Navigate to News section

Have ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ Outlived Their Meaning?

And are we now on the eve of the emergence of a new, Fifth International?

Walter Laqueur
January 04, 2018
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

The use of the terms “left” and “right” goes back to the French Revolution, when the Jacobins sat on the left of the National Assembly. This usage continued throughout the next two centuries. But in our age, with the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the emergence of populist parties, this taxonomy no longer fits political realities. Putin’s Russia, for example, can no longer be defined as a left-wing country, and as far as the various populist movements across the world are concerned, they can with equal ease transition to the left or right, even though historically they were associated with the left. So why do we still use this classification? Is it a question of “false consciousness,” or have many contemporaries failed to recognize the important changes that have occurred in our time?

In brief, anyone doubting that there were profound differences between left and right concerning not only the ideology but also the economic and social policy, would have been ridiculed—rightly. As far as the economic policy of the left was concerned, there could be no doubt that it stood for higher taxation rates for the rich and favored economic planning and regulations on businesses. The right favored lower taxes and fewer regulations. It abhorred planning and preferred that the economy shall be governed by the dynamics of the market. Inasmuch as health-care policy is concerned, the left insisted on affordable care, whereas the right believed in the privatization of health services. Similar fundamental differences of opinion could be found in the field of education, and all along the line.

In the 19th century, it would have been unthinkable that parties of the left would have been led by very rich people. In the First International in 1864, Karl Marx stated that the emancipation of the working class could be carried out only by the working class. But seen from the perspective of 2017 it seems that the leaders of movements for popular “emancipation” are often very rich people, even billionaires, from the United States to the Czech Republic.

True, even in the past, it could have been argued that left-wing political parties, supporting an agrarian economy, were not per se socialist as the political systems in which they functioned were often not democratic. Rather, they were authoritarian, and in some cases totalitarian. Nonetheless, their mind-set was not strictly nationalist, but rather sought common ground among the proletariats of all societies. This is quite notable in the very structure of leftist parties. In previous eras, parties of the left were almost always internationalist. Today, however, these new social movements tend to be strongly nationalist. In the case of a new Socialist International, which may or may not be in the offing, almost everything on its agenda would be considered right-wing and reactionary if we were to judge it by the mind-set of past political thinkers and parties of the left.

Indeed, looking at parties that emerged during the Second Social-Democratic International, it would have been inconceivable to include parties that welcomed anti-Semitism. Yet even this is changing. The British Labour Party provides an example of this trend. Its attitude is not just one of opposition to the present government of Israel, but to the very idea of a Jewish state. True, among the forefathers of the Second and Third International there was, above all, Karl Marx, who had some nasty things to say about Jewish history. But neither International would have dreamed of supporting jihadist movements calling for the destruction of the Jewish state and its citizens.

However, if another International were to emerge, it seems likely that it would support fully or in part, the inclusion of parties with precisely such sympathies and positions. Turkey’s Justice and Development Party flirts with many of these ideas, and the party’s leader, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, advances them much like populists elsewhere in the world, by mobilizing the common people to his cause. While Turkey is not a state sponsor of terrorism, Erdogan’s political program makes common cause with the nonviolent portions of extremist groups in the Middle East. The political program of the jihadist movements would have been defined by previous Internationals as far to the right; now, this is changing.

The recent elections in France exemplified the extent to which left and right have changed meanings. The media was mainly preoccupied with Emmanuel Macron and the age difference between him and his wife. As a result, other more important developments escaped their attention. In the weeks before the first round of elections, Jean-Luc Mélenchon (the candidate of the extreme left), coming from nowhere, almost caught up with Macron, minimizing the difference between them to less than 1 percent. Mélenchon, previously part of the French Socialist Party, left to form his own party, which advocated a more hardline, far-left view. It could well have been that the second round would have been between Marine Le Pen and Mélenchon, the representatives of the extreme right and left.

But this categorization would have been misleading. Mélenchon, for all of his rhetoric on historical materialism, finds common cause with Vladimir Putin and is opposed to the European Union. On both of those issues, Mélenchon and Le Pen could have shared the same platform. In some ways, the difference between both candidates was not a left-wing or right-wing mind-set, but the specific flavor of nationalism that characterized their political programs.

Writ large, this is the tragedy of European Socialism. The Socialist Party of Italy was dissolved some 25 years ago, being replaced by a number of small groups of little consequence. In the Dutch elections three months ago, the Socialist Labor Party suffered a crushing defeat. It was overtaken by a Green Party and another “Socialist Party,” which started out as a Maoist group whose attachment to socialist principles is unclear. It is the same story almost everywhere in Europe. And the question as to why it happened has not yet been investigated in satisfactory detail. What is evident is that those belonging to social movements, which in the past would have been Internationalist, are now joining populist movements whose attachments to historical definitions of left and right are, at best, superficial.

So are we now on the eve of the emergence of a new, Fifth International, or have the changing winds of global politics made such a gathering impossible?

The first such body came into being in the 1860s, and it became a milestone in the history of socialism even though it was active only for a few years. It was followed by the Second International, which was a union of social democratic parties. After the Russian Revolution, the Russian Communists founded a Third International, which was dissolved during the Second World War in an attempt by Stalin to make the collaboration of the vested powers less complicated in the fight against Nazi Germany. The Trotskyites have had their own Fourth International, even though the term was not frequently used, and this organization remained weak.

The “radical” movements that have emerged in a number of European countries have certain features and aims in common. They are against the elite in their native countries and they are proposing far-reaching political reforms, which are not, however, necessarily democratic in character. How will these reforms be achieved without creating a new ruling class? This they have not clarified; perhaps they have not even considered this a likely possibility. Perhaps this Fifth International will profess to be right- or left-wing or something impossible to define in previously accepted terms. Some of its potential members are leaning toward carrying out an economic policy that in the past would have been considered left-wing, whereas others are attempting to do the opposite. It can be safely predicted that all these countries oppose much further immigration from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. But whether this is enough for a lasting tie between these countries is more than doubtful.

My own feeling is that if or when a new International emerges, its prospects are less than brilliant. I don’t believe that a Fifth International even consisting of some of the former East European Communist States will endure if indeed they do manage to get together. The differences of interests and ambitions are simply too great. Furthermore, in a period in which nationalism has become much stronger than in the past decades, the prospects for united action seem to be minimal.

In brief, the new Fifth International might emerge, but it will be stillborn.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Walter Laqueur was head of the Institute of Contemporary History and Wiener Library in London and concurrently university professor at Georgetown University.