Fascist, Marxist, Socialist: The Misuse of Political Terms

Thursday, January 19, 2012

When President Obama's political opponents describe his administration's ideological bent, harsh words are often tossed into the fray. Whether it's Socialism, Marxism or Fascism, the President’s first term has been marred with accusations of adherence to a number of controversial ideologies. Is there any truth behind these heavily loaded terms? James Morone, political scientist and author, speaks about the many "isms" used to describe the Obama administration.

James Morone is a political science professor at Brown University.


James Morone

Produced by:

Jay Cowit and Hsi-Chang Lin

Comments [7]


Brilliant. Loved this piece.

Jan. 24 2012 03:04 PM
Skeptical Nurse from W. KY

I wonder how many isms are being used by people who are trying to keep from saying something racist?
it's oh so easy to call names—but not quite to easy to explain why those names are used and what they mean.

Jan. 22 2012 06:53 PM

A priggish insistence on correct political terms is appropriate and would have been particularly welcomed during the heated anti-war movement and the recent Occupy movement when it was popular in the media for emotional outrage to overrule cerebral reason.
It seems intellectual honesty and ideological accuracy like last year's civility are virtues to be paraded only when it is politically useful and then swiftly discarded or ignored when they are not.

Jan. 19 2012 12:42 PM

Thanks for this lucid and totally entertaining takedown of one of my greatest pet peeves about modern political discourse.

I do think it's slightly misleading, though, to imply in that he-said/she-said public radio way some kind of automatic equivalency between the misuse of these terms by various left- and right-aligned rhetors. While one does often hear invocations of fascism from the left that are dubious or flat-out wrong, I give most of them a pass for the simple reason that "fascism" is a much more elastic term than "communism" and, to a lesser extent, than "socialism." The latter two have been exhaustively theorized and codified, as your excellent gloss on Marxist historical materialism makes clear, and indeed the history of Left politics is one of obsessive debates over fine points of doctrine. The record is well established and can be readily checked against charges that such-and-such center-left politician is engaged in Bolshevism by virtue of having voted for higher fuel-efficiency standards, or whatever.

The same can't be said of fascism, which was never formalized in the same way and has always served as a catch-all for various totalitarian and nationalist political currents that may not even have self-identified as such. North Korea, e.g., would seem to fit anybody's definition (yours, anyway) of a fascist state, though their official ideology is nominally Marxist, while the regime most people have in mind when they drop the F-word -- Nazi Germany -- never embraced the term (national socialism, anyone?). In usage and in practice, "fascism" is less a coherent ideology than a collection of repressive tactics and stylistic commitments whose only stable element is an adulation of power for its own sake, largely if not entirely irrespective of one's views on how markets work. There is no Fascist Manifesto, let alone entire libraries filled with volumes of fascist theory.

So I'd argue it's not totally disengenuous to characterize airport body-scanners or strikeouts as in some way fascistic -- or at any rate, hardly on par with calling health insurance reform a Marxist takeover of the healthcare system or the Detroit bailout as a bid to nationalize auto manufacturing, which are empirically false. I have my problems with the term "Islamo-fascism," but at least I can understand what it's meant to denote. I'm utterly stumped, though, as to how President Obama's middle-of-the-road neoliberal policies can be construed as socialism by anyone with so much as a high school education.

Let's dig up Karl Marx and attach a flywheel to him -- he's got to be spinning in his grave fast enough by now to meet our energy needs for generations to come.

Jan. 19 2012 11:03 AM
ERM from Brooklyn

I find calling a politician some 'ism' is what ignorant people/commentators do, when they can't think of another way to dispute a politicians' (or candidate's) policy they find disagreeable.
It's done because they Know the Marxist, Fascist, Communist... 'accusation' will make head lines & cause comment attracting attention by distracting from any issue at hand!
Case in point putting on the false 'moniker' of Marxism is helped scare voters away from my father-in-law's campaign for NY State Senator (democrat) in Queens back in '72. Though in his case the accusation was valid, only because MARX is his last name!
BTW he garnered more votes in his then, newly gerrymandered republican district, than McGovern did!

Jan. 19 2012 10:10 AM

A political official who habitually uses -isms out of context or claims that a particular -ism is absent when it clearly is not absent PROVES to me that they are intellectually inadequate to rule over the people.

No one can, or should, paint an individual with one broad brushstroke, literally or figuratively. Most religions are against the practice of usury... but no conservative is calling Jesus a socialist or an anti-capitalist. Even though scripture can make a case that he identified with one or both of these labels.

Jan. 19 2012 10:05 AM

"Wanting to do something for old people when they retire is part of the founding of Capitalism."

Was this piece meant as an illustration for "The Battle Over History Curriculum" segment?

Jan. 19 2012 09:34 AM

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