I had a terrible disagreement with someone once over the importance of semantics and the twistability of terminology.
She said she objected to slumlords.
I told her I couldn’t take a position on slumlords until she defined the term — but I knew that by the time she was done defining it, she’d either (a) have taken out all the connotative sting and reduced it to an economic transaction that I could defend both ethically and economically, (b) reduced it to something illegal in the coercive sense, in which case we weren’t talking about slumlords, but about coercion, or (c) refused to reduce it to anything other than more connotative tautology … something like “exploitative landlords” … and then we’d have to define exploitation, etc. This process can lead to some really important deep issues if the other person is willing to sit through it, but very few are.
Instead, she just accused me of being equally guilty of emotionally manipulative language by talking about government intervention as “the threat of proactive violence”.
I stand by that definition. I don’t consider it emotionally manipulative, except in the sense that uncovering manipulative euphemism is itself intended to have an emotional effect.
If the CIA talks about “termination with extreme prejudice,” and I say, “Oh, you mean assassination — killing a person in pursuit of a political goal,” then which one of us is manipulating the language?
If a Pro-Lifer is talking to me about “murdering innocent babies,” and I question the legitimacy of all three words, saying instead “killing a fetus,” then who’s being manipulative? The Pro-Choicers tend to dislike my use of the language, too, because it leaves room for an emotional response to the word ‘killing’ but we clearly talk about killing germs and killing plants without shedding tears. You can even buy spermicide at the corner pharmacy.
It seems to me that definitions such as “threat of proactive violence,” “killing a person in pursuit of a political goal,” and “killing a fetus” leave us with exactly the relevant core issues — or at least closer to the core than the familiar euphemisms do.
This is my long preamble to what Matthew Barganier at the AntiWar.com/blog calls, “The N-Word & the F-Word” — ‘Nazi’ and ‘fascist’.
And let me immediately interrupt myself to clarify a capitalization distinction I try to maintain:
A capital-L Libertarian is a member of the Libertarian party. Same with capital-D Democrats, capital-R Republicans. There’s enough confusion caused already from these unfortunate party names, where libertarians, democrats, and republicans all existed before the political parties that took their labels. Nazis and Fascists, on the other hand, started as political parties. Nazi was a shorthand — like GOP — for the National Socialist German Workers Party. (‘Nazi’ coming from the German for National Socialist.)
The term, ‘fascism’ you can look up here, in my BlackCrayon dictionary. See both my definition of lowercase-F fascism and Wikipedia‘s definition of the uppercase-F variety. See also this passage in the furyblog. (The furious blogger — Doctor furious! — is currently writing a book on Italian Fascism and the cultural movements around it.)
It’s more complicated with Communism, but no less important. Lowercase-C communism is like democracy, republicanism, and libertarianism, in that it was a word already in use to describe certain communities, or to describe a certain ideology about property and cooperation. The term is older than Marx or Marxism.
Before capital-C Communism, those who would eventually take its name just called themselves socialists. There was already the divide between anarchist socialists and the better-known statist variety, which Lenin called the left- and right-wings of socialism, respectively, making himself a right-wing socialist at the time.
But then other statist philosophies started calling themselves socialist, first the Fabians and later the Nazis. (Actually, there were Fabian-type socialists in France before both Marxism and Fabianism. We have 19th-century France to thank for both the best of classical liberalism and the worst of classical socialism.) Within Russia itself, socialism was divided between the Marxist Bolsheviks (the minority, by the way) and the more Fabian Menscheviks, so the need for a distinguishing term was immediate.
Lenin changed the name of his brand of socialism to Communism — an appeal to (a) the egalitarian and communitarian core of Marxism, and (b) the lowercase-C communism that is supposed to mark the final stage of Marxian dialectical history. In 1919, Lenin founded the Comintern — the Communist International — and invited (instructed?) all the Marxist/Leninist parties throughout the world to change their names to capital-C Communist. For most of the 20th century, almost anyone anywhere talking about Communism was talking about governments and parties that came out of the Comintern.
Of course, this still leads to confusion, as when someone correctly calls Noam Chomsky a communist and people incorrectly infer that he was a Communist.
With the exception of the socialist anarchists, who saw little critical difference between these competing forms of statism, the unifying theme for all these varieties of socialism was the role of the State in (supposedly) managing the economy. We anti-socialists would see another theme in socialism’s elimination (either immediate or through erosion) of “personal” freedoms — the so-called civil liberties. But while that was an inevitable result, it was not essential to the original ideologies of the various socialisms. (Seeing this distinction as semantically valid, but politically impossible, Hayek wrote The Road To Serfdom to show how economic central planning leads inevitably to authoritarianism.)
So with all these terms and confusions flying around, isn’t it throwing gas on the fire to talk of lowercase-F fascism after World War II?
This is a tough one for me. I think quick reference and facile usage will only add to the noise. I’m not a big fan of political language in general, but least of all when it diverges from ideological language — by which I mean ideologically descriptive language, not the rhetoric of the ideologies.
But, as both Barganier and furious note, at their respective blogs, there really is something useful to getting past the name-calling and comparing the historical policies of Italian Fascists and the National Socialist German Workers Party with the policies of their contemporaries (Roosevelt, Churchill) and the policy positions and proposals of our contemporaries (Democrats, Republicans).
If you just use the F-word to attack anti-leftists, you’re being infantile. Stop it.
If you borrow the emotional power of the term to talk about racism or nationalism or the statist implementations of these -isms, then you should probably just talk about racism and nationalism and stop confusing the issue.
The actual denotative, semantic, and intellectual power behind the word ‘fascism’ lies in its synthesis of the welfare and warfare states, in the partnership of Big Government and Big Business, in its appeal to both collectivist inclusivity and collectivist exclusivity, and in its twistability to adapt to almost any local issue of “the people” and warp it into the mandate of central authority.
There are differences between leftist collectivism and right-wing collectivism, between for instance gender feminism and the conservatives’ “social norms” — but both are to be implemented with the power of the State (“the threat of proactive violence”), and when you centralize authority (especially in a majoritarian democracy), you get a hybrid identity politics that is neither left nor right.
Fascism, in both the upper- and lowercase forms, is really neither left nor right, but an incoherent amalgam of both agendas appropriated for the glory of the State.
There is, of course, a very different option that is also neither left nor right.