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Violent left and right: Which is more dangerous?

Published on 03 February 2021
Updated on 06 December 2023

Diplo Wisdom Circle

We condemn the violent left and right. Are the threats equivalent? Is one more dangerous? Let’s reflect – in compact fashion.

1.       Both share an ideology of a ‘desirable’ hierarchical social order

Both extremes share a hierarchical ideology:

  • On the right, the hierarchy’s origins are either religious (e.g. theocracy), political (e.g. autocracy), or cultural (e.g. patriarchy). Mostly, they reflect the real-existing situation.
  • On the left, it is an ideal construct – a vision of how an ideal society should be.

(Anarchists, who reject the hierarchical social order, are excluded, though they might play a contingent role on either side.)

2.       Aspiration or threat?

Both groups share a dissatisfaction with the evolving status quo. Their assessment of the context is different:

  • In the newly emergent transition, the right perceives an existential threat to the status quo. The danger is imminent and continuing, and asks for permanent vigilance. Psychologically, deadly violence is inherent if one’s very life is at risk. (‘Better dead than red’ reflects the kind of attitude, as formulated during the Cold War).

The fixation on death of the other may even turn suicidal in the event of impending loss (Hitler and his struggle for world supremacy was followed by his deliberate destruction of ‘losing’ Germany).

  • The stance of the left is aspirational, constructive and flexible. The vision is deliberately vague and the major appeal is to the elimination of ongoing pains or wrongs. ‘Workers of the world, unite! You can only lose your chains!’ reflects the standpoint. Violence is a tactical option (including martyrdom for the cause).

Psychological explanation: We perceive an imminent loss as twice as hard to bear and an equivalent foregone gain. Consequently, far-right violence is more likely and enduring, while far-left violence is tactical and occasional.

3.       What violent means are involved?

  • On the right: The perceived existential character eliminates the possibility of social mediation. It is extreme, even totalitarian in the means to be employed (e.g. ‘the only good Democrat is a dead one’). Implicitly, it entails not only deadly violence toward the perceived enemy but his/her humiliation and torture. Examples:
    • In religious contexts, the violence is the threat of individual eschatology (hell and karma expect us if we don’t behave).
    • Within the family, patriarchy rules over women and children by whatever means appropriate, including physical action.
    • In social settings, one goes from exclusion to humiliation, delegitimation (subhuman), to (auto)genocide.
    • In the productive sphere, leonine agreements (e.g. hunger wages) or exclusionary rights prevail (e.g. land enclosures, patent rights).
    • In the consumption sphere, mimetic consumption sets the acquiescent tone.


  • On the left, we need to differentiate between the period before and after gaining power through revolution:
    • In the pre-revolutionary first phase, social mediation is always an option toward change – hence the eternal battle within the movement between reformists and revolutionaries. Also, the emergent dialectical process is often slow and incoherent, as one would expect when formulating the utopia needs debate.
    • In the post-revolutionary phase, one can observe a progressive process of implementation or degeneration with the character of far-right violence as the fear of losing power becomes central.
    • In certain cultural settings, violent ‘re-education’ or ‘brainwashing’ is employed (Mao, Pol Pot). Though utterly destructive of the personality, this approach does not necessitate eradication.

4.       Tactical aspects

The monopoly of power rests with the state and assists in the survival of the regime as well as the prevailing hierarchy. A revolutionary movement is overtly antagonistic and attracts immediate state repression.

Right-wing movements are adjunct and supportive of the regime and thus welcome at the onset. The gain strength by stealth. Right-wing violence can transit rapidly to a coup, which is perceived as a mere replacement of a weak regime by a more authoritarian one (the myth of the strong man like Mussolini or Franco).

5.       Before turning left, watch out to the right

The roots of far-right and far-left violence are quite different and so are their manifestations. The foundational element of far-right violence is the perceived existential threat that precludes any form of social mediation. It is ‘either us or them’, in accordance with the dictum: necessity knows no law. Watch out to the right!

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