In the last few months power in France has passed from the right to the left, reconstituting the political landscape. -- In Le Mourre, a vast 5,884-page encyclopedic dictionary of history drafted by a single man, Michel Mourre, one page, translated below, is devoted to an analysis of the left-right distinction.. -- BACKGROUND: Mourre devoted the last decades of a brief reclusive life to the drafting of reference works that are perhaps unique in the 20th century for their solitary erudition. -- Little-known in the English-speaking world, Le Mourre, as the work has popularly come to be known, was first published in France in 1978, several months after the author's death at the age of 49. -- It has gained a certain reputation as a monument of erudition, and has been kept up to date in several subsequent editions. -- The passage translated below is from the 1996 French edition. -- Mourre's imperturbable impassivity and blasé attitude of nil admirari will not be attractive to many readers, but the sober virtues of his prose have an appeal of their own....
LEFT AND RIGHT
By Michel Mourre
Dictionnaire encyclopédique d'histoire
Paris: Bordas, 1996 (original edition 1978)
Vol. 2, pp. 1739-40
LEFT AND RIGHT. In political language, these terms designate two great currents of opinion clashing in most states since the beginning of the 19th century.
AN AMBIGUOUS REALITY
The distinction between the right and the left has its origin in parliamentary assemblies, which can be divided into two parts, one sitting on the right, the other on the left of the session's president. On Sept. 11, 1789, while the National Constituent Assembly, still sitting in Versailles, was debating the important question of the veto to be granted to the king in the future constitution, political disagreements were expressed for the first time in this way: the partisans of an absolute veto, and therefore of a strong executive, gathered on the right, the partisans of a merely suspending veto on the left. After the October Days [i.e. the Women's March on Versailles of Oct. 5-6, 1789], when the National Constituent Assembly came to Paris to sit in the Salle du Manège in the Tuileries Palace, the "patriotic" deputies placed themselves to the left, the "aristocrats" to the right of the orators' tribune.
At the beginning, the opposition of the left and the right signified being for or against the Revolution and the principles of 1789. But their respective attitudes would vary so much in relation to the new problems posed by contemporary history that it is impossible to give a final definition of the right and the left. During the 19th century, the left rallied around liberty, embodying the rights of man, distrust of the state, "the citizen against the powers of the state," according to Alain's formula (le citoyen contre les pouvoirs); but in 1870 with Gambetta, in 1917 with Clemenceau, in the face of the danger threatening the fatherland, the left took up once again the Jacobin tradition of the dictatorship of public safety, and the will to solve the social problem through a transformation of society led it, in our time, to propose reforms that are statist and bureaucratic in nature. The right during the Restoration [1815-1830] and the July Monarchy [1830-1848] defended traditions and the established order, but that of the 1930s sympathized with nihilistic revolutions like that of fascism and national socialism. The French left was pacifist in 1900, it worked for disarmament after 1918, it demanded the end of colonial wars in Indochina and Algeria; but it was ferociously belligerent during the Revolution, it dreamed under the July Monarchy of tearing up the 1815 treaties, it tried to organize a desperate resistance in 1871, it enlisted in the "crusade of democracies" against Hitler. The right, in 1793, put faithfulness to God and king above country, it ratified the Treaty of Frankfurt in 1871, approved in large part the Second Armistice at Compiègne , but it was "revanchard" with Déroulède, Barrès, and Maurras, and rallying "nationalists" is one of its favorite themes. The left denounced the collusion of the right with the Vichy régime; but it was from the Chamber [Chambre des députés] of the Popular Front that Pétain obtained [on Jul. 10, 1940,] full powers. The right is usually considered as the bulwark of moneyed interests and powers; but the legitimist royalists were the first to denounce the social misdeeds of free-market capitalism, and it was Gen. de Gaulle who in 1945 inaugurated the policy of nationalizations. The left likes to adopt a revolutionary language; but it is by reassuring rural landowners and the petite bourgeoisie that it achieved power at the beginning of the Third Republic. The theoreticians of the right never tire of criticizing democracy and universal suffrage; but no left-wing government has ever consulted the people as often as Napoléon III and de Gaulle. The left, since 1789, has exalted faith in reason and progress, but its youngest and most dynamic fringe today rises up against the imperatives of unlimited industrialization and denounces "consumer society."
In a country like France, in which political life has always been characterized by an extreme diversity due to surprising expropriations of ideologies and historical memories, there has never been a right and a left, but rather several rights and several lefts, which usually live in a state of division, rivalry, and antagonism, appearing unified only in brief periods of crisis -- or in the mythology of their adversary. Reducing French political history since 1789 to an unending fight between left and right belongs to cartoon imagery and campaign polemics. Left and right represent, in fact, by definition, extremes that have only been able to monopolize power in exceptional periods, while in normal times the multiplicity of parties and tendencies necessarily places the balance of political life closer to a center that is more or less a "center right" or a "center left."
The struggle between left and right is nevertheless a reality whose periodic manifestations mark all the major turning points of contemporary history: the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, the crisis of May 16, 1877, the Dreyfus affair and the victory of the Bloc des gauches in the elections of 1902, the victory of the Bloc national and the election of the Chambre "bleu horizon" in 1919, the revenge of the Cartel des Gauches in 1924, the victory of the Popular Front in 1936, the crushing of the left in the 1962 and 1968 elections, the adoption of a common program by the left-wing goverment of 1972, etc. But history also brings out an inverse phenomenon that is just as typical. In times of extreme peril (military defeat, threat of internal subversion, economic distress, etc.), the country suddenly breaks free of the marching orders of political staffs and scrambles left-right distinctions by falling in behind an exceptional figure. Quasi-monarchical surges, whether or not they were expressed through voting, constituted the successes of Bonaparte as First Consul, Napoléon III, Clemenceau in 1917, Marshal Pétain in 1940, and General de Gaulle in 1958 and 1968.
Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003