Left, Right, and Nationalism

By Liah Greenfeld

First published in H-Nationalism as Left and Right around (and within) Nationalism, November 2017

The familiar terms of “left” and “right” acquired their political meaning in 1789, at the start of the French Revolution. Let us further unpack this momentous connection.

This pivotal event, which, in many ways, inaugurated the Age of Nationalism, was the first collective expression of national consciousness in France, while France was the first society into which this new spirit was imported from Britain, where it was born. The Revolution was inspired by nationalism and represented an attack on the pre-national form of the social order – ancien régime – and the social consciousness on which it was based. This social consciousness was religious, monarchical, and hierarchical, presupposing the obedience of the secular world to divine authority, differences of fundamental nature between social strata, and corresponding differences in rights between them. In distinction, national consciousness is secular, democratic, and egalitarian, presupposing popular sovereignty and an egalitarian community of identity, inclusive of the entire population of the country. Because England, where this consciousness emerged, called such community “nation,” “nationalism” is the name for the related complex of phenomena.

“Nation” and related terms became common in France in the second half of the 18th century. At the same time, discussions of the proper constitution of society (that it was supposed to be constituted as a nation) and of the nature of a legitimate government (which had to respect popular sovereignty) dramatically increased, with the new terms replacing the traditional vocabulary of political discourse that stressed the royal prerogative and the distinction of ranks. The motto of the Revolution, “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,” symbolized this shift and captured the essence of the new consciousness: the inclusive nature of the community, the fundamental equality of all its members, and the right of every member to participate in its government. Precisely the same republican and secular thinking was reflected in the decision to name the assembly of the Third Estate (i.e., the commoners) “National Assembly.”[1]

In the National Assembly, groups with similar views, or parties, seated themselves apart from the groups with which they differed, and eventually ideological positions became identified with positions in the building of what had been the royal riding academy, in which the assembly met. The radicals, those who believed that all the vestiges of the old, pre-national, order had to be swept aside, became known as the left, the moderates, who thought that some elements of the old order, such as religion or, however redefined, monarchy, were integral to the French nation, and therefore should be kept, as the right. In other words, originally, both those of the left and those of the right were nationalists; they all represented the new force of nationalism, while the terms “left” and “right,” in revolutionary politics, stood for radical and moderate forms of nationalism. Radical nationalists stressed the dignity of the people in general; the left nationalism, therefore, could be called populism.[2]

The radicals wished to destroy the old order, the moderates wanted to preserve parts of it. Having a clear agenda, the radicals acted, while the moderates mostly reacted to their actions. This identified the left with the revolution, and the right with reaction. The left came to represent orientation towards the future, change, progress, and the right – holding on to the past, conservatism. The revolution was inspired by nationalism, the conversion of the French to national consciousness. Because it was a result of a conversion, like in the parallel religious experience, this consciousness appeared to the converts as the only true, natural consciousness. The newness of nationalism thus disappeared from the sight of the participants and they were no longer aware that it shaped the political positions of both the radicals (the left) and the moderates (the right).

Nationalism redefined the good and the just. It now appeared patently unjust, unnatural, and evil, if a social order did not correspond to the way a nation was supposed to be organized – as a sovereign community of fundamentally equal members, an inclusive community of identity. Every relic of such injustice demanded immediate correction. Every action undertaken to promote it was natural and good, while every effort to slow it down unnatural and evil. By the middle of the 19th century such correction was identified with the direction of History: History itself demanded reconstruction of politics and society in accordance with national – i.e., egalitarian and respectful of popular sovereignty, i.e., democratic – consciousness. This transformation of consciousness was reflected in several tropes which frame our thinking until today: all change is progress, desire for change is progressive, progressive is good, clinging to the past is bad, conservative is clinging to the past, reaction to change is bad, conservative is reactionary is bad; the left is progressive, the right is reactionary and conservative; the left follows the direction of history, the right opposes it; the left is good, the right is bad. In politics, “left” is a term of approbation and “right” of opprobrium. At the same time, the specific meanings of “progressive” and “conservative,” of “the direction of history” and “reaction” constantly change and the connection of all modern political agenda with nationalism is hidden from view.

As the idea of the nation was imported from the place of its birth, three types of nationalism appeared, depending, on the one hand, on whether the national community was defined as an association of individuals or as a collective individual, and, on the other hand, on whether membership in the community was believed to be voluntary or biologically determined. Individualistic conceptions of the nation and voluntary membership produced the original, English (later British, American, Australian) individualistic and civic type of nationalism. Collectivistic conceptions of the nation and voluntary membership resulted in the collectivistic and civic type, adopted by France. Most of the nations which were formed after the French Revolution combined the collectivistic definition of the nation with the belief that membership was determined by blood and developed the collectivistic and ethnic type of nationalism. The interpretation of the core values of nationalism – liberty, equality, and fraternity – differed along both axes. Individualistic nationalisms, in general, put the stress on liberty, specifically, the freedom of choice, and interpreted equality as equality of opportunity; collectivistic nationalisms emphasized equality, interpreting it mostly as equality of result. Civic nationalisms, in principle implied that the nation was an open society, while nationalisms of the ethnic type limited fraternity to the born members of the presumably biological, naturally self-enclosed grouping.[3]

Throughout the 19th century, political categories of “left” and “right” were generally inapplicable to individualistic nations. England, the original nation, broke with the past more decisively and much earlier than any other society, and was inherently geared for change and forward-looking, without the need to articulate these national attitudes in elaborate ideologies. It was definitely on the side of progress, but defined progress mostly in economic terms and in terms of science and technology. The modern economy – one oriented to growth, later called “capitalism” – which constantly increased the wealth of the nation was a product of this understanding of progress. In collectivistic nations, by contrast, progress was defined in terms of social justice, the equal share of all the members in the collective pie, however stationary. The orientation to this goal went by the names of “socialism” and “communism,” which were, in effect, radical – i.e., left – forms of collectivistic nationalism. Though fundamentally political, this orientation implied opposition to private property, those who had a lot of it, and the pursuit of profit in the abstract. Thus, socialism became identified with anti-capitalism, making capitalism as an economy and its political correlate, liberalism as the doctrine of individual freedom and equality of opportunity, anti-socialism, and therefore, of the right. This, second, phase in the relationship between left, right, and nationalism was, to a large extent, a product of Marx’s reinterpretation of the struggle between nations for national prestige as the fundamentally economic class struggle between the proletariat, working class (for Marx embodied by Germany), and the moneyed capitalist class, or Capital (represented in his view by France and England).[4]

This Marxist reinterpretation had a particular effect in Russia. The Russian Revolution of 1917, which occupied in the 20th century Western imagination a place similar to that which the French Revolution held in the imagination of the 19th century, was called the Socialist Revolution, and its declared antagonist was Capitalism. The categories of “left” and “right” in this conflict continued to resonate with the intelligentsia in Western Europe, this time traveling to the United States as well. But the inspiration behind the Russian Revolution was, again, nationalism, which the sympathizers from abroad failed to notice. Lenin, in particular, was quite clear that its task was to redeem the honor of the Russian nation, proving that, rather than stuck in deep feudalism, it was the most progressive nation of all.[5] The immediate ancestor of Lenin’s party was the movement of worshippers of the people – Narodniks – “Populists” in English, and the people (narod) in question was the Russian people, which was defined by blood. However, Russia ruled over a huge empire, and it was not in the interest of Russian nationalists to give it up. Therefore, to advance Russia’s national agenda, they had to coopt the left in the numerous non-Russian nations within its imperial dominions. In the country of victorious socialism, nationality (i.e., Russian, Georgian, etc.) defined by blood, as a race, was the most important social category: only nationality, not class or religion, was inscribed in the internal passport of every Soviet citizen. But, ostensibly, the Soviet Union stood for internationalism.

In the next phase in the relationship between left, right, and nationalism, both left and right congregated in socialism and for a while applied to varieties within it. The reason for this was the socialist revolution in Germany. For the triumph of National Socialism was a revolution by definition, presupposing and achieving a radical transformation of the entire social and political order in accordance with an explicit ideological blueprint. The choice of the Jewish people as the enemy of Germany and the systemic violence of its antisemitism apart, there was very little difference between German and Russian nationalisms (both belonged to the collectivistic and ethnic, i.e., racist, type) and, consequently, between their varieties of socialism. Goebbels, in fact, originally considered the sobriquet “National Bolshevism” for the German movement, but it sounded too obviously borrowed. Instead, National Socialists depicted both Bolshevism in the East and Capitalism in the West as Jewish inventions, deployed by the Jews in the interest of achieving world domination.[6]

As, in the eyes of the world, the Soviet Union was the country of the left, the geo-political embodiment of the left vision, the confrontation of the two socialist (i.e., collectivistic nationalist) regimes logically placed both German socialism and nationalism, which in its case was explicitly acknowledged and emphasized (while in the Russian case, it was only implicit and rhetorically concealed) on the right. Still, the very concept of socialism of the right was awkward: it undermined too many political tropes. Thus, it was systematically occluded: its opponents took care never to spell out the acronym “Nazism” and to group the phenomena to which it referred not with socialism but as a variety of Fascism, a contemporary political movement, whose appellation, derived from Latin fasces (Italian fasci) – a word used in Ancient Rome for a ceremonial bundle of rods – in no way disclosed its nature.

Remarkably, in Italy, fasci was originally used for syndicates, political organizations equivalent to guilds or trade unions. Moreover, the founder and acclaimed leader of the Revolutionary Fascist Party (which later became the National Fascist Party of Italy and stood at the helm of Italian Social Republic), Benito Mussolini, before becoming a fascist leader was a prominent Socialist – the editor of the Italian Socialist Party’s newspaper Avanti!. Mussolini broke with the Socialist Party because of its opposition to Italy’s participation in WWI, but he certainly admired Lenin much more than he would ever admire Hitler.[7]

A gulf separated Fascism from Nazism, which reflected the profound difference between Italian and German nationalisms: both were collectivistic (thus tending to Socialism), but Italian nationalism was civic, and German – ethnic (or racist). One of the greatest heroes of WWII, who in occupied Budapest managed to save the lives of some six thousand Jewish children, women, and men, most audaciously spiriting them from Eichmann’s very clutches, was an Italian fascist, Giorgio Perlasca. He accomplished this with the help of the representative of Fascist Spain, Angel Sanz Briz (“the Angel of Budapest”). When asked, long after the war, how come, a fascist, he risked his life to save Jews, he said: “I was neither a fascist nor an anti-fascist, I was an anti-Nazi.”[8]

The word “fascism,” however, conveniently for socialists of the left, concealed all this. The tropes that organize our reality were preserved: Socialism is good, therefore it is of the left; National Socialism is bad and, as such, of the right, therefore it is Fascism and not Socialism.

After WWII the relationship between left, right, and nationalism came full circle, with nationalism identified with resistance to change, conservatism, reaction, hankering for the imaginary good old days, in short, with the right and, therefore, as evil. This time, the United States participated in the transformation, perhaps even led it, rather than observing it from the side, as happened in the earlier phases, and the American political spectrum also came to be characterized in terms of left and right positions. The phase began, after a certain hiatus, during the Cold War.

After the Allied victory, faced by the reality of the Holocaust and embarrassed by the de facto acquiescence of the West to it, Western intelligentsia desperately desired to be on the side of the good. The intelligentsia blamed the acquiescence to the Holocaust on classical liberalism, with its stress on individual freedom, which implied the right to be indifferent to the suffering of others and the right to use one’s strengths to outcompete the weaker, which now appeared woefully inadequate – in fact not that different from fascism itself. At the same time, nationalism as such (not a particular type of nationalism) was associated with brutal primeval instincts and defined as the very opposite of what was progressive and followed the direction of history. For some 40 years, it was banished from discourse (among others, academic) and considered completely irrelevant to the life of nations.[9] History equaled progress and was perceived by the majority of intellectuals as leftward oriented – just as Marx originally predicted – towards inter- and, in effect, trans-nationalism. Paradoxically, inside the United States, this coincided with growing concern with the rights of ethnic and racial minorities and soon other groups under-represented in the elites – women above all – constituted as groups by physical, genetic, characteristics. These groups were presumed to be separate (in this sense, exclusive) inclusive (i.e., cutting through lines of status and class) communities of natural identity, in exact parallel to the way in which exclusive, ethnic nations were imagined in the framework of collectivistic-ethnic nationalisms, such as German and Russian. They all were presumed to be opposed to and suffering under the heel of the privileged or majority group – also naturally (biologically) constituted and representing an inclusive community of identity – of white heterosexual males. (Interestingly, the Jewish people, whose genocidal persecution lay at the root of this concern with the suffering of the oppressed, was associated with the privileged majority.)

The left-leaning intelligentsia’s predilection for transcending the retrograde national loyalties also coexisted with the sympathy for national liberation movements and revolutions in what emerged after the war as the Third World. Viewed as anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism, Third World nationalism, whose standard-bearers were regularly educated in Moscow’s Institute of the Peoples’ Friendship, was Marxist in its inspiration and politically and militarily backed by the USSR. But Marxist nationalists and their supporters were not bothered by the contradiction between Marx’s insistence on the solidarity of the working masses across national borders and their efforts to create inclusive blood-based communities. Class warfare was, in effect, forgotten.

So long as the Cold War lasted and the Soviet Union was seen as a threat, Western public at large, including the political establishment and a considerable portion of the intelligentsia, upheld the values of the so-called “free world” – those of classical liberalism, in which individual freedom was paramount and equality seen as equality of opportunity – and approved of “free market” capitalism in the economy. Socialism remained identified with the oppressive authoritarian (commonly referred to as totalitarian) regime in the Soviet Union, where the individual was deprived of freedom, especially the freedom to think independently and to excel, and equality was equality of result, or “levelling,” and with a controlled economy which kept the population poor. In the USA, however, by the late 1980s, the intelligentsia speaking for the Democratic party embraced the “left” sobriquet. By opposition, this placed the half of the nation identified with the Republican party on the right. One half of the nation was, therefore, by definition, progressive, the other conservative; one was, by definition, good, the other – bad. In the meantime, classical liberalism in which American nationalism originally expressed itself, was redefined as “conservatism,” while “liberalism” acquired the meaning of “multiculturalism” in the sense of the insistence on the equality of group rights, specifically the rights of physically constituted groups. It was articulated by the intelligentsia in the universities and the media and broadcast to the public. The other half of the nation had no benefit of such articulation, as a result of which Republican and “conservative” became associated with “benighted.” The trope “left,” therefore, stood for the good and the enlightened, while the trope “right” aligned with evil and stupid. The end of the Cold War made this transformation of consciousness explicit and cleft the American society into two openly warring sections. Today, close to 50% of college students prefer socialism – though no longer identified with the working class and its struggle – to capitalism, an opinion shared by over 40% in the millennial generation (born between 1981 and 1997) in general.[10]

This loss of confidence and pride in the American way of life greatly contributes to America’s decline as a superpower, which began almost immediately after its so-called victory over the Soviet Union. Both this decline and the outspoken contempt for American (individualistic, classical liberal) values offend those Americans who still identify as Americans above all – the Republican, “conservative,” less educated people in Middle America – and they reassert their national identity. The effect of the end of the Cold War in Western Europe has been similar and was exacerbated by the anemic nature of the European Union – its inability to make British, Dutch, French, and Italian people feel better about themselves (adding to their dignity) and to protect the ways of life to which they and other Europeans have been accustomed.

This is the cause of the rise of nationalism in the West and the reason why this rising nationalism is perceived on the opposing, left-wing, side as right-wing. It is right-wing by definition, because its critics, who regard themselves as on the side of the good, naturally see their opponents as evil. Because these are tropes, the terms “left” and “right” remain evocative and appear sufficient as explanations, however changeable and confusing their actual meanings are. In terms of these actual meanings, today they refer to the very opposite of what they referred to at different times in the past. “Left” – the good, the progressive – originally referred to radical nationalism, the veneration of the common majority of the nation, “populism”. “Right,” in contrast, stood for moderate nationalism, the defense of the freedom to differ, rights of minorities, including elites, and respect for outsiders. Then “left” became identified, as “socialism,” with class struggle and the interests of the leading “proletarian nation” – Russia, while the “right” stood for international, in fact, globalizing, “capitalism.” Later still, “left” became the name for internationalism and defense of universal human rights, and “right” was connected to dividing humanity into groups defined by blood or their (ultimately biological) nature. Today “left” stands for the rights of such biologically defined, exclusive, groups, on the one hand, for economic globalization – international capitalism, on the other; these are the agenda of the educated elites, who define the “right” as “populism” – the position of ignorant, inarticulate working masses, the explicitly defined majority, in turn appealing to national consciousness in an attempt to defend their dignity.

[1] Detailed references to the above may be found in my Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity.

[2] In English, see particularly James H. Billington, Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith, Book I. Also, on mid-19th century, Book II, and on late 19th c. and early 20th c. (Russia and Germany), Book III.

[3] Nationalism, op.cit.; Advanced Introduction to Nationalism, 2016.

[4] Marx, “Introduction to the Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” 1843, and “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844.”

[5] Lenin, in particular “What is to be done?”

[6] See Nazi Ideology Before 1933: A Documentation, Eds and trans. B.M. Lane and L.J. Rupp, 1978.

[7] On Mussolini, the Socialist, see Jacob Talmon, The Myth of the Nation and the Idea of Revolution.

[8] Enrico Deaglio, La Banalita del bene, 2013.

[9] This is the period between the publication of Hans Kohn’s The Idea of Nationalism: a Study in its Origins and Background, 1944, and the 1983 books by Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities) and Ernest Gellner (Nations and Nationalism) that made nationalism a subject for academic discussion again.

[10] Boston Globe Magazine, “The Millennial Issue,” May 24, 2017, “Eight Myths and Five Truths About Millennials.”

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