The internet is awash with claims that anyone arguing that Stalinist Russia / Maoism wasn't communist is committing the no true Scotsman / ad hoc rescue fallacy. However, I suspect that few of its proponents understand what they are saying.

if there is no good reason to accept this saving assumption other than that it works to save your cherished belief, your rescue is an Ad Hoc Rescue

Are there any reasons to suppose that Stalinism wasn't Communism, besides a personal and irrational belief that Communism doesn't butcher and enslave millions of people?

Could one argue e.g. that very many Communists were opposed to Stalin (the left opposition, Kautsky etc., left communists, and so on), for good reasons, both before and after he seized power. Is that a fallacious reason to limit the generalization?

Moreover, is the no true Scotsman fallacy even applicable? I'm not sure what generalization (all Scotsman are brave) is alleged to be illegitimately protected.

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    The fallacy is a type of moving-the-goal-post. If it is true that the Soviet Union under Stalin did not function as a communist state then there is no fallacy being committed; if the Soviet Union did function that way, and someone claims that they didn't because a real communist would never do what Stalin did, then they are committing the fallacy. Most people who say that the SU wasn't communist argue that it instead was a state capitalist system, and never transitioned to communism. If this is true, then it is not a fallacy.
    – Not_Here
    Jul 27, 2018 at 7:33
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    In effect what I am saying is that really your question amounts to "was the Soviet Union actually a communist state under Stalin" because the fallacy either does or does not fill itself out from the answer to that question.
    – Not_Here
    Jul 27, 2018 at 7:38
  • well yes that is one good reason to suppose that it wasn't communism @Not_Here
    – user34105
    Jul 27, 2018 at 7:41
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    There are two kinds of communism: 1) The theoretical, perfect utopia which has never been (and can never be) tried and 2) the consolidation of power by leaders who have successfully convinced their populations to be as resentful of the successful as Marx was.
    – JacobIRR
    Jul 27, 2018 at 21:06
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    Committing genocide has nothing to do with whether or not a state is communist. Saying "Stalin wasn't a communist because his government was a state capitalist system which explicitly lacked the major facets of a communist state" is not a fallacy. Saying "Stalin is not a communist because he committed genocide and no true communists commit genocide" is a fallacy. Again, the question fills itself out in an obvious way once you answer the question of whether or not the SU was a communist state. If it was not, no fallacy. If it was, it depends on what specifically people say.
    – Not_Here
    Jul 28, 2018 at 5:12

4 Answers 4


Marx, socialism and communism

Neither Marx nor Engels provided a blueprint for the socialist state. There could in their view be no such thing as a communist state since under communism, with no class-rule or management needed, there would be no state because no classes. Even the Soviet Union described and understood itself as socialist, not communist : remember the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The dictatorship of the proletariat

Marx did envisage a transition period between capitalism and (fully entrenched) socialism which he labelled 'the dictatorship of the proletariat'. He first referred to the dictatorship of the proletariat in the articles which became The Class Struggles in France 1848-1850. Marx is sketchy on the details of this period of transition. But some points are clear enough. He explicitly has in mind the dictatorship of a class; and there is by the strongest implication the idea that while there is a dictatorship of one class over other classes, within the dictatorial class (the proletariat) there could be democratic institutions. In other words : the dictatorship of one class over others was consistent with democratic government within the dictatorial class.

Both Marx and Engels rejected 'Caesarism', a workers's dictator. Engels wrote :

The action of the masses does not, by a long way, mean personal dictatorship; indeed, where the masses abdicate their will, they are already on the road to become, from a revolutionary factor, a reactionary one. (Ferdinand Lasalle as a Social Reformer, quoted in Hal Draper, Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, III, The 'Dictatorship of the Proletariat', New York : Monthly Review Press, 1986 : 100.)

Marx and Stalin

It appears to me that Stalin was a 'workers' dictator' who practised 'Caesarism' to a degree that Caesar could barely have dreamed of. It's possible and even plausible to argue that the risk of Caesarism is inherent in any dictatorship, proletarian or other. To the extent that Marx discounted this risk under the dictatorship of the proletariat, he showed himself as 'utopian' as the socialists he had mocked so bitterly in The Communist Manifesto (1848).

But it is not special pleading or any kind of fallacy to claim that Stalinism was a distortion of anything Marx envisaged.

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    This answer is great because it shows how superficial both sides are - the Marxists for saying, "Stalin wasn't communist" instead of grappling with Marx's utopianism and the anti-Marxists for saying, "No True Scotsman!" instead of digging deeper into what went wrong between Marx's beliefs and the implementation in the real world. Jul 27, 2018 at 13:40
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    "But it is not special pleading or any kind of fallacy to claim that Stalinism was a distortion of anything Marx envisaged." Is it? Stalinism tried to allow the lower classes to dominate the higher ones. One of the fundamental characteristics of "no true Scottsman" is that one party is defining a term based on an ideal that allows them to exclude counterexamples by definition, which effectively amounts to denying any form of real world evidence. How is that not what's happening, even if the ideal happens to be Marx's?
    – jpmc26
    Jul 29, 2018 at 10:02
  • @jpmc26. Thank you for your comment. My sole point is that from what we know of how Marx envisaged the socialist future, it did not include Caesarism of the sort that Stalinism represented. From what Marx actually wrote and said, we can some idea of 'the true Marxist'. No true Marxist, so defined (surely not unreasonably, surely not question-beggingly) would recognise Stalin as a welcome figure when Marx explicitly warns us against this kind of 'workers' dictator'.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 29, 2018 at 10:11
  • @jpmc26. The 'no true Scotsman' argument is inherently dishonest. There is no such thing as a 'true Scotsman' other than as the proponent chooses to characterise him; and no counter-examples are allowed since they don't fit the characterisation. All I have done is, I hope, nothing like this. I have read and studied Marx and formed an idea of how he envisaged the socialist future. I have not characterised Marx in anything like the stipulative, counter-example-proof way of the 'no true Scotsman' proponent. I've referenced my interpretation and it is open to dispute and even refutation.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Jul 29, 2018 at 10:25
  • like posted to another answer: "They [communists] do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement." you don't have to be a liberal to be skeptical that the upper echelons of Stalinist parties are in no way the "proletarian movement", tho i can't off hand think of anything by marx that differentiates class and party
    – user34105
    Jul 29, 2018 at 15:40

"No True Scotsman" is one of those categories of fallacies that is rather subjective. If Person A says that X is not Y because it lacks Z, and Person B says that this is a No True Scotsman fallacy, then it comes down to whether Z is a valid requirement for Y.

In the case of communism, claiming that the USSR didn't live up to Marx's ideal is a reasonable claim in itself, but using it to defend communism is on rather shaky ground. Imagine the following conversation:

Alice: Charlie claims to be a psychic. We should pay him $10,000 to tell us what to do.

Bob: We're hired dozens of supposed psychics, and none of them helped us.

Alice: But those weren't real psychics.


Now, if someone wants to claim that giving helpful advice based on supernatural knowledge is part of the definition of "psychic", that's a reasonable position to take. And so, technically, saying "Those weren't true psychics" isn't a No True Scotsman. But the proper reference class for Charlie isn't "People we know are true psychics", but "People who claim to be psychics", and while "No True Scotsman" may not be exactly the right label for the argument "None of the other people who claimed to be psychics were actually psychics, therefore their failure shouldn't affect our decision whether to hire Charlie", it certainly is fallacious. And it kinda is in the same spirit of the No True Scotsman fallacy: it's simply defining away any counterexamples. If you say "X will result in Y", and then say that anything that doesn't result in Y is by definition not X, then your claim is true, but it's true rather vacuously, and now requires us to know whether something will result in Y before we can determine whether it's an X. It's not very useful to know that True Psychics will give helpful advice, if we don't know whether someone is a True Psychic until we've hired them and given them a bunch of money, and it's not very useful to know that a True Communist won't set up purges that kill millions of people if we can't know whether someone is a True Communist until we've handed them absolute power over a country.

The question "Do bad things happen when we set up a communist country?" isn't really the most relevant question, any more than "Are people who are actually psychic helpful?" is the most relevant question in my analogy. Just as the most relevant question in my analogy is "Are people who claim to be psychic helpful?", the most relevant question regarding communism "Do bad things happen when we try to set up a communist country?" And the answer to that question is a resounding "Yes". Either the USSR, China, North Korea, etc., are indeed communist, in which case communism is a bad idea. Or they aren't "really" communist, in which case trying to set up a communist government has repeatedly failed, and resulted in oppressive regimes. Since we don't have a magic wand that we can wave and an ideal True Communist Regime poofs into existence, the question of what exactly a True Communist Regime would be like isn't really relevant. As humans, we have a choice between actions, not results. Arguing for a course of action based on aspirations and simply disregarding what is actually likely to happen is a recipe for disaster. Now, that doesn't preclude the possibility that someone claims the the USSR was not True Communism, and they have a solid argument for why this time they'll totally be able to get True Communism up and running, but it does provide a solid basis for skepticism for such claims.

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    "until we've handed them absolute power over a country" - you are presupposing that a communist wants an absolute power, that's this is inherent for a communist. But this is not a communist theory. "Either the USSR, China, North Korea, etc., are indeed communist" - they are not communist, not even in Lenin's terms (beginning, at least, from Stalin's regime), let alone Marx'. China, North Korea, etc. just were inspired by Stalin, not Marx and therefore they are bad arguments against communism.
    – rus9384
    Jul 27, 2018 at 19:01
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    @rus9384 "you are presupposing that a communist wants an absolute power" It's rather hard to try out communism, without putting communists (or people who claim to be communists) in a position where they can seize power. If you say that no true communist would seize power, well, I think I addressed that in my answer. "they are not communist" I clearly considered this argument, and presented a counterargument. It's hard to think of a good-faith reason why you are quoting the first part of my "either or" statement, and then discussing something that falls under the second part. Jul 27, 2018 at 19:28
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    Communism is an ideology of stateless society. It's hard to say that a totalitarian or authoritarian regime is communist. "It's rather hard to try out communism, without putting communists (or people who claim to be communists) in a position where they can seize power." But not the anarchists? Or how are you going to test anarchy if it's hard to try out something without putting its proponents in a position where they can seize power?
    – rus9384
    Jul 27, 2018 at 19:56
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    @rus9384 I'd strongly prefer not to try anarchy, nor any other social experiments. Especially not those related to communism. While "real" communism might be a desired outcome, as written above "we have a choice between actions, not results".
    – maaartinus
    Jul 27, 2018 at 21:24
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    @rus9384 Aren't the 100 M death a good enough reason why not to try again. Take a smaller number, if you don't trust the source. Still a good reason, isn't it? +++ I'm all for a minarchy, but not anarchy. Anyway, we're very OT here.
    – maaartinus
    Jul 28, 2018 at 1:15

A criticized exception to the rule that falls short of the rule makes for valid negation of criticism

OK, that headline requires changing direction of the train of thought at least three times, so let me clarify: The statement "That is not a true Scotsman" is not necessarily a fallacy

In order for "No True Scotsman fallacy!" to be a valid objection to an argument, we have to be talking about someone/something that actually is a figurative Scotsman, that is to say: it fits the category under discussion.

— No Scotsman would ever shun haggis.

— Well Bob MacPherson shuns haggis.

— Bob MacPherson is not a true Scotsman.

— No True Scotsman fallacy!

— No you nitwit... Bob MacPherson is Irish, he just has a name with Scottish roots and is on visit to Scotland.

— Oh...

Now of course this does not prevent us from pointing to Alice Wallace — who is dyed-in-the-wool Scottish by virtue of lineage back to Sir William — that absolutely hates haggis. This means that Alice would negate the statement "No Scotsman shuns haggis". But Bob does not negate that statement, because he is not Scottish to begin with.

So in the same way that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea cannot retort to criticism of not being a true democracy by shouting "No True Scotsman fallacy! We are a democracy!" — because they fail miserably at pretty much every criteria it takes to be called a democracy — those that call "No True Scotsman fallacy" as a reply to those that say Stalinism / Maoism is not true communism, must be certain what the heck is actually being discussed. Did those regimes fulfill the criteria of what is considered a communist state or not?

So to summarize: people that exchange blows with "Communism is great!", "That communism was bad", "That was not true communism", "That was a No True Scotsman Fallacy"...

....are just wasting perfectly good bandwidth because neither of them have actually established whether they are talking about communistic regimes or not.

So just toss that out and go back to the definitions of what makes for a communist state and compare that to the regimes in question.

  • "we have to be talking about someone that is actually a Scotsman" - but that's not what this fallacy really mean, otherwise we must say that if there is no straw man involved in the argument there is no straw man fallacy.
    – rus9384
    Jul 27, 2018 at 14:07
  • @rus9384 Ugh... you are nitpicking, but yes you are correct. I need to clarify the statement since I meant "figurative Scotsman" for the general case. See edit.
    – MichaelK
    Jul 27, 2018 at 14:15
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    @RonJohn I think that you might have missed that the section you're referring to seems (to me) to represent an argument between two people. One of those people (implicitly) makes the claim "Bob MacPherson doesn't like haggis, therefore not all Scottsmen like haggis" and the other person correctly refutes that claim with "Bob MacPherson is not a Scottsmen, therefore he is not a counterexample". In other words, the fact that "Bob MacPherson shuns haggis" is a non sequitur is fundamental to the argument MichaelK is making. Jul 27, 2018 at 15:19
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    @KamilDrakari I see your point.
    – RonJohn
    Jul 27, 2018 at 15:21
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    +1 for use of the word nitwit
    – user30898
    Jul 27, 2018 at 20:20

The No True Scotsman Fallacy is subject to a serious fallacy in its application. Namely:

This person claims to be a member of group X, or he has some attributes that resemble group X, therefore group X is collectively responsible for anything he does, and if you try to disavow him, you are trying to weasel out of responsibility with the No True Scotsman Fallacy.

e.g. A lunatic tortures small children to death. When he is caught he says that he did it because he is a member of the Church of Foobar and he is performing human sacrifices to their god. The Church of Foobar says their religion does not practice human sacrifice and this person was never a member of their church. Opponents of the Church of Foobar say, Too bad, he says he's a Foobarian, therefore he is a Foobarian. This proves that Foobarians are all dangerous maniacs.

It all comes down to, What is the definition of X?

In the literal case, the definition of a "Scotsman" is presumably "someone born in Scotland" or "someone who lives in Scotland", maybe some qualifier about how long he lived there or his ancestry. If someone said, "No true Scotsman would waste his money like that", that's a fair example of the No True Scotsman fallacy. If he was born and lived in Scotland, he is a "true Scotsman" no matter how he spends his money.

On the other hand, Protestants often say that the Spanish Inquisition were not "true Christians" and therefore attempts to blame Christianity for their crimes are erroneous. Their argument is that the Inquisition banned people from reading the Bible and killed people for preaching the Bible, and by definition a "Christian" is someone who believes in the Bible and reveres it.

So in this case, what is the definition of "communist"? I don't think any recognized definition of "communist" includes the idea of "being a nice person", so the fact that Stalin had political opponents tortured and killed does not make him "not a true communist". An argument like that would be an excellent example of the No True Scotsman Fallacy.

But what exactly IS a communist? If you formulated a coherent definition that was reasonably consistent with the general understanding of the term, i.e. something that included the idea of government control of the means of production (or perhaps "communal control"), and that Stalin did not meet, you could have a reasonable argument.

If you are trying to distance your own political party or movement from Stalin, this could be a little easier. Even if both you and Stalin could be considered "communist", you could still say, "But our policies are not the same as Stalin's, and so the evil results of Stalin's policies do not apply to us." The question then would be whether the differences were significant and relevant, which depending on the details might be easy to prove and might be hard.

  • i'm not sure that an opposition to the gulag has to be in terms of being "nice". how is it in the interests of the proletariat? They [communists] do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.
    – user34105
    Jul 29, 2018 at 15:35
  • 1. My use of the word "nice" was deliberate understatement for rhetorical effect. 2. The argument of Stalin's defenders was that the gulag was indeed in the interests of the proletariat because the people who were sent there were counter-revolutionaries, the enemies of the proletariat. I don't believe that's true for a second, but that's the question, isn't it?
    – Jay
    Jul 30, 2018 at 14:00
  • hm fair enough sorry. i think the burden of proof is on the stalinist that the working class rather than the party were responsible for the gulags. right ?
    – user34105
    Jul 30, 2018 at 15:11
  • @user3293056 Or at the very least, I don't blindly believe their story that they had to torture and kill their political opponents for the good of the working people.
    – Jay
    Jul 30, 2018 at 16:30

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