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What's in a Name?

Part II: Fascists are not Socialists

What's in a Name?

If it walks like a duck, it might just be a duck even if it calls itself something else

In part 1, I mentioned being raised in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and used it as an example of something that tends to be surrounded in a lot of misconceptions and untruths in popular culture and the general public. Bear with me as I use the Church as an example once again.

In 1890, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially discontinued the practice of polygamy prior to Utah becoming a state 6 years later. However, some members wished to continue the practice, so they moved to Mexico where they could do so without running afoul of US laws or law enforcement.

In the 1970’s Ervil LeBaron—the son of one of these members who moved their family to Mexico—began ordering murders of his rivals, using the disputed religious doctrine of ‘blood atonement’ to justify them. He had split with his brother, Joe, over leadership of a polygamist community that consisted of around 30 families that lived in both Utah and Mexico. Ervil ordered the murder of Joe in Mexico in 1972. He continued ordering murders throughout the 1970’s of those he deemed to be rivals in various polygamist fundamentalist sects. Eventually, the murders extended to members of his own family and even his supporters. He was linked to the death of his own 17-year-old daughter who was pregnant with her 2nd child and wanted to leave the group.

Ervil was eventually extradited to the United States, convicted of ordering one of the deaths, and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1980. He died in prison in 1981. However, while in prison, he wrote a 400 page book—a ‘bible’ which included a commandment to kill disobedient sect members included on a hit list compiled by LeBaron. Even after his death in prison, the bloodshed continued due to this. It is estimated that more than 25 people were killed due to Ervil’s prison-cell orders, long after his death. Family members and ex-members of his group remained in hiding for years for fear of retribution from his followers.

Now, if I was to use Ervil LeBaron as an example of all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, would that be right? If someone asked me what Latter-day Saints were like, and I pointed to the history of Ervil LeBaron and said, “polygamist murderers”, would that really be an accurate representation of all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints? Of course not! Just to be clear, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints discontinued the practice of polygamy in 1890 as mentioned previously, and excommunicated those (including Ervil LeBaron’s father) who insisted on continuing with the practice. The Church today is not affiliated with any polygamous groups.

Of course, there continues to exist various fundamentalist sects that splintered off from the Church in its early history, many of which did (and still do) continue the practice of polygamy. Some of these groups might even call themselves ‘Mormons’ or ‘Latter-day Saints’ as well. Heck, Ervil himself might have called himself ‘Mormon’ or a ‘Latter-day Saint’. But, is Ervil LeBaron or any members of these polygamous sects representative of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose membership worldwide as of Decemeber 2019 is over 16.5 million? Absolutely not.

Furthermore, in all my years of growing up in a Latter-day Saint family and attending church and seminary, I never heard of ‘blood atonement’ until I stumbled on this history about Ervil LeBaron. Maybe it’s something these small splinter fundamentalist sects still teach, but as far as I know, official church doctrine has never condoned or implemented this. Actual members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be horrified at the behavior of this man, as would anyone else with a conscience. Pointing at Ervil LeBaron and attempting to use him as a ‘typical’ example of what a faithful member of the Church is like, would be ridiculous and intellectually dishonest.

The group has the name of the Lord in it, so they must represent the finest Christianity has to offer, right?

Here’s another example: Joseph Kony is a leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Africa, a rebel group that has committed terrible atrocities and war crimes and is infamous for abducting children and using them as soldiers. Kony is a self-described prophet with the nickname ‘Africa’s David Koresh’.[1] But, the group has the name of the Lord in it, so they must represent the finest Christianity has to offer, right? Of course not! Again, it would be ridiculous to equate this maniacal madman or his paramilitary group’s actions with those of the majority of well-meaning Christians. The same goes for Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other violent fundamentalist groups. These extreme minorities in no way represent the vast majority of billions of peaceful Muslims who contribute positively to societies around the world.

Unfortunately, this very thing happens often when socialism is mentioned, especially in western media. One example that is often brought up by those seeking to discredit socialism or communism is that of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia from 1975-79. I would unequivocally agree that this regime was extremely oppressive, violent, and murderous. However, just because it used socialist or communist iconography and called itself communist, does not mean the Khmer Rouge represents the actual ideals of socialism, communism, or the type of society socialists advocate for. The Khmer Rouge is to socialism as Ervil LeBaron is to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Joseph Kony is to Christianity.

Another common untruthful talking point that I’ve been hearing more frequently lately, is this idea that the Nazi Party in Germany were in fact socialists, because that word appears in the official name of the party: National Socialist German Workers’ Party.[2] Again, Kony’s ‘Lord’s Resistance Army’ invokes the name of the Christian savior, but would any sane intellectually-honest person conflate the child soldier army of an African warlord with having anything to do with your local community Methodist, Baptist, or Catholic church? Of course not! Despite the doublespeak of including the word ‘socialist’ in the party’s official name, no respectable political scientist or historian would confuse Nazis with actual socialists and communists. In fact, they are ideologically polar opposites, which is why they were always in conflict in real life.

The Nazi party emerged from the nationilist, racist, populist Freikorps paramilitary culture that fought communist uprisings in post WWI Germany. The Nazis in Germany ‘liquidated’ actual socialists, communists, and trade unionists. In fact, these were some of the first groups targeted as political prisoners and sent to the Nazi network of concentration and death camps. Furthermore, if the Nazis were such socialists, it’s odd that they ended up fighting the Soviet Union—which incidently also includes the word ‘socialist’ in its anglicized name: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Despite the sins of Stalin and the dysfunctional, deformed bureaucratic nature of the USSR at that point[3], the Red Army represented a country that at least was initially founded on the ideals of actual socialism, or workers’ control, as opposed to Nazi Germany, which was about as far to the right and fascist as you can get. The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) was the main Marxist-influenced party in Germany (i.e. the ‘real’ socialists), but it was banned in 1933 after the Nazis rose to power. Nazis are fascists, not socialists or communists. There is endless literature attempting to set the record straight regarding this online and in books, so I won’t belabor the point any further. Needless to say, equating the Nazis with or casting them as true socialists or communists is a bad-faith attempt (or perhaps just a severely uninformed one) at a ‘cheap shot’ to demonize socialism or communism by equating it with the Nazis since most people today agree that Nazism (and indeed fascism) is pretty terrible.

Many political parties, governments, and even legislation use this sort of doublespeak. The Patriot Act for example, is anything but patriotic. It should be called something like the ‘Further Infringement on Americans’ Civil Liberties through Increased Domestic Surveillance Act’, but that just doesn’t have a nice ‘ring’ to it I guess. Another example—bordering on the comical—is the ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’, better known as: North Korea. Obviously, North Korea is about as far as you can get from being democratic, certainly not a true republic, and it definitely does not belong to the people. But by applying the same logic used to accuse Nazis of being socialists due to that word appearing in the party’s official name, I guess we could call Kim Jong Un a great Republican, in the sense of the US political party since they both share that word in the name. Heck, I guess he’s a Democrat too! Obviously, this line of reasoning is nonsensical.

Actions speak louder than words

Just because a word appears in a name, doesn’t mean that the name belongs to an entity that practices what that word actually represents. Just because someone uses a word in their name, doesn’t mean that they then automatically represent what they claim to. Furthermore, like the USSR, even when they try to represent what they claim to, they might not live up to expectations. I think it’s important to remember something my parents often told us growing up: “Actions speak louder than words!” If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, but calls itself the United People’s Dog… it’s still just a duck. Ervil Lebaron and Joseph Kony are both just murderous lunatics, along with Pol Pot for that matter, and Nazis are still just fascists.

Yes, unfortunately many brutal regimes have claimed to be Marxist-Leninist, or various ‘shades’ of socialism or communism and have used relevant symbols, iconography, and rhetoric. But, that doesn’t mean they represent an accurate example or interpretation of what socialism actually strives to accomplish. Also, it’s important to note that this can go the other way too. There are also many examples of various dysfunctional governments ruled by autocratic, brutally violent regimes that do not adhere to the ideals of defending civil liberties or personal freedoms, while employing ‘free markets’ and capitalism as their economic model. I’ll talk about this more in the next part.

Ryli Dunlap

  1. ↩︎ David Koresh was a cult leader and head of the Branch Davidians sect. He played a central role in the Waco Siege.

  2. ↩︎ Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei in German.

  3. ↩︎ The degeneration of the USSR from Bolshevism towards Stalinism and into a bureaucratic ‘deformed workers state’ is a large and complex topic, and perhaps I’ll write more on it as I learn more about it myself. A good starting point for anyone interested is The Revolution Betrayed by Leon Trotsky, particulary the chapter on “The Soviet Thermidor”.