Horseshoe Theory

Jean-Pierre Faye

In political theory, the horseshoe theory asserts that the far left and the far right, rather than being at opposite and opposing ends of a linear political continuum, in fact closely resemble one another, much like the ends of a horseshoe.

The theory is attributed to French writer Jean-Pierre Faye. Proponents of the theory point to a number of similarities between the far-left and the far-right, including their supposed propensity to gravitate to authoritarianism or totalitarianism. The horseshoe theory competes with the conventional linear left–right continuum system as well as the various multidimensional systems.

The notion that the far right and far left actually approach one another was noted at least as far back as the 1970s. However, the earliest use of the term ‘horseshoe theory’ to describe this phenomenon appears to be from Jean-Pierre Faye’s 2002 book ‘Le Siècle des idéologies.’ Others have attributed the theory to sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, sociologist Daniel Bell, and the ‘pluralist school.’

In a dissertation completed in 1997, and a book published in 2006, political scientist Jeff Taylor wrote, ‘It may be more useful to think of the Left and the Right as two components of populism, with elitism residing in the Center. The political spectrum may be linear, but it is not a straight line. It is shaped like a horseshoe.’ In 2006, the term was used when discussing an alleged resurgent hostility towards Jews, new antisemitism, from both the far left and the far right. In 2015, reformist Muslim Maajid Nawaz invoked the Horseshoe Theory while lamenting a common tendency on the far left and far right towards the compiling and publishing of ‘lists of political foes’:

‘As the political horseshoe theory attributed to Jean-Pierre Faye highlights, if we travel far-left enough, we find the very same sneering, nasty and reckless bully-boy tactics used by the far-right. The two extremes of the political spectrum end up meeting like a horseshoe, at the top, which to my mind symbolizes totalitarian control from above. In their quest for ideological purity, Stalin and Hitler had more in common than modern neo-Nazis and far-left agitators would care to admit.’

In a 2008 essay, Josef Joffe (a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank) wrote: ‘Will globalization survive the gloom? The creeping revolt against globalization actually preceded the Crash of ’08. Everywhere in the West, populism began to show its angry face at mid-decade. The two most dramatic instances were Germany and Austria, where populist parties scored big with a message of isolationism, protectionism, and redistribution. In Germany, it was left-wing populism (‘Die Linke’); in Austria it was a bunch of right-wing parties that garnered almost 30% in the 2008 election. Left and right together illustrated once more the ‘horseshoe’ theory of modern politics: As the iron is bent backward, the two extremes almost touch.

The horseshoe theory has been criticized not just by people on both ends of the political spectrum who oppose being grouped with those they consider to be their polar opposites, but also by those who see horseshoe theory as oversimplifying political ideologies and as ignoring fundamental differences between them. Simon Choat, a senior lecturer in political theory at Kingston University, criticizes horseshoe theory from a leftist perspective. He argues that far-left and far-right ideologies only share similarities in the vaguest sense in that they both oppose the liberal democratic status quo, but the two sides both have very different reasons and very different aims for doing so:

For the left, the problem with globalization is that it has given free rein to capital and entrenched economic and political inequality. The solution is therefore to place constraints on capital and/or to allow people to have the same freedom of movement currently given to capital, goods, and services. They want an alternative globalization. For the right, the problem with globalization is that it has corroded supposedly traditional and homogeneous cultural and ethnic communities – their solution is therefore to reverse globalization, protecting national capital and placing further restrictions on the movement of people.

Choat uses the issue of globalization as an example. Both the far left and the far right attack neoliberal globalization and its elites, but have conflicting views on who those elites are and conflicting reasons for attacking them. Choat also argues that although proponents of the horseshoe theory may cite examples of alleged history of collusion between Fascists and Communists, those on the far left usually oppose the rise of far-right or fascist regimes in their countries. Instead, he argues that it has been centrists who have supported far-right and fascist regimes that they prefer in power over socialist ones.

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