Reading this post, A Post-Health Care Realignment? | Cato @ Liberty, and the shifting in priorities as well as the odd alignments of so called left and right wing political groups in the U.S., had me thinking again of the notion of left and right in politics. In the U.S. in particular, there seems to be a shift to the notions of progressives and conservatives, which would be a shift away from the notion of liberals and conservatives. To make it confusing, in Canada we had Liberals (left) and Progressive Conservatives (right) who are now just Conservatives. And of course, from time to time, in any given country, what policies and politics make up left and right shift around.
Given that, it’s worthwhile to go back and look at the origins of the idea of left and right in politics. According to Wikipedia on Left–right politics:
The terms Left and Right have been used to refer to political affiliation since the early part of the French Revolutionary era. They originally referred to the seating arrangements in the various legislative bodies of France, specifically in the French Legislative Assembly of 1791, when the king was still the formal head of state, and the moderate royalist Feuillants sat on the right side of the chamber, while the radical Montagnards sat on the left. This traditional seating arrangement continues to be observed by the Senate and National Assembly of the French Fifth Republic.
Originally, the defining point on the ideological spectrum were the attitudes towards the ancien régime (“old order”). “The Right” thus implied support for aristocratic, royal and clerical interests, while “The Left” implied support for republicanism, secularism and civil liberties. At that time, support for socialism and liberalism were regarded as being on the left. The earlier “left-wing” politicians were advocates of laissez faire capitalism and the “right-wing” politicians opposed it, until the early nineteenth century when anti-capitalism gained favour among the leftists due to the rise of socialism.
However, among the left-wing were not only liberals but also Robespierre, who was a protosocialist, a disciple of Rousseau. When his section of the Jacobin party got the power, left-controlled French National Convention moved to decree numerous economic interventions during the Revolution, including price controls (enforced under penalty of death), forced loans on those with incomes exceeding 1000 livres, and the abolishment of the Paris Stock Exchange and all joint-stock companies.
During the French Revolution, the definition of who was on the left and who on the right shifted greatly within only a few years. Initially, leaders of the Constituent Assembly like Antoine Barnave and Alexandre de Lameth, who supported a very limited monarchy and a unicameral legislature, were seen as being on the left, in opposition to more conservative leaders who hoped for a more British-style constitutional monarchy (the British monarch was a very powerful figure in 18th century British politics, unlike today), and to those who opposed the revolution outright. By the time of the convening of the Legislative Assembly in 1791, their party, now called the Feuillants, had come to be seen as on the right due to its support for any form of monarchy, and for the limited franchise of the 1791 Constitution. By the time of the National Convention only a year later, the semi-liberal Girondins, who had been on the left in the Legislative Assembly due to their support for external war to spread the revolution, and strong dislike for the king, had themselves come to be seen as being on the right due to their ambivalence about the overthrow of the monarchy, their opposition to Louis’s execution, and their dislike for the city of Paris, which had come to see itself as the heart of the Revolution.
Part of the confusion of left-right wing politics in much of the West had to do with the problem with the old order (normally right wing) being associated with progressive politics (left wing), given the amount of change that had been established, especially the New Deal policies of F.D. D.R. Hence, I think this is a reason why people have moved away from those terms. But in a deeper sense, they still hold, for progressive politics are still associated with the masses while conservative politics are still associated with the estates of our current societies. And because of that, I still think the idea of left and right in politics is still worthwhile.