Many say that Donald Trump is a fascist, Fox News has repeatedly referred to Barack Obama as a socialist, and, if you read the comments below my articles on Facebook, it won’t take long to find some dingbat claiming that I’m a liberal hack (usually with all-caps, too). All of these political labels, however, are wrong. On most days of the week, Trump preaches nationalism & laissez-faire capitalism (not fascism), Obama promoted neoliberal policies (not socialist ones), & I am an anarcho-syndicalist hack, not a liberal one. It’s clear what people mean to say, of course — most who say Trump is a “fascist” are really trying to express their concern that he may abuse his presidential powers and, by “socialist,” Fox News was saying they were upset that a Black man was regulating business, which was always Bill O’Reilly’s greatest fear…
In these examples, political labels are used in ways that distort their meaning. This is important because, if you & I have different meanings for words like left, right, conservative, liberal, & socialist, it’s hard to communicate our ideas to each other. No one ought to feel bad or be made fun of for mixing up terms or labels and it’s fine to not know the meaning of a word — it happens to all of us and it’s an opportunity to learn! Now, let’s look at the most commonly misunderstood, misapplied, & mixed up political labels….
Left vs. Right
Left versus right — the great political divide! This pair of political labels first reared their ugly heads during the French Revolution — in the national assembly, supporters of the king sat on the right side & supporters of the revolution, many of them revolutionary socialists, sat on the left side. Newspapers began to describe the assembly in the terms left & right and it all sort of snowballed from there. By the beginning of the 20th century, those who wanted social reform or greater equality, like socialists & communists, were described as being to the left, while reactionaries & defenders of the current establishments & constitutions were described as being to the right.
Generally speaking, leftists want to reform how power & wealth is distributed by a society through social, democratic, economic, or revolutionary means and the right defends society’s institutions from idealistic reforms or tries to get rid of previous reforms.
Liberal & Conservative
The words, “liberal” (from Latin liber, “free”) & “conservative” (con “together” + servare “to save” = “to keep together” ), can be used to describe the ideas of keeping things as they are & being free to change them. In that sense, they can work similarly to left & right — the word “liberal,” however, is only applied to leftists in the United States. Outside of the US, a liberal is someone who promotes the ideas of liberalism, a political philosophy that emerged during the Enlightenment, influencing the uprisings against the European monarchies.
As the name suggests, liberalism promoted free speech, freedom of (& from) religion, freedom of the press, & free markets. To achieve this, liberals opposed the absolute power of monarchies, which allowed rulers & noble classes to take away the people’s freedom & property. The liberal solution was that everybody should have rights & equality before the law— meaning that kings & beggars ought to be equally accountable to written laws (like a constitution), instead of the pope or a jerk wearing a crown. When the word is used this way, republicans & democrats are both liberals because both want more-or-less free markets & a constitutional government to protect certain rights.
This can be confusing for some in the US because a right-wing republican is a liberal, while a leftist advocate of socialism (like me) is not a liberal.
Fascist vs. Authoritarian
I’ve heard many people on both the left & right hurl “fascist” at each other — in fact, the word has been mostly used negatively from the time of World War II. The word itself came from the Italian “Fascismo,” derived from the verb “to bundle or bind,” from the Latin “fasces.” A fasces was a bundle of wooden rods, often with an ax included, and a symbol of rulership & collective power in Rome — a single rod can easily be broken but many rods bundled together are impossible to snap. Benito Mussolini & his fascist party used the symbol for their ideology, which promised a return to the glory of the Rome by binding the industrial & social forces together into a militarized, central government, led by a strong leader.
Scholars are still arguing about the best definition but virtually all of them agree that the fascists were both anti-liberal & anti-socialist — which means that Donald Trump, in particular, is not a fascist. Anti-liberal means anti-capitalist and the fascists had a mostly planned economy, which would horrify the capitalist Trump! The word most people are looking for is “authoritarian.” An authoritarian leader or government demands & enforces the obedience of those below and pretty much any system of government can be authoritarian, including socialist & capitalist ones. The opposite of authoritarian is “libertarian.”
Words are Important
& Knowledge is Power
Words are important — using the right ones can empower us to clearly present our thoughts & ideas for others and, unfortunately, choosing the wrong ones can be the cause of endless arguments over nothing. For example, advocating for “democratic control of the means of production” almost never starts a heated debate, in my experience — talking about “socialism,” however, is pretty much guaranteed to start a heated debate! The amazing part is that these two things are the same! It’s not that people are unwilling to discuss different ideas — it’s just that we sometimes don’t have the same understanding of a word or concept.
With that in mind, I hope this article can help at least a few of you transform some arguments into good discussions — thanks for reading.