A Plague on Both Your Houses

How we describe anything has a crucial impact on how we think – and are able to think. Language may allow thought but also provides a straitjacket in which it is confined.

Politics continues routinely to be described and analysed in terms of left and right, over two hundred years after these terms began to come into use based on the seating arrangements in the post 1789 French revolutionary assembly.

The outcome is that for many decades now, the analytical paradigm of academics, journalists and even politicians themselves is along these lines.


Stalin and Hitler are placed at opposite ends of a simple spectrum, as if the regimes they created were fundamentally different – with modern western social democracy in its more socialist and free market variants put somewhere in the middle.

In using the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’, ideas are grouped and sympathies assumed. Name-calling and abuse follow: ‘fascist’, ‘commie’ etc. in a process which generates heat but sheds little light.

In reality, of course, Hitler and Stalin were operating in a virtually identical fashion, from their names and slogans – ‘Socialism in one country’, The National Socialist Workers Party – to their methods: mass arrests, inhuman treatment, work camps to work people to death, torture, elimination of opponents, genocide (in Stalin’s case: over 10 million Ukrainians including the whole class of kulak farmers being deliberately starved to death), combined with aggression and triumphalist militarism. The writings of George Orwell and Arthur Koestler well convey the indistinguishability of the armbands which beat you.

As Hitler pursued his well-known pattern of international aggression after 1936, there is less recognition of the way Stalin manipulated this to similar ends with his invasion of Finland, and his occupation of the Baltic states and eastern Poland under the secret clauses of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. In truth, Poland was less conquered by Germany in 1939 than partitioned by the USSR and Germany echoing what had been done to Poland in the late eighteenth century by Tsarist Russia, Hapsburg Austria and Prussia.

So if the conventional mode of analysis is an intellectually bankrupt anachronism, impeding thought rather than facilitating it, how do we replace it?

An answer lies in the political compass.

It allows Stalin and Hitler to be put where they belong: together! It allows the products of the ’60s, hippies and peaceniks to be separately identified and treated as a group. It allows corporate capitalism to be distinguished from free-market beliefs as they make different assumptions about the size and role of the state. It gives a place for the British Green Party which is sympathetic to the legalisation of drugs and prostitution but opposes the uncontrolled abuse of the environment by large multinationals. It allows UKIP coherently to oppose the EU and want a smaller UK state. Where do you put these on the old left/right spectrum?


The political compass combines an economic axis on a spectrum of the extent of state control and interference in economic affairs, with an axis which provides an index of social freedom for the individual ie of non-economic liberty.


      • the upper right quadrant allows for those who wish a smaller state, lower taxes and high levels of individual choice and freedom
      • the lower right is occupied by those who believe in market capitalism but would continue to restrict individual liberty according to a traditional usually religion-based moral programme: eg: US Republicanism
      • the upper left is the obverse with high levels of individual liberty eg abortion rights, sexual freedom, legal drug-taking but in the context of substantial state economic power and control. Greens fit here.
      • the lower left represents the zenith of state control, most easily exemplified by saying that North Korea is probably the best current example of the extreme bottom left.

It is useful to label the quadrants as follows:


For the political geeks amongst you, it is an amusing opportunity for late-night drunken discussion to work out where you would place particular regimes and politicians but it is actually much more important than that.

Only with a more sophisticated analytical framework along these lines can the myriad complexity of modern multi-party systems begin to be accurately characterised – rather than caricatured in an out-of-date framework that tells you very little that is of any use. Whilst the old model continues in use, it constrains the terms of public debate to anachronistic, meaningless verbiage and abuse more appropriate – and useful – to William Pitt, Robespierre, Gladstone and Keir Hardy than the era of David Cameron, Angel Merkel, and the people who are the genuine sources of real opposition in current British politics, though from very different perspectives, Nigel Farage and Natalie Bennett.


Tony Brown, policy adviser to the EFD (Europe of Freedom & Democracy Group) in the European Parliament.

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