According to the image below, "racist is a made up word by Leon Trotsky in 1927."

I searched in the Online Etymology Dictionary and found that

racist (n.)

1932 [as a noun], 1938 as an adjective, from race (n.2); racism is first attested 1936 (from French racisme, 1935), originally in the context of Nazi theories. But they replaced earlier words, racialism (1871) and racialist (1917), both often used early 20c. in a British or South African context. In the U.S., race hatred, race prejudice had been used, and, especially in 19c. political contexts, negrophobia.

So the Online Etymology Dictionary doesn't mention that Trotsky coined the word.

Is the Trotsky—racist theory is true?

enter image description here


4 Answers 4


According to NPR's Codeswitch, the term racism meaning "discrimination or prejudice based on race", was used before 1927. The term as used in the picture you show seems to have a different connotation from the more common one:

The Oxford English Dictionary's first recorded utterance of the word racism was by a man named Richard Henry Pratt in 1902.

  • Pratt was railing against the evils of racial segregation.

    • Segregating any class or race of people apart from the rest of the people kills the progress of the segregated people or makes their growth very slow. Association of races and classes is necessary to destroy racism and classism.
  • Although Pratt might have been the first person to inveigh against racism and its deleterious effects by name, he is much better-remembered for a very different coinage: Kill the Indian...save the man.

  • "A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one," Pratt said. "In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."

  • We're still living with the after-effects of what Pratt thought and did. His story serves as a useful parable for why discussions of racism remain so deeply contentious even now.

  • 1
    [nit]The question is about racist.[/nit]
    – user7920
    Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 20:33
  • 10
    @coleopterist, given the nature of the English language, that's not a meaningful distinction.
    – Mark
    Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 23:19
  • 1
    @Mark Which nature would that be? Conformist (used as non-conformist in the OP) predates conformism. As the OP notes, racialism predates the appearance of racialist which predates both racist and racism. Since we are talking about dates here, the distinction is quite important.
    – user7920
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 13:36
  • 4
    @coleopterist, English is a moderately synthetic language. Consequently, if a word takes an -ism suffix denoting a doctrine or belief, the corresponding -ist indicating one who follows that doctrine or belief is a natural counterpart.
    – Mark
    Commented Jun 9, 2015 at 19:14
  • @Mark So is the natural counterpart of Darwinism, Darwinist? Or were both sexism and sexist contemporaneous coinages? Fetishism and fetishist? shrug
    – user7920
    Commented Jun 10, 2015 at 14:42

Although he did not coin it, he may have popularized it afterwards. Trotksy published What is National Socialism in June 1933. I have made racism bold

The theory of race, specially created, it seems, for some pretentious self-educated individual seeking a universal key to all the secrets of life, appears particularly melancholy in the light of the history of ideas. In order to create the religion of pure German blood, Hitler was obliged to borrow at second hand the ideas of racism from a Frenchman, Count Gobineau [4], a diplomat and a literary dilettante. Hitler found the political methodology ready-made in Italy, where Mussolini had borrowed largely from the Marxist theory of the class struggle. Marxism itself is the fruit of union among German philosophy, French history, and British economics. To investigate retrospectively the genealogy of ideas, even those most reactionary and muddleheaded, is to leave not a trace of racism standing.

On the plane of politics, racism is a vapid and bombastic variety of chauvinism in alliance with phrenology. As the ruined nobility sought solace in the gentility of its blood, so the pauperized petty bourgeoisie befuddles itself with fairy tales concerning the special superiorities of its race….

Through the back door, racism returns to economic liberalism, freed from political liberties.

Source: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/germany/1933/330610.htm

Finally, Trotsky, in Chapter 1 The Peculiarities of Russia's Development of The History of the Russian Revolution (1930), also uses racist with a capital and denigrates the homogeneity of a culture/race:

Slavophilism, the messianism of backwardness, has based its philosophy upon the assumption that the Russian people and their church are democratic through and through, whereas official Russia is a German bureaucracy imposed upon them by Peter the Great. Mark remarked upon this theme: “In the same way the Teutonic jackasses blamed the despotism of Frederick the Second upon the French, as though backward slaves were not always in need of civilised slaves to train them.” This brief comment completely finishes off not only the old philosophy of the Slavophiles, but also the latest revelations of the “Racists.”


Furthermore, around the late 1930s (specifically 1937), a rise begins for the terms racist and racism but did not take off until the 1960s.

Source: https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=racism%2C+racist&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=&direct_url=t1%3B%2Cracism%3B%2Cc0%3B.t1%3B%2Cracist%3B%2Cc0

Can it be linked directly to Trotksy? Maybe, considering Soviet Russia had given a lot of resources to subversion, infiltration, and propaganda and had operatives white-washing Russia in American universities and spreading communism to student and some professors, both of which probably sought out reading material of communism, which would lead to Marx, then Lenin, then Trotsky, and so on and so forth.

As for the translation issue. Here is the link to Russian: http://www.magister.msk.ru/library/trotsky/trotl007.htm


Славянофильство, мессианизм отсталости, строило свою философию на том, что русский народ и его церковь насквозь демократичны, а официальная Россия -- это немецкая бюрократия, насажденная Петром. Маркс заметил по этому поводу: "Ведь точно так же и тевтонские ослы сваливают деспотизм Фридриха II и т. д. на французов, как будто отсталые рабы не нуждаются всегда в цивилизованных рабах, чтобы пройти нужную выучку". Это краткое замечание исчерпывает до дна не только старую философию славянофилов, но и новейшие откровения "расистов".

According to wiktionary, the word расистов is a translation of racist:

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/racist#Translations http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/расист#Russian

The capitalization of the word was probably the result of the translator.

As further indication that Trotsky may have helped popularize the term greatly in 1933, a clear correlation can be observed using Google nGram (note that the stated invention of the word in another answer in 1902 was NOT in any way impactful, all the way till late 1920s and into 1930s):

enter image description here

  • 4
    The word in Russian was "rasistov", so translating into English as "racist" is not a stretch. Capitalizing it is just in parallel with capitalizing "slavophiles" (славянофилов), which was also the translator's action, but doing it twice suggests it was deliberate. Commented Jun 7, 2015 at 15:59
  • 4
    But for the word to be translated as "racist" means that either the word "racist" already existed in English or that the translator invented it. If the Eskimos have a word for "purple striped snow" and a translator picks the word "purstrow" to represent it, that does not mean the Eskimos invented "purstrow". Commented Jun 7, 2015 at 18:30
  • 1
    @DanielRHicks - no. Russian word for "race" - "раса" - is a borrowed word (I'm guessing from English, but that's irrelevant) and is thus identical. So is the linguistic construct of appending "-ist" and "-ism" to roots. So the translator literally was transliterating, not even translating, since the words are identical in meaning and construction.
    – user5341
    Commented Jun 7, 2015 at 20:08
  • 4
    Are you sure that it was Trotsky and not Hitler (or rather, people denouncing Hitler) that accounted for the great increase in the usage in the 1930s?
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 11:28
  • 3
    @Jasper: this is much too small a sample to prove anything, but if you look at the citations the OED has for racist and racism in the 1920s and 1930s, it looks like over half of them are referring to fascism and/or the Nazis.
    – Peter Shor
    Commented Jun 8, 2015 at 19:00

We find the adjective racist penned by Gaston Mery in the November 18, 1897 issue of La Libre Parole "It is time, in popular meetings, that truly French - truly racist- voices oppose their eloquence to the rhetoric of internationalist boastings"

The above passage is from the chapter Birth, Functions and Avatars of the word Racism in the book The Force of Prejudice: On Racism and Its Doubles

The book also quotes Charles Maurras as saying 25 March 1895:

I am myself a 'racist'! Elsewhere I had occasion to say to my distinguished colleague M. Gaston Mery, who at a point became the Knight of the Race and coined the epithet 'racist'. Like him I believe that there is a French race.

See this book for a more complete history of the word "racist".

No, it was not coined by Trotsky 1927, it was coined by M. Gaston Mery by 1895.

See also the 1923 use:

A campaign was even planned to expel from the Nationalist party the agitators of the extreme Right known as “Germanists" or “racists"

Quoting from a publication of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at page 53


The meme as displayed is anachronistic, ahistorical and a complete confabulation of terms and meanings. It makes really no direct sense whatsoever.
But as a symptom to be used as a diagnostic marker it has value.

Trotsky didn't invent the word, didn't change much of its meaning or applicability, nor its popularity nor gig he push it into now common usage or alleged political implication.

The usual red flag is of course lack of attribution when quoting.

But it gets much better.

Origin of the word

"Raciste" as a collection of letters called "a word" is a French creation (raciste / racisme) of the 19th century, as its relative 'racism' entered Russian and English at the start of the 20th century and was in wider use as the Oxford Etymological Dictionary traces.

The terms racist and racism have a long and storied history that predate Trotsky himself. ‘Raciste’ and ‘racisme’ crop up regularly in the works of late-19th and early-20th century French agitators, while their English language counterparts first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1902.

Of course, at the time, these words were predominately used to refer to (a) the pseudo-scientific classification of human beings into distinct races, (b) the supposed hierarchies that result from those distinctions, and (c) the scientific and/or moral righteousness of white racial superiority.

Granted, it wasn’t really until the late 1920s and 1930s—when these ideas and systems found their way from the colonies into the discourse and structures of European and American domestic polities—that the terms took on a negative or pejorative bent.

But that’s hardly surprising, is it?

Trotsky first used the word racist, or something to that effect, in a treatise entitled ‘What is National Socialism?’. Now, the last time I checked, the Nazis were quite racist, and for the love of Gott, I can’t think of any way to spin that in a positive light.
James A. Chisem: "Did Leon Trotsky Invent Racism?" Ordinary Times, Jan 24, 2017

One problem in the analysis above is that it reads the early, up-to-Trostky and later use of the word racist/racism with modern minds. But that's not what the word originally meant!

This can be seen how the word was and sometimes is translated into German. The Nazis were racists in our worldview and in theirs as well. For us, it should be now considered describing something negative, for them something positive. But did they use this positively connoted word themselves? No, not exactly. They did not utter that 'perfidious French' word, but used the German word völkisch in the sense that the French used raciste and Trotzky used slavophiles and расистов.

Changing the meanings

Over the course of the 20th century the meaning.

At the time of is first usage, a member of the Klan would probably not have been called a racialist. It’s earliest showing seems to come from a 1901 edition of Harper’s Weekly. Curiously, it meant simply one who belonged to a particular race. There was no real negative or positive connotation involved.

It must also be remembered, of course, that “race” at the time was often used interchangeably with nationality, especially when it came to language.

So if Trotsky didn’t even use the term racist (let alone invent it) in 1930, when did it come about? The OED holds that the first printed usage came from the Portland Oregonian in their December 14, 1924 edition: “The elections show the Germans at the moment want neither racists nor communists – that is, neither extreme nationalists nor extreme revolutionists.” 13 This citation is nice as it provides a definition for the term – extreme nationalists. In Germany, of course, this meant non-Jews, though the term racist was more of a descriptor than an epithet.

Of Racist, Racistov And Leon Trotsky – The Fortnightlyish Word. This Cruel War, Nov 2016

Reading again the originating meme and its supposed consequences or current societal diagnosis makes for a fun reading now:

The term 'racism' is much more recent than the factual situation it refers to. The French adjective "raciste" first appeared in the 1890s as a self-designation of nationalists. The noun "racism" did not emerge until the 1920s as an anti-racist combat term. However, there is no undisputed definition of what is meant by it in the numerous social, cultural and historical disciplines that deal with the phenomenon. Basically, a distinction can be made between attempts to define racism in terms of its content, its biologistic substance, and in terms of its formal nature, its social-psychological function.
Christian Koller: "Was ist eigentlich Rassismus?", Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung, 8.12.2015

Or on a more fundamental level that explains the rise in usage of the word, now in its changed meaning:

The first problem that any history of anti-racism must confront is a basic one. The term ‘anti-racism’ is a twentieth- century creation. Indeed, it did not appear in regular usage until the 1960s (and even then it was largely confined to English- and French-speaking countries). Its development during this decade accompanied a number of other new forms of emancipatory discourse, such as anti-sexism and gay rights. The apparent novelty of anti-racism partly explains why it has rarely been situated within a broader historical and sociological context. However, although the term is new, much of its symbolic power relies on its ability to draw on ideas, such as human equality and cultural relativism, of considerable age. The linguistic history of the term should, perhaps, also be extended back, as far as the 1930s, the period when The Oxford English Dictionary (1989) cites the first usage of both ‘racism’ (1932) and ‘racist’ (1936) (the use of ‘racialism’ is found earlier, in 1902). All these categories were first employed as terms of criticism. As this suggests, the concept of racism was conceived by those who opposed it, by anti-racists. Strictly speaking, any attempt to portray anti-racism before this time, before the concept of racism existed, is anachronistic.
Alastair Bonnett: "Anti-Racism", Key Ideas, Routledge: London, New York, 2000. (p 10)

The meme thus has to be subtly copy edited to reflect reality.

"Racist. An established word at the time of Trotsky's writings. Used by him to describe people antagonistic to international solidarity, one core concept of communism. Now with a changed meaning. Used today in memes that mix up so many details around this that all they say is users of that meme probably are racists that don't like being correctly called racists."

Taguieff examines the two different senses that the word racism (racisme) carried: first in the 1890s, when it was used as a self-designator (for those speaking of the supreme qualities of the French "race"); then in the 1930s, when it was used as an other-designator for the German who was "racist" through self-designation (in German, völkisch).
Note by translator Hassan Melehy to Pierre-Andre Taguieff: "The Force of Prejudice On Racism and Its Doubles", Contradictions, Volume 13, University of Minnesota Press: Minnesota, London, 2001. (La Force du préjugé – essai sur le racisme et ses doubles , 1987). (p x)

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