Socialism/Is it a thing of the left?
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|“||Socialism is a left-wing to far-left economic philosophy and movement encompassing a range of economic systems characterized by the dominance of social ownership of the means of production within the economy and worker participation in the management of productive enterprises as opposed to private ownership.||”|
|— from Wikipedia:Socialism permalink 2408041, but this sentence is so often rewritten it is not easy to find the actual permalink. See also permalinks 1103398742 and 1127626689.|
Politics was far from my mind as I stared at this definition of socialism. I had been clicking Wikiversity's random-page button all morning, looking for projects to move out of mainspace in an effort to clean up Wikiversity. That brought me to this page on socialism, which is what we call a stub, consisting of little more than a definition of socialism and a link to the Wikipedia article on the subject. I clicked the link and reread the same definition, this time on Wikipedia. The use of the terms left-wing and far-left in Wikipedia's first sentence on socialism struck me as odd, especially because that definition was the first sentence of the article. The three most important parts of an essay are (1) the first sentence, (2) the thesis statement , and (3) the last paragraph.
- This essay's thesis statement is shown above in bold face. To view the
- other two parts, click the other two superscripts in the thesis statement.
I had an interesting experience with a "far-left" version of socialism when I was lucky enough to experience Orwell's 1984 in Siberia, some five years before the fall of communism. I learned first hand that few things are more destructive to the creation of wealth than this extreme version of socialism. One example of communism's inability to create wealth emerged as I was walking in the forest, with an acquaintance, along a road that connected two regions of Академгородок. We encountered a pair of those moveable barriers that are so ubiquitous at railroad crossings in developed countries. But there were a couple of differences:
- No cars or trucks were in sight. Communism was not able generate much wealth, producing neither cars nor commodities in sufficient quantity to bring trucks along this road. I found it a bit odd to see railroad barriers at this particular location because it was routine for pedestrians to cross such tracks at a number of locations. So why put the barriers here in the middle of nowhere? Far more scary than the railroad track was the fact that pedestrians also had navigate open drains for melting snow that appeared at the bottom of a ten foot wide funnels that might be six feet deep. Anybody who fell into the funnel and through the manhole faced death. Apparently, to manufacture enough manhole covers to solve the problem put too much strain on the communist economy.
- Instead of being triggered by automatic sensors when a train came by, the barriers were controlled by a young bearded man, who apparently spent the day sitting comfortably in a little shack reading an old book between trains. I was told he had been physics major in college. He seemed to be living the good life: majoring in the world's most beautiful science, with no need to worry about getting a so-called "good" job (such as designing the electronics for railroad barriers.) Under communism, the salaries of high and low paying jobs were not much different. The best jobs are often those that allow you to do nothing. Another popular job was gardening the public spaces (but I don't think anybody cleaned the public toilets, ever.) With most workers getting similar salaries, personal contacts became important: Who do you know and how you can trade with them? That aunt who works in a restaurant can get you a free meal when the restaurant closes for lunch (and yes, under communism some restaurants did close so the employees and their friends could get a free lunch.)
As a foreigner, I had the privilege of living in a hotel that was a short and pleasant walk through some woods to work at the Budker Institute of Nuclear Physics. Everybody was required to show a security pass to enter, but the person responsible for checking the passes never lifted her eyes off the book she was reading. I once forgot to bring my pass, so I flashed a California driver's license. Nobody noticed. As a Georgian in Tbilisi explained, "we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us".
While extreme socialism incapacitates the creation of wealth due to the absence of incentives to work, I don't think we can trust extrapolation down to the consequences of "gentle" socialism. The measurement of wealth is highly subjective. How does one calculate the monetary value of the health of a child of the working poor? I envied the life of that physics major who read books at a railroad crossing in the woods for a living. But that envy diminished when I saw a young person with a wart the size of a walnut on their nose. Medical care was free, but not always easy to obtain.
Living in communist Russia after growing up in California meant I could experience life in two much different worlds, both inhabited by what I presume is same spectrum of humanity. I also had access to a third perspective. The physics major at the railroad crossing might have been reading an old copy of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, a work that predates the Russian revolution by about half a century. Though fiction is not reality, great fiction can describe the reality of life. Dostoevsky's novel was about politics and religion in a Russia that had vanished a century ago. I read an English translation not long before my extended visit to Siberia, while my own country was in turmoil over civil rights and the Vietnam War. The Brothers Karamazov showed me another "right-wing" establishment, namely the church/state that ruled pre-revolutionary Russia. Through Dostoevsky, we learn that pre-revolutionary Russia's "left-wing" was also troubled about those living with what Dostoevsky called "poverty, rags, death, and despair". Predictably, Dostoevsky's fictitious priest instructed the poor that “God is merciful; hope for help from the Almighty.”
I can't fully justify my internal association of people I met in 1984 Russia with the American "left" and "right". A person's position on a "left-to-right" scale cannot be precisely defined. Any attempt to place a person on such a scale would reflect only a small portion of who that individual really is. Also, one has to be aware of what scientists call the selection effect. Consider, for example, the trope of the fastidious gay man. Suppose you take the trouble to ascertain the sexual preference of all the fastidious men that you know. And you look for fastidiousness in every gay man you meet. Now you have a collection of gay fastidious men. A famous selection effect in astronomy involves the quasar, a name derived from the acronym QSR for quasi-stellar-radio source. These objects emit so much energy they can be seen more than halfway across the visible universe. Astronomers first thought virtually all quasars were radio sources, but that was because most were discovered using radio telescopes. Only a careful statistical analysis could sort out the truth.
Nevertheless, correlations do exist, and politicians exploit them as they "play to their base" by taking predictable stands on a wide range of issues in an effort to win elections. I have (and deeply respect) close friends on both sides of the political spectrum. None really fit the stereotype of their political persuasion. Nevertheless, I have noticed that American liberals either tend to either dress haphazardly, or they carefully arrange for their wardrobe to be "fun". In contrast, many conservatives dress, well, conservatively (especially at work.) One sloppily dressed Russian colleague grew excited as he spoke of solving environmental problems, giving as an example the fact that people were harvesting (edible) mushrooms from the forest so aggressively that mushrooms were harder to find than when he first arrived at Академгородок. Environmentalism is a leftist thing, especially when it involves a forest resources everybody can use.
Russian "leftists" liked to talk politics, though at a more subdued level than one sees with American liberals. For example, one such "leftist" described himself as a cosmopolitan in a culture where non-allegiance to Russian communism was considered treason. Another colleague had posed a question involving plasma waves that I didn't know how to solve. I suggested we stop and speculate about how to approach this problem. He was curious about my use of the term "speculation", explaining that he associated the word with the illegal practice of purchasing an item at one price and selling at a higher price. His tone and manner assured me that his sole intent was to understand another person's culture. Russians made efforts to suppress speculation everywhere. Permanent price tags were placed on all sorts of items. Looking into the f-hole of a child's violin, I could see a tag stating that it cost 75 rubles.
Religion played a curious role in this left/right dichotomy because the communist advocacy for atheism could be enforced with such severity that two newlywed students who reaffirmed their vows at a local church were expelled from the local university. For those who are wondering how a church managed to exist in communist Siberia: It wasn't a church, but officially, a museum -- I never understood who the priests were, but I saw some at a church in Moscow. Perhaps they were on display like animals in a zoo. Yet under this oppressive regime, I saw an experimental device in the Budkar Institute situated in a small room that had a charcoal portrait taped to the wall, and that sketch strikingly resembled a Russian Orthodox icon (without the religious symbols, of course.) Putting up a drawing like that at work strikes me as left-wing activism.
The irony of religion in the left-right dichotomy of 1984 Siberia was that religion is typically viewed as a thing of the right. I admit that there are many conservative atheists and religious progressives, and the communist Russian reversal of religion in the left-right dichotomy had exceptions. Take the case of an individual I met in at work, who was obviously affiliated with the KGB, and whose remarks strictly followed the party line, obviously assigned to monitor me. He walked into my office one Friday and invited me to come to a local museum with him. Intending to deflect his request with a joke, I told this obviously "right-wing" lover of authority that it was "against my religion" to not work on a Friday. He sat down and quietly told me he once entered a church during a visit to western Europe and he felt something. The right-leaning seek stability and respect hierarchy. And the perfect hierarchy places an all-powerful God at the top, and God takes care of the poor, removing all those injustices that liberals fret about.
So this fulfills my obligation to speak about the essay's first sentence and Wikipedia's assertion that socialism is left-leaning. But the truth is that I have no great interest in this question, and didn't even read beyond first sentence of the Wikipedia article on socialism. This admission would earn me an F in almost any college course, but the joy of writing an essay on Wikiversity is that not only are you allowed to reference Wikipedia, you can admit that you didn't read the article. If you have any interest in socialism, please write an essay. In fact, write an essay on any subject you choose, and I will find a good home for it on Wikiversity. It is essential that you to learn to write structured and coherent essays for the following reason:
The dissatisfaction with the nature of today's political discourse is almost universal. Cable TV features like minded people of either the left or the right, all reinforcing each other's nearly identical political views. Social media is littered with snarky remarks aimed at the opposite side of an issue, but consumed primarily by the author's allies. The sometimes long and drawn out debates that went into in creating the Wikipedia page (see w:Talk:Socialism) are actually an example of a successful discussion, having created a reasonably good article. But I suspect many of these editors seek something more fulfilling than fine-tuning a mature article like Socialism. Our society needs to process change using thoughtful essays. On Wikiversity we "learn by doing". If you write a bad essay, you can go back and try to make it a good one. Or maybe your progress will be more modest: If you put effort into an essay, you are more likely to re-read it at a later date and discover that you need to hone your writing skills. Wikiversity won't grade your essay. Our editors will tell you why your essay isn't at the top of namespace, though they might be snarky about it.
Footnotes[edit | edit source]
- Let's agree the first sentence of this essay is Wikipedia's definition of socialism, shown at the top of this page.
- The thesis statement is: The three most important parts of an essay are (1) the first sentence, (2) the thesis statement, and (3) the last paragraph.
- The last paragraph explains why this generation needs to learn how to write a good essay
- from "The Brothers Karamazov" available at archive.org/stream/MajorNovels/66%20Crime%20%26%20Punishment_djvu.txt
- Although at least one Wikipedia editor vigorously debated the claim, pointing out that the Nazi's were also socialists. See w:special:permalink/1127626689#Socialism_on_the_political_spectrum