Should We Insist on the "Correct" Terminology of Political Science?

Inspired partly by this thread and partly by a fellow I spoke to the other day who insisted that anarchism was the same as extreme libertarianism, and further stated that “anarchists are not opposed to all authority”. I began to debate with him- and then stopped, and wondered: At what point does the “official” or even the technically correct language of political scientists become irrelevant during discussions? Many people now, perhaps, identify anarchism as that man described it, and maybe the meaning of the word has changed enough that for ideologians to run behind shouting “stop!” is as pointless as trying to restore the use of the word “gay” to mean happy and merry. Some examples of words I see consistently misused, to prompt discussion:

-Communist: Okay, I’m going to say this just once, then shut up. The Soviet Union was not a “Communist” state, nor as there ever been one (well, not really). By this I mean that it was not in line with the ideas put forward by Marx or Engels, and neither did it conform to the expectations of those who described themselves as Communist or knew something about the ideology either in the 19th/20th century or now. That is, the Soviet Union did not genuinely enshrine the principles of common ownership, allow the state to “wither away” or adopt most of the principles in the Communist Manifesto. Barbara Goodwin describes the Soviet Union has having been “state capitalist”, and that’s not a bad term.

I don’t want to debate the merits of Communist ideology here- suffice to say that I am not trying to say that Marx’s ideas were practical or workable, merely that no-one has ever tried (outside of small-scale communes; the Israeli kibbutzim, for example, share many attributes with the Communist “collectives” envisioned by Marx). The first thing that self-described “Communist” governments throughout the world have done is to create an authoritarian autocracy, which is not the same as Communism- and it does the ideology a dis-service to identify the dreadful tyrannies of Mao and Stalin with the (perhaps) pie-in-the-sky ideas of an ideologue who would surely have rejected them as just another face of borgeouis oppression, had he lived.

Nevertheless, the way in which those states have identified themselves as Communist (in the same way that Mussolini’s Italy claimed to represent Christian ideals) means that the term has, pretty much, now lost all relevance. Also: Communism is not Socialism, although the two are related. Should we try and insist on the correct meaning of the term?

-Fascism: Grabbing my handy “Dictionary of Political Ideology” of the shelf, I can see that (historically) fascism is identified with:
[li]Anti-rationalism[/li][li]Ultranationalism[/li][li]Heil Opal! (Veneration of elites, linked to racialist ideas and support for a supreme leader)[/li][li]Corporatism[/li][li]Mysticism[/li][/ol]

You’re free to decide what, if any political grouping this list identifies, but it doesn’t describe a boss, teacher, city council or other authority system (well, most of them, anyway). Those might be authoritarian, even totalitarian, but it is highly unlikely they are facist. At least, not as political scientists use the word. But should they?

That became a bit of a rant, but I hope my main point is clear: political language as the average person uses it is rife with inaccuracies as to make a politics student scream (and while I’m here, can I mention that having the two main political parties in a democratic republic be “republican” and “democrat” is just…). Am I letting this get to me too much? Should I just accept the chaning language?

Did they? Ok, I admit that my knowledge is mostly based on documentaries on eastern Germany, but i remember socialist commentators who were adamant that this was just a western abuse of terminology. Their position was that there never was such a thing as a communist state. They even rejected that the very idea of communism limited to single countries made any sense. Communist parties were something else. That was understood to mean that those parties worked towards the distant goal of communism, not that any actual regime had achieved it.

I think you’re lumping together two points: (1) The tendancy in political discourse to engage in hyperbole; and (2) mismatch between professional and lay use of terms.

Someone who calls someone a fascist or a communist is most likely using it as a hyped up term of abuse. They may or may not have any understanding of what the term “really means”.

It’s unfortunate where laypersons and professionals use the same terms differently. I’m an economist, and it’s true to say that health care is a luxury. It is not a necessity. But when lay people say that health care is a necessity, I understand that they mean something different. It’s just important to define terms.

If one were to ask “what is communism” (or anarchism, or fascism…) in GQ, how long would it be before it got moved over to GD? Of course, I’m not very good at posting questions that get more than a couple responses, but I hope you get my point. That is, at the core, there is no concrete, defined, objective view of what a particular —ism is. You may have an opinion—and it may be a very good, widely accepted opinion—regarding the authority behind a particular definition, but I daresay there is no absolute, non-nuanced, definition that is acceptable to all rational participants. (This of course refers to attempts to describe abstract ideas with a single noun. Of course, it is much easier to ask, “what is an Xbox 360” in GQ and get a GQ response.)

Given that, isn’t one avoiding the main thrust or reasoning behind an argument if one insists on getting bogged down in semantic issues over use of a particular term? Not to say that getting sidetracked into questions of what a particular term means is valueless—it can lead to greater shared comprehension, is fodder itself for an engaging conversation, avoids arguing past each other, &c. But just as it is fruitless to get stuck arguing over whether someone who is for/against gay marriage is for/against happiness in a marriage, insisting on sticking to a particular incarnation of a definition at the cost of the overall discourse IMHO devalues the essence of that discourse.

Again, the original question of what a particular —ism is is fascinating, but if someone starts out by defining a term in order to support his or her premise, then generally speaking, for the purposes of that discussion, the term is correctly defined. If in discussing the premise it turns out that it is inconsistent or incoherent, of course that weakens what follows. But to hold it as a wrong premise merely because it does not comport with other accepted definitions is (again, generally speaking), somewhat amiss.