Both Left and Right generally treat working people with disdain, relying on the elites in universities, the media, think tanks and government agencies to tell them what working people need. Since it is thought that the masses are unable to understand and act for themselves on complex issues such as health, economics or education, these things are decided for them with predictably sub-optimal results.
The origin of Left and Right wing politics goes back to the National Assembly in pre-revolutionary France. Inside the chamber where the National Assembly met, members of the Third Estate (the revolutionaries) sat on the left side and members of the First Estate (the nobility) sat on the right. Thus, the left wing of the room was more liberal, and the right wing was more conservative. The Right, whether it consisted of aristocratic, religious, corporate or monied elites, has always attempted to manipulate, control and exploit working people for its benefit. The behavior of the Left has been more inconsistent, as there was at least one period in history when it genuinely seemed to represent the interests of the masses. However, it was a very different Left than we have today.
In the early 19th century the Left wing radicals and progressives in Britain were classical liberals and they dominated politics until the First World War. Classical liberals were the party of hope, radicalism, and revolution in the Western World. They believed in individualism, liberty, equal rights and a free economy with minimal government interference. In the 19th century similar ideas were popular in the United States, but they manifested themselves through the Jeffersonian, Democratic-Republican and Jacksonian movements. On both sides of the Atlantic these ideas were popular because they had inspired the French and American revolutions that had split apart both feudalism and mercantilism, and freed individuals from the shackles of monopolies, caste privileges and exploitative wars.
In the 19th century classical liberal ideas continued to produce genuine mass movements such as the campaign to repeal the Corn Laws, which had been imposed on England in 1815 to preserve the abnormally high profits made by the landed aristocracy during the Napoleonic War. The abolition of the Corn Laws in 1846 marked the successful culmination of the Anti-Corn League’s work in mobilizing working people against protectionism, which harmed the interests of the masses by inflating the cost of bread. In the United States, two of the most successful mass movements of the 19th century were the abolitionist movement, spearheaded by classical liberals such as William Lloyd Garrison, and the ‘homesteading’ land reform movement that grew under the stewardship of the classical liberal, George Henry Evans. The latter movement is less well known. When Evans began his crusade in 1829, he had the support of his friends and only a few newspapers in New York. However, by 1850, more than 600 of the approximately 2,000 papers that were published in the United States, supported land reform. In 1862, the first of the homestead laws were passed by Congress providing that any citizen who was either 21 or the head of a family could acquire title to a 160 acre parcel of federal public land. Eventually, up to 10 percent of all lands in the United States would pass into individual hands as a result of this legislation.
Classical liberal theory has always been suspicious of the elites and much more willing to trust ordinary working people. For example, the 19th century classical liberal legal theorist Lysander Spooner, argued for consistent use of jury nullification. Jury nullification occurs when a jury returns a verdict of “Not Guilty” despite its belief that the defendant is guilty of the violation charged. The jury in effect nullifies a law that it believes is either immoral or wrongly applied to the defendant whose fate they are charged with deciding. Jury nullification evolved to make community opinion a bulwark against state oppression. For example, it was used in the pre-Civil War era when northern juries sometimes refused to convict for violations of the Fugitive Slave Act because jurors felt the laws to be unjust. Today, juries are routinely not informed about their rights in this matter but despite this, jury nullification is still sometimes used to good effect.
Classical liberals such as H. L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock continued to be regarded as ‘Men of the Left’ through the 1920’s because they opposed war, militarism, Prohibition, the repression of civil liberties and most importantly, a government which allied itself with big business in a network of special privileges. However, with the advent of the New Deal the definition of left wing made a volte-face. But that’s another post.
“It is manifest, therefore, that the jury must judge of and try the whole case, and every part and parcel of the case, free of any dictation or authority on the part of the government. They must judge of the existence of the law; of the true exposition of the law; of the justice of the law; and of the admissibility and weight of all the evidence offered; otherwise the government will have everything its own way; the jury will be mere puppets in the hands of the government; and the trial will be, in reality, a trial by the government, and not a “trial by the country.” By such trials the government will determine its own powers over the people, instead of the people’s determining their own liberties against the government; and it will be an entire delusion to talk, as for centuries we have done, of the trial by jury, as a “palladium of liberty,” or as any protection to the people against the oppression and tyranny of the government.”
Lysander Spooner, Essay on the Trial By Jury, 1852