Hi there, could somebody please point me towards a book or two that explores the evolution of the terms left and right in politics. I'm aware that the French Revolution is my starting point but...

Hi there, could somebody please point me towards a book or two that explores the evolution of the terms left and right in politics. I'm aware that the French Revolution is my starting point but would rather find a book that deals with the subject specifically rather than sift through the masses if I can. Thanks.

Asked on by rhylez

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Jessica Gardner | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

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This is an interesting etymology to look up, and you're correct in that the terms "left" and "right" in politics originated with the French Revolution. I'll give you the citation of the best textbook I found that covers this topic, then explain what that source had to say about the history of these terms:

  • Gauchet, Marcel. "Right and Left". In Pierre Nora, Lawrence D. Kritzman (Eds.), Realms of memory: conflicts and divisions. New York: Columbia University Press, 1997

That book is listed here in Google Books, and the source I found cited Gauchet's entry on the history of the terms as appearing on pages 242-287.

Now, on to Gauchet's explanation. In 1789, during the French Revolution, the French government was split into two groups: those who supported the king and those who were for deposing the monarchy. The first group was seated to the right of the president, while the second was seated to his left. The Baron de Gauville, a nobleman and therefore on the right, explained the reason for this separate seating arrangement (albeit from his biased viewpoint) as follows:

We began to recognize each other: those who were loyal to religion and the king took up positions to the right of the chair so as to avoid the shouts, oaths, and indecencies that enjoyed free rein in the opposing camp.

From there, the terms "left" and "right" became synonymous with the view of each faction, as the press began to refer to them by those collective terms. As time passed and new forms of assembly took hold in France, the trend of conservatives sitting on the right and liberals on the left became more cemented, most likely because new factions wanted to be aligned with their predecessors, like how the "'conscientious defenders of the constitution' found themselves sitting on the right, where the defenders of the Ancien Régime had previously gathered" (Wikipedia).

Eventually in the late 1800s the terms were used in the names for the French political parties, for instance the Republican Left, the Centre Right and the Extreme Left. By the early 1900s the terms spread beyond France when they were used in reference to British politics for the first time.

Another book that discusses the appearance of left and right politics is cited as follows:

  • Knapp, Andrew; Wright, Vincent (2006). The Government and Politics of France (5th ed.). Routledge.

However, Gauchet's entry is the work most concerned with the history of the terms that I could find.

Sources:

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