Why Political Terminology Matters

Why Political Terminology Matters

Shakespeare once posed the question, "what's in a nameʔ" Quite a lot, actually.

Call me an obnoxious pedant (I’ve been called worse) but the way in which we’ve been talking about political ideologies has been, frankly, a bit crap. I’m not saying this as a partisan point, but simply that there is an inaccuracy in political language which does need to be corrected. There is a tendency, I think, to speak about the “left” and “right” of politics as homogeneous entities. This is largely informed by the idea that ideologies exist on a sliding spectrum – there is the centre (that mythical ground where various Labour MPs go in their dreams) and then a divergent path way to the extreme ends of the left and right. Some would even argue that the spectrum of politics is a loop, with the “extreme” left and right being basically the same thing. In mainstream discussion of politics, you often find articles where “the left” or “the right” is given a standpoint, or criticised for not engaging in a certain practise (“The Right is on the march in the US”, “The Left must come to terms with Englishness”, that sort of thing).

Part of the problem here is that “left” and “right” have become categorical terms, when in fact they are ultimately economic terms. The pioneering work of the Frankfurt School helped expand our understanding of political categorisation. As well as a left/right axis, there is a also a libertarian/authoritarian axis. When we talk about politics, we tend to make assumptions that certain social ideas are linked to economic ideas. For example, if I said “LGBT rights”, you’d generally assume a binary, with the left being pro-LGBT, and the right being anti. If I said “religion”, one would assume that the right tends towards religious conservatism, while the left is either atheistic, or anti-theistic. It may surprise you, then, to learn that the leftwing KKE (the Greek Communist Party) is homophobic and opposes gay marriage (source here) or that the so called “alt right” movement, is vehemently atheistic.

Let’s take a term like “hard left”. This has been bandied about in relation to Momentum, and Jeremy Corbyn, and is placed in opposition to a “soft left.” “Hard Left” is often used as a catch-all term for Marxists, communists, anarchists, and the like, but ultimately is more of a pejorative than anything else. The “hard” part of them has connotations of rigidity, militancy, and dogmatism. Beyond that, it means very little. Since it functions, primarily, as pejorative, when you categorise, say, Corbyn as a “hard left” figure, you are implicitly de-legitimising his standpoint. Corbyn is not a Marxist, nor a Trotskyist, and arguably his political positions are more similar to old school Labourism than they are to revolutionary communism. The Labour supporting blog LabourList recently published a useful article about the positions of various political figures in the Labour Party on the political compass, which you can read here: Same, perhaps, one might argue for “far left” or “far right”. The best example of this is something like the British National Party, which was always referred to as a “far right” party, when, economically at least, it actually was really centre right, favouring a mixed economy. UKIP, on the other hand, is very much on the far right economically, to the extent that it could be considered a free market fundamentalist group (source here)

Similarly, comparisons have been made between Momentum and the Militant Group. Both framed as being “far left” entryists into the Labour Party. The comparison, however, is pretty useless. Militant – now known as the Socialist Party of England and Wales – is a Marxist and Trotskyist group. It was committed to revolutionary politics and was part of the political tradition of anti-Soviet leftists who broke away from the old Communist Party. Momentum, on the other hand, is none of those things. Momentum’s code of ethics, available here, is the closest thing it has to a constitution, and for comparison, the Socialist Party’s “What we stand for” is here. While there are points of agreement in terms of policy (anti-austerity, anti-discrimination and so on), Momentum makes no mention of, say, permanent revolution, dialectical materialism, Marxism, Leninism, and only mentions socialism in reference to “socialist values”. Comparing the two then is a bit like saying David Davis MP and Bernie Sanders are both concerned about surveillance and are, therefore, the same. Momentum is not an orthodox Marxist organisation, but a grassroots socialist movement which importantly is rooted within the ʟabour Party. If you are in Momentum, you are, more than likely, a ʟabour party member (or, at this stage, a suspended Labour party member #chickencoup). Whereas, in the Socialist Party, there is a clear commitment to build “a new mass workers party.” Hardly comparable then.

Why, ultimately, does any of this matter, outside of academic interestʔ It matters because if we are more nuanced in our understanding of politics, we will, for lack of a better phrase, do politics better. As a ʟabour activist, I suspect we could stem some of the tide of working class votes going to UKIP by exposing them for what they are, not a party of the people, but a ultra-conservative and authoritarian reactionary movement. Shakespeare once posed the question, “what’s in a nameʔ” Quite a lot, actually.

Chris Waugh
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