Rectification of names: What do I mean by leftist and rightist?
Terminology is not all, but consistent terminology is required for consistent thought.
Confucius suggested that every now and again a society must take a pause and consider where the names fall.
This is what I am doing for my own mind in this article. I often write the words ‘rightist’ and ‘leftist’. I am quite convinced I know that I mean what I mean by these terms.
What others take from these terms I know less well.
Arguments — particularly Internet arguments — are often sidetracked into debates over definitions and terminology. A person will describe a policy announced by a socialist and another will interject that the policy could not possibly be described as socialist because according to sources — anecdotal or documentary — this is what a socialist is, and a socialist would say no such thing.
The debate then swerves into a discussion about what is truly socialist, and not the policy that was meant to be discussed.
There are people for whom an Oxford English Dictionary definition is the final word, and people for whom the Qur’an in classical Arabic is the final word, and others will settle for nothing less than the latest reports from Harvard University.
What these discussions miss is that terminology is to an extent a bridge we build to reach a destination, a bridge that must collapse behind us as we cross it.
This is to say that it is a mistake to make a fetish of the words ‘socialist’, ‘libertarian’, or ‘liberal’ provided that the words allows us to make meaningful and useful generalisations.
The world of Marxist politics famously provides a thicket of minor party groups split between views on the Soviet Union, Mao, Hoxha, Tito — and so on.
And each group would usually claim that the other is not even communist, but actively anti-communist. We could not begin to talk about all these differing groups if we accept their own terms and definition of what it is to be a ‘communist’.
People who engage in long, pedantic attacks on an argument on the grounds that the terminology is not quite, in their view, right have more often than not missed the point.
Quite often these people do not really wish to think, and finding the correct label for a person or a thought is the excuse required. For them it is sufficient to say, “Oh, he is an Islamist,” as if this settles everything about what a person has to say. He may well be an Islamist — as you understand the term — but that doesn’t mean what he has to say is untrue, mendacious, or uninteresting.
The problem with names occurs less often in natural science because there are fewer possibilities for interpretation in that field.
Titanium has certain chemical properties, which can be represented numerically. And so scientists do not snipe over the issue of what is really titanium — although alchemists may do so. It is harder to become entranced with the idea that there is this pure ‘thing’ hidden in our idea of titanium.
But we may talk about politics at multiple levels. An autobiography that describes the early life of Labour MP can talk about his subjective experiences of growing up in a socialist family in the Lancashire coal fields.
This is one socialism, an experience connected not only to what socialism meant historically, but also what it meant in a more limited sense to the MP’s family, town, and social life.
This is quite different to a contemporary academic researcher who decides to conduct a quantitative report on socialists in the Labour Party today. This report will be composed of statistical tables, tests for significance, and graphs representing the typical socialist but will say little about how it feels to be socialist, or what socialism means to each datum point (i.e. a person).
What socialism means to a philosopher who seeks to build a consistent and cogent thought system — perhaps to justify socialism on moral grounds — will also differ from the two senses in which socialism may be used above.
A newspaper or television journalist will take yet another view on what constitutes socialism — as will the man on the street who has developed his own views as to what is meant by socialism through a collage of the above positions.
All this is before we account for the opposition to socialism by a great many people. Those people will mischaracterise socialist positions, and engage in propaganda to develop certain emotional reactions in people to very word ‘socialist’.
We see this in all political debates. There has been a propaganda move afoot for several years to refer to the Islamic State by its Arabic short-form Daesh because this produces an insulting name in Arabic.
This has not persisted in the Western media — except with prods from governments — because most of their audience does not know Arabic, and so the term merely introduces further confusion about who ‘the Islamic State’, ‘ISIS’, and ‘Daesh’ is exactly.
The preferred alternative is to refer to the ‘so-called Islamic State’, which is a bold pronouncement on theology and ideology — particularly when used by organisations such as the BBC.
I am not a bore given to attacking the BBC in particular, and I am quite amused at how both leftists and rightists express equally impotent, vein-popping fury at whatever the BBC says or does.
I merely use the organisation as an example because the BBC is known for formally stressing a desire to be — or appear to be — neutral.
Neutrality is impossible, and the desire to be neutral is itself a political position. Nonetheless, an organisation can aspire to be more or less neutral.
The use of ‘so-called Islamic State’ is significant because using the term in this way suggests that the BBC has an overt, decided view on Islamic theology and ideology.
It may always have done so, as it may have had a view on whether communism was or was not a desirable political system.
But one can make this clear in the context of the reporting and the people interviewed rather than the actual words used to convey the news.
If one predominantly interviewed Soviet dissidents and not Soviet diplomats, then one would show such a preference. But one could avoid using the term ‘dissident’ when doing so, if that term suggested that the dissident in question had a legitimate grievance against the Soviet Government.
Doubtless many hours have been spent deciding editorial policy on these points, and my inferences are own a weak reflection of a pale shadow with regard to how words such as ‘terrorist’, ‘militant’, ‘Islamist’, ‘radical’, ‘revolutionary’ and so on are used in these media organisations.
The use of ‘so-called Islamic State’ is probably a sop to Muslim groups in the West who can apply pressure to the media to adapt their view on the Islamic State’s legitimacy as a Muslim state.
But it is an important sop because it suggests by implication that countries such as the United Kingdom have a definite view — via their most influential, state-associated media outlets — on the legitimacy of differing branches in Islamic theology and ideology.
I do not expect media organisations that aim for neutrality to have firm and overt views on the divinity of Christ, the truth of the theory of surplus value, or the Islamic State’s theological status.
We may well regret such a bold stance in the future.
After all, we do not refer to the ‘so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ on the grounds that the DPRK is neither democratic, republican, nor controlled by ‘the people’ in the Western liberal democratic sense.
We take the name that the government has selected for the country at face value, and we make no further statement as to whether that name conforms to deeper political beliefs.
If a media organisation wishes to cheek the DPRK government, the usual resort is not to the ‘so-called’ label but simply to use the geographic term ‘North Korea’, which implies that the government occupying that territory is illegitimate.
I am stating the obvious, but this is — I think — exactly what Confucius was saying must be done during the rectification of names, a moment to state what everybody knew anyway but had taken for granted for so long it has been forgotten.
As for my distinction between left and right: the left stands for democracy, egalitarianism, and cosmopolitanism while the right stands for aristocracy, hierarchy, and rootedness.
That’s frustratingly arbitrary if you’re reading this article, but those triptychs emerged for my mind swamp while I was writing the nonsense about the Islamic State and communism — somehow that shook the concepts loose, but not in a way I can actually write down.
Sorry about that, my darlings.
But, in a sense, these definitions must be arbitrary if there is to be any starting point at all.
I can embellish the terms as I go along before I wipe them away like dew in the next rectification of names.
A few further distinctions.
The far left seeks to advance the leftist troika through a state of emergency, the situation is as with the eponymous political group: socialism or barbarism.
There is no restraint from law, since the world must be saved through socialism or perish under capitalism.
The far right, by contrast, will take the tools of modernity to resubstantiate the lost values of the past in the present — revolutionary conservatism.
These are principles. There are further distinctions to be made between groups, which do not always fully embody these principles — an overtly rightist political formation may contain leftist elements, and the reverse is true for a leftist group.
Further, there is the paradox of actual politics. A far-left government can lead to rightist outcomes. The Soviet Union created a hierarchical state with an aristocratic single-party structure underpinned by a closed, nationalistic society.
The rightist Western governments created democratic, egalitarian, and cosmopolitan societies due to the atomising, meritocratic and international aspects of capitalism as tempered with leftist social democracy.
In politics we live in paradox. Right and left depend on each other, and what was a leftist objective can become a rightist objective and vice versa.
The rectification of names can only ever be a temporary affair.