly praised him and some progressives urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to make him a Cabinet member.70

During this early period, it was common on the left, as well as elsewhere, to compare as kindred experiments Fascism in Italy, Communism in the Soviet Union and the New Deal in the United States.71 Such comparisons were later as completely rejected as the inclusion of Father Coughlin as a figure of the left was. These arbitrary changes in classifications not only allowed the left to distance themselves from embarrassing individuals and groups, whose underlying assumptions and conclusions bore many similarities to their own, these classification changes also allowed the left to verbally transfer these embarrassments to their political opponents. Moreover, such changes in nomenclature greatly reduced the likelihood that observers would see the negative potential of the ideas and agendas being put forth by the left in its bid for influence or power.

The kinds of concentrations of government power sought by the left may be proclaimed to be in the service of various sorts of lofty goals, but such concentrations of power also offer opportunities for all sorts of abuses, ranging up to mass murder, as Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot demonstrated. These leaders did not have a tragic vision of man, such as that underlying what is called “conservative” thought in America today. It was precisely these dictators’ presumptions of their own vastly greater knowledge and wisdom than that of ordinary people which led to such staggering tragedies for others.

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