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New Left Review I/231, September-October 1998

Perry Anderson

A Sense of the Left

Norberto Bobbio’s book on the Right and Left marks a significant moment in the author’s long and distinguished career as a political thinker. Published during the Italian electoral campaign of 1994, Destra e Sinistrais one of his most topical and personal writings, whose popular success in Italy is not hard to understand. [1] Norberto Bobbio, Destra e Sinistra, Ragioni e significati di una distinzione politica, Rome 1994; a revised and enlarged edition appeared in 1995, to which all page numbers below refer. Translated into English as Left and Right, Cambridge 1996. Acclaim for its clarity, elegance and feeling is justified. The text, however, is more complex and less conclusive than it may appear. What are its theses? Bobbio’s starting-point is the increasing frequency with which the notions of ‘Right’ and ‘Left’ are rejected in political discussion today—despite, he points out, their continued and even accentuated use in electoral competition. Why, he asks, is the traditional opposition between Left and Right now so often repudiated? There are currently three ways of contesting the dichotomy, he suggests. The first is to relativize the dyad by insisting on an ‘Included Third’: namely a moderate Centre situated between Left and Right, occupying most of the actual space of democratic political systems. The second way of rejecting the distinction is to dwell on the prospects of an ‘Inclusive Third’, integrating and superseding the legacies of Left and Right in some synthesis beyond them. The last is to point to the rise of a ‘Transverse Third’, penetrating across the camps of Left and Right, and displacing them from relevance—the role, he notes, often accorded green politics. Bobbio’s response to each of these claims is a firm fin de non recevoir. The existence of a Centre, however dominant, does not alter the contrast between polarities of Left and Right on each side of it. Notions of a synthesis beyond Left and Right typically conceal ambitions by one pole to absorb or neutralize the other. Finally, movements of opinion extending across Left and Right tend to redivide, like the Greens, into new versions of them. Nor, Bobbio further observes, do similarities between authoritarian movements of Right and Left, or shifts of individuals from one to the other, affect the political distinction itself. They relate to another opposition, which sets Extremists and Moderates apart in their attitudes to democracy—a fundamental contrast, but one orthogonal to the polarity of Left and Right, which does not cancel it: indeed in situations of crisis tends to yield before it, as in Italy in the early 1920s or 1940s.

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