Useful political terms

Alienation: Forced separation. In economics, the historical process of distancing the worker from his/her product.

Anarchy: The dictionary says, "complete absence of government and law." "Political disorder and violence" "disorder in an sphere of activity." In revolutionary politics, they differ from communists in that they believe it is possible to effect an immediate transformation to a perfect society. In Marx's day, it was a strong, competing ideology. Today's anarchists tend to be middle class radicals with strong ideas about what they oppose, a few ideas about what they want, and almost no thoughts about how to get there.

Anarcho-syndicalism: The belief that trade unions can accomplish revolution without the guidance of a revolutionary political party. It's often associated with the Industrial Workers of the World, but not necessarily with their agreement

Anti-communism: America's national religion. The ideology of capitalism and its supporters. May take an indirect form of "left anti-communism." ((See Michael Parenti's essay)

Armchair socialist: Someone who spouts a lot of radical rhetoric, but doesn't do anything. See praxis

Barbarism: Also called serfdom or feudalism. A stage of social development later than slavery, where most production came from serfs who were obliged to work on large estates under an aristocratic family. More

Blanquism: A trend in the early socialist movement in France, led by Louis Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881). Lenin wrote that Blanqui did not believe socialism would result from the working class, but from a small conspiracy of intellectuals. See also anarchy.

Bolshevik: Russian for "majority." Usually used to refer to the majority in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party who agreed with Lenin that capitalism needed to be replaced. See Menshevik

Bourgeoisie: French for capitalists. Marx, Engels and others of their time were devoted students of the capitalist French revolution of 1789 and the Paris Commune of 1871. They used several French words from those studies. Scholarly writers still use French words, but they aren't as clear for working people, and they tend to make the user sound remote and pretentious

Boycott: A tactic often used within the working class against the capitalist class. The workers refrain from some common activity, usually buying a particular product, in hopes of having their demands met.

Capital: An accumulation of commodities which, brought together under the right conditions, can produce new commodities. "Fixed capital" is generally thought of as raw materials, energy, and machinery used in production. Marx usually called it "constant capital." "Variable capital" is labor power. "Capital" is also used by Marx to mean the capitalist class and the entire process of capitalism.

Capitalist: A person who makes his/her living primarily from owning the means of production and/or exploiting labor. More

Change: Nothing is what it used to be nor what it is becoming. "Quantitative changes" are small increments. "Qualitative changes" are big leaps from one kind of thing to another, usually because of the accumulation of the smaller changes. More

Chauvinism: An extreme and unreasoning partisanship on behalf of any group to which one belongs, especially when the partisanship includes malice and hatred towards rival groups. Jingoism is the British parallel form of this French word, when referring to nation. A contemporary use of the term in English is in the phrase male chauvinism [from Wikipedia]

Civilization: Today's stage of social development where production largely comes from modern industry. More

Class: A large group of people sharing a common interest because of their role in the economy or position in society. See working class, capitalist class, or middle class for the three most important classes in modern America. More

Class Struggle: The motor force of history. Contradictory classes oppose one another until the more suitable one triumphs. In recent times, the capitalist class versus the working class constitutes the main battle.

Commodity: A material or immaterial item produced for sale or exchange

Commune: Referring to the Paris Commune of 1871, which is often referred to as the first, however brief, successful workers' revolution.

Communism: A future economic system, beyond socialism, possible when everyone's needs are met and there is no longer any reason to apportion sparse resources.

Conservative: From the root "conserve," it may be used to mean someone who saves rather than spends. However, in American politics, some of the self-styled "conservatives" have advocated far more government spending than the so-called "liberals." It is nigh impossible to determine any class consciousness in either word, and consequently they confuse more than they enlighten. "Left" and "right" are equally murky in meaning.

Democracy: Government by the will of the people. Americans enjoy a partial and usually growing democracy, but vital economic and foreign policy decisions are generally made by the capitalist class.

Dialectics: The simple recognition that everything is constantly changing into something else. The Greeks used the word to describe a method of arriving at truth by arguing two different positions to arrive at a third, more accurate, position. The philosopher Hegel named the two starting positions "thesis" and "antithesis." The third, better, position was named "synthesis." After studying Hegel, Marx and Engels realized that it isn't just thoughts that are changing, but everything in our material world. Their (our) approach is called dialectical materialism. More

Dictatorship: Government by a single individual or small group of individuals.

Dictatorship of the Proletariat: A catchy phrase used to contrast a period immediately after a socialist revolution as opposed to the "dictatorship of the capitalists" that exists now. A brief transitory period in which class struggle continues, but workers have the upper hand. Once the possibility of capitalist restoration is past, it would end in a classless society.

Division of Labor: How the labor is divided and arranged in production. It is important in understanding social history because its improvements greatly increased productivity, as also did the addition of new machinery. It was especially noteworthy when assembly line production became the norm.

Dogmatism: From the idea of religious dogma. Rigid belief not based on fact or real situations

Economic determinism: Overemphasis on economic factors as the sole reasons for social developments. The "Economists" and "Spontaneists" argued that revolutionary activity was not necessary because socialism would replace capitalism sooner or later anyway.

Empiricism: a theory of knowledge that asserts that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience (Wikipedia) From the intro to "Materialism and Socio-Empricism" I gather that Ernst Mach and the Socio-Empiricists used their theory to try to refute materialism. They argued that the material world does not exist outside their sensory experience of it, and therefore does not exist at all, or does not matter.

Exploitation: Misuse of one person or group by another. In economics, the appropriation of a person or group's labor by someone else. Example: The capitalist exploits the worker by appropriating the product of his/her labor. More

Fabians: "Fabian society" -- a reformist society founded in 1884 by a group of intellectuals in Britain.

Fascism: Open terrorist rule by the most reactionary, militarist, chauvinistic section of big capital. It is a form of government sometimes chosen by capitalists, not a different economic system. More

Fetischism: Devotion to a single tactic, or set of tactics, without regard to actual effectiveness

Fixed Capital: The wealth that the capitalist spends on such things as machinery and raw materials which must be added to variable capital (workers) to determine his entire cost. Also called "constant capital."

Framing: Narrowing the alternatives in an argument so that only the desirable outcomes are allowed. More in our section on lies and lying

Gradualism: A political theory that all meaningful change must occur in small incremental steps, as opposed to qualitative change in dialectical materialism. See Wikipedia, which quotes Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, comparing it to a "tranquilizing drug." Usually associated with revisionism.

Hawk: In foreign policy, someone who would be quick to use the military. The opposite is sometimes referred to as "dove."

Hegemony: Dominance, often of one group of people over another within the same confederation. Example: "Germany gained hegemony over other European nations."

Historical materialism: Understanding history by analyzing material facts, particularly the dominant methods of production. More

Idealism: A set of beliefs with no basis in facts or concern about facts. Truth is defined as "spiritual" or the product of thought separate from the world as we know and experience it. An idealist may believe almost anything, and is unconcerned about any contradiction from reality. It is actively promoted by exploiters for their own gain. More

Ideology: Doctrines, opinions, or way of thinking of an individual, group, or class.

Imperialism: Exploitation of the people of one state by another. Lenin described modern finance capitalism as imperialism. The big, industrialized states take the resources, labor, and markets of the underdeveloped nations. It is the cause of war. More

Kneejerk activist: Someone who throws themselves into political activities without thinking. See praxis

Labor Power: The ability to work for a given period of time. This commodity is what the capitalist purchases from the worker. More

Labor theory of value: Economist David Ricardo put forward the idea that commodities gain their value according to the average amount of socially necessary labor in them. More

Left, leftist or left-wing all pertain to the capitalist revolution in France in 1789. In their parliamentary body, the more aggressive revolutionaries sat to the left of the speaker. It's important to note that all of them, left and right, were part of a capitalist revolution. Neither side favored the working class over the capitalist class. Today, people often add the working class to the jumble of the "left," but they sacrifice clarity when they do. The term "progressive" might be better than "leftist."

Liberal: No more useful than "left." Usually used as the opposite of "conservative" meaning someone who tends to spend more than save, but still within capitalist society. When we include the working class as part of the "liberals," we distract from a clear class understanding. Sometimes used as a derogatory term to describe someone with excellent intentions but little real commitment.

Libertarian: Someone who longs for an imaginary past when government was minimal and imperialism did not exist. Wikipedia says: "In the United States, the term libertarian is commonly associated with those who have conservative positions on economic issues and left-wing positions on social issues."

Leninism: Revolutionary socialists as opposed to those who like the ideology but not the action. Socialists who say they approve of what happened before the Russian Revolution but not afterward. See our longer treatment.

Lockout: A tactic used by employers against their workers, usually during contract negotiations. The workers are not allowed to work nor draw their pay. It is generally considered the opposite of a strike.

Lumpen proletariat: Generally unemployable people who make no positive contribution to an economy. Sometimes described as the bottom layer of a capitalist society. May include criminal and mentally unstable people. Some activists consider them "most radical" because they are "most exploited," but they are un-organizable and more likely to act as paid agents or a ruling class than to have any independent role in society.

Male Supremacy: Sometimes called male chauvinism, is the mistreatment and subjugation of women using the excuse that men are somehow superior.

Manilovism: Smug complacency, futile daydreaming; from the landowner Manilov, a character in Gogol's 'Dead Souls.'"

Materialism: Acceptance of real world truth and scientific evidence, as contrasted with idealism. More

Marxism: Scientific study of historic change associated with the writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Also V.I. Lenin and others building on the original two philosophers.

Menshevik: Russian for "minority." Usually used today to refer to the minority in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party who opposed Lenin's proposal to take state power because they thought a gradual transformation to socialism was possible and preferable. See Bolshevik and Social Democrat

Middle class: Intermediaries. A large group of people caught between the capitalist class and the working class. Often defined as small shopkeepers and professionals who do not primarily exploit workers, but actually much broader. The middle class as a group is generally considered to be un-organizable and incapable of long-term independent ideology, commitment, or activity. Their usual role in the class struggle is to follow one of the two dominant classes, usually the one in ascendancy. More

Middle Income Group: People with an average income. Confused, often deliberately, with middle class

Monopoly: "Mono" is "one," and "poly" is "many." A condition where one controls many. In economics, monopoly usually describes an industry dominated by a single enterprise.

Narodniki: A Russian word meaning "going to the people." The Narodniks were intellectuals who believed that the peasantry, not the workers, were the revolutionary class. Further, they believed that revolutions could only be inspired by "heros" who carried out grand events. The tsarist represssion, the frustration of failure, and their theories tended to move them toward minority actions that were sometimes violent.

Nation: A historically formed community of people, usually with a common territory, common language, and common culture. A nation of people may or may not live in the same state. More

Neoconservatism: "Neocon," "New conservative": a fuzzy term given in the 1960s to former liberals who supported imperialism. Wikipedia has a long explanation

Neoliberalism: An odd and misleading term used since the 1980s to designate pro-imperialist reactionaries in international trade deals. They want more latitude for transnational corporations to pollute and exploit labor around the world.

Oligarchy: A relatively small group that controls a society. Often used to describe the big land owning families (Latifundistas) of Latin American countries.

Oligopoly: Similar to a monopoly except that more than one entity dominates. In economics, a few enterprises dominate an industry, usually to conspire on prices and conditions

Opportunism: Sacrificing higher ideals for personal gain. Specifically, someone within the progressive movement who profits by selling out the interests of others

Peasantry: Small farmers who own their "means of production" (small plots of land) but do not derive their living mainly from employing others. They are generally considered part of the middle class as opposed to farm workers who are primarily employed by capitalists for agricultural work and as opposed to big capitalist landowners.

Petit-bourgeoisie: French for "small capitalist" and usually used to mean the people caught between the capitalist class and the working class, or the middle class. Usually used in taunts or in a derogatory way. Like other French words, it may alienate the speaker from American workers.

Political party: A committee that organizes, leads, and promotes the interests of a given class. More

Populism: A very crude and elementary understanding of class struggle pitting "ordinary people" against "the elite." It is usually associated with the struggles of farm people against the growing power of city people, not working people versus owners. See Wikipedia

Praxis: Practice. Marxists plan, act, re-evaluate, then plan, act, and re-evaluate again, etc. There can be no revolution without theory, but theory isn't likely to be very good if nobody ever tries anything. Activism improves theory, and theory improves activism. Both are necessary. See armchair socialist and knee-jerk activist for bad examples.

Privatize: Turn publicly-owned materials and services over to profit-making entitites.

Productivity: As published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the total value of commodities produced divided by the total number of hours worked in a given period.

Progressive: Actions, ideas, or people moving forward toward a real solution to society's problems -- strengthening of the working class

Proletariat: French for workers. The original Latin word "proles" means "those who have nothing" See bourgeoisie

Rate of Exploitation: Surplus value divided by variable capital. The extra value the boss squeezes out of you divided by what he pays you. See exploitation

Rate of Profit: Surplus value divided by the sum of variable and fixed or constant capital.

Reactionary: Opposite of "Progressive." Someone who wants to move historically backward and away from democracy and power for the working class.

Reformism: Belief that minor improvements in capitalism are an adequate long term goal that will gradually lead to fundamental change. Not to be confused with a short-term tactic to build the workers' movement.

Reification: The false identification of a person or dynamic as a static, material “thing” existing independent of human will or agency, exempt from ever-changing dialectical relationships of forces.

Revisionism: Changing historical truth, usually for opportunistic reasons

Revolution: Tremendous change, such as a change in which of two contending classes rules. Not to be confused with lesser changes, such as having different leaders within the same ruling class.

Right, rightist, or right-wing: all pertain to the capitalist revolution in France in 1789. In their parliamentary body, the more reactionary capitalists sat to the right of the speaker. See "Left"

Savagery: An early stage of social development in which humans spent almost all of their time hunting food and avoiding predators. More

Scab: An individual who goes against his or her union, either by crossing a picket line during a strike or by not helping to strengthen the union.

Second International: An association of intellectual socialists who generally oppose actual revolutions against capitalism

Sectarianism: Beliefs not based on actual facts or situations. From the idea of a divisive religious sect. A failure to build broad working class power by narrowly spurning potential allies.

Slavery: A stage of social development in which economic production came from slaves. It was an improvement over savagery, where captives were killed rather than enslaved. More

Slowdown: A tactic that workers may use against their employers. Unlike a strike, workers stay on the job but do as little as possible.

Social Democrat: A person who likes socialism in theory, but generally disapproves of it when reality comes pushing its way through. Before the Russians began to push for revolution, most of the revolutionaries in the world were called "social democrats," including the Russians. After the revolution of 1917, social democrats generally took the side of imperialism against the Soviet Union while those who supported existing socialism usually took the name "Communist."

Socialism: An economic system in which the most important means of production are democratically controlled by the people.

Socialist Revolutionaries: a middle class party founded in Russia at the end of 1901 and the beginning of 1902. They started out supporting the peasantry but later on championed the wealthy farmers. After the October revolution, an openly counter revolutionary party.

Soviet: Russian for "Council" or "Committee"

State: The main instrument of class rule, including the ability to reward and/or coerce the classes being ruled. It includes police, armies, and prisons. It has been called simplistically "a body of armed men." The fifty "states" within the United States are subordinate governing bodies, not independent states. Modern states are creatures of capitalism. In a future communist society, states would no longer exist.

Strike: A cessation of work initiated and carried out by workers in order to win concessions from employers. It is the primary weapon of the working class.

Subbotniks: Communist subbotniks in the early days of the Russian revolution did voluntary unpaid work indicative of the working people's communist attitude towards labour.

Surplus value: Excess value that ruling classes usurp from the work of laborers

Syndicalism: Raising trade union work to the equivalent of revolutionary work

Third International: A worldwide coordinating center for the socialist movement that supported the Soviet Union, but was ended during the Second World War. Marx and Engels participated in the first and second "International Workingmen's Society." The Second International was distorted during World War I and never supported existing socialism.

Trade Union: Or just "union." The basic unit of organization of the working class. A formal collection of workers, usually employed by a given employer or employers, that defends the basic rights of the employees against the employer and the employers' political repression.

Ultraleftism: Although it sounds "more left," ultraleftism actually means making a fetish of being "more radical" on every question and activity, whether the proposed tactics would have a good result or not. Lenin called it "the infantile disorder."

Union: A group of workers organized to further their interests, especially to defend themselves against managers, owners, and bosses. It is the basic unit of organization of the working class. A union local is usually within a specific workplace. "Craft unions" organize workers of a specific type, such as the carpenters' union, while industrial unions organize workers of all types within a specific industry, such as the steelworkers' union. Different union locals affiliate themselves with higher bodies. At the top level in the United States is the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). The AFL-CIO should not be confused with a union, as it is a loose federation of unions.

Utopia: An early work of science fiction describing a "perfect" society with no explanation of how it came about. More

Variable Capital: What it costs the boss to buy labor power. In a broad, average sense, it is also known as necessary labor or, in money form, wages. See Fixed Capital. More

Working Class: Those who make their living primarily by selling their labor, as opposed to capitalists who make their living primarily by owning the means of production and exploiting labor. More


**Thanks to Daniel Rubin's "Can Capitalism Last" for many of these ideas



The Marxist School of Sacramento has a .pdf glossary of some six pages to go along with their “Capital” reading group.

Daniel Rubin, Can Capitalism Last. International Publishers, NY, 2009. Has a glossary

There are glossaries available from


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