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Did Leon Trotsky Invent Racism?

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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James A. Chisem is a freelance writer based in the UK. He writes about history, foreign policy, and football (or soccer, to some). His work has been published by International Policy Digest, e-International Relations, and Atlantic Bulletin. ...more →

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53 thoughts on “Did Leon Trotsky Invent Racism?

  1. Humans are tribal. That means they are all racists, as any differences from the viewer are viewed with suspicion. You are not “one of us”, be it because you have a different skin color, worship a different god, eat something different, wear different clothes, or wipe your but with the “wrong” hand. It’s an innate human characteristics and all people like to be near and associate with people like them. This manifests itself in everything from slavery to “it’s not torture when Americans do it”.

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    • Humans have strong tendencies towards tribalism but if humanity was really as tribal as you say in mass than our world would look very different. We would still be in the stone ages huddling close to the camp fire if your vision was accurate. People are equally attracted to the different as they are repulsed. We have and continue to actively seek out the exotic as we take comfort in the familiar.

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      • Sure, that’s part of our nature as well. But if you actually pay attention to people, they cluster in groups. People of similar education, SES, etc. cluster (race can vary). People cluster by race-saw that in college.

        There’s a difference in trying something new and not wanting to live that 24/7.

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        • I think Damon’s points here are pretty valid. I always look at interracial marriage statistics as an indicator of the state of racial integration in the U.S. It’s not a perfect indicator, but as we become a less racially-concious society, it makes sense that the rate of inter-racial marriage would increase each year. That is true, however the census data shows there is still a lot of tribalism.

          * A record 15.1% of all new marriages in the United States were between spouses of a different race or ethnicity from one another. This compares to 8.4% of all current marriages regardless of when they occurred. This includes marriages between a Hispanic and non-Hispanic (Hispanics are an ethnic group, not a race) as well as marriages between spouses of different races – be they white, black, Asian, American Indian or those who identify as being of multiple races or some other race.

          * Among all newlyweds, 9.4% of whites, 17.1% of blacks, 25.7% of Hispanics and 27.7% of Asians married someone whose race or ethnicity was different from their own.

          * Among all newlyweds, intermarried pairings were primarily White-Hispanic (43.3%) as compared to White-Asian (14.4%), White-Black (11.9%), and Other Combinations (30.4%). Other combinations consists of pairings between different minority groups, multi-racial people, and American Indians.

          * Among all newlyweds, native-born Hispanics and Asians were far more likely to intermarry than foreign-born Hispanics and Asians: 36.2% of native-born Hispanics (both men and women) out-married compared to 14.2% of foreign-born Hispanics; 32% of native-born Asian men out-married compared to 11% of foreign-born Asian men; 43% of native-born Asian women out-married compared to 34% of foreign-born Asian women. Foreign-born excludes immigrants who arrived married.

          * Gender patterns in intermarriage vary widely. Some 24% of all black male newlyweds in 2010 married outside their race, compared with just 9% of black female newlyweds. Among Asians, the gender pattern runs the other way. Some 36% of Asian female newlyweds married outside their race in 2010, compared with just 17% of Asian male newlyweds. Among whites and Hispanics, by contrast, there are no gender differences in intermarriage rates.

          * Rates of intermarriages among newlyweds in the U.S. have nearly tripled since 1980 (6.7%) increasing to 14.6% in 2008 and 15.1% in 2010.

          * There is a strong regional pattern to intermarriage. Among all new marriages in 2010, 22% in the West were interracial or inter-ethnic, compared with 14% in the South, 13% in the Northeast and 11% in the Midwest.

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    • Humans are tribal, but how the boundaries of the tribe are defined is flexible. A common goal of the higher minded is to expand the boundaries to include all humanity: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female”. In practice, most people have a really hard time recognizing everyone else as fully human, and find some way to distinguish Those People from the rest of us.

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        • This statement is literally dehumanizing, which makes it more dangerous than mere racism which only hints at dehumanization. Societies that label people sub-human for their thinking are every bit as dangerous as those who do so by race. Indeed, there is an element of universal terror in the thoughtcrime societies that doesn’t exist in the racist ones.

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          • Pinky,
            A member of the species homo sapiens that is unable to process feelings, undergo potty training, speak… I think this absence of thought qualifies them as being “not human”, as their brains are sufficiently different (and… not working) to be considered such.

            I don’t much care about what someone thinks, so much as that they display the basic cognitive abilities.

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            • Who are you excluding? From thread context, it would seem that you’re saying that people with primitive views of their fellow man shouldn’t be counted as humans. Now you seem to be saying that infants and the [developmentally disabled] aren’t human. The one consistency in all these cases is the speaker’s comfort in taking human rights away from those he deems unworthy of them.

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              • Pinky,
                If I were to treat everyone with stupid views as subhuman, well, I’d have to remove most of humanity.

                Infants are developing — or they aren’t.

                I’ll defend taking rights away from people who can’t uphold their end of the bargain. In compense, I will maintain that we owe duties towards those who cannot comprehend rights.

                I put it in this way, because we’re going to have some hard decisions to make. What one is willing to do for an equal partner sworn to uphold the same rights as the next person, is very different than the duty we extend to those incapable.

                What do you say to the mentally deficient rapist who is unable to comprehend that rape is wrong? I don’t think we should extend this person rights, though we do have certain obligations (among them, a consideration to not torture said person who doesn’t know better).

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                • So why did you bring this up at all? Was Richard talking about tribalism in terms of developmental disabilities? It was a non sequitur, and one that you should have easily foreseen would cause confusion. I do have disagreement with you about the rights of children and the developmentally disabled, but there’s no reason that we should be on this tangent.

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    • Damon’s statement has some meaning to it. But I find that it’s a lot more likely to do what the article talks about – defining a word out of existence – than this Trotsky claim is.

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    • What makes this particular line of argument interesting is not even whether it’s true that Trotsky “invented” “racism”.

      It’s that it allows the listener to take the concept of “racism” and reframe it in his or her head.

      It reframes the word from describing one person’s personal antipathy against someone from another race (or even support for the new definition that relies on the concept of Structural Racism) into “this is a word that is used by the Marxist left that was originally *DESIGNED* to be a rhetorical atomic bomb that automatically wins the war.”

      So people who have received this particular rhetorical booster shot, in the future, no longer hear what you mean when you say racist, but what (supposedly) Trotsky “really” meant when he said it.

      And in having that particular defense, are no longer vulnerable to the power contained in the word.

      I’ll demonstrate: hold the Alleged Trotsky definition in your head for a moment. Just a moment.

      “Black people cannot be racist.”

      See how the argument has now changed in your head?

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      • Yeah, I see that.

        Also in having that particular defense, they make themselves more racist (however they deal with the term).

        What’s ironic is that today’s socialists are finding themselves having to defend against charges of racism and sexism by other parts of the left. They’ve avoided using this meme to do so that I’m aware of, but I’d be interested to know if they’ve addressed it at some point (likely via mockery).

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          • Black lives matter accuse Bernie Bros of being racist. In a way, this ideological insistence that there isn’t this specifically race based discrimination going on and that everything is about economic class and the evils of capitalism is racist. There is a sense in which people who do this are using black people’s problems to advance their own agenda. And that just runs salt on the wound. Even if it’s not quite deliberate, the may be since culpable negligence here.

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            • Obviously there are examples of everything somewhere, but in general I don’t think the people in question are denying there is specifically race-based discrimination. The issue is what kind of politics the left should place the greatest, but not nearly exclusive, emphasis on in countering the broad fact of oppression and deprivation of all kinds in society.

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  2. I do see a problem with the term “racist” (or “sexist” or “ableist” or whathaveyou), as it’s used in some quarters, as having some sort of intrinsic moral value that is superior to that of “correct” or “incorrect”.

    I don’t want to come up with a particular example, lest we run down that bunny trail (though we probably will anyway) but let’s look at Proposition P.

    Is it possible for Proposition P to be both True and Racist (or sexist or ableist or whathaveyou)?

    It seems to me that it is very possible for a Proposition P to be both at the same time.

    And so if you’ve got a Proposition P with a value of T, you can point out that Proposition P is Racist (or sexist or ableist or whathaveyou)? You may not be able to demonstrate that Proposition P is F, but you can get Proposition P off the table.

    If you’re really skilled, you can get people to nod at Proposition ~P if Proposition ~P is ~Racist (or ~sexist or ~ableist or ~whathaveyou) even though Proposition ~P is F.

    Because the intrinsic moral value of a Proposition being ~Racist is more important than the mere question of whether a Proposition is T or F.

    But that only works for so long…

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      • I believe that the argument is something to the effect of “the problem with socialism is socialism, the problem with capitalism is capitalists”.

        Let’s assume the existence of evil for a few moments.

        There are a handful of people who prefer evil to good. In a free market system, these people will harm others. This is the nature of evil.

        Replacing this system with another system will not turn these people into good people. The only thing you can do is replace it with another system. Most of the other systems that have been tried out thus far have been systems that are gameable by evil people and result in evil people rising to power quickly and staying in power for a good long while because evil can be more easily explained away by a system that explains that, you know, you have to understand, your choices require being limited by people in power.

        And, before you make a Trump joke, he’s limiting the choices available to persons. He’s not opening them up. He’s not a free marketer. Not even close. He’s gaming the hell out of the system.

        He’s fighting *AGAINST* the free market.

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