Anti-communist – or, more broadly, anti-revolutionary – rhetoric has enjoyed an obstinately persistent presence in Western political discourse since the French Revolution. Constant change in the composition of the various social movements and the continual emergence of new emancipatory groups have clearly forced the arguments used against them to evolve as well, but their core has remained relatively stable. Analysing and exposing the structure of the most common anti-communist (or simply anti-Left) debating devices is an important step towards ideological confrontation with the radical Right.
Therefore, drawing on research by historians of political discourse, this article outlines and illustrates seven of the most popular anti-communist arguments which have been used since as far back as the 19th century.
The Argument from Immanence
This is one of the “heavy guns” in the armoury of the radical Right, but identifying and naming it could ultimately make it possible for this debating device to be appropriately and effectively confronted. The argument from immanence (i.e. “what exists”) claims to programmatically reject all ideologization in the perception of phenomena so that their “essence” can be grasped, and “naked” reality be discovered, undistorted by any abstract judgements. This argument, therefore, comes from supporters of various kinds of “political realism” who, when it comes to practical demands, turn out to be simply conservatives fighting social change which they find uncomfortable. “You should just accept things as they are.” “Science long ago discovered the principles of effective management, so there is no place here for ideology.” “In matters of economics we should pursue our own interests and leave dreaming to the dreamers.” When we hear such arguments in a discussion, we can be sure that our opponents are hiding their conservative ideology behind the cloak of practicality, science and an ideology-free approach. The realist mask usually falls away when the discussion gets down to global warming or whether homosexuality needs curing – then we find that political realism often turns out to be obscurantism wearing heavy makeup.
The Argument from Alienness
Anti-immigrant demonstration in Lublin/youtube.com
Right-wing movements enthusiastically profess national identity, and call themselves the real representatives of the interests of a particular nation (an expressive example is the Polish nationalist chant “This is Poland!”). In this way they attempt to deprive left-wing movements of the right to represent a society in which they are supposedly foreign elements expressing interests contrary to the real (and correctly defined) public good.
The Ultimate Consequence Argument
In recent years this form of argument has become especially popular among homophobes, although it is also used by all kinds of denialists. Its basic function is to distort opposing views by reducing them to absurdity and so discredit or ridicule them. A homophobe on TV might ask: “You’re in favour of gay marriage being legal, are you?” and then follow up with “So maybe you also support marriage with dogs? Or legalizing necrophilia and abolishing the minimum age of consent?” Another version of this style of argument might go as follows: “You want to fight global warming, do you? So, you’re OK with a litre of petrol costing 3 euros? And what about global cooling?! Are you ready to fight that too?”
It is worth noting that this rhetorical device is generally absent from left-wing discourse in which there are no statements like: “You want a ban on abortion? So why not make divorce illegal as well? And how about giving fathers power over who their daughters can and can’t marry?” At least this kind of reasoning would have some connection with reality, admittedly (and rightly) long gone, rather than with the non-existent worlds of the radical Right’s nightmares.
The Psychiatric Argument
Representatives of the radical Right are especially fond of using this argument when they have exhausted their other ones without the desired result. At this point they like to begin analysing the mental health or emotional maturity of their leftist adversaries. This is a very old mechanism. For example, the struggles of the French proletariat in the nineteenth century, and especially the Paris Commune, have consistently been presented in anti-communist historiography as manifestations of collective mental pathology or crowd insanity. But this argument is also frequently used to attack individuals: “Everywhere you look you see oppression, do you? But haven’t you noticed the general improvement in the economic situation? You’re obsessed with the lives of others, instead of getting your own in order!”. These are just a few of the examples we could give from the repertoire of anti-communist political psychiatry.
The Argument from Results
“If you want to see poverty decrease, then support charities and do not rob people of the fruits of their labour!” – a frequently heard anti-left argument.
Opponents of the Left who use this type of argumentation, pay (brief) lip service to a left-wing demand and focus their criticism on the proposals for its implementation. In other words, this debating device involves assuming that although some leftist ideas may be worth supporting, when they are actually put into practice the result often diverges from their noble intention. Leftists in a television studio advocating progressive taxation or an unconditional basic income may hear: “If you want the scale of poverty to decline, then support Catholic charities and do not rob people of the fruits of their labour!” A particularly twisted version of this argument uses the reverse logic of claiming that only when the Left departs from its program can it implement desirable reforms. “The SLD (“Democratic Left Alliance”) managed to create jobs when they lowered taxes on businesses” is one of the claims frequently repeated by neoliberal commentators in the media.
The Argument from Social Status
In fact, this is a specific version of the psychiatric argument, but it appears so often in public debate that it is worth mentioning separately. It is ad hominem (directed against the person), and particularly targets left-wing activists who, it is claimed, are defending the interests of a class which is simply not their own. It implies that the ranks of leftist organizations are filled with blasé intellectuals from the middle class who have decided to become rebels for the sake of their own entertainment and as a springboard for a media career. This argument oozes with barely concealed right-wing elitism which attributes to itself “knowledge of real life” and the ability to “successfully manage” in a free market economy, etc.
The Argument from Symmetry
This argument was already present in anti-communist discourse in the 19th century, but became especially popular during the Cold War. It contends that leftist or communist demands, if implemented, must inevitably lead to barbarism or totalitarianism. Such was the logic behind equating the Soviet version of communism with fascism and Nazism. This interpretation was advocated by a group of political scientists and historians with the result that it gained academic respectability.
In public debate in Poland in recent years, the argument from symmetry has become significantly radicalized. It has also been elaborated through a series of discursive manoeuvres, such as a revision of the concept of Nazism. Right-wing academics have made particularly intensive efforts to prove that Nazism was both left-wing and relatively benign in comparison to Stalinism. For example, Stalin is claimed to have killed many more people than Hitler did, but at the same time it is argued that the NSDAP (“National Socialist German Workers’ Party”) was indeed socialist.
A Different Discourse is Needed
It is worth noting that all these arguments, despite their differences, have one essential feature in common – they are reactive, i.e. they refer to the state of things which has already been created by left-wing movements or is demanded by them. This reactive character is both positive and negative. It is positive because social movements, having brought certain subjects into public debate (e.g. the emancipation of the working class, or marital equality), are always one step ahead of their conservative critics who need time to adjust to their opponents’ arguments. The negative aspect, however, is that all the arguments of the right-wing can be used to justify taking away rights which may seem to have been won once and for all.
The arguments discussed above have been flooding public debate in Poland for years, and their effectiveness has been all the greater due to the absence of any real leftist power here that would be able to confront them. The Left’s much weaker influence in society has meant that the Right has felt no need to enter into genuine debate but has rather focused on defeating its opponents by systematically redefining the meaning of key concepts. Thus, many of the above arguments are also used by the radical Right to attack the mainstream opposition (e.g. accusations of “non-Polishness” directed at the neoliberal pro-democracy movement along with allusions to the luxury furs allegedly worn by its middle-class female adherents). A further problem lies in the fact that some of the anti-communist arguments (or at least their forms) are also found in the discursive repertoire of critics of the so-called “good change” represented by the current right-wing PiS (“Law and Justice”) government. A key PiS reform frequently criticized on dubious grounds is the 500 zloty per child monthly benefit for families with two or more children. The opposition also frequently laments the alleged collective psychosis of Polish society which has chosen and continues to support PiS. The current situation shows that Poland still awaits the construction of a left-wing discourse in which community is valued but so are the rights of the individual, a discourse which is critical of both narrow nationalism and the EU bureaucracy, and which is marked by realism in defence of a bold and romantic vision.
Polish historian, PhD student at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznan, Poland. He deals mainly with the history of ideas, mass social movements, revolutionary processes in society and theories of modernization. Author of a series of scientific texts and journalism. Regular contributor to the Polish left platform Strajk.eu and the Marxist academic quarterly magazine “Theoretical practice” (“Praktyka Teoretyczna”).