Every generation believes that it is living through a unique epoch—one not only defined by novel phenomena and challenges, but one likely to define the course of human history. On occasion, this belief is warranted, but most of the time it proves to be an indulgent and specious distraction.
As Hegel was at pains to stress, all great historical facts and figures appear at least twice; “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”, as Marx later added. And so it is with all the recent talk of ‘fake news’, the emergence of a ‘post-truth world’, and the rise of the ‘Alt-Right’. In the olden days, people might have referred instead to ‘propaganda’, ‘urban myths’, or ‘white supremacists’.
Same thing, different century. In some cases, quite literally.
Take, for example, the curious anecdote, popular among the far right, that Leon Trotsky coined the word ‘racist’, thus giving birth to the modern (and supposedly pernicious) concept of racism—a concept designed, so it is said, to shut down debate and discussion and shame those whose views fall outside the mainstream.
Much like the conceit mentioned in the opening paragraph, this version of the past is compelling, pervasive, and hard to shift. It is also patently false.
The terms racist and racism have a long and storied history that predate Trotsky himself. ‘Raciste’ and ‘racisme’ crop up regularly in the works of late-19th and early-20th century French agitators, while their English language counterparts first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1902.
Of course, at the time, these words were predominately used to refer to (a) the pseudo-scientific classification of human beings into distinct races, (b) the supposed hierarchies that result from those distinctions, and (c) the scientific and/or moral righteousness of white racial superiority.
Granted, it wasn’t really until the late 1920s and 1930s—when these ideas and systems found their way from the colonies into the discourse and structures of European and American domestic polities—that the terms took on a negative or pejorative bent.
But that’s hardly surprising, is it?
Trotsky first used the word racist, or something to that effect, in a treatise entitled ‘What is National Socialism?’. Now, the last time I checked, the Nazis were quite racist, and for the love of Gott, I can’t think of any way to spin that in a positive light.
I’d contend that, for once in his life, Trotsky was simply calling a spade a spade.
I mean, what was the world’s most famous Jew supposed to do? Pen an ode to eugenics? Do Dachau and Auschwitz, or the slave trade and the Bengal Famine, for that matter, really need qualifying? And if so, for what purposes?
I’m willing to concede that the New Left and its offspring have occasionally abused concepts such as racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on, by expanding their definition to the point where they are almost meaningless.
But what about the opposite impulse? You know, the one that seeks to narrow their definition to the point where it’s impossible to legitimately be accused of any of them. That seems to be a far more insidious trend.
The idea that racism is abstract and racists are misunderstood doesn’t reflect reality. Racism is very real for a lot of people. Most of the time racists aren’t misunderstood; they’re just in denial about the nature and consequences of their behaviour. Either that or they don’t much care.
The real question that we’re dealing with when we talk about the Trotsky-invents-racism meme is “what does a constructive racism look like?” And anybody who asks that question is probably a bit of a racist.
That, more than anything, is the most important aspect of this subject. Before I take my leave, however, I’d like to point out the most obvious flaw in the logic of our amateur historians. That is, the People’s Commissar and later Exile-in-Chief only ever spoke and wrote in Russian and Ukrainian. Some poor soul had to translate his ramblings into English, which means that when he or she looked down at the page and saw the Russian word pachct, they knew that the English equivalent was ‘racist’. They knew that because the word had been in popular use for at least a couple of decades.
Ah well, you know what the old man said: “revolutions are always verbose.”
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