A lot of people throw around words like “fascist” and “socialist” with apparently no understanding of what those words mean. I guess this is a failure of our education system, that people no longer know or understand 20th century history. But don’t worry, this isn’t a history lesson (though you may learn something if you’re not careful).

Here I will briefly explain the ideals and viewpoints of the left and right, and also the weird combinations of the two that people find confusing.

A lot of right wing people in the US assume that left wing (or “socialist”) means being in favour of a huge government that controls every aspect of its citizens’ lives. While some lefties do want government to help keep people safe, this is not universal.

What are the basic principles of the left wing? They are: democracy (all people taking part in decisions), sharing resources for the good of the majority, and helping/protecting the underprivileged.

Government is regarded as a tool to achieve these things. However, Anarchists say you can/should do this without government, instead using a system where everyone makes decisions and carries them out via a system of mass cooperation (how that would work in a country with hundreds of millions of people, I have no idea).

What are the basic principles of the right wing?¬†“Might makes right” (i.e. the strongest should rule; power and victory are the highest virtues),¬†extreme nationalism, and hatred of outsiders (foreigners, dissenters, designated victim classes like gays or Jews). This last item might also be classed as enforcement of moral standards, but I have used the word “hatred” to identify the strong emotions and lack of empathy involved.

“Conservative” is a synonym for right wing. What is called the “right wing” of the US is an odd combination of Conservative and Libertarian. Libertarians should, in principle, be opposed to the above-listed characteristics of the right wing, but they cooperate for the sake of lower taxes, removal of labour laws and antipollution laws (for the sake of business), and gun rights. At the same time, the libertarian opposition to “big government” has bled into the conservative mindset, where it sits largely unexamined.

Contrary to what you may have been told, right wing is not basically anti-government, certainly not anti- police, prison, army or homeland security, all of which are very large instruments of the state. In conservative movements outside the USA, “big government” is rarely a big issue. When it is, that is usually the result of American cultural influence.

Historical context:

The Fascist governments of the 20th century were essentially right wing. It seems some people are confused, because the Nazis were the “National Socialist German Workers‘ Party”. In fact, the “socialist” part of the name was basically a trick to take votes from the German Communist parties. After they came to power, the Nazi party privatised a number of state industries, suppressed the unions, and gave lucrative military contracts to businesses that supported them (most famously the powerful Krupp group, which made steel and armaments). None of these could be called socialist activities.

The Communist governments of the 20th century were a weird amalgam. Although (nearly) everything was owned by the government, they were essentially right wing dictatorships (see above definition of “right wing”). The left wing talk was just for show. In the West, the supporters of Communist Russia and China were mostly dupes, who believed what they wanted to believe (the existence of a socialist paradise of democracy, freedom and plenty) rather than the reality (dictatorship, belligerent nationalism, poverty and fear).

In fact, none of the Communist countries was really communist (using a classical Marxist definition). Given the way every revolution ended in dictatorship, it is debatable whether Communism (socialism without capitalism) can ever exist in the real world.