Most long-standing spectra include a right wing and left wing, which originally referred to seating arrangements in the 18th century French parliament. According to the simplest left-right axis, communism and socialism are usually regarded internationally as being on the left, opposite fascism and conservatism on the right. Liberalism can mean different things in different contexts, sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right.
Left/Right is the basic polarity of political temperament, the axis of political antagonism which manifests itself across all shades of politics, all epochs and social movements. Broadly speaking, the left-wing expresses that social force which is the most marginalised by, and has the least commitment to, the status quo and power relations of the existing society, and it responds to this position by being reformist or revolutionary. Meanwhile, the right-wing is by and large committed to reinforcement of, or at least adaptation to, the status quo and its power relations by being conservative or reactionary.
The left-right identification in politics dates from the seating arrangements in the French Chamber of Deputies after the French Revolution of 1789. It is believed that the practice of the conservatives sitting to the right of the Speaker and the radicals to the left had its origins in the old custom by which a host would place their honoured guests to the right at formal gatherings.
It is usually clear in any given political context which is the left and which is the right-wing position on a given question, but political deception aside, sometimes even an objective view of what is right and left is obscure. For example, is it left or right for hospital workers to take pay cuts to provide lower costs of medicine? What about gun-control and citizen participation in maintaining law and order? Furthermore, over time the concrete, day to day meaning of left and right changes. For example, in the earliest days of capitalism only the right-wing of the workers’ movement would look to the state for social support, while the left-wing looked to independent workers’ organisation for social support; during much of the twentieth century however, the idea of the state taking responsibility for everything from workers’ health and education through to economic management was a left-wing position. At the onset of the 21st century, the political forms of the left-right axis are continuing to change.
At first sight it would seem that certain values, such as community or equality, are more valued by the left than the right. However, this is hard to sustain. While the left may support communitarianism against individualism, it may also counterpose class struggle to community, and individual autonomy to moral conformity - it depends on the context. Everybody is for freedom and equality, but these values are subject to different definitions - free trade, free enterprise and free speech may all be right-wing policies, for example, because they are freedoms which consolidate the existing power relations. The left traditionally opposes censorship, but favours government regulation of foodstuffs. The Left generally supports emancipation, but this by no means supporting “freedom" in every instance (e.g. the “freedom” to exploit others).
Exclusion and extremism
Extremism of either the left or the right, manifesting itself in either revolutionary or reactionary forms, is formed from a hard core of the most excluded, the most down-trodden and marginalised layers of society. You can’t have a revolutionary or reactionary movement without people who are extremely oppressed becoming active in overthrowing that repression in either a progressive (left) or retroactive (right) way.
Marxist politics and the left
Marxists unequivocally identify themselves with oppressed people who take up positions on the extreme left in social movements. Marx & Engels supported the Paris Commune, but criticised it for not being thorough enough – since the communards did not smash the state apparatus, tens of thousands were massacred by the French state. The Bolsheviks supported the Petrograd workers who tried to stage a premature revolution in July 1917, and Luxemburg and Liebknecht supported the 1919 German Revolution, even though it too was premature. The object of such support is both to try to move society forward through revolution and to temper the left-wing spontaneity with a scientific consciousness. During the 1920s and onwards, Trotsky criticised the Soviet Union in some cases for "being too far left" (e.g. forced collectivisation) and in most cases, particularly after 1933, for "being too far right" (e.g. popular front policies).
The extreme left wing
Marxism stands on the left-wing of politics in a revolutionary way. Nevertheless, the spontaneity of a mass movement is one thing, and political leadership is another. Marxist political theory had its origins in both a critique of capitalism and the left. “Young” Hegelians, “True Socialists” and Utopian socialists, the left-wing of politics of the 1840s – See The German Ideology); Lenin’s last major work, addressed to the supporters of the Russian Revolution in the West, was entitled “Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder - a critique of the “left-ism” of those who wanted to imitate the Russian Revolution, without paying attention to the specific conditions of their own country. Marxism is scientific socialism; it is not a spontaneous politics. Consequently, while giving voice to the most left-wing forces in society, Marxists have a mind to what basis exists for this or that policy, the reality of the political terrain, and take a critical attitude to left-wing politics. Political leadership is never a question of looking for the most left-wing position on any given problem, but rather, of finding that policy which most strengthens and builds the self-confidence, unity and self-consciousness of the working class as a whole. In capitalist society this invariably involves a struggle with spontaneous left-wing consciousness.
All political parties invariably find their youth, oftentimes side by side with minorities and so many other commonly disenfranchised groups, occupying the left-wing of the party, and this is generally true of workers’ and communist organisations as well. Marxists seek to foster and educate the left-wing to develop a more sober and scientific view of the political terrain, to learn to understand the motivation of other social layers and how to win battles, rather than just fighting valiantly. On the other hand, the trade unionists typically form the right-wing of workers’ parties, and obviously are valued nonetheless for their concern for a sober assessment of the balance of forces before battle is joined.
While Marxism at present stands on the extreme left wing as advocates (in the words of the Communist Manifesto) of the “overthrow of all existing social conditions,” Marxism frequently warns against being too far left – you can’t just take to the streets and begin fighting a revolution when the conditions are not ready, when the working class is not in the streets with you! Even in Socialist society Marxism warns against being too far left – you can’t just go directly into classless society. Cuba, for example, tried to completely do away with money in the first years of the revolution, in a move that was far left. Most Marxists disagreed with this policy, as it turns out correctly, as it outstripped material reality: society was no where near advanced enough to take that bold step forward. Thus, Marxism encourages a thoroughly scientific element in any political position. In times of political retreat, it is not simple; spontaneous left-wing politics may lack a basis in society at large, and pursuit of a left-wing policy for which there is no basis is unwise and irresponsible, while in periods of social upsurge, communists place themselves shoulder-to-shoulder with the left-wing and seek to bring together all the left in their common interests.