There was a time when Right, Rightist, Right Wing and Conservative were almost synonymous. During almost the same period Left, Leftist and Left Wing and Liberal were also nearly synonymous. Verify this with a quick look at the Noland Quiz. In 1972 the terms left/liberal and right/conservative were almost used interchangeably. If you are trying to maintain the synonymousness (if that is a word) of Right/Conservative and Left/Liberal, let me say, it cannot be done. The distinction between Right and Conservative began in the early 50s, (With the launch of National Review.)and broadened greatly in the early 70s (With the bourgeoning of the conservative evangelical movement.). If you will look closely at these times in history, you will see the points of when the two concepts began to take on different meanings.
The distinction between Left/Liberal began in the mid 60s, and has continued more gradually ever since. If you will look closely at this time in history, you will see the point of distinction, when the two concepts began to take on different meanings.
The bottom line, is we have reached a point where we need to be specific when we mean “Right” and when we mean “Conservative”. Moreover, we need to be specific when we mean “Left” and when we mean “Liberal”.
Left-Wing took on its modern meaning in the US, that of being a movement that held that government was best suited to solve social and economic problems. The meaning evolved partially from Karl Marx, and then wholly from Lenin and Trotsky. Marx always referred to communism as being on the left. Let me remind you of Marx‘s call for the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat“. Let me also remind you that Lenin’s last major work… was entitled “Left-Wing” Communism…” Encyclopedia of Marxism. “Trotsky criticized the Soviet Union in some cases for being too far left” (Emphasis added) when they “initiated forced collectivization of all farms.” Encyclopedia of Marxism) Please note government nationalizing agriculture is an increase in governmental power.
The left’s connection to liberal occurred in the US around 1920. However, to make that clear we will go back to the late 1800s. when Communism, Marxism and big government were clearly Left. The left in America did not want to be connected in any way to Marx or communism as he had already made some very powerful enemies, so they did not call themselves “leftist”. The names they used to identify their leftist activities in America was “populist” and/or “progressive”.
The Populist party platform of 1896, calling itself the “party of the people”, campaigned for a graduated (progressive) income tax, postal [or national] savings banks be established by the Government, nationalization of the railroads and the telegraph in the interest of the people. These planks came straight out of the Communist Manifesto. See Populist Party Platform 1886 at http://www.iath.virginia.edu/seminar/unit8/popplat.htm
More specifically, the “populist” or “progressive”, clearly leftist, were very busy calling for the government intervention. More specifically, they wanted the government to solve the problems caused by the displacement of farm labor and its migration to the big cities. This displacement was brought on by the increased efficiency of agricultural production.
They failed so completely, that to the voters the Populist/Progressives programs were completely discredited. By the 1920s, the labels “Populist” and “Progressive” had become pejoratives in the political lexicon. Therefore, the “Populist” and “Progressive” needed a new name to identify themselves so they could continue their leftist work of collectivization of the American people. The name they took was “liberal for the first time the terms liberal and left-wing were connected and in time would become almost synonyms.
From that point until the mid 1960s, the terms left wing and liberal became more and more synonymous. These terms used almost interchangeably to describe people who were generally calling for more government, or more accurately that government was best suited to solve social and economic problems.
To quote Murray Rothbard, “The modern American Right got its meaning and its start in the 1930's and 1940's, as a reaction to the New Deal and the Roosevelt Revolution, and specifically as an opposition to the critical increase of statism and state intervention.”(Emphasis added) It was fairly clear that most everyone’s perception Right Wing meant opposition to big government. Among it’s most vocal adherents were John T. Flynn, H.L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, Rose Wilder Lane, and Garet Garret, Frank Chodorov and yes Murray Rothbard himself.
The Winds of Change
Please recall that prior to the mid 1960s, the Liberal/left had applauded and encouraged the growth and expansion of domestic social programs during the Roosevelt era. Additionally, the liberal/left tolerated the militarist expansion of the Truman and Eisenhower era. However, during the mid 1960s to late 1970s, a change was taking place. Even liberals, that had always favored expanding government, were beginning to be concerned with the exponential growth of governmental power. In other words, Liberals began feeling the pinch of expanded government.
At this point, the terms “Liberal” and “left wing” ceased to be synonymous. Liberals abandoned the Left-Wing call for government to solve all problems. On issues like marijuana use, prostitution, censorship and especially the military draft, liberals were decidedly anti-big government.
Conversely, the “conservative” and “right wing” movement was evolving as well, spurred on by two events: William F. Buckley in the early1950s stampeded many Conservative/Right Wingers into calling for more government to oppose communism. Secondly, the burgeoning Conservative fundamental Christian revival of the 1970s, with this growth in numbers and power, conservatives learned that they, could advance their agenda through government, a program that they eagerly adopted, and continue to embrace.
These are the points in time when the terms conservative and right-wing ceased to be synonymous. At that time conservatives were not always anti-big government. They now favored big military, increased FBI and CIA activity to oppose Communism. They favored things like “troops on the border” to stop immigration, laws that made “abortion illegal” and the Presidential use of the “Federal Registry” to stop “partial-birth abortions” and “stem cell research”. All of which are calls for more government.
None of those changes had any effect on the Left/Right Political Spectrum. That much maligned Left/Right spectrum is more important today than at anytime in beleagered history, because it measures the power of government, or the degree to which government makes the decisions for individuals and businesses, or the degree to which individuals and businesses are free to make their own decisions.
It looked like this: (view full screen)
100% government <-------------------------------------------------------------------------------> 0% government.
Left Communism Fascism Socialism -------------------------- England------------ USA----- Anarchy Right
The Soviet Union under Communism, (a totalitarian system) was 100% government. Fulfilling Marx’s call for “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. The State made 100% of the decisions for its citizens and industry. The Soviet Union was therefore, on the far left end of the spectrum, as described by Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.
Anarchy, which literally means “no rule”, would be on the opposite right end of that spectrum. England, with a Monarchy and a Parliament, and a semi-socialist economic system, made a high percentage of the decisions for its citizens, but still less than the 100% of the decisions as in the Soviet Union. England was then, to the right of the Soviet Union, but far from the right end of the spectrum.
This would place the constitutionally limited government of the United States clearly to the right of England and toward the right end of the spectrum but still to the left of anarchy.
Conservatives are Right-Wing when they call for less government, for reducing taxes, reducing foreign aid, corporate and social welfare, for ending farm subsidies, protecting Second Amendment rights, reducing Federal regulations. Etc. However, Conservatives, as you have observed, are Left-Wing when they call for increases in governmental power, more troops on the border, laws making abortion illegal, regulations making partial birth abortion and stem cell research illegal.
Liberals are Left-Wing when they call for more government. However, Liberals are Right-Wing when they call for less government, for reduced penalties for minor drug use, for decriminalizing prostitution and gambling and for relaxed laws governing censorship.
Liberal and Conservative cannot be on a single plane political spectrum because liberals sometimes call for more government and sometimes call for less government. And with Conservatives it is the same, sometimes more sometimes less government. Literally, the bottom line Libertarians are on the Right because they always call for less government.