Problems with “Political Spectrum” Theories
Among the academics and pseudointellectuals of bourgeois society, a misinformative philosophical trend of perennial popularity is what I will call the spectrum theory in various forms: the idea that political ideas can essentially be expressed, explained, and compared through some form of “spectrum” diagram. It is easy to understand the appeal of this: people would like to understand political-economic thought, would like to feel as if they have an enlightened view of social thought and understand all political events clearly, but they want to do it without actually going through the tribulation of reading any actual texts of political philosophy or taking on any political acts. And so they dupe themselves into thinking all political thought can be explained by pointing and gesticulating at an inordinately simplistic graph. It cannot. The spectrum theory of politics is a malignant influence on people trying to seriously learn, and a dangerous tool for those seeking to appear knowledgeable when in fact they are ignorant, stupid, and bad actors. There are several fundamental and irresolvable problems with the theory and its various versions, and it must be entirely abandoned as a tool for students of political thought.
One: Problems with the Concept Generally
The most basic problem with any kind of spectrum theory is that it purports to give an inordinately simple mechanism for understanding an enormous quantity of very complex ideas. Because philosophy and especially political philosophy is so directly necessary and relevant for humans as a species that think and form societies, thousands and thousands of ideas on the subject have been penned. The idea that all of these ideas can be displayed and compared on a single graph is absurd wishful thinking. It is the equivalent of trying to explain neurosurgery with a single infographic.
Of course, diagrams can be useful in illustrating an idea in a simple way for the purposes of understanding and communicating it- and I have used them in conjunction with my writing before. But they are a small part of communicating ideas, not the entire picture, and if one is going to try to explain a particular political line or theory primarily in diagrams, one is going to need several precise depictions specialized specifically for that purpose. As we see below, however, the spectrum theorists really believe they can compare and understand adequately dozens or hundreds of different political ideas and positions (many of which they seem to have made up for their own amusement) with a single illustration. The absurdity of this boggles the mind.
Spectrum theory is a shiny coat of paint that makes ignorance look like knowledge. It appeals to people who want to be experts without ever bothering to become experts, who want to be educated and knowledgeable but remain unwilling to actually become educated. It can serve only as a distraction and delay to real political education, which must come through careful theoretical study and serious experience of political effort in society.
Two: Problems with the More Classical Mono-Dimensional Version of the Spectrum Theory
The spectrum theory, historically, has had as its standard diagram a mono-dimensional graph like a number line with the political “left” on the left and the political “right” on the right, upon which different positions of parties or individuals or what have you are marked as points. The irresolvable problem with this is that it implies that political theories relate to another like numbers on a number line, and they don’t. Students of this version of the spectrum theory are led to believe that there are an infinite number of equidistant points betwixt the left extreme, full proletarian liberation, and the right extreme, the deepest and darkest reaction. As such, these people are duped into believing that there must be some point in the exact center.
This diagram and the theory it represents inaugurate, in the minds of the many fooled into believing they accurately represent political thought, the notion that there can be compromise between progress and reaction, compromise between backward and progressive economic systems, compromise between the ideology of the oppressor and of the oppressed. This is why we find in the mainstream political dialogue of liberal politicians and pseudointellectuals absurd notions like a “healthy mix” of socialism and capitalism, or like (borrowed from fascists’ class-collaborationism, which is of course in reality an enormously reactionary and capitalistic doctrine) a “mixed economy”- an absurdity premised on the idea that mere state control equates to socialism, and on the fundamental falsehood that the state run by the capitalist class can somehow be a limiter on that class or that there is any real enmity between the two (when in reality they are firmly in alliance against the working class). James Connolly has given us a start in criticizing these absurdities with “State Monopoly versus Socialism,” an article published in the Irish Socialist Republican journal Workers’ Republic. Connolly tells us, correctly, that state control by a state run by capitalists is not socialism; socialism is only control by the workers, expressed practically through a workers’ state built through a revolution that forcefully destroys the old bourgeois order. It is a dangerous misdirection to suggest that the bourgeois states, the states which exist in and as fundamental parts of the capitalist economy and the social order of bourgeois class dictatorship, can give the workers any representation whatsoever, let alone “partial socialism” or “movement toward socialism.” One cannot, in political ideas, find a compromise between the reactionary and the progressive forces- and every attempt at it that has been made as led to the reactionary ones winning out.
Putting it simply, politics is not very like mathematics. One cannot take communism to be ∞ and fascism -∞ and then find zero. This is as absurd and impossible and meaningless as finding a neutral midpoint between a gun and a cake.
In short, the suggestion of a compromise within the halls of politics between the interests of workers and of capitalists is fundamentally wrongheaded and can only serve the class already in power- the capitalist parasitic class. The idea, embedded in the spectrum theory’s implications of a genuine “center,” is premised on the notion that states can be impartial mediators between ideas and classes; they can’t. Marxist thinkers have stated and illustrated again and again that, fundamentally, rightist political ideas and states acting upon them serve the ruling class. Such ideas cannot be transformed piece by piece into entirely other ones serving an entirely other class any more than a gun can be so transformed into a cake. It is premised also on the spectrum theory’s wrongheaded implication of there existing a neutral midpoint between any two ideas- this is a wrong implication and a fundamental flaw in the theory, a reason to reject it outright.
Three: Further Problems arising in the Bi-Dimensional “Compass” Version of the Theory
The “political compass” now in vogue, the bi-dimensional version of the spectrum theory diagram whose fans and adherents claim it is for geniuses while only troglodytes use the mono-dimensional, is the zenith of stupidity. It is championed as a replacement for the mono-dimensional version on the grounds that it is clearer and more comprehensive; it isn’t. Rather, it preserves all the above flaws of the other version and of the theory generally, but furthermore adds several absurdities all its own, with the final result that it is all the more misleading and misinformative about the fundamental nature of political thought.
Let us ask this question: what does it mean for a political programme to be “authoritarian?” It would seem to mean, of course, that authority is utilized in bringing it to fruition. But we run into a problem, then, with the spectrum theorists’ desire to delineate which theories are and aren’t “authoritarian”: any political theory or ideology, if it is to be put into practice as a programme, requires authority. Even the anarchists clamor for revolution, and, as Engels has already explained, in this they are unknowingly suggesting the use of authority for their ends (though when they attempt such things their fear of using such authority generally proves their downfall). “Authoritarianism,” then, is not an intrinsic feature of a theory, but a practical matter of application for any political theory. It is not an end but a means. To suggest one theory is more or less authoritarian than another is like suggesting one hammer hits harder than another- it matters not what the hammer does, but how hard the arm can swing it! And, of course, a hammer won’t do much, no matter how heavy it is, if one does not swing it with force.
Another problem in the compass model is its bizarre conflation of authority with conservatism. Its students and adherents seem not to draw any difference between the political concepts of being opposed to progress and being “authoritarian,” and they graph the two on the same axis of their silly little quadrant system. This is of course absurd. We have already established that any political programme must use authority to realize itself, and so it necessarily follows that in no way is use of authority, “authoritarianism” as the liberals will call it, intrinsically conservative or the exclusive purview of conservatives. The communist revolution, for instance, can and must be “authoritarian” in accomplishing its aims while nonetheless being progressive on every social question.
Of course, while absurdly conflating social conservatism and political authoritarianism, the compass model makes another gross error in the opposite direction: suggesting a clean and absolute divide between “social” policy and economic policy. With a thin veneer of scientific refinement, its students and adherents have reinvented the nonsensical liberal supposition that a person can be “fiscally right, socially left.” The compass theorists would place such a person on the lower right corner of their graph- the “LibRight”- and naïvely suppose that such persons can be in favor of allowing the bourgeois owners of capital absolute freedom of misrule over production and labour while also being in favor of such things as gay rights, gender equality, and general social justice. What this view does not realize is that it is the very freedom of the parasitic minority ruling class to control society for the interests of growing their invested capital that has engendered the injustices spoken of. There would be no racism against blacks in the US today without the transatlantic slave trade, for instance, and it came about entirely because of the profit motives of slave trading members of the slaver-capitalist class in the US and the slaver classes in Africa who sold their exploited slave-class brethren to them. Much the same is true of every other social bigotry. The fact is this: there can be no separation of economic and social policies for the former engenders the latter, a reactionary economic system breeds reactionary attitudes and a revolutionary one revolutionary justice; if one is for social progress one must be for socialism and if one is for capitalism one must be (whether one knows it or not) for social injustice, reaction, backwardness, and stagnation. The idea of a progressive “libertarian right” is a fantasy on web forums and paper; it has never and will never exist in political reality.
This, really, is endemic to the compass model: the spectrum theorists imagine that every point on their nonsensical graph must correspond to some sort of real theory or ideological current, and so they imagine the existence of untold numbers of ideas and belief systems that have no concrete existence, no material base of support, not a single soul who actually believes them and not a hope in hell of ever making any political impact of significance.
All of this is the product of the same misguided thinking as the afore-discussed problems with the two-dimensional version of the spectrum theory: treating ideas as though they were numbers. One cannot plot ideas on a graph, be it a number line or a cartesian plane, and expect an idea for every point to spring into existence. This is simply not how political thought works. A political idea must have a material basis and it must have a material significance.
All the problems outlined above make it clear the spectrum theory, darling of liberal pseudointellectuals everywhere, is an inadequate model for understanding and comparing political ideas. I will suggest further that at its heart is a promise, and the promise is false. The spectrum model promises that it contains a single complete comparative exploration of political thought in one illustration. It doesn’t. Nor does anything else, for ultimately this is an erroneous concept; all of political thought cannot be understood so simply.
Pseudointellectual elitism instills in people a desire to take the perspective of a god, to look down impartially on all things at once without bias or position or ideology. This cannot be done, and especially cannot be done with political thought. Mao has told us that every idea is stamped with the interests of a social class or group, and this is so. Every idea has its material basis in one social group or another, principally in one class or another. Furthermore, some ideas are factually correct, and some are wrong. Trying to observe all ideas in relation with one another without accounting for which are correct and whose each are is a doomed errand. Ultimately, if one wants to understand political thought, one has to do more than look at a graph. Real political understanding requires both theoretical study and, even moreso, political practice in the cause of a class.