This essay was originally published in the September 1964 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter and later anthologized in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966 and 1967).
Among the many symptoms of today’s moral bankruptcy, the performance of the so-called “moderates” at the Republican National Convention was the climax, at least to date. It was an attempt to institutionalize smears as an instrument of national policy — to raise those smears from the private gutters of yellow journalism to the public summit of a proposed inclusion in a political party platform. The “moderates” were demanding a repudiation of “extremism” without any definition of that term.
Ignoring repeated challenges to define what they meant by “extremism,” substituting vituperation for identification, they kept the debate on the level of concretes and would not name the wider abstractions or principles involved. They poured abuse on a few specific groups and would not disclose the criteria by which these groups had been chosen. The only thing clearly perceivable to the public was a succession of snarling faces and hysterical voices screaming with violent hatred — while denouncing “purveyors of hate” and demanding “tolerance.”
When men feel that strongly about an issue, yet refuse to name it, when they fight savagely for some seemingly incoherent, unintelligible goal — one may be sure that their actual goal would not stand public identification. Let us, therefore, proceed to identify it.
First, observe the peculiar incongruity of the concretes chosen as the objects of the “moderates’” hatred: “the Communist Party, the Ku Klux Klan, and the John Birch Society.” If one attempts to abstract the common attribute, the principle, by which these three groups could be linked together, one finds none — or none more specific than “political group.” Obviously, this is not what the “moderates” had in mind.
The common attribute — the “moderates” would snarl at this point — is “evil.” Okay, what evil? The Communist Party is guilty of the wholesale slaughter of countless millions spread through every continent of the globe. The Ku Klux Klan is guilty of murdering innocent victims by the mob violence of lynchings. What is the John Birch Society guilty of? The only answer elicited from the “moderates” was: “They accused General Eisenhower of being a communist.”
The worst category of crime in which this accusation could be placed is libel. Let us leave aside the fact that libel is what every anti-welfare-statist is chronically subjected to in public discussions. Let us agree that libel is a serious offense and ask only one question: does libel belong to the same category of evil as the actions of the Communist Party and the Ku Klux Klan?
Are we to regard wholesale slaughter, lynch-murders, and libel as equal evils?
No one truly opposed to the Communist Party and the Ku Klux Klan would take their evil so lightly as to equate it with the activities of a futile, befuddled organization whose alleged sin, at worst, might be irresponsible recklessness in making unproved or libelous assertions.
And more: the Communist Party as such is not a campaign issue, neither for the Republicans nor the Democrats nor the electorate at large; virtually everybody is denouncing the Communist Party these days and nobody needs the reassurance of a formal repudiation. The Ku Klux Klan is not a Republican issue or problem; its members, traditionally, are Democrats; for the Republicans to repudiate their vote would be like repudiating the vote of Tammany Hall, which is not theirs to repudiate.
This leaves only the John Birch Society as a real issue for a Republican convention. And it was the real issue — but in a deeper and more devious sense than might appear on the surface.
The real issue was not the John Birch Society as such: that Society was merely an artificial and somewhat unworthy straw man, picked by the “moderates” as a focal point for the intended destruction of much greater and much more important victims.
Observe that everyone at the Republican Convention seemed to understand the implicit purpose behind the issue of “extremism,” but nobody would name it explicitly. The debate was conducted in terms of enormous, undefined “package-deals as if words were merely approximations intended to connote an issue no one dared to denote. The result gave the impression of a life-and-death struggle conducted out of focus.
The same atmosphere dominates the public controversy now raging over this issue. People are arguing about “extremism” as if they knew what that word meant, yet no two statements use it in the same sense and no two speakers seem to be talking about the same subject. If there ever was a tower-of-Babel situation, this is surely it. Please note that that is an important part of the issue.
In fact, most people do not know the meaning of the word “extremism”; they merely sense it. They sense that something is being put over on them by some means which they cannot grasp.
In order to understand what is done and how it is being done, let us observe some earlier instances of the same technique.
A large-scale instance, in the 1930s, was the introduction of the word “isolationism” into our political vocabulary. It was a derogatory term, suggesting something evil, and it had no clear, explicit definition. It was used to convey two meanings: one alleged, the other real — and to damn both.
The alleged meaning was defined approximately like this: “Isolationism is the attitude of a person who is interested only in his own country and is not concerned with the rest of the world.” The real meaning was: “Patriotism and national self-interest.”
What, exactly, is “concern with the rest of the world”? Since nobody did or could maintain the position that the state of the world is of no concern to this country, the term “isolationism” was a straw man used to misrepresent the position of those who were concerned with this country’s interests. The concept of patriotism was replaced by the term “isolationism” and vanished from public discussion.
The number of distinguished patriotic leaders smeared, silenced, and eliminated by that tag would be hard to compute. Then, by a gradual, imperceptible process, the real purpose of the tag took over: the concept of “concern” was switched into “selfless concern.” The ultimate result was a view of foreign policy which is wrecking the United States to this day: the suicidal view that our foreign policy must be guided, not by considerations of national self-interest, but by concern for the interests and welfare of the world, that is, of all countries except our own.
In the late 1940s, another newly coined term was shot into our cultural arteries: “McCarthyism.” Again, it was a derogatory term, suggesting some insidious evil, and without any clear definition. Its alleged meaning was: “Unjust accusations, persecutions, and character assassinations of innocent victims.” Its real meaning was: “Anti-communism.”
Senator McCarthy was never proved guilty of those allegations, but the effect of that term was to intimidate and silence public discussions. Any uncompromising denunciation of communism or communists was — and still is — smeared as “McCarthyism.” As a consequence, opposition to and exposés of communist penetration have all but vanished from our intellectual scene. (I must mention that I am not an admirer of Senator McCarthy, but not for the reasons implied in that smear.)
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 capitalism.”
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 definition 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 epistemology 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.
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 freedom versus statism. 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.”
That Society was thrust into public prominence by the “liberal” press, a few years ago, and overpublicized out of all proportion to its actual importance. It has no clear, specific political philosophy (it is not for capitalism, but merely against communism), no real political program, no intellectual influence; it represents a confused, non-intellectual, “cracker-barrel” type of protest; it is certainly not the spokesman nor the rallying point of pro-capitalism or even of “conservatism.” These precisely are the reasons why it was chosen by the “liberals.”
The intended technique was: first, to ignore the existence of any serious, reputable, intellectual advocacy of capitalism and the growing body of literature on that subject, past and present — by literally pretending that it did not and does not exist; then, to publicize the John Birch Society as the only representative of the “right”; then to smear all “rightists” by equating them with the John Birch Society.
An explicit proof of this intention was given in a TV interview last year (September 15, 1963) by Governor Rockefeller, who later led the attack on “extremism” at the Republican Convention. Asked to define what he meant by “the radical right,” he said:
The best illustration was what happened at the Young Republican Convention in San Francisco a number of months ago, where a man was elected, a Young Republican was elected on a platform to abolish the income tax, to withdraw from the United Nations, I don’t know whether he included impeachment of Earl Warren, but that is part of this whole concept, and the idea that General Eisenhower was a crypto-communist. [Italics mine.]
Part of what concept?
The first two tenets listed are legitimate “rightist” positions, backed by many valid reasons; the third is a sample of purely Birchite foolishness; the fourth is a sample of the irresponsibility of just one Birchite. The total is a sample of the art of smearing.
Now consider the meaning ascribed to the term “rightist” within the “package-deal” of “extremism.” In general usage, the terms “rightists” and “leftists” designate advocates of capitalism and socialism. But observe the abnormal, artificial stress of the attempt to associate racism and violence with “the extreme right” — two evils of which even the straw man, the Birch Society, is not guilty, and which can be much more plausibly associated with the Democratic Party (via the Ku Klux Klan). The purpose is to revive that old saw of pre–World War II vintage, the notion that the two political opposites confronting us, the two “extremes,” are: fascism versus communism.
The political origin of that notion is more shameful than the “moderates” would care publicly to admit. Mussolini came to power by claiming that that was the only choice confronting Italy. Hitler came to power by claiming that that was the only choice confronting Germany. It is a matter of record that in the German election of 1933, the Communist Party was ordered by its leaders to vote for the Nazis — with the explanation that they could later fight the Nazis for power, but first they had to help destroy their common enemy: capitalism and its parliamentary form of government.
It is obvious what the fraudulent issue of fascism versus communism accomplishes: it sets up, as opposites, two variants of the same political system; it eliminates the possibility of considering capitalism; it switches the choice of “Freedom or dictatorship?” into “Which kind of dictatorship?” — thus establishing dictatorship as an inevitable fact and offering only a choice of rulers. The choice — according to the proponents of that fraud — is: a dictatorship of the rich (fascism) or a dictatorship of the poor (communism).
That fraud collapsed in the 1940s, in the aftermath of World War II. It is too obvious, too easily demonstrable that fascism and communism are not two opposites, but two rival gangs fighting over the same territory — that both are variants of statism, based on the collectivist principle that man is the rightless slave of the state — that both are socialistic, in theory, in practice, and in the explicit statements of their leaders — that under both systems, the poor are enslaved and the rich are expropriated in favor of a ruling clique — that fascism is not the product of the political “right,” but of the “left” — that the basic issue is not “rich versus poor,” but man versus the state, or: individual rights versus totalitarian government — which means: capitalism versus socialism. 1 See my lecture “The Fascist New Frontier” [in The Ayn Rand Column]
The smear of capitalism’s advocates as “fascists” has failed in this country and, for over a decade, has been moldering in dark comers, seldom venturing to be heard openly, in public — coming only as an occasional miasma from under the ground, from the sewers of actual leftism. And this is the kind of notion that the “liberals” are unfastidious enough to attempt to revive. But it is obvious what vested interest that notion can serve.
If it were true that dictatorship is inevitable and that fascism and communism are the two “extremes” at the opposite ends of our course, then what is the safest place to choose? Why, the middle of the road. The safely undefined, indeterminate, mixed-economy, “moderate” middle — with a “moderate” amount of government favors and special privileges to the rich and a “moderate” amount of government handouts to the poor — with a “moderate” respect for rights and a “moderate” degree of brute force — with a “moderate” amount of freedom and a “moderate” amount of slavery — with a “moderate” degree of justice and a “moderate” degree of injustice — with a “moderate” amount of security and a “moderate” amount of terror — and with a moderate degree of tolerance for all, except those “extremists” who uphold principles, consistency, objectivity, morality and who refuse to compromise.
The notion of compromise as the supreme virtue superseding all else, is the moral imperative, the moral precondition of a mixed economy. 2 See the chapter “The Cult of Moral Grayness” in The Virtue of Selfishness. A mixed economy is an explosive, untenable mixture of two opposite elements, which cannot remain stable, but must ultimately go one way or the other; it is a mixture of freedom and controls, which means: not of fascism and communism, but of capitalism and statism (including all its variants). Those who wish to support the un-supportable, disintegrating status quo, are screaming in panic that it can be prolonged by eliminating the two “extremes” of its basic components; but the two extremes are: capitalism or total dictatorship.
Dictatorship feeds on the ideological chaos of bewildered, demoralized, cynically flexible, unresisting men. But capitalism requires an uncompromising stand. (Destruction can be done blindly, at random: but construction requires strict adherence to specific principles.) The welfare-statists hope to eliminate capitalism by smear and silence — and to “avoid” dictatorship by “voluntary” compliance, by a policy of bargaining and compromise with the government’s growing power.
This brings us to the deeper implications of the term “extremism.” It is obvious that an uncompromising stand (on anything) is the actual characteristic which that “anti-concept” is designed to damn. It is also obvious that compromise is incompatible with morality. In the field of morality, compromise is surrender to evil.
There can be no compromise on basic principles. There can be no compromise on moral issues. There can be no compromise on matters of knowledge, of truth, of rational conviction.
And it is against all these that that “anti-concept” has been and is being used.
Here we can see the deeper roots, the source that has made the spread of “anti-concepts” possible. The mentally paralyzed, anxiety-ridden neurotics produced by the disintegration of modern philosophy — with its cult of uncertainty, its epistemological irrationalism and ethical subjectivism — come out of our colleges, broken by chronic dread, seeking escape from the absolutism of reality with which they feel themselves impotent to deal. Fear drives them to unite with slick political manipulators and pragmatist ward-heelers to make the world safe for mediocrity by raising to the status of a moral ideal that archetypical citizen of a mixed economy: the docile, pliable, moderate Milquetoast who never gets excited, never makes trouble, never cares too much, adjusts to anything and upholds nothing.
The best proof of an intellectual movement’s collapse is the day when it has nothing to offer as an ultimate ideal but a plea for “moderation.” Such is the final proof of collectivism’s bankruptcy. The vision, the courage, the dedication, the moral fire are now on the barely awakening side of the crusaders for capitalism.
It will take more than an “anti-concept” to stop them.
Citations & Notes
- 1 See my lecture “The Fascist New Frontier” [in The Ayn Rand Column].
- 2 See the chapter “The Cult of Moral Grayness” in The Virtue of Selfishness.