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Book Review

Left & Right:
The Significance of a Political Distinction

by Norberto Bobbio

Reviewed by:
Mark Cohen

I'm never surprised to hear people on the right argue -- as they have with increasing frequency since the fall of the Berlin Wall -- that the left-right distinction has lost all meaning, that in "democratic capitalism" our species has reached the apex of human evolution, and all that remains is a little tinkering with the details. If you benefit from the status quo, it's very comforting to live in a time when the idea that there's no viable alternative has gained such wide currency.

But I find it dismaying, at best, when people I've worked with, people who call themselves "progressive" or even, in the past, "of the left," argue that we need to lose the old labels, that "we" have more in common with people who identify themselves as conservatives than we think. Aren't we all, they ask, after the same thing: a better world, a decent life? Don't we share the same basic values? If Pat Buchanan is opposed to NAFTA, if David Korten can write a book assailing globalization, doesn't that show there's something going on that cuts across the old, tired ideologies?

In a word, no. I understand the motivations of people making these arguments. They see the success the right -- yes, the right -- has had in the past couple of decades, and the obvious failure of the left. And they figure if you can't beat 'em, and you haven't quite sunk low enough to want to join, say, the Christian Coalition or Focus on the Family, then maybe you can convince people that what you represent is not the "failed" and "tired" ideas of the left (which the right has had such success associating with the obvious failures of the Communist states) but something new, something that offers the best of both worlds. But as a strategy, it's a losing one. And as a position of principle, it's pathetic.

I take it as a sign of hope in this period of apparent triumph for corporate culture, in a time of political debate so debased that critics of the current administration can characterize it as "leftist," and people can take that absurd idea seriously, that Norberto Bobbio's Left and Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction became an unexpected best seller in Italy, and created enough interest to be translated into English in 1996. I take it as an indication that, as hard as the pundits and the politicians try to force it on them, people aren't quite ready to accept the idea that we've reached "the end of history" in global capitalism, that they are still looking for some kind of alternative.

Bobbio -- who, naturally, focuses on the European situation, but whose arguments are relevant to the U.S. -- recognizes the opportunism of those who attempt to deny the distinction he seeks to define. "The left is on the way down," he says, "and the right is on the way up. Now the argument that the old distinction should be put in the attic is mainly being put by groups and movements which claimed to be left-wing when the wind of history appeared to be blowing in their direction."

Bobbio has three primary things in mind in this brief treatise. The first is to refute the notion that the left-right distinction has become a thing of the past. This he does quite easily, as anyone can, who gives more than a moment's thought to politics, by noting how often even those who try the hardest to discredit the distinction fall unconsciously into the use of the terms left and right (or "liberal" and "conservative," which in the American context amount to the same thing). As Bobbio puts it succinctly, "what better proof could there be of the persistence of this dichotomy than the presence, even where there is pluralism, of a left wing which tends to perceive the center as the right wing in disguise and a right wing which tends to perceive the same center as a cover for the left."

Bobbio next sets out to distinguish what he characterizes as the moderate right and left from what he calls the extremists. "The distinction between extremism and moderation," he argues, "does not coincide with the left/right distinction, in that it answers to a fundamental criterion which is entirely different...a left-wing extremist and a right-wing extremist share a rejection of democracy." Bobbio regards this distinction between extremism and moderation as cutting across the left-right antithesis. "The difference between extremism and moderation," he tells us, "mainly concerns method, whereas the antithesis between left and right mainly concerns values."

It's a useful analysis, but probably more so in the European context within which Bobbio conceived it than in the context of the U.S. Here, one can't help but be aware of the way those in the so-called "center" have used the label of "extremism" to narrow the political spectrum, and to discredit not only those who fit Bobbio's definition of extremism, i.e., a rejection of democracy and a tendency toward violence, but anyone who deviates even slightly from the "mainstream" views of corporate culture, even in the most mildly reformist direction (and, of course, that label has historically been applied far more often to those to the left of the "center" than to those on the right).

When it comes to actually defining the distinction between left and right, which he acknowledges are not absolutes but change their meaning over historical time, Bobbio finds the crux of the difference in the idea of equality. For Bobbio, the essence of "the left" is a commitment to treating all people as equals in a social and political sense, while recognizing that this commitment to equality does not mean that everyone is the same; that of "the right," an acceptance of a natural hierarchy among human beings which justifies unequal treatment.

Bobbio goes on to contrast the value of equality with that of freedom, arguing that "neither of the two great ideals can be taken to its ultimate conclusions without implementation of the one restricting the other." Freedom, he states, is "a personal goal, unlike equality, which can only be a social good." Stemming from these assumptions, he argues that the contrast between libertarian and authoritarian attitudes, often used to contrast left and right, does not hold, that there are movements on both the right and left which are authoritarian, and movements on both right and left which are libertarian.

Ultimately, he comes up with a four-part summary of the political spectrum: on the extreme left, movements which are egalitarian and authoritarian; on the "center-left," movements which are egalitarian and libertarian; on the "center-right," movements which are libertarian and inegalitarian; and on the extreme right, movements which anti-liberal and anti-egalitarian.

Bobbio anticipates and responds to criticisms of his criterion of equality as the distinguishing characteristics of the left primarily by arguing that most of the other criteria offered really can be subsumed under the heading of equality. And he explicitly recognizes that "reality is more complex than this schema founded on just two criteria." Nevertheless, this seems to be his bottom line.

Bobbio is clearly not writing from an anarchist perspective. In a footnote he refers to a D. Cofrancesco, who in reviewing the book, "reiterated that the best criterion for distinguishing left and right is in the attitude to power: the right emphasizes that it is unavoidable, while the left condemns its repressive and dehumanizing potential. I cannot accept Cofrancesco's proposal, as such a perception of the left appears to identify it with anarchy, which has traditionally been considered just one of the left-wing movements."

Granted that this reviewer and most readers of this journal will instinctively identify the left perhaps too much with anarchism, nevertheless looking from an anarchist perspective at Bobbio's effort to define a "left" as broadly as possible reveals serious problems with it.

Bobbio is right to recognize that means matters as much as ends. What he fails to realize is how inseparable they are. A "left" willing to "sacrifice" freedom for equality will achieve neither, as the example of the Russian Revolution -- criticized almost from the beginning by anarchists for that separation of ends and means -- demonstrates. In fact, Bobbio's premise that equality and freedom are antithetical, that one is "personal" and the other public, is misguided. As humans are social beings, not the atomized individuals of libertarian fantasy, true freedom can exist only in a cooperative society in which a significant level of equality exists.

This is not to say that the left must be defined so narrowly as to exclude any movement that doesn't share anarchism's opposition to all forms of hierarchy. There is a continuum involved. But to allow the left label to be applied to authoritarian movements, whatever they proclaim their ultimate goal to be, is to indulge -- if not necessarily to indulge in, which, Bobbio, who identifies himself as a man of the left, obviously doesn't intend to do -- right-wing propaganda. A commitment to equality which doesn't include a commitment to full participation by all members of a society in the decisions that affect their lives is no commitment at all. As historical example shows, movements that Bobbio characterizes as egalitarian and authoritarian inevitably result, and sooner rather than later, in a society as authoritarian and hierarchical as that of the "extreme right," even if the inequality in such a society is based on somewhat different criteria.

As I said, a movement needn't share anarchism's opposition to the state, to government or to all forms of hierarchy to be categorized as left. A common sense definition would certainly include various forms of socialism and social democracy and even, as Bobbio notes, a New Deal type of social liberalism. But any meaningful definition of the term must include a commitment to a kind of process, as well as outcome, that involves some measure of democracy, some limits on arbitrary power and some version of popular participation in the political process. Any meaningful definition of the left, even well short of anarchism, must include a commitment not only to equality but to accountability of those who hold the reins of power to the governed. Bobbio may be right when he says the extremes of the political spectrum meet in their rejection of democracy, but his schema is wrong to include any movement that rejects democratic practice on the left of the spectrum.

Despite these criticisms, I found Bobbio's book thoughtful and thought-provoking, and well worth reading.



Left & Right: The Significance of a Political Distinction by Norberto Bobbio. 124 pp. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996.

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