What do we mean by left wing and right wing parties, politicians and governments? A key concept in our understanding of 20th century history is the notion of the political spectrum from left to right as a way of characterising politicians, parties and regimes (see the image above). Essentially the difference can be expressed as support for equality (on the left) or support for hierarchy/inequality (on the right). In general terms, the left regard equality as the state of nature and the condition to which we should aspire; the right regard hierarchy (inequality) as the state of nature and the state to which we should aspire. Right-wing governments try to uphold or promote inequality (through the protection or facilitation of an elite group, which might be defined by class, wealth, race, technology or intelligence). Left wing governments are governments whose policies are designed to uphold or to promote equality. Fascism is always to the extreme right and Communism to the extreme left of the scale. That’s the theory, at least, but it doesn’t always work out that way in practice (Communist Russia, for example, was hardly a model of equality).
The issue is complicated by another question – that of whether the politician, party or government prizes Authority (and state protection) or Individual Freedom (at the expense of state protection). Governments on both the Left and the Right side of the spectrum can support more or less Authority/State Control. It makes sense therefore to see the political spectrum as a compass, with Left vs Right plotted along a horizontal axis (East-West), and the spectrum of Authority vs Individual Freedom plotted along a vertical axis (North-South). On this compass, the Nazis would be found on the far right and close to the top of the authority scale (and therefore at the top right hand corner of the compass/graph) because they sought to protect Aryans and liquidate Jews (thus promoting severe inequality) through the power of the SS (authority). The Soviet Union used the KGB to enforce its policies, so belongs in the top left.
British political parties are closer to the centre but perhaps with the Labour party traditionally further to the left than the Conservatives, and since it traditionally favours more state protection/intervention, it would also be higher on the vertical scale than the Conservative Party. In America, Democrats and Republicans are further right than their British counterparts, and generally favour more individual freedom, so would be further to the right and further to the libertarian side of the scale than British parties, but with the Republicans more to the right and to the libertarian south than the Democrats.
To find out where you are on the compass, take one of the following quizzes and print off the results!
Alternatively, try the political compass.
This Political Co-ordinates test is also worth doing – you need to answer a series of questions (36) to find out where you stand (if you didn’t already know). This test configures the north-south scale slightly differently, with Libertarianism (individual freedom) at one end and communitarianism (collectivism) at the other.
Why is it worth doing this? It is about engaging with the past. Doing a test like this will help you become more politically literate and this is useful for understanding the past but also for understanding your position in relation to the past. Also, your political perspectives will inform the way that you view the past.