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.footnote1 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.

If none of these reasons for doubting the validity of the dichotomy between Left and Right is valid, what then explains its intellectual rejection today? The real basis of the current opinion, Bobbio suggests, lies elsewhere. The distinction between Left and Right loses its meaning if one of the two ceases to exist. Without saying so directly, Bobbio implies that historically this has never occurred. But there have been situations in which one side has suffered such a deep defeat that its survivors have tended to argue that the distinction itself has lost all meaning, in a strategy of consolation designed to conceal their own weakness. Such was the stance of the Italian Right in the immediate post-war years, after the debacle of fascism made the Left seem all-victorious. Today the boot is on the other foot. In the wake of the collapse of communism, it is above all on the Left—or former thinkers of the Left—that the temptation to deny the distinction can be observed. The real reason for the new scepticism is once again a move of self-protection, compensating for an experience of defeat with a rhetoric of supersession.

Once Bobbio has dismissed the reasons subjectively adduced for discarding the dichotomy of Left and Right, and located the objective reasons for the tendency to deny its validity, he has still to found the opposition as a rational political framework that has lost none of its force today. After considering a number of unsatisfactory attempts to do so—coding Right and Left as tradition versus emancipation, sacred versus profane, and so forth—Bobbio offers his own definition. The division between Left and Right, he argues, is one of attitude towards equality. Given that human beings are manifestly at once—that is, in different respects—equal and unequal, ‘on the one side are those who think men more equal than unequal, while on the other are those who think them more unequal than equal’.footnote2 This is the permanent, underlying contrast between Left and Right. It is accompanied by another. The Left believes that most inequalities are social and eliminable; the Right that most are natural and unalterable. For the first, equality is an ideal; for the second it is not.

Liberty is not a dividing-line between Left and Right, Bobbio goes on, in the same way. Anyway incommensurable with equality, as the status of a person rather than a relation between persons, it is the value that sets moderates apart from extremists within each camp. But in the opposition between Right and Left, it occupies the position of means rather than ends. Characteristically, Bobbio indulges no pious harmonics. Liberty cannot be equated with equality, and there is no reason to think the two always compatible. If some kinds of equality do not affect liberty, others—necessary constraints, like universal public education—do. It is over issues like these that Left and Right essentially join battle. Bobbio concludes his book with a personal avowal. Equality has always been the ‘pole-star’ of his political life. The inequalities of this world—from the impoverished and excluded within rich Western societies, to the huge mass of misery in the poorer countries—remain staggering. It is enough, he writes, to look out at the ‘social question on an international scale, to realize that the Left, far from coming to the end of its road, has only just started out on it.’ The task is enormous. But the aspiration for an ever greater human equality, of which the rise of women’s liberation is one of the most certain signs today, is—as Tocqueville understood already a century ago—‘irresistible’. Bobbio ends his book by urging us to look beyond the immediate skirmishes of the day, to the long sweep of the ‘grandiose historical movement’ bearing it forward.footnote3

This is a powerful conclusion, that can leave few unmoved. We owe it the kind of intellectual respect Bobbio has always practised—a dispassionate critical scrutiny. Two sets of reflections are prompted by Destra e Sinistra.One concerns the inner logic of Bobbio’s argument, the other its exterior context. Let us look at the first. Bobbio’s central claim is that the distinction between Left and Right remains alive and well, since it is based on two fundamentally different views of equality, which set Right and Left permanently apart. In the exposition of this difference, however, he tends to run together a number of propositions that are logically independent of each other. We can distinguish four of these, which concern what we may stylize as the issues of (i) the factuality; (ii) the alterability; (iii) the functionality; and (iv) the directionality of human inequality. In Bobbio’s characterization, the Left holds the view that the natural inequality of human beings is less than their equality, that most forms of inequality are socially alterable, that few if any are positively functional, and that more and more will prove historically ephemeral. The Right, on the other hand, is committed to the view that the natural inequality of human beings is greater then their equality, that few forms of inequality are alterable, that most are socially functional, and that there is no directionality in their evolution.

The two packages thus presented are, however, dissociable. The first element in each poses an initial problem. Since the ways in human beings are at once similar and dissimilar differ so radically-Bobbio’s illustration is the common fact of mortality, and the variable forms of death—how could they be aggregated in a single calculus, to yield a final balance? Bobbio’s solution is in effect to introduce a specification: only those aspects of their nature that help people to live together—per attuare una buona convivenza—will be reckoned into the sum.footnote4 A conservative might reply that this is to build a petitio principi into the calculation from the start. Here we may overlook this difficulty, to note a greater one. There is no necessary connection between the first and second parts of each package. It is quite possible to believe that human beings are naturally more equal than unequal, and yet that most forms of inequality are ineliminable—and it is no less possible to believe that human beings are naturally more unequal than equal, and yet that many social inequalities can and should be eliminated.

These are not mere formal paradoxes. There is, after all, now a considerable literature bearing on the problems they might represent. To take only the second alternative, a growing body of thought has been concerned with the possibility that socially egalitarian programmes could ultimately have a counter-finality: by eliminating artificial forms of inequality, founded on power and culture, they could eventually highlight and crystallize natural forms of inequality far more dramatically than ever before, in a new hierarchical order founded on the genetic code. This was already the vision conjured up in Michael Young’s Rise of the Meritocracy, the work of a moderate social-democrat in the 1970s.footnote5 More recently, similar projections have come from liberal or neo-conservative writers in the United States—Mickey Kaus or Charles Murray. Common to all these authors, who span the spectrum from Left to Right, is the foreboding that class divisions once cancelled, occupations would be determined by biological endowments—essentially degrees of innate intelligence—leading to new and harder forms of stratification, as endogamous strategies of marriage selection, now possessed of accurate genetic knowledge and choosing for comparable dna, perpetuated a hereditary mental elite.