Category Archives: Right

“Right-Wing” as a Term of Vilification


It is a commonplace of self-styled liberal and left-wing groups to speak of the Israeli government and all its supporters as “right-wing.”  I have shown this before in my posting concerning JStreet, see here.  In this respect JStreet is an altogether typical example of bien pensant opinion.

Offhand, “right wing” appears to be a neutral term of description. But here is the problem.  Neither Netanyahu, nor the Likud party, nor any of their supporters will refer to themselves as “right wing.” What other justification is there then for the usage ? Those who use the epithet presumably wish to convey  that their target is somehow less humane, less humanitarian, than they are themselves.  But a moment’s reflection reveals, given the nature of those who make it,  that this claim is difficult to support.  

Unlike “left wing,” “right wing” is not anything that anyone (generally) calls himself.  While the term “left” or “left wing” features in the names of numerous groups and parties, both in the United States and throughout the world, I could find “right” as a self-appellation in only one case in the post-war period, that of the short-lived German Deutsche Rechtspartei, which was extant from 1946 to 1950, and whose followers soon learned to drop “right wing” and found other labels (conservative, nationalist, etc.) to refer to themselves.  By contrast, there is now a large so-named Left party in Germany, and many groups in Europe as well as the United States proudly proclaim their adherence to “the Left.”

So if (almost) nobody describes himself as “right-wing,”  and since there are no objective criteria that are apparent, where is the justification for using the term ?  The fact is that there is no such justification, or rather there is no justification other than there may be for abusive language in general.

The history of the left-right terminology is generally traced to certain seating arrangements in the French National Assembly of 1789.  Since then, “left” (but not “right”) has been used as a self-description by numerous  Stalinist, socialist, and anarchist groups.  It is true that all such groups thought — and think — of themselves as more enlightened and more humane than anyone else, but their actual practice ranged from the most extreme repression (Stalinism) to the more or less benign social democracy of Scandinavia.

The use of “right-wing” or just “right” as a vituperative was energetically promoted by the Stalinists during the middle of the twentieth century.  The Moscow show trial of 1938 against the old Bolsheviks was branded, by Moscow, as directed against an “Anti-Soviet Bloc of Rights [sic] and Trotskyites.”  The latter are  explained by the Great Stalin himself as follows:   “Contemporary Trotskyism is not a political tendency in the working class, but [rather] an unprincipled, ideal-less band of wreckers, saboteurs, agents, spies, murdereres [sic], a band of accursed enemies of the working class, acting for hire of intelligence organs of foreign governments.”

To sum up:  “right wing” has no descriptive value.  While superficially a neutral term of description, it is, upon examination,  no more than  a term of abuse.

Left Wing, Right Wing in Politics

Few people think that the political spectrum can be usefully depicted as extending from a “Left” to a “Right.” Ever since the Bolsheviks became fatefully different from the Socialists — about 1903 — it has been apparent that what some people still insist on calling the (overall) Left conflates political forces of fundamentally different values.

But there is another aspect of this sloppy “Left vs. Right” usage that is often overlooked. While “Left” is a term that some political forces use as self-description, “Right” is not. English-language dictionaries do not describe the political connotations of political terms, but the great French Robert tells us under “droite” (‘right’) :

Dans le contexte français contemporain, le mot est surtout employé par des adversaires, se disant de gauche; les partis et le public dits de droite (par les autres) se réclamant en général d’autres dénominations.

In today’s French, the word is mostly employed by opponents, who refer to themselves as being of the Left. Parties and public-opinion tendencies that are called right-wing (by others) generally use different self-descriptions.

So it would appear that the whole Left-Right political usage is primarily one of those who like to refer to themselves as being of the Left. Certainly those who are called “Right-wing” (as in such inexcusable phrases as “the Israeli government is a right-wing coalition”) do not themselves use the term. In other words, while “Left” is often used by political groups — for their own political ends — to describe themselves, “Right-wing” is almost always used as a pejorative, as a term of abuse.