The Populist Moment, Chapter 2:
Alain de Benoist
The Erasure of the Left/Right Divide, Part 1
Translated by F. Roger Devlin
Everyone is familiar with Alain’s frequently quoted remark: “When someone asks me if the distinction between parties of the Right and Left, men of the Right and Left, is still meaningful, my first thought is that the man asking the question is certainly not a man of the Left.”[i] Alain wrote that in 1925. He might be surprised to observe that this question which he imagined could only be posed by a man of the Right is today on everyone’s lips.
Natacha Polony recently declared, “When I look at the representatives of the Right, I do not feel myself part of the Right for one second. The same with the Left, where I do not find myself either.” Ever more people are in this situation. In fact, for the past several years all opinion polling agrees in showing that in the eyes of a majority of Frenchmen, the Left/Right divide is increasingly devoid of meaning. In 1980 only 30% thought the concepts of Right and Left were dated and no longer permitted an accurate understanding of the positions of parties and politicians. In March 1981 the figure was 33%; in February 1986, 45%; in March 1988, 48%; in November 1989, 56%;[ii] in 2011, 58%. Three years after that, the figure was 73% — with over 60% saying they had no confidence in either the Left or Right governing the country.[iii]
This development is obviously remarkable, and for three reasons. First, because it displays a tendency which is becoming gradually stronger: whereas in the 1960s 90% of Frenchmen positioned themselves on the Left-Right axis without reservation,[iv] the concepts of Left and Right appear every year more discredited. Secondly, because it has been a rapid development and is even showing a tendency to accelerate. Finally, because it involves all political milieus and all sectors of public opinion: in April 1988, a Sofres poll even allowed us to observe that this conviction regarding the obsoleteness of the Left and Right concepts has made its greatest gains on the Lleft since 1981.[v]
All these figures show clearly that the opposition of Left and Right which has structured the French political landscape for two centuries, which Emmanuel Berl was able to describe in his day as “by far the most vital distinction for most of the French electorate,” and which François Sirinelli described not so long ago as “the great, essential French cleavage,”[vi] is in the process of losing a great part of its significance. The concepts of Left and Right “have essentially lost their structure,” believes polling specialist Jérôme Sainte-Marie, “and moreover, no longer serve to structure elections.”[vii]
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This is all the more surprising — but perhaps all the more revealing as well — because it was in France that the concepts of Left and Right are generally thought to have been born.
In fact, they are traced back to August 28, 1789, the date on which the Estates General, which had been meeting for a month already and was transformed into a Constituent Assembly, opened a debate at Versailles concerning the King’s right of veto.[viii] The question was whether in the reformed monarchical regime then being instituted the King could dispose of a right of decision superior to national sovereignty, i.e. a power with priority over that of the people’s representatives united as a political body for the expression of the law [pour ce qui concerne l’expression de la loi]. To manifest their choices, the partisans of the absolute right of veto, soon joined by those of the suspensive veto, took up their places in the hall (which was not semicircular) to the right of President Jean-Joseph Mounier, while their adversaries, partisans of a constitutional regime reserving legislative power for the assembly, took up their position on the left. The Left/Right distinction was born. It gradually spread all over Europe, then across the world, installing itself durably in the Latin countries, and more according to circumstance in the Germanic and especially Anglo-Saxon countries.
First of all, we note that the cleavage was provoked by a debate on a very particular subject: the King’s prerogatives, which does not correspond to anything existing today. And we note above all that it is of a purely topographical character: In putting themselves “on the right” or “on the left,” the deputies limited themselves to describing a space and nothing more. Being on the right side of the room had not yet become being “Right-wing” [« A droite » ne s’est pas encore transformé en « de droite »] any more than being on the left side of the room meant being “Left-wing.” At most, the two terms etymologically suggested qualities (“rightness” [or uprightness: “droiture”]) or faults (gaucherie [clumsiness]) which were quickly forgotten.[ix]
But this traditional reference to the age of the French Revolution is still misleading, for it was not at that time but much later that the concepts of Left and Right spread through public discourse. They did not form part of it at the time of the revolutions of 1830 or 1848, nor that of the Commune, an age when no socialist described himself as “on the Left” and when only reactionaries, republicans, radicals, “progressive conservatives,” and “progressive liberals” were familiar. During the whole first half of the nineteenth century, it was liberals who formed the heart of the parliamentary “Left.” “To speak of the Left in the eighteenth century, or even in the first three quarters of the nineteenth century,” declares Jacques Julliard, “is to treat of a subject that did not yet exist, or at least which is not apprehended as such by contemporaries.”[x]
It was only in the very last years of the nineteenth century that the dyad Left/Right took on its current meaning and genuinely passed into everyday language, especially at the time of the Dreyfus Affair (1894-99), which witnessed an alliance between socialism and the progressive “Left” out of concern for a “republican defense” against the monarchist, clerical, or nationalist Right.[xi] Passing beyond its purely parliamentary usage, the Left/Right dyad then transformed itself considerably, the “Right” renouncing the idea of monarchical restoration and partly coming under the control of liberals, and the “Left” only constituting itself by discarding whole swathes of the socialist and revolutionary tradition.
The use of the words “Left” and “Right” then spread, especially with the Left Bloc of 1899-1902, which grouped radical “Poincarists”[xii] and radical socialists, then the Left Cartel of 1924 in which the Communists did not participate, which formed four years after the split in the French Section of the Workers’ International (the SFIO) at the Congress of Tours. The appearance of new formations on the Left then displaced the formations that preceded them to the Right or center (this is the “sinistrogyrous movement” Albert Thibaudet spoke of in 1932 in Les idées politiques en France). Thus, the Radical Party, founded in 1901, ended by finding itself in the center of the political landscape, belying its own name (originally, the “radical Left” was the name of the group that sat next to the radicals), while the liberals were themselves displaced to the Right. André Siegfried will say that a modern Right “is always an old Left.” But the Left/Right divide is scarcely mentioned by the first great political scientists, whether Moisei Ostrogorski (1902), Roberto Michels (1911), André Siegfried (1913), or Albert Thibaudet (1927), who do not place it at the center of their analyses at all.
Marc Crapez summarizes the situation as follows:
The concepts of Left and Right are limited to the language of the nineteenth century’s parliamentary topology; they only gradually occupy the ideological and cultural field, becoming polarized, at the beginning of the twentieth century. Only then does the idea appear that there can be men of the Right quite different from people of the Left. The cleavage was probably neither implicit nor latent after 1789. The Third Republic was built in the center, and scarcely witnesses two camps confronting one another in a bipolar contest. Despite advance signs, it is the twentieth century which constructed a dichotomy investing the whole of society.[xiii]
It was from that point that the Left/Right divide was able to become a structural division. It would in fact be a grave error to believe this cleavage never corresponded to anything. In the past it explained many things, and René Rémond was not wrong to write that “for nearly two hundred years, six or seven generations of men, millions of citizens and voters have believed in it as in an objective datum and behaved all their lives in their voting, and in their commitments, as if Left and Right existed.”[xiv] Right and left most certainly did exist, but have not always meant the same thing. They have only existed due to circumstances which have greatly changed, their value (and content) coming exclusively from their socio-historical context.
The first observation one can make in this regard is of a historical character: The three great debates which kept the Left/Right divide in existence for two centuries have today been essentially concluded.
The first of these debates concerned institutions. It clearly began with the Revolution, and for nearly a century would oppose advocates of the Republic, partisans of constitutional monarchy, and those nostalgic for monarchy by divine right. It was at first a debate concerning the Revolution itself, which ended in the Restoration and, with it, the compromise of 1815, which in a sense marks the birth of modern France. Later, beginning with the July monarchy, there followed a debate on the political regime’s definition — republican or monarchic — which ended in 1875 with the establishment of universal suffrage and the definitive installation of the republican regime. From that point on, nearly the whole Right becomes republican, while monarchist movements are gradually driven to the margins of the political spectrum.
The second great debate, beginning in the 1880s, concerns the religious question. It opposed partisans of a “clerical” conception of the social order against advocates of a purely secular vision, naturally picking up where the debate on institutions left off, and was expressed in polemics of a violence which is often forgotten today. For a time, this opposition would even be fully identified with the Left/Right divide and serve as a touchstone for all political life. “In comparison,” writes René Rémond, “every other difference seemed secondary. Whoever observed the commands of the Catholic Church was ipso facto classed on the Right, and the anticlerical man had no need to produce further proofs of his democratic sentiments than his attachment to the Republic.”[xv]
Under the Third Republic, the movement to the Left was also stimulated by Jules Ferry’s school reforms. It was in this climate that the Affair of the Cards unfolded, followed by the Dreyfus Affair (which caused anti-Semitism to pass from Left to Right and instituted the Left/Right cleavage in intellectual circles). This dispute would result in the separation of Church and State in 1905. It would leave profound marks on French political life even as it gradually lost its sharpness with, on the one hand, the rallying of an increasingly large share of the Catholic hierarchy to republican institutions and, on the other, the appearance of a secularized theory of the traditional social order (from Auguste Comte to Hippolyte Taine), a double movement which resulted in a gradual dissociation of the Church from the Counter-Revolution. Later, the extent of religious controversy would continue shrinking, soon to survive only in scholarly quarrels. The “Demo for everybody” protest against homosexual marriage represents it dying echo.
The last debate is obviously that on the “social question,” an expression originally covering all the effects produced by the first Industrial Revolution. Beginning in 1830, when capitalism imposed itself on the economic forms inherited from the past, thus opening the front of a class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat, it became sharper with the development of industrial society, the birth of socialism, and the rise of the workers’ movement. Interrupted for a time during the “sacred union” of the First World War, it returned in strength beginning in 1917. Beginning in 1920, to be on the Left was no longer only a matter of being republican at the political level (since everyone, or nearly so, was republican), nor even secular (since by that time there were Left-wing Catholics); it was to be a socialist or Communist.
The social question above all posed the problem of the State’s role in the regulation of economic activity and the possible redistribution of wealth. Divided between reformists and revolutionaries, the Left was identified with the rejection of the market economy and even of private property, often committed to a planned, centralized economy controlled by the State. Its aim was to assure collective promotion or liberation [la promotion ou l’émancipation collective] by means of economic and social institutions realizing a sort of general contractuality [contractualité générale] through collectivization of the means of production. Moreover, the Left made essentially quantitative and material demands, which amounts to saying that it denounced capitalism’s methods (the exploitation of labor and inequalities in the distribution of wealth) without contesting its central objective (ever higher productivity). Finally, it sought to anchor itself in the class of wage earners, of which the working class was at the center of an attempt to try to forge a political force that might have served as a vehicle for a concrete project of liberation. This statist and productivist project would endure for decades before collapsing in its turn under the combined effects of “real socialism”’s implosion and the exhaustion of the welfare state model, while the working class, itself become increasingly reformist, would gradually lose consciousness of itself as a result of contact with consumerism and mass stockholding.
Thus, as René Rémond also writes, “in a brief time, nearly all the issues on which elections turned, making and unmaking majorities, the issues which nourished debates and gave political life meaning and color, stopped raising passions, lost their sparkle, and even disappeared from the scene.”[xvi] A number of questions that had recently been raised on the subject of great conflict disappeared or ended up being settled by a more consensual approach. “In every era, certain oppositions disappear or lose their importance while others which seemed secondary suddenly come to occupy center stage.”[xvii] But at the same time, the dividing line between Left and Right never ceased fluctuating. Moreover, emphasizes Claude Weil,
none of the great choices, none of the crises which divided French society in the recent course of history (apart, perhaps, from the Popular Front) opposed Left and Right in binary fashion, bloc against bloc. Neither the war over public schooling, nor the Dreyfus Affair, nor the colonial adventure, nor the Occupation, nor the creation of the Fifth Republic, nor May 1968, nor the debate on the death penalty and abortion, nor, more recently, the two referenda on Europe: All, to varying degrees, have divided the two camps, sometimes irremediably.[xviii]
It was in the twentieth century that the Left/Right divide experienced its golden age. Several factors contributed to this. First, the play of forces within legislatures, which rapidly structured themselves around a confrontation between two coalitions or large opposing parties. Then there was the human mind’s spontaneous tendency to reason in binary terms, as if all reality’s complexity could be reduced to a Manichaean schema — a natural enough tendency in a culture shaped by Christian and Cartesian dualism (the distinction between the soul and the mind, subject and object, etc.), which has lost sight of its own principle of identity and the complementarity of contraries. To this we may add the fact that people of the Right generally have no Left-wing culture, just as people of the Left have no Right-wing culture, so that both have a tendency to interpret ideas with which they do not identify as a homogeneous “bloc,” something which does not facilitate an understanding of the subject.
Essentialism, which always amounts to a reification, is never far away under such circumstances. Left and Right then become eternal values; realities per se. Gradually, the Left/Right opposition comes to designate two philosophies, two conceptions of the world, two psychologies, and finally two human types. In the 1960s and ‘70s, André Malraux said ironically that “the Left is no longer on the Left, the Right is no longer on the Right, and the center is no longer in the middle.” But at the same time, under the pretext that “everything is political,” every subject gave rise to an interpretation in terms of Left and Right, including matters of artistic taste, dress, or culinary habits. The necktie is on the Right and jeans on the Left; Peugeots are on the Right, Renault on the Left; adolescence is on the Right, childhood on the Left (unless it is the other way around), and all the rest accordingly.
Defining the man of the Right and the man of the Left thus becomes a sort of party game. Jean Plumyène and Raymond Lassierra actually made a brilliant attempt in this direction.[xix] Before them, Emmanuel Berl had also gone in for the practice: “The man of the Right prefers things and the man of the Left people”; “Michelet loved France like a person, Maurras loved it like a house”; “The man of the Right easily loses his temper; he thinks he is following necessity when he follows his aggressive tendencies”; The man of the Left has more faith in words, the man of the Right in one’s motive for speaking”; “brevity is Right-wing, prolixity Left-wing”; “grammar is Right-wing, linguistics Left-wing.” Amusing formulas, but quite arbitrary. Berl, moreover, also acknowledges his doubts as to whether he “can define the man of the Right and the man of the Left, because they tend to behave the same way in a world tending towards uniformity.”[xx]
Others have busied themselves projecting the Left/Right divide back upon ages preceding its emergence: Corneille was on the Right because he described men as they are, Racine on the Left because he described them as they ought to be; Aristotle is on the Right, Plato on the Left; the quarrel of the Ancients and the Moderns prefigures the opposition between Left and Right, and so on. Were the Armagnacs on the Right? The Ghibellines on the Left? What about the Capulets?
From an almost religious perspective, certain people have even maintained the existence of an “eternal Right,” if only at the price of grotesque extravagances.[xxi] For certain traditionalists, the Left/Right divide has more of a metaphysical than a political character.[xxii] “I lay down as an axiom that the Right has always existed, since it was identical to traditional civilizations’ political organization. The Left, on the other hand, only appeared in modern times,” wrote Jacques Anisson du Perron.[xxiii] Jean Madiran defended precisely the opposite thesis: the Right only appeared in opposition to the Left, so it is nothing more than the anti-Left. Paradoxically, this was also the opinion of the Marxist Constanzo Preve: “The Left is primary, the Right derivative.”[xxv]
There has never been unanimity concerning the Left/Right divide, however. “At certain times, it seems that the principal trait of the man of the Right is to deny that he is one,” said Emmanuel Berl on this subject, agreeing with Alain’s opinion cited above. The fact is that, historically speaking, it is above all on the Right that this cleavage has been rejected as a Procrustean dichotomy, interpreted as an abusive way of privileging certain concepts at the expense of others merely as necessary. Such a mutilation has generally been perceived as being of a sort to split man in two, and especially as a way of artificially fracturing the national community by dividing what should remain indivisible at the risk of forming the basis for a civil war. The general idea here is that the Right is as necessary as the Left. The Left has been less sensible to that argument, firstly because it is rightly suspicious of the mystifying character of the appeal to “national unity,” and then because it has always had a tendency to consider itself self-sufficient by identifying itself symbolically with every possible good cause, something which has often led it to intolerance and withdrawal into itself.
Everyone knows the famous saying of José Ortega y Gasset: “To be on the Left or on the Right is to choose one of the many ways available to man for being an imbecile; both, in effect, are forms of moral hemiplegia.”[xxvi] The same point of view is found in José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Spanish Falange, when he declared on January 9, 1936 that “to be on the Right or Left is always to exclude from the soul half of what it ought to feel.”[xxvii] Bernard Charbonneau said, “We are Maurassians or Marxists in the same way certain insects preserve an eye in the depths of the abyss.”[xxviii] He added:
Discussion of principles between Right and Left is absurd because their values are complementary. . . . Freedom per se or order per se can only be a lie disguising tyranny or chaos. Truth is neither on the Right nor Left, nor does it lie in any happy medium; truth contains all three in a tension between their extreme demands. And if one day they must meet, it will not be in repudiation but by pushing themselves to their own logical conclusions.”[xxix]
And in conclusion: “The day has finally come for us to reject both Right and Left in order to reconcile within ourselves the tension between their fundamental aspirations.”[xxx]
The Left/Right divide has also been disputed by political currents claiming to represent a “third way,” an ambiguous expression generally understood in the Hegelian sense of an overcoming of synthesis (Aufhebung) and a logic of included middle. Between the world wars, this “third way” idea, far from being peculiar to fascism, was frequently found in the constellation of non-conformists, from Robert Aron to Philippe Lamour, from Daniel-Rops and Emmanuel Mounier to Thierry Maulnier and Denis de Rougement, who rejected Communism, fascism, and parliamentary liberalism. It is also found after 1945. As for the slogan “neither Right nor Left,” revived in 1995 by Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was unable to make it stick,[xxxi] and to which one preferred the inclusive form (“both Right and Left”), it goes back at least to the end of the nineteenth century.[xxxii]
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[i] Alain, Eléments d’une doctrine radicale (Paris: Gallimard, 1925).
[ii] Sofre poll in Le Point, November 27, 1989, 62-65.
[iii] Cevipof poll of January 2014.
[iv] Cf. Emeric Deutsch, Denis Lindon, & Pierre Weill, Les Familles politiques aujourd’hui en France (Paris: Minuit, 1966), 13-14.
[v] Cf. Le Nouvel Observateur, April 1, 1988, 42-43.
[vi] Jean-François Sirinelli, interview in Le Magazine littéraire, April 1993.
[vii] Jérôme Sainte-Marie, “Les derniers jours du clivage gauche-droite,” website Figero Vox, May 6, 2016, 5. Cf. also Jérôme Sainte-Marie, “Le système électoral et le changement démocratique,” in Le Débat, September-October 2016, 33-37; and Vincent Tiberj (ed.), Des votes et des voix. De Mitterrande à Hollande (Nîmes: Champ social, 2013).
[viii] The date August 28, 1789 is the most often cited one, but there is no unanimity about it. Some authors refer to August 11, others to the month of September. In their Histoire parlementaire de la Révolution française, published in 1834, Buchez and Roux say the Right-Left polarization appeared before June 27. Two years later, in any case, a text from L’Ami des Patriotes published August 27, 1791 speaks of “right” and “left” within the Constituent Assembly.
[ix] The Left suffers from the pejorative view always taken of the left side or the left hand with respect to the right. With “right” is associated rightness, rectitude (cf. the German richtig), royalty (Latin rex, Sanskrit rājā, Gaulish rix, Old Irish rí, Frankish rīkī; *reg-s is at the origin of he who shows the way to travel with his right hand, rectus having at first meant right like the line traced by the King); with “left” is associated clumsiness, a crooked character. In Latin, dextra indicates the favorable direction; left on the contrary is “sinister” (sinistra). Left, explains Ovid, because studiosa sinistri: natae ad furta sinistrae (zealous for evil; the left hand born for theft).
[x] Jacques Julliard, Les Gauches françaises, 1762-2012. Histoire, politique et imaginaire (Paris: Flammarion, 2012).
[xi] Cf. Marc Crapez, “De quand date le clivage gauche-droite en France ?” in Revue française de science politique, 1998, no. 1, 42-75 (reprinted in Krisis, May 2009, 28-63); Jacques Le Bohec & Christophe Le Digol (eds.), Gauche/droite. Genèse d’un clivage politique (Paris: PUF, 2012); and Marcel Gauchet, “La droite et la gauche,” in Pierre Nora (ed.), Les Lieux de mémoire, vol. 3: Les France. 1 : Conflits et partages (Paris: Gallimard, 1993), which locates the change around 1900.
[xii] Raymond Poincaré (1860-1934), the President of France from 1913 until 1920. (Tr.)
[xiii] Marc Crapez, “De quand date le clivage gauche-droite en France ?”, 61 (Krisis version).
[xiv] René Rémond, Les Droites en France (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1982), 29.
[xv] René Rémond, La politique n’est plus ce qu’elle était (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1993), 26.
[xvi] Ibid., 21.
[xvii] Etienne Schweisguth, Droite-gauche : un clivage dépassé? (Paris: Documentation française, 1994), 3.
[xviii] Claude Weil, Les Droites en France, 1789-2008 (Paris: CNRS Editions, 2008).
[xix] Jean Plumyène & Raymond Lassierra, Le Complexe de gauche (Paris: Flammarion, 1967); and Le Complexe de droite (Paris: Flammarion, 1969).
[xx] Emmanuel Berl, Essais (Paris: Bernard de Fallois, 2007).
[xxi] For Henry de Lesquen, “What makes up the unity of the Right is not agreement on a list of values; it is the rejection of the Left’s nihilism. All values are on the Right because this is the normal state of political thought, while the Left is a pathology, a syndrome of decadence. . . . So the Left is homogeneous and it is the Right which is plural” (“Droite et gauche, un clivage toujours actuel,” online text at the website Club d’Horloge).
[xxii] Boris Dewiel, who is in no sense a traditionalist, has approached the question of the metaphysical roots of the Left/Right dyad in an original way: “Athènes vs Jérusalem. Une source du conflit droite-gauche dans l’histoire des idées,” in Krisis, May 2009, 88-110. The author’s thesis is that the response to the question “Are the rules discovered or created?” is what distinguishes Left from Right.
[xxiii] Jacques Anisson du Perron, Journal d’un homme de droite. Réflexions d’un contre-révolutionnaire 1980-1990 (Puisseaux: Pardès, 1993), 159.
[xxiv] Jean Madiran, La Droite et la gauche (Paris: Nouvelles Editions latines, Paris 1977).
[xxv] “Une discussion pour l’instant interminable. Considérations préliminaires sur la genèse historique passée, sur la fonction systémique présente et les perspectives futures de la dualité politico-religieuse droite/gauche” (Constanzo Prever in Krisis, May 2009, 5).
[xxvi] José Ortega y Gasset, La Révolte des masses, followed by an Eloge des Anglais, translated by Louis Parrot and Bernard Dubant (Paris: Livre-Club du Labyrinthe, 1986), 32. Ortega returned to this idea several times, especially in a 1930 article (“Organización de la decencía nacional”) and a 1931 collection (“Rectificación de la República”), where he describes the terms Right and Left as “sterile slogans” and “expressions from the past.”
[xxvii] José Antonio Primo de Rivera, Escritos y Discursos. Obras completas (1922-1936), vol. 2 (Madrid: Instituto de Estudios políticos, 1976), 895.
[xxviii] Bernard Charbonneau, L’Etat (Paris: Economica, 1987), 152.
[xxix] Ibid., 150-151.
[xxx] Ibid., 158.
[xxxi] Cf. Grégoire Kauffmann, Le nouveau FN. Les vieux habits du populisme (Paris: Seuil, 2016), 67.
[xxxii] Cf. the brochure published in 1885 under the title Ni à droite, ni à gauche! En face! Lettre à Henri Rochefort. The slogan would be revived in 1926 by Georges Valois but, contrary to what Zeev Sternhell states (Ni droite ne gauche. L’idéologie fasciste en France [Brussels: Complexe, 1987], there is nothing specifically fascist about it.