Common fallacious uses of the terms “socialism” and “communism” in American political discourse
In the United States the words “socialist” and “communist” have long been used demagogically to dismiss the views of those on the Left. In this, often those dismissing others as “socialist” or “communist” apply the terms to virtually anyone who promotes government intervention in the economy. Or if levied against the rare breed in the US who, like Bernie Sanders, happily self-identify as “Democratic socialist,” those using the term against them apply a definition of it—generally identifying it with Stalinist authoritarianism—that is completely at odds with the use the term by such “Democratic socialists.” In many attacks, we often also see the attackers moving rather seamlessly from accusations of being “liberal” to allegations of being “socialist,” to attacks of being “communist.”
In these various uses—or abuses—of the language, informal logical fallacies are often at play. Here I want to examine how allegations of “socialism” or “communism” often provide examples of the following five fallacies: 1) ad hominem fallacies, 2) an appeal to emotions, 3) equivocations, 4) straw man arguments, and 5) the slippery slope argument. Very often they are also accompanied by 6) a false dilemma, as it is stated, for example, that one cannot be a socialist and a true American. In Part 1 of this blog I will discuss some historical cases in which these fallacies have been used. In Part 2 of the blog I will introduce the fallacies and discuss in more detail how some of the cases demonstrate such fallacious use of reasoning.
It is likely that many of us can think of our own examples of the dismissal of individuals as “socialist” and of cases of this slippery slope. A famous example, though, is the early attack on FDR by Al Smith, a New York Democrat who ran against him as a centrist in the Democratic presidential primaries in 1936. Smith, who was very critical of FDR’s New Deal program, uses extremely hyperbolic language when speaking of FDR and his supporters. In a famous speech at the Liberty League in 1936 he follows the slippery slope in describing FDR and the mainstream Democratic Party first as “socialist,” then “communist.” In an early statement in the speech he notes: ““Make a test for yourself. Just get the platform of the Democratic Party and get the platform of the Socialist Party and lay them down on your dining-room table, side by side…. After you have done that, make your mind up to pick up the platform that more nearly squares with the record, and you will have your hand on the Socialist platform.”
Not long afterward he shows himself having been susceptible to the slippery slope argument: “It is all right with me if they want to disguise themselves as Karl Marx or Lenin or any of the rest of that bunch. [B]ut …. there can be only one capital. Washington or Moscow.” Here, Smith shows himself to have moved from the view that 1) FDR favors the New Deal, to 2) The New Deal is Socialist, to 3) Socialists are Soviet supporting communists. (More on this below.)
FDR suffered many such attacks—by conservative Democrats like Smith and of course by Republicans. He was assaulted not only for being Socialist (or Communist) but also for being Fascist. As seen in Smith’s example, he was also attacked at the same time as un-American. Americans, so goes the trope, cannot be socialists—despite that over 30% of Americans at the time of Roosevelt was in office in fact were self-avowed socialists.
Nonetheless, the tradition of anti-socialism in the US is persistent. Better known even than the attacks on FDR are the attacks on “communism” during Joe McCarthy’s “red scare.” While the uses of the term “socialist” is often inflated to mean communist, McCarthy tends to forgo the lighter more suggestive S-word altogether and go directly for that other even dirtier word in the US—the C-word. In McCarthy’s famous early speech in Wheeling, Virginia, often seen as the launching his red scare, he said “While I cannot take the time to name all the men in the State Department who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205.” This statement wasn’t just fallacious—for confusing Keynesians with socialists or communists. It was also a clear lie. McCarthy had no such list. And whatever lists he later had that weren’t completely fabricated, he was brand-marking here and throughout his tenure people of radically different sorts on the ideological spectrum as communist. He infamously went after social figures, big and small. Of the Secretary of Defense George Marshall, who had both developed the Marshall Plan and served as Secretary of State, He said he was “always and invariably serving the world policy of the Kremlin.”
A more usual way of dismissing socialists, and one that still fits into the country’s inglorious history of this, is provided by current California Republican congressman, Kevin McCarthy, who has recently dismissed progressive law makers, using the more traditional S-word rather than the C-word, saying “They are no longer democrats” and that they want “socialist” lawmakers to take over. And more well known than the Kevin McCarthy is of course President Donald Trump, who has been similarly accusing the Democratic lawmakers for years. To mention just a recent example, on July 10, 2020 he dismissed the entire democratic party in such terms, saying they are “the party of socialism and worse.” His comment that Biden is “a puppet of the radical Left” fit the same mold.
The examples I have shown here all have many issues. We could just call them demagogic lies and be done with it, since each of these cases are good enough examples of that. But I would like to highlight in the next section how various demagogic lies by those who dismiss others as socialists or communists are very often committing logical fallacies.
Ad hominem fallacy: The Latin ad hominem means “to the person.” It is one of a large group of fallacies that function by deflecting from the argument. Those committing this fallacy do not take up an argument and examine the soundness of the points being made. Rather they deflect from the argument by attacking the person making it instead, accusing them of some pernicious motive or characteristic. We all know of individuals being dismissed as “idiots,” “fools, “fascists,” “socialists,” or “communists.” The demagogic use of the term “socialist” often is meant precisely as an attack phrase. It signals merely that the arguments of those being attacked will not have to be taken up.
The accusations above by both Kevin McCarthy and Donald Trump are uses like this. Neither McCarthy nor Trump take up an argument about what socialism is. They simply use the accusation of socialism to deflect from an argument. If they can do this, then they don’t need to take up the relative advantages or disadvantages of a policy position, such as the call for higher estate taxes or for universal health care, or for any of the other issues of pertinence in the general discussion.
Appeal to emotion:
An appeal to emotion is another of the fallacies engaged in deflection. It is an attempt to persuade others by manipulating or exciting their emotions, where, like in the ad hominem attacks, there is not also an appeal to facts. In fact, this often accompanies ad hominem attacks. This occurs with accusations of a person’s “socialism” and “communism” because the connotations the word “socialist” and “communist” from 19th to 21st century US history have been negative. Al Smith’s suggestion that those who are socialist or communist are un-American appeal directly also to the “patriotic” or nationalistic impulses of many to excite their emotions.
McCarthyism famously played precisely on such nationalist or patriotic sentiments in his accusations of socialism and communism. Propogandistic films of the McCarthy era, such as the Red Menace (1949) helped spread a sense of hysteria about the red threat. Here, the effects of music and images helped create the emotional appeal in a way that words alone cannot. One scene of the film, depicting a communist cell educational meeting, begins with ominous music as ordinary looking Americans descend the stairs into a basement communist cell meeting. It depicts the meeting beginning with figures overlooking the indoctrination into communist theory, who, were the words missing, one might mistake for mafia members in a gangster film. The words themselves in the beginning of the scene are not reaching high throngs of emotion, but they hit on themes frightening for many Americans. “Men are not responsible to anyone except the totalitarian socialist state.” One sign displayed in the scene states, “Stalin says, Dictatorship means unlimited power, resting solely on violence, not on law.” After highlighting these words the narrator notes, “And yet the American communists deny that they want to overthrow our government by force.” Later in the segment, as one “initiate” questions the appeal to violence, the seemingly sweet woman seminar leader raises to her feet saying “We’ll have our way if it means bloodshed and terror, if we have to liquidate a million…like you.” The questioner is castigated as a fascist as the group raises its voice collectively. He’s removed from the room and beaten up.
(For a segment of the Red Menace— https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LegaFyYyhcw)
One of the reasons for fear of socialism and communism have been that they have both often been identified with an impulse for a violent revolution and for the undermining of civil liberties. Again, a problem is that there are versions of both ideologies that have however gone on to reject both of these. Especially many forms of socialism have long been critical of both of these things. Communism is more ambiguous about these issues. That of course is precisely one reason that many of those criticizing the Left are intent to identify socialism with communism.
False dilemma or false dichotomy:
A false dilemma or false dichotomy is the fallacy of assuming that two options rule each other out when in fact they do not. It assumes an exclusive either/or, when in fact other alternatives exist. In Al Smith’s attacks on FDR we see this at work when after accusing FDR’s New Deal policies of being “socialist,” he then goes on to argue that FDR is un-American. “There can be only one atmosphere of government, the clear, pure, fresh air of free America, or the foul breath of communistic Russia. There can be only one flag, the Stars and Stripes or the flag of the godless Union of the Soviets.” Now the dilemma that Smith explicitly proposes here may not be a false dilemma. In fact, one, especially at the time of the writing of this, may indeed have needed to choose an allegiance to either the USA or the Soviet Union. But the sleight of hand in Smith’s attack was in already having maintained that if one stood in favor of the Democratic Party platform (the New Deal), then one stood with Russia. The dilemma, when the sleight of hand is exposed, is: One must be for the New Deal (and the Soviet Union) or for the United States, but not both. But this is a false dilemma. As we’ve seen by generations after FDR, it was very possible to be in favor of the New Deal and in support of the US. Indeed. It has also been shown to be very possible to be in favor of more explicit forms of socialism and in support of the US. To say otherwise, even in 1936, was already belied by history. It should be so much clearer now.
McCarthy’s red scare also epitomizes this false dilemma. The name of the very committee entrusted with investigations into subversive behavior is based on such a false dilemma: the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). Liberals and Socialists were investigated along with communists, and all were essentially identified as un-Americans. From the vantage of the McCarthy supporters, you were either with them, and American, or you were against them and un-American. The film clip discussed above also highlights how anti-American the internationalists allegedly were. Looking back at McCarthyism as one of the saddest periods in US history, one sees quite clearly that alleged patriots are often those most willing to undermine the constitutional values of a country in alleged purity purges.
The equivocation: One commits an equivocation when one uses terms with ambiguous meanings in such a way as to create confusion. Actually an entire class of fallacies can be seen as based on equivocation (including the straw man and the slippery slope fallacies below). In the case of the accusations of “socialism” equivocations are often used. The “judgmental slippery slope” often consists precisely in this, assuming that if an individual subscribes to position A (identified with Democratic socialism) then one must subscribe to position B (identified with Soviet communism).
Equivocations are very common when characterizing someone as a “socialist” or a “communist.” In part, this is because the terms socialism and communism are used even in multiple ways by their adherents. Indeed, there’s a long history of various socialist groups mutually criticizing one another for not being real socialists. There is not room enough here to discuss the widely varying forms of communism and socialism. But it should be clear that there is a considerable difference between the theoretical communism that Marx discusses and describes as characterized by “the withering away of the state” and the systems of communism identified with the Soviet Union or various Latin American regimes, or China. The same kind of difficulty surrounds the use of socialism. Socialist parties in the late 19th and early 20th century normally viewed themselves as working for a social economic system that would eventually lead to the ownership of all means of production. Many rejected working within parliamentary systems and were waiting for a revolution to overthrow the government. After WW II, most socialist parties in Europe moved away from these goals. They had integrated into the apparatus of parliamentary systems throughout Europe and embraced a policy of maintaining state control over some industries directly related to “public goods,” but accepted much private ownership of industry, albeit while insisting upon government regulations for safety, worker compensation, paid holiday and the other benefits that came to be identified with the welfare state. Needless to say, in this landscape, equivocations are not at all unlikely. Over history, both terms have come to be identified with very different kinds of policies even by those who use the terms to describe themselves.
The straw man fallacy: This fallacy attributes to others positions that they do not have. In the straw man fallacy, one characterizes an argument in simplified or unflattering terms, then argues against that simplified position rather than the one that had originally been proposed. The problem is that by arguing against a simplified or falsely represented position, one doesn’t refute the position of the person being spoken to or about. In straw man fallacies, like equivocations, the confusions might be intended or unintended. The major difference between the equivocation and the straw man fallacy is that an equivocation might be made when a term is simply not carefully used. The straw man fallacy consists in building up an argument that mischaracterizes a person’s position. The Al Smith speech noted above is an interesting case. In one part of his argument he states that one could take the Democratic Party platform and the Socialist Party Platform and after comparing “the record,” see that the Democrats are in fact socialists. Actually comparing the platforms of the parties is interesting. The Socialist party platform in fact begins with a declaration of the interest of the socialist party of that time in “building a Socialist society in which the industries of the country shall be socially owned…” The second paragraph of the document already begins an attack on the New Deal. On the first page the document reads “’The New Deal.’ like ‘The Old Deal,’ has failed.” The Democratic Party platform of that year, by contrast, proposes a more business friendly tone: “The American business man has been returned to the road to freedom and prosperity. We will keep him on that road.” The document can otherwise be seen as largely defending the New Deal and pushing for its continuation. Certainly Smith’s later characterizations of the Soviet character of FDR is unwarranted on the basis of this document. A focus on civil liberties that were not protected in the Soviet Union is highlighted as one of the important elements of the platform: “We shall continue to guard the freedom of speech, press, radio, religion and assembly which our Constitution guarantees; with equal rights to all and special privileges to none.”
Even a quick reading of these documents shows that in very relevant ways the platforms of the US Socialist Party of 1936 and the Democratic Party were at odds with each other. Smith’s argument however asks us to compare the platforms with the reality. That is a trickier matter. But even the fact that the New Deal is Roosevelt’s major achievement of his first term is so roundly criticized the Socialist Party platform, his claim that the Democratic Party reality looks like the Socialist Party platform seem quite spurious. Unfortunate Smith doesn’t provide us with details of the relevant facts that he thinks make his case–likely because there are none. Smith appears quite clearly to commit the straw man fallacy. He also commits our next fallacy.
The slippery slope fallacy is typically made when arguing that if one course of action or event occurs, it will lead to another, and a further still, but where at least some steps in the causal chain are spurious. If a, then b, then c, but where the real causal link is not established or sometimes is even quite implausible. This is sometimes known more specifically as the causal slippery slope. Another version of the slippery slope is known as the judgmental slippery slope. It consists in the view that if a person makes one judgement (or has one position) that they will necessarily have another. The early discussed statements by Al Smith provide an example. He began discussing the New Deal. He then drew parallels between FDR’s New Deal and the Democratic Party platform more generally and the platform of the Socialist Party. Finally, he concluded with stating that FDR and his “young brain trusters” must be aligned with Moscow. Those who judge the New Deal appropriate must be socialists, and in turn must be aligned with Moscow (that is, communists). Many discussions of Bernie Sanders follow the same pattern.
For example, recently, the founder of Omega Advisors, Leon Cooperman, accused Sanders of “misrepresenting” himself: “He’s not a socialist. But He’s, rather, a communist.” Cooperman does go on to define his terms. He continues noting “Socialists advocate a redistribution of wealth. The communists advocate nationalizing the means of production and tearing down the house that wealth has built.” Cooperman is to an extent probably allowable in a few minute NBC interview engaging with the subject matter. But we don’t in his talk see evidence that Sanders wants to nationalize all means of production, let alone tear down the house that wealth built. And it doesn’t square with Sander’s general views or his history of political action. In an interview with Garrison Nelson, a political science professor, from the University of Vermont, Sanders, for example, says of his own position, “It’s a relatively mild, I would say a vanilla socialism.” “It’s basically focused on big businesses, and capitalist inequalities.” More still, the communist menace is so often feared because of taking away civil liberties. Sanders has a very strong history of advocating for increased civil liberties. This should hardly warrant his inclusion in the Cooperman scare.
Cooperman’s short interview does highlight a problem though. That problem is in defining what the various terms mean. In fact, democratic socialism largely does focus, as Sanders says, on redressing capitalist inequalities and reigning in the power of big business. But the traditional program of socialism, especially in the late 19th and early 20th century, did see socialism as one step on the route to communism but one in which there is “collective ownership of the means of production” or as Webster’s has in one of its definition “there is no private property.” That said, Socialist Parties throughout Europe after WW II generally no longer shared those goals. They increasingly came to see socialism as largely doing what Sanders says he’s interested in—redressing economic injustices and reigning in big business. We face the same trouble in defining “communism.” Cooperman defines it as “nationalizing the means of production.” Marx characterized communism precisely by the withering away of the state. Yet, do communists even aim for that any longer? Some philosophers, who see communism as a necessary ideal to counter global capitalism, may well. So the use of the term is very difficult to pin down. Cooperman in fact is being fairer than many in at least stating what he means by these terms and in not identifying socialism per se with communism. Where is not careful is in pointing out how Sander’s plans on “nationalizing the means of production and tearing down the house that wealth built.” This may be hard to avoid in a few minute interview. But from what we’re able to see this sure seems like a case of slippery slope.
When is an accusation fallacious?
Here we have examined some cases of the use of the terms socialist and communist in the US. That use is wrought with difficulties. That said, it is possible to engage in non-fallacious descriptions of someone’s position as “communist” who might describe themselves as “socialist,” for example. People do sometimes hide their true intensions, for example, so their plans are not foiled. Here, what would often be required is to spell out terms clearly and painstakingly. It can also clearly be acceptable to call somebody a “communist” or a “socialist”—or a “fascist” or “idiot” for that matter, along with various other terms that are often thrown around as ad hominem attacks. As descriptions of people, they may be accurate. So whether the description is a fallacy or not is contextual. In the political arena, generally, we might at least hope that politicians would have skills at parsing information, analyzing facts, weighing arguments—basic skills not merely at rhetorical persuasion but at dialogue aimed at reaching a clearer understanding. In a world like that, we would could expect individuals to do their best to avoid fallacious dismissals of others views and deflections, equivocations and false reasoning about causes. Discussions of “socialism” and “communism” in the United States, though, have proven more rife with conflict and fallacious reasoning than most. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that will end any time soon.
For more on Al Smith and FDR, in comparison with attacks for socialism today, see:
For a link to the CNB interview with Leon Cooperman, see:
For information on an interview with Bernie Sanders, see:
For a short overview of some elements of McCarthyism:
The 1936 Democratic Party platform:
The 1936 US Socialist Party platform: