TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

The Disappearance of Left and Right Ideologies in Late Twentieth-Century France

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Johanna Schenner looks at Alain de Benoist’s “The End of the Left-Right Dichotomy: The French Case,” from Telos 102 (Winter 1995).

In his article “The End of the Left-Right Dichotomy: The French Case,” Alain de Benoist points to the gradual disappearance of traditional political ideologies in both socialist and conservative parties. In fact, Sofres Polls support this statement: in March 1981, 33% of the population viewed this delineation as outdated; in February 1986, 45% of the population shared this view; in March 1988, this proportion reached a new record level of 48%; and eventually in November 1989, more than half of the French population deemed this ideological antagonism as obsolete (73).

Investigating the proportion of society that still believes in this ideological separation turns out to be significant for Benoist’s statement: during the decade 1981 to 1991, the proportion of French people supporting the ideological divide decreased by 10%, that is to say from 43% to 33% (74). French class consciousness still amounted to 64% in 1991. Previously, 90% of the French populace declared to be conscious of their class belonging in the 1960s, while in 1981 this proportion had decreased to 73% (74).

At first glance, this progressive disappearance of ideological antagonism strikes the reader as surprising, given that the ideological divide originates from the French Revolution. On August 28, 1789, the legislative assembly representing the three French estates’ interests, also known as Estates-General, officially became the Constituent Assembly, which aimed at elaborating a constitution (74). This new institution debated themes such as voting rights for the King, national sovereignty, and the possibility of a constitutional monarchy. Within these debates, supporters of the monarchy would sit on the right side of the speaker while the opposition endorsing Republicanism sat on the left side (74). Subsequently, this arrangement spread across Europe and officially was implemented in the French Third Republic, lasting from 1870 to 1940.

Regarding the decline of the Left and Right ideological divide, the dates when opinion polls were carried out provide possible explanations. Taking the years 1981 and 1989 for the contesters of the Left-Right division, and the years 1960 and 1981 for French class consciousness, should help explain the demise of both the ideological dichotomy and class consciousness.

First, in 1981, at a national level, the presidential election between Giscard D’Estaing and. Mitterrand took place, and in May of that year Mitterrand was proclaimed President. The early 1980s figure as the beginning of the deregulation processes in economics triggered by the oil crises in the 1970s leading to the replacement of public economic management featuring a strong state in both economics and welfare, known as Keynesianism, by a rolled-back state within these spheres and the upgrading of the private sector in dealing with public services.[1] This shift in the economic regime did not go unnoticed in France; in fact, Mitterrand’s presidency reflected this development in abandoning right the traditional leftist economic aspirations for central planning. The year 1989 marked the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution as well as the fall of the Berlin Wall. This symbolic event preceded the disintegration of communism leading to the official dissolution of Soviet Union on December 26, 1991. Following this event, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed “the end of history” and George H. W. Bush declared a “new world order,” both expressions of the superiority of the neo-liberalism favored in America. Contrasting communism with neo-liberalism, the former embodies politically left values, such as socialism, while the later exhibits politically right values, such as conservatism.

Overall, it seems as if the conservative stance gained ascendance during the 1980s and 1990s. Yet a convergence of right and left political parties has been observed throughout Western Europe; see for instance Butskellism (Butler and Gaitskell) and Blatcherism (Blair and Thatcher), two phenomena pointing toward the convergence of the main British Left and Right political parties as well as New Labour in the United Kingdom and the French Socialist Party.[2] However, this political convergence in the French context has not yet been thoroughly investigated. As Carole Bachelot writes: “Both parties adopted simultaneously a set of organizational reforms that explicitly sought to democratize partisan machines. This lead to the individualization of voting members including the selection of leaders, the feminization of the party leadership and finally the introduction of deliberative procedures for the adoption of programs. This parallelism occurs in parties that exhibit a complex relationship to the internal authority.”[3] Both of these phenomena and political parties experience as well as mirror the shared attraction as well as the perceived tensions between (international) capitalism and (national) democracy.[4] Above all, the fading belief in the left-right dichotomy in politics can be traced back to both these events and phenomena.

Regarding the slipping away of class consciousness, the two years 1960 and 1981 provide a very stark contrast. The 1960s seem to mark the height of class consciousness, while the 1980s already testify to its decline. One possible explanation could be the demise of the working class. Indeed, looking across the channel to the United Kingdom, social democracy supposedly experienced its climax with a strong working class segment calling for more political rights, better work conditions, and an expansion of the welfare state.[5] Following these lines of reasoning, democracy is understood as the emancipation of the working class and their power in the political arena. Looking at France, democracy can be understood in many ways: be it by the guiding principle of the 1789 French Revolution “liberté, égalité, fraternité” or as defined by Tocqueville in Democracy in America: first, the leveling of conditions; second, the sovereignty of the people; third, the omnipresence of public opinion. In the 1960s, French democracy and class consciousness shook under the impact of the May 1968 Revolution. Students led this revolution fighting against the prevailing paternalism and demanding more freedoms with respect to sexuality for instance. The ensuing liberations, especially for women, fueled anew what Olympe de Gouges and the Suffragettes had been demanding for a long time: women’s rights and emancipation. Feminism, although this social movement never crystalized into a political party, provided a new scope of identity for many women discarding former political identities. Class consciousness still was high at the beginning of the 1980s considering that social movements imploded. Nevertheless, the beginning decline can be attributed to an economic fact and theory: the movement from the 2nd (industry-based) to the 3rd (service-based) sector.[6]

This overview provides key facts to the chosen dates underlying Benoist’s statements. His article reveals much background information to the left-right dichotomy discussion and provides a thorough account of leftist politics, explanations for the move to the center of the political spectrum, and the role of the nation-state regarding the disappearance of the ideological dichotomy. He concludes that: “it will become clear that concepts once regarded as contradictory are in fact complimentary. . . . Charbonneau has written: ‘Discussion of principles between Left and Right is absurd, because their values complement each other. . . . Liberty in itself or order in itself can only be the lie which dissimulates tyranny and chaos. Truth belongs to neither Right nor Left, neither is it in equal distance from the two. Rather, it is contained in the tension of their extreme exigencies. If one day they have to meet each other, it will not be in denying what they are but in going right to the end of themselves.’ He concluded: ‘The time has finally come for us to reject Left and Right together, in order to reconcile within ourselves the tension of their fundamental aspirations.’ It is not a matter of ‘neither Left nor Right’ but of salvaging their best features. It is a matter of developing new political configurations transcending both” (89).

Notes

1. Ivant T. Berend, An Economic History of Twentieth-century Europe: Economic Regimes from Laissez-faire to Globalization (New York: Cambridge UP, 2006).

2. John Kingdom, Government and Politics in Britain: An Introduction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003).

3. Carole Bachelot, “Parti socialiste français et parti travailliste britannique: Le cas des groupes dirigeants,” Vingtième Siècle: Revue d’histoire 96 (2007): 107–8.

4. Colin Crouch, Post-Democracy (Cambridge: Polity, 2004), p. 29.

5. Ibid., p. 2.

6. Alfred Sauvy, La machine et le chômage: les progrès techniques et l’emploi (Paris: Dunod/Bordas, 1980).

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