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A recent interaction on social media reminded me of the widespread – and commonly enough, absolutely willful – ignorance of basic political distinctions that are rampant among so many people in the U.S. In particular, I was rather aggressively informed by an individual whose education ended somewhere in the 4th grade (regardless of how much time they actually spent in school) that communism and fascism were identical. Now, one need not be an especially enlightened thinker to recognize what galactically infantile nonsense on stilts such a clownish identification obviously is, but I thought I would use the moment to challenge myself to generate shoestring characterizations of both that, while undoubtedly insufficient by an expert’s criteria, might still serve as a useful thumbnail sketch for those of us who are not experts.

First, let me state what is implicit in the above: I am not an expert. Social/political philosophy is not any of my areas of scholarly expertise. However, I do have a Ph.D. in philosophy, so I am at once a fairly educated and articulate human being, and I’ve had a better than average exposure to such ideas. So scratching out such rough and ready comparative characterizations is nominally well within my reach. The trick that makes it entertaining for me (and possibly useful for others) is creating such formulations in a short and handy way that provides an adequate indication of each position.

Second, a word of caution: as Aristotle pointed out over 2300 years ago, requiring scientific precision of non-scientific topics is manifestly foolish. The shorter form of this caveat can be summarized as, “definitions are dumb.” Unless you are working in one of the mathematical disciplines (in which group I also include such things as computer programming, theoretical physics, formal logic, and such) then anything presented as a definition is never more than a guiding heuristic, not a rigidly absolute rule. Many people seem not to understand this (or deliberately ignore it in the hope of scoring “points), especially when dealing with matters of politics. Hence, any person demanding rigorous definition of, say, either communism or fascism is either guilty of ignorance, disingenuousness, or both. Hence my insistence that what follows are “guidelines,” “characterizations,” “sketches,” and the like. So let us begin.