“Extremism,” or The Art of Smearing

by Ayn Rand
From Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
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Now consider the term “extremism.” Its alleged meaning is: “Intolerance, hatred, racism, bigotry, crackpot theories, incitement to violence.” Its real meaning is: “The advocacy of capitalismCapitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned...
What Is Capitalism? 19View Full Lexicon Entry

Observe the technique involved in these three examples. It consists of creating an artificial, unnecessary, and (rationally) unusable term, designed to replace and obliterate some legitimate concepts — a term which sounds like a concept, but stands for a “package-deal” of disparate, incongruous, contradictory elements taken out of any logical conceptual order or context, a “package-deal” whose (approximately) defining characteristic is always a non-essential. This last is the essence of the trick.

Let me remind you that the purpose of a definitionA definition is a statement that identifies the nature of the units subsumed under a concept. It is often said that definitions state the meaning of words...
Definitions, 40View Full Lexicon Entry
is to distinguish the things subsumed under a single concept from all other things in existence; and, therefore, their defining characteristic must always be that essential characteristic which distinguishes them from everything else.

So long as men use language, that is the way they will use it. There is no other way to communicate. And if a man accepts a term with a definition by non-essentials, his mind will substitute for it the essential characteristic of the objects he is trying to designate.

For instance, “concern (or non-concern) with the rest of the world” is not an essential characteristic of any theory of foreign relations. If a man hears the term “isolationists” applied to a number of individuals, he will observe that the essential characteristic distinguishing them from other individuals is patriotism — and he will conclude that “isolationism” means “patriotism” and that patriotism is evil. Thus the real meaning of the term will automatically replace the alleged meaning.

If a man hears the term “McCarthyism,” he will observe that the best-known characteristic distinguishing Senator McCarthy from other public figures is an anti-communist stand, and he will conclude that anti-communism is evil.

If a man hears the term “extremism” and is offered the innocuous figure of the John Birch Society as an example, he will observe that its best-known characteristic is “conservatism,” and he will conclude that “conservatism” is evil — as evil as the Communist Party and the Ku Klux Klan. (“Conservatism” is itself a loose, undefined, badly misleading term — but in today’s popular usage it is taken to mean “pro-capitalism.”)

Such is the function of modern smear-tags, and such is the process by which they destroy our public communications, making rational discussion of political issues impossible.

The same mentalities that create an “anti-hero” in order to destroy heroes, and an “anti-novel” in order to destroy novels, are creating “anti-concepts” in order to destroy concepts.

The purpose of “anti-concepts” is to obliterate certain concepts without public discussion; and, as a means to that end, to make public discussion unintelligible, and to induce the same disintegration in the mind of any man who accepts them, rendering him incapable of clear thinking or rational judgment. No mind is better than the precision of its concepts.

(I call this to the special attention of two particular classes of men who aid and abet the dissemination of “anti-concepts”: the academic ivory-tower philosophers who claim that definitions are a matter of arbitrary social whim or convention, and that there can be no such thing as right or wrong definitions — and the “practical” men who believe that so abstract a science as epistemologyEpistemology is a science devoted to the discovery of the proper methods of acquiring and validating knowledge...
Definitions, 36View Full Lexicon Entry
can have no effect on the political events of the world.)

Of all the “anti-concepts” polluting our cultural atmosphere, “extremism” is the most ambitious in scale and implications; it goes much beyond politics. Let us now examine it in detail.

To begin with, “extremism” is a term which, standing by itself, has no meaning. The concept of “extreme” denotes a relation, a measurement, a degree. The dictionary gives the following definitions: “Extreme, adj. — 1. of a character or kind farthest removed from the ordinary or average. 2. utmost or exceedingly great in degree.”

It is obvious that the first question one has to ask, before using that term, is: a degree — of what?

To answer: “Of anything!” and to proclaim that any extreme is evil because it is an extreme — to hold the degree of a characteristic, regardless of its nature, as evil — is an absurdity (any garbled Aristotelianism to the contrary notwithstanding). Measurements, as such, have no value-significance — and acquire it only from the nature of that which is being measured.

Are an extreme of health and an extreme of disease equally undesirable? Are extreme intelligence and extreme stupidity — both equally far removed “from the ordinary or average” — equally unworthy?

Are an extreme of health and an extreme of disease equally undesirable? Are extreme intelligence and extreme stupidity — both equally far removed “from the ordinary or average” — equally unworthy? Are extreme honesty and extreme dishonesty equally immoral? Are a man of extreme virtue and a man of extreme depravity equally evil?

The examples of such absurdities can be multiplied indefinitely — particularly in the field of morality where only an extreme (i.e., unbreached, uncompromised) degree of virtue can be properly called a virtue. (What is the moral status of a man of “moderate” integrity?)

But “don’t bother to examine a folly — ask yourself only what it accomplishes.” What is the “anti-concept” of “extremism” intended to accomplish in politics?

The basic and crucial political issue of our age is: capitalism versus socialism, or freedomWhat is the basic, the essential, the crucial principle that differentiates freedom from slavery? It is the principle of voluntary action versus physical coercion or compulsion...
America’s Persecuted Minority: Big Business, 46View Full Lexicon Entry
versus statismThe political expression of altruism is collectivism or statism, which holds that man’s life and work belong to the state—to society, to the group, the gang, the race, the nation—and that the state may dispose of him in any way it pleases for the sake of whatever it deems to be its own tribal, collective good...
Introducing Objectivism, Aug. 1962, 35View Full Lexicon Entry
. For decades, this issue has been silenced; suppressed, evaded, and hidden under the foggy, undefined rubber-terms of “conservatism” and “liberalism” which had lost their original meaning and could be stretched to mean all things to all men.

The goal of the “liberals” — as it emerges from the record of the past decades — was to smuggle this country into welfare statism by means of single, concrete, specific measures, enlarging the power of the government a step at a time, never permitting these steps to be summed up into principles, never permitting their direction to be identified or the basic issue to be named. Thus statism was to come, not by vote or by violence, but by slow rot — by a long process of evasion and epistemological corruption, leading to a fait accompli. (The goal of the “conservatives” was only to retard that process.)

The “liberals’” program required that the concept of capitalism be obliterated — not merely as if it could not exist any longer, but as if it had never existed. The actual nature, principles, and history of capitalism had to be smeared, distorted, misrepresented and thus kept out of public discussion — because socialism has not won and cannot win in open debate, in an uncorrupted marketplace of ideas, neither on the ground of logic nor economics nor morality nor historical performance. Socialism can win only by default — by the moral default of its alleged opponents.

That blackout seemed to work for a while. But “you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.” Today, the frayed, worn tags of “conservatism” and “liberalism” are cracking up — and what is showing underneath is: capitalism versus socialism.

The welfare-statists need a new cover. What we are witnessing now is a desperate, last-ditch attempt to put over two “anti-concepts”: the “extremists” and the “moderates.

About the Author
Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand
Learn more about Ayn Rand’s life and writings at AynRand.org.