Right? Left? Neither? Why Radical Right Parties Reject the Politics of Left and Right

The death of the categories of Left and Right is a frequent trope in political analysis. The familiar distinction borne out of the French Revolution has seen its relevance challenged on several occasions throughout the Western world, including in the 2017 French presidential election. In an election fought between the ‘both Left and Right candidate’ Emmanuel Macron and the ‘neither Left nor Right’ Marine Le Pen, Le Pen often claimed that ideological distinctions of Left and Right no longer made sense, and that they should be replaced by a new distinction between ‘globalists’ and ‘patriots.’ But why did Le Pen adopt this view?

In a forthcoming book chapter,I argue that radical right parties such as the Front National have at least four good reasons to want to challenge the Left/Right distinction and replace it with one that is more compatible with their worldview.

Firstly, the categories of Left and Right sit uncomfortably within radical right ideology. Years of research on the radical right have led to at least some limited consensus on the core features of the party family. In particular, several studies focus on the two concepts of nationalism and authoritarianism when defining it.[1]Nationalism and authoritarianism, however, are in principle neither Left nor Right and can be present on both sides of the political spectrum. Nationalism, for example, is not infrequent in movements of the Left and is even pervasive in its most ‘banal’ forms,[2]while the history of dictatorship provides numerous examples of both Left and Right regimes.

Second, radical right politics has at its heart a monist understanding of the world which clashes with the view of Left/Right as representing a legitimate and meaningful division. Lipset and Raab[3]famously argued that political extremism treats ‘cleavage and ambivalence as illegitimate’. Similarly, radical right parties push forward a view of the world which does not recognise legitimate distinctions as an intrinsic part of politics. Because of their monist worldview, they reject the Left/Right cleavage as the symbolic rendition of these legitimate divisions and seek to replace it with a division that can overcome the idea of pluralistic, constitutive dissent it embodies.

It is not all ideological, however. Radical right parties also have some much more strategic concerns guiding their choices. In particular, they may want to reject the vocabulary of Left and Right on the one side, to get rid of the negative associations the term ‘radical right’ carries, and, on the other side, to present themselves as actors of change.

On the first point, it is important to note that radical right parties have used a variety of terms to refer to themselves, including ‘front’, ‘bloc’ and ‘movement’.[4]What they have explicitly rejected, however, is the idea of being ‘radical’ and, in some cases, even the idea of being ‘of the Right’. This can be easily seen as stemming from the negative reputation the word ‘Right’ acquired in Europe in the years following World War Two. The use of a label such as ‘radical right’, then, would not only place the parties in a negative light but it would also create an implicit lineage between them and the interwar extreme right movements of fascism and Nazism. As a result, they have extensively challenged the label, accusing mainstream politicians of using it to demonize them. In this sense, the rejection of Left and Right and their replacement with something new, can be seen as part of a wider strategy of legitimation.

Finally, rejecting the categories of Left and Right allows radical right parties to present themselves as outside the vicissitudes of the political ‘status quo’. This enables their strategy of differentiation from mainstream actors and reinforces their position as ‘outsiders’ aiming for political renewal. If, in fact, we accept that ‘regular’ politics is the politics of Left and Right, candidates proposing to overcome this distinction could build on the claim of being different compared to others – a position that is likely to benefit them in times of political distrust and crisis. In addition, the ensuing replacement of Left and Right by another division of their choice has the perk of making it possible to present their opponents as ‘all the same’ and pursuing somewhat illegitimate interests.

One final point worth reflecting on is, of course, whether radical right parties would actually benefit from a more general overcoming of the Left/Right distinction and its replacement with a new cleavage more fitting to their worldview, or if it is fruitful for them to have it in place as an ‘Enemy’ that makes their narrative credible. In other words, if we accept that radical right parties in many cases benefit from their outsider status, how well could we expect them to do in a world in which they are no longer the outsiders but the new ‘regular’?

Ms Marta Lorimer is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR, and a Doctoral Candidate at the European Institute, London School of Economics and Political Science. See her profile here.

© Marta Lorimer. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).


[1]See for example Mudde, C. (2007). Populist radical right parties in Europe. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge, New York : Cambridge University Press; Harrison, S., & Bruter, M. (2011). Mapping extreme right ideology: an empirical geography of the European extreme right: Palgrave Macmillan.

[2]Billig, M. (1995). Banal nationalism. London: London : Sage.

[3]Lipset, S. M., & Raab, E. (1971). The politics of unreason: right wing extremism in America, 1790-1970. London: London : Heinemann.

[4]On this point seeHainsworth, P. (2008). The extreme right in Western Europe. New York: Routledge. Pp 6-7