Tag Archives: socialism

A Parable

You’ve been interested in socialist politics for a long time. You’ve read a lot but you’ve still been on the sidelines all this time. You decide it’s time to actually start doing something about it. Thus you do some research and decide to go to your first real socialist meeting.

When you arrive, you find a room with about a dozen males in it, all repeatedly punching themselves in the balls. You think you might have made a mistake.

“I’m here for the socialist meeting, I think I might be in the wrong place,” you say, secretly horrified.

“No, you’re not,” one of them replies, wincing each time his fist connects with his own testicles. “This is the place.”

“Why are you all punching yourselves in the balls,” you logically ask.

One of them seems offended. Not offended enough to stop punching himself in the nuts every few seconds, but he’s clearly upset.

“What are you talking about? We are advancing the cause of socialist revolution!”

“By punching yourselves in the nuts,” you ask.

“We aren’t punching ourselves in the nuts, as you say,” another puncher replies. “We are fighting for socialism. We’re revolutionaries. This is how you fight for socialist revolution. Won’t you join us?”

Not terribly inclined toward the idea of punching yourself in the balls repeatedly for at least an hour, you politely decline and say that this doesn’t seem like a viable way of achieving socialism, or any political change, in fact.

“WHAT?!” One of them exclaims, almost breaking the rhythm of punching himself in the testicles.

“You’re an anti-Communist! You believe all the CIA propaganda!”

“What are you talking about,” you ask, dumbfounded. “I just don’t want to sit in a room punching myself in the testicles. I don’t see how that’s socialism. I’m quite certain that there are a lot of other approaches to socialism.

“TROT!” one of the occupants yells, just as his fist connects solidly with his crotch.

“I don’t know about this one, comrades,” another begins. “The only people that would reject socialism so adamantly are fascists. I think we’ve got a fascist infiltrator on our hands!”

This idea clearly resonates, because now the whole room is shouting “NAZI!” each time their fists smack their own balls. It’s insulting, but when the label is being hurled by a bunch of men sitting in a room hitting themselves in the testicle it kind of loses it’s bite. Not only are you not a Nazi, you’re not anti-socialist; you just don’t want to hit yourself in the balls over and over again. It’s very natural.

You back out and quickly leave. This can’t be it. There must be a mistake. Socialism can’t possibly be about punching yourself in the- actually no viable political ideology can be about that.

You decide to continue your search. There must be a real socialist movement out there. There must be a movement where the people care about actually achieving justice, equality, and a sustainable system that is superior to capitalism, as opposed to punching themselves in the nuts. At least you hope there is.

 

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Ethical Socialism

There are few things I find more pretentious in the political sphere than inventing your own ideology. Over the past few years my own ideology has evolved quite a bit based on acceptance of certain objective facts, some of which compelled me to reject other beliefs because I refuse to live in a state of unreality. Despite the more eclectic nature of my beliefs, I still don’t resort to coming up with some neologism or long string of hyphenated words to describe them. These days I typically just say “socialist” and if someone wants to inquire further we can take it from there.

This being said, I’ve been struggling for some time now with the question of what sincere socialists can do in a world where open fascism at worst and proto-fascist authoritarianism at best appear to be on a triumphant march across the globe, especially considering the increasingly disturbing convergence between the traditional left and the far-right. While in the West radical leftists still display admirable ability to confront open fascism in the streets, leading some far-right figures to go as far as to concede defeat, they have at the same time displayed incredibly poor judgment when it comes to foreign policy, often defending the propaganda of authoritarian and right-wing states and sometimes regurgitating and/or otherwise legitimizing the talking points of literal fascists. At this point it matters little whether they still do it unwittingly or not- results are what matter, and the results we’ve seen in the past decade has been a major net gain for fascism. Indeed, this has been the case despite a historical crisis of global capitalism that ought to have been a major boon to proponents of an alternate, more humane system. To put it simply, the left clearly fucked up.

How did we get here? This is a question that demands a thorough autopsy, one that delves to the very root of the problem. For if we do not get down to the root and pluck it out, we will never fix what’s wrong with the left. And believe me, something is very wrong.

While most leftists openly proclaim they are in favor of equality, freedom, democracy, and the breakdown of unjust hierarchies, we have seen how in certain contexts they are easily capable of displaying xenophobia, Islamophobia, Orientalism, or other behaviors totally antithetical to their stated values. When it comes to universal healthcare at home or human rights in Gaza, the average American leftist is a moral saint and a humanitarian. Switch the venue to Syria, Ukraine, or now Nicaragua, and suddenly they identify with the oppressors and authoritarians while dismissing masses of people they don’t know in countries they’ve never been to as pawns without agency in a geopolitical game. I’ve seen some even refer to the “socialism” that some Western leftists seem to want as “Herrenvolk socialism,” or in other words- socialism for my kind- fuck the rest of the world.

As we dig for the roots I’d concur with others that there is a major epistemological problem on the left, one which leads to these corrupted, deformed takes on certain issues. Put simply, the problem is an out-of-date approach to politics and a Dunning-Kruger like conceit that prevents many from correcting their ideological errors. The former tends to manifest in “campism” or vulgar anti-Americanism, whereby countries are sorted into America and its allies, i.e. “the empire” or “hegemony,” and the countries that are supposedly “resisting” that hegemony. The latter manifests in the insistence that one’s leftist politics somehow give them a more internationalist, informed point of view when oftentimes it can be just as ignorant as the xenophobic rightist view.

To see this in action all you need to do is invoke the right event in the right place. For example, your average leftist would bristle with rage at the assertion that Palestine is a made-up nation whose population consists of terrorist-sympathizers. But they will readily accept the Russian imperialist-colonialist narrative that Ukraine is a contrived nation whose population, insofar as they identify as a separate people, consists of right-wingers and neo-Nazis. The leftist would similarly react at the assertion that residents of Gaza have no right to complain about IDF bombing when their territory is used by Hamas, elected by the people, to fire rockets into Israeli territory. Yet when there’s talk of Assad and Russia’s bombing of civilian targets in Aleppo, Idlib, and so on, we hear how these territories are controlled by “jihadists.” In fact, leftists who routinely talk about Palestinian rights have often been utterly silent on Assad’s treatment of Palestinians in his territory. In Afghanistan and Iraq, leftists routinely pointed out that one cannot bomb terrorism away, and that bombing civilians only radicalizes more people into becoming terrorists. Yet leftists curiously don’t employ that formula when it’s Assad doing the bombing. In short, Syria alone has transformed much of the Western left into Bush-era neocons cheering on their own War on Terror, all because it isn’t “the empire” carrying out the atrocities.

With similar inconsistency, the Western left expresses indignation at conspiratorial accusations that they are controlled by George Soros or Vladimir Putin, yet they are more than ready to accuse protesters in other nations as dupes of the CIA or State Department. For Americans, to use one example, it is not necessary to identify with one’s government. One is allowed to dissent and stand up for better rights and against policies which negative impact them. But for residents in countries which the leftists deem “anti-imperialist,” there is no such luxury. Here the interests of such nations are expressed via their ruling classes rather than the majority of the people. Ergo Yanukovych represents Ukraine, Assad Syria, and Ortega Nicaragua. The only ordinary citizens of these countries worth listening to are those who support the “legitimate government.” One who is personally acquainted with the situation in such countries or at least similar situations in other countries need not strain their imagination as to how those same leftists would act if the “legitimate governments” in their own countries were to adopt the practices of their arbitrarily-chosen “anti-imperialist” heroes.

The inconsistencies mentioned here are often so glaring it’s infuriating when some leftists act so oblivious to them, but there lies that root of the problem, the epistemological problem. Speaking generally, leftists adopt these erroneous positions because they reverse cause and effect between their political identity and the values they purport to have. In other words, they identify as socialists, anarchists, etc. and then assume this means they hold certain values, rather than holding certain values which lead them to adopt a socialist worldview. The result is that they assume they can’t be racist or xenophobic because the identity ostensibly negates that possibility- though in reality it obviously doesn’t.

So what is the solution? Well this is where terminology comes in. If there’s one positive trend I have seen on the left in recent years it is the tendency to characterize socialist politics not in terms of theory but rather basic decency and morals. For example, people point to our healthcare system, one of the most irrational in the entire developed world, and rightfully declare it immoral. It is immoral that in a country so wealthy, wealthy enough to pass an annual defense budget of over $700 billion and announce the creation of a whole new military branch focused on space, people are forced to resort to online crowdfunding to get medical treatment. It is immoral that people with insurance can’t even see a doctor because of the bureaucratic red tape that comes with private insurance.

This is a very positive development. Some time ago I began to realize that the trick to advancing socialism (and we have precious little time if we are to preserve human life on this planet) cannot possibly lie in getting everyone to consciously adopt a certain theoretical worldview or even identity (i.e. socialist), but rather in advancing the idea that capitalism is inherently immoral. As I once put it- get people to see capitalism the way they see cannibalism or pedophilia and you’ve won. A person may not identify as a socialist, but they should see the way Amazon treats its works as disgusting, and by extension they should see a system that requires and rewards such practices as disgusting. That day will be the true day of triumph for socialism.

Here is where I break my rule and humbly suggest that a term is needed to define this kind of socialism. I’ve been referring to it as ethical socialism. The idea is that you begin with certain values- that people are equal and have worth, that it is wrong to require the majority of people to give up the majority of their life so that a minority can live in luxury, that if we can provide everyone with the necessities of life then we should and it is immoral to do otherwise, that unjustified hierarchies deserve to be abolished, and so forth, and your political identity as a socialist flows logically from those values, rather than assuming you must hold them simply because you called yourself a socialist.

I believe that once you make this switch erroneous ideas that lead one toward reactionary thinking suddenly become exposed. If you believe all humans have rights and you have the right to protest against your government for its authoritarian practices, then others have the same right. If you believe that fascism is a danger that must be opposed at all costs, you will not be echoing their talking points and sharing platforms with them.

Naturally this isn’t a silver bullet solution. We can still make errors of judgment, usually due to lack of information. But I would assert that it is far better to start with certain core values and base decisions on a case-by-case consideration of said values rather than adopting some identity and just assuming this means you hold all the values traditionally associated with it. My experience living in the Former Soviet Union, where yesterday’s “ardent Communists” and “internationalists” often rapidly reinvented themselves as right-wing reactionaries has ultimately taught me to put more faith in people’s values and how they adhere to them than the labels they might adopt.

As such, a label like “ethical socialist” would seem paradoxical. Thus I intend to use it only to describe a certain concept, an approach to socialist politics, rather than a label. Ethical socialism is about living and advancing certain values first and foremost. I can only hope that it will catch on.

Has Socialism Been ‘Tried?’

Recently I’ve hinted at the fact that I’m going to be winding down my blogging and social media operation. This is due to several reasons, one of them being that I have a completely new life on which to focus, and the other being that I’ve really said all there is to be said for the foreseeable future on topics like Russia, Ukraine, and propaganda associated with them. During the time I have been blogging, I have often had to keep my personal politics in check so as to prevent my readership getting whittled down to a tiny portion of far-leftists who like reading long theoretical polemics. At the same time, my views have evolved radically thanks not only to my ongoing study of various subjects, but also due to exposure and challenge to different viewpoints. But with the blog at its near end, I think I shall indulge on my soapbox and answer a question that seems to come up in a lot of discussions recently. With this out of the way, proceed if you dare.

How many times have you seen this brilliant meme: Someone like one of those Turning Point USA chuds shows a bunch of pictures of bad things that happened under 20th century “socialist” regimes and then sarcastically writes “But socialism has never been tried!” The implication here is that modern socialists, who of course are all social media obsessed millennial snowflakes, have no answer to those horrific events of the 20th century other than what amounts to a “No True Scotsman” fallacy by saying that socialism hasn’t actually been implemented.

Now to be fair, there are some self-proclaimed socialists or Communists who are guilty of doing this. I suspect that most of them tend to be younger people with very little historical or theoretical knowledge in most cases. I’ve always suspected the process goes something like this:

  1. Young person wants to be edgy and rebellious, gets attracted to Communism, usually for aesthetic reasons.
  2. Parent, teacher, or someone on the internet says something like, “You’re a Communist?! Don’t you know that Communism killed 100 million/150 million/200 million/1 billion/all the people?!”
  3. Disheartened, young person goes online and finds some kind of Trotskyite page.
  4. Young person proudly proclaims, “That wasn’t Communism! It was Stalinism!
  5. Checkmate

Despite the fact that a combination of youth plus poor education more likely accounts for most of these instances, I think it’s safe to say that one can find a fair number of adults who should no better either making this argument, or at best, making an argument which sounds like “That wasn’t true socialism!”

However, there are very sound reasons for a person to declare that what we commonly think of as socialist societies were not in fact objectively socialist. Whether they are just pulling a No True Scotsman or actually making sense really depends on their definition of socialism and whether or not they can substantiate their argument with objective evidence.

What I intend to do in this post is explain how or why someone may legitimately question whether or not a society was socialist and thus why for such people bringing up the activities of 20th century “socialist” regimes may in fact be nothing but a red herring and thus an invalid argument.

What is more, I’m going to attempt to do this in the most approachable way possible, without delving too deep into obscure historical events or theoretical texts. Obviously this means sacrificing detail in some places, and some arguments may not be fully represented or they may be omitted entirely (I’m sure there are plenty of tendencies I’ve never heard of still, and new ones form as well). I realize this approach will piss off some partisans or even just those leftists who love thorough theoretical polemics, but they are not my primary audience- the layperson is.

 

Can you ‘try’ socialism?

In order to answer the question as to whether or not socialism has been “tried” we need to deal with the question, which is already distorted. I have always hated the phrasing of “But socialism/Communism has never been tried.” Saying “try socialism” sounds like “try rebooting your router.” You don’t just “try” a mode of production. And speaking of modes of production, we should probably start with the definition of socialism. That in itself can get pretty complex very quickly, which is why I’m going to stick with Merriam-Webster’s definitions in this case:

Definition of socialism
1 : any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2 a : a system of society or group living in which there is no private property
b : a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
3 : a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done

Already we have some statements that socialists of several tendencies would vehemently dispute, but we’ll get into that later.

Another problem with definitions is that the people who tend to make fun of the “No True Socialism” trope more often than not happen to be the very same people who tend to label almost anything socialism. Public libraries? Socialism! Single-payer healthcare? Socialism! Food stamps? SOCIALISM!  Indeed, many of these people spent eight years telling us how Barack Obama was not just a socialist, but a Marxist socialist…and a radical Islamist too.

And since we’re merely talking about the problems with definitions, we cannot ignore the fact that there are plenty of self-proclaimed socialists or people sympathetic to socialism who are also guilty of applying the label to things that have nothing to do with socialism. For example, in this pro-Bernie Sanders video, Sarah Silverman actually calls fire departments socialist.

 

 

Whichever side we’re talking about when it comes to throwing the S-word around, the result is the same- total failure because if these things were in fact socialist, then nearly all the world is by-definition socialist because every country has some kind of taxes, state intervention in the economy, fire departments, etc.

In order not to stray too far from the matter at hand the definition which most concerns us is the third one, as it is related to Marxist theory and it is Marxist theory which was nominally the foundation of the 20th century “socialist” regimes.

But if we ignore the problems with the phrase “try socialism/Communism” for a second and just ask the question as to whether socialist or communist (note the little c) societies ever existed at all, let me answer that in the affirmative.

Hunter-gatherer society was what Marx and Engels labeled “primitive communism.” Virtually all able-bodied members of the tribe were engaged in labor to survive, private property did not exist, and class distinctions were also virtually non-existent. Prior to the agricultural revolution, humankind spent quite a long time in this state. Sorry, but The Flintstones lied to you when it depicted prehistoric society as capitalist post-war America with dinosaurs. Of course while the egalitarian aspect and lack of class differentiation might seem enticing, primitive communism was no utopia. People lived that way simply because there was no other choice. Imagine life on an island where you are shipwrecked with some other people. As you organize labor to survive you’re unlikely to replicate the traditional modern corporate hierarchy, but whatever relief you get from that lifestyle is negated by the fact that you barely eke out enough resources to survive day-by-day.

In more modern times, there have been and in some cases still are small-scale examples of socialist societies. These range from large territories like the so-called “Free Territory” in Ukraine and anarchist Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War to isolated communes or big projects like the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (often still called Rojava). On the American frontier, groups of pioneers often adopted a communist lifestyle, distributing resources according to need.

But what of the most obvious examples of 20th century socialism, i.e. those states born of “socialist revolutions” which proclaimed themselves to be socialist and run by socialist or Communist parties? This is where it gets complicated. Some people would say they were never socialist. Trotskyites, for example, might call them “deformed workers states.” Left Communists and anarchists refer to them as state capitalist (this refers to a system where the role of the capitalist class is replaced by the state). Anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninists will typically argue that certain states were socialist when they had certain policies but that theoretical revisionism led them to adopt policies that made them state capitalist and thus led to their downfall.

Where do I fall on this spectrum? I would say that at least the Soviet Union and Socialist Albania achieved what could rightly be called a primitive, rudimentary form of modern socialism, but that in both cases concern for things such as geopolitics (for the USSR) and the security of the regime (pretty much every self-proclaimed 20th century “socialist” state) far outweighed the goal of building a functioning socialist society and more importantly, a socialist society aimed at achieving the original goals of socialism in the first place- greater freedom, equality, justice, etc. That being said, please keep in mind that me saying this or that regime was objectively socialist is entirely independent of my judgement of that regime or any of its actions. Whether or not a particular society or country is socialist or capitalist is a matter of concrete, objective factors and not the color on a flag, the name of the ruling party, or the declarations of the government.

Does socialism/Communism kill?

No, it does not.

Oh…You want an explanation. Okay fine. First of all I find the claim that Communism or socialism kills to be quite ridiculous because the same people who make this claim not only never talk about how many people capitalism has killed (which would necessarily be far higher than any 20th century Communist body count), but they don’t even acknowledge that capitalism can kill. Either they’ll label a dictatorial regime “socialist” even when said regime was allied with the West during the Cold War and never claimed to be socialist, or they will say that these are the actions of bad actors like governments and not the fault of the capitalist system. It stands to reason that if Communism can kill people, capitalism must be able to as well.

At the most superficial level, most people who were killed under self-proclaimed socialist regimes died for the same reasons as those killed by capitalist regimes. Namely you had a certain group of people in power who feared losing it in one form or another, and thus engaged in repressive measures to hold onto that power. In other cases (though you could argue that this is at its root, the same as the previous reason), the state put economic goals above humanitarian ones. This sort of thing affects millions of people throughout the world literally every year.

Now at this point someone might perk up and say, “Wait a minute! Surely you wouldn’t say that Nazism doesn’t kill people!” No, I wouldn’t say that, but in terms of mode of production Nazi Germany was, brace yourself, a capitalist state. You can argue about the increased role of the state in economic affairs, but in this sense Nazi Germany didn’t differ much from many other countries during the era, including the United States.

The reason Nazism kills is because mass killing is literally a part of the ideology. It’s all laid out very clearly by Adolf Hitler. The “race” needs to survive and thus needs room to expand and secure resources to feed a growing population. Racial or ethnic mixing leads to “blood poisoning” according to Nazi eugenics, so that “living space” needs to be cleansed of foreign elements. The conquest and extermination of entire groups of people, according to the Social Darwinism-influenced worldview of the Nazis, was seen as entirely natural if not positive. It is worth nothing that the Nazis got such ideas largely from the American eugenics movement, which enjoyed generous funding from leading capitalists.

By contrast, there’s nothing in the theoretical works of Marx and Engels that allegedly served as the basis for the Soviet Union and other socialist states that says you should be exterminating people. You may argue about the ethics of expropriating capitalist property without compensation, but there’s nothing I’ve seen in the body of Marxist literature saying this is an absolute necessity. In fact, members of the bourgeois class can actually voluntarily cease being de facto capitalists if they wanted to, either by just giving their private property (means of production) away or by turning into a collectively owned enterprise with their workers. Twentieth century socialist regimes typically justified their atrocities or repression by claiming to be fighting counter-revolutionaries. None of this justifies what was done, it merely explains why it is not inherently linked to Marxist theory, let alone socialism.

Please let me make it clear that the above does not justify nor deny the very real examples of repression or atrocities committed by self-proclaimed socialist regimes. That is not the claim being disputed here, but rather the claim that “socialism kills.” In short, if socialism can kill, so can capitalism, and if we’re just going by body count, capitalism takes the high score by far, especially since 20th century socialism has been dead for over a quarter of a century.

I would also like to point out that I don’t believe that regimes which carried out repression or mass killings were not socialist simply because they did these things, even though such things really do contradict the moral values underpinning socialism and Marxism. I do think that a society that sincerely implements socialist ideals and revolutionary reforms would be less likely to commit mass atrocities or repressions, but it is foolish to assume that this alone could entirely preclude atrocities or violations of human rights. After all, even the “libertarian” socialist projects of Ukrainian Free Territory or Anarchist Catalonia were not totally devoid of violent repression against counter-revolutionaries or other actions we’d regard as unethical today.

Whose socialism? 

Getting back to the topic at hand, there are many people who have every right to insist that certain 20th century regimes (or currently existing ones like North Korea) are not socialist and thus cannot be used as an argument against them. Any group or even individual who’s definition of socialism significantly contradicts that of the Soviet Union or any such regimes has a right to object to being made to answer for them. Whether their own definition of socialism is accurate is another matter to be determined, but suffice to say it is stupid to insist that an anarchist answer for things like the Great Terror in the Soviet Union. Trotskyites on the other hand may have a weaker case, but I don’t want this to turn into an inter-Marxist polemic.

On the other hand there are many socialists of various stripes who engage in apologia for any and every self-proclaimed socialist regime. If they are going to uphold those regimes as positive role models, then they have to take responsibility for explaining and defending their actions, and to be honest this often takes the form of accusing every critical source of being linked to the CIA or Nazis. I’m not saying that there isn’t legitimate revisionist history of 20th century socialism or that many of its “crimes” have been grossly exaggerated or distorted. On the contrary- I’ve spent a fair deal of my political life studying that very history. The problem is that many of the people engaged in defense of these regimes don’t seem to have done the same homework. Instead they confine themselves to a small number of pro-party sources or even contemporary state propaganda. This may convince people who are already sympathetic but as a strategy for attracting more people and building movements it’s a dead end. I’ve even found that legitimate revisionist history is largely dead weight as well.

There is another group which may in all honesty condemn the actions of 20th century regimes, yet for whatever reason adopts the aesthetics of those regimes. Take a look at this video, for example:

 

 

 

It’s a fairly good explanation of exploitation for beginners. I can say anything about the video’s author. I don’t know if they are “Trotskyite” or “Stalinist.” What I do know is that at the end of the video “Communism” is held up as the solution to the problem of exploitation, and it is depicted with stock footage from the Soviet Union with the Soviet national anthem in the background. Or in other words- it is associated with what can only be called a failed state, one which fares well in comparison only with the old Russian Empire that preceded it and various developing countries or colonies which surrounded it. Now maybe the author is totally opposed to the policies of the Soviet Union. Maybe their ideas about what constitute socialism are totally different from the centralized, authoritarian model we saw in that state. But if you’re going to deliberately associate your socialism with that state, its symbols, leaders, aesthetics, etc., then don’t be surprised when your opponents decide that bringing up the USSR is a valid argument. Don’t wrap yourself in Soviet imagery and expect people not to associate your politics with that state. If you’re going to shackle yourself to a corpse, own it.

Socialism failed everywhere it was tried

Another common trope you might hear is this: “Sure, there were many socialist countries, but they all failed!” The implication here is that they are acknowledging that 20th century socialism was not just one monolithic entity, but that every attempt to construct socialism, regardless of variances, ultimately failed. This is still incorrect because if we’re talking about socialist states, virtually all of them patterned their politics on one model, or other models that grew out of that original model. I am of course referring to the Soviet Union. In addition to this, many of these countries’ regimes were set up by the Soviet Union and their governments more or less subordinated to the Soviets’ political demands. In other words, it’s not as if you had a variety of socialists coming to power by their own unique theories and strategies.

Add to this the fact that some self-proclaimed “socialist” nations never even achieved the type of “socialism” found in the USSR or China. The modern case of Venezuela is even more instructive. Here is a state where the regime actively portrayed itself as “socialist,” and even popularized a theory it called “21st Century Socialism.” In reality Venezuela could never have been called socialist. In fact, here’s Fox News making exactly that point by noting how the country’s economy is still dominated by the private sector. Of course I’m sure for Fox News at least, Venezuela becomes “socialist” any time they’re doing a story about empty stores and food riots.

So what went wrong?

This is a question that people have devoted entire books to, and I promised at the beginning that I would make this as layperson friendly as possible. But based on my study and experience living under an authoritarian regime, I’d say that what it all boils down to is the balance between security and freedom. To understand this, we must go back to what many consider to be the first “socialist revolution,” the Paris Commune of 1871.

To give you the bare-bones rundown on this revolution, basically the French empire got its ass kicked at the battle of Sedan by Prussia in a conflict appropriately named the Franco-Prussian War.  French Emperor Napoleon III was captured on the field. In early 1871, the acting French government was forced to sign an armistice with Germany, under which it had to disarm its army but not its National Guard. Eventually radicalized Parisian workers, many of whom served in the National Guard, refused to accept the government’s authority, and using their arms they proceeded to essentially seize power within Paris.

Contemporary socialists like Karl Marx and anarchists like Petr Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin watched developments within the Commune with great interests. To this day different left tendencies still argue over the nature of the Commune- was it socialist akin to something Marxists would advocate, was it an early attempt at anarchism, or did it not go far enough in eliminating the state? One thing that is certain about the Commune is that it did display unprecedented levels of freedom. It certainly couldn’t be called totalitarian by any stretch of the imagination. Even members of the local bourgeoisie were floored to see how society functioned without the intervention of legions of policemen in certain neighborhoods.

If the Paris Commune sounds like a great utopia, hold up for a second. It had one flaw, namely it was crushed within about two months and as many as 20,000 Communards were killed, mostly in mass shootings. Marauding French soldiers reestablished the authority of the government with violence, rape, and pillage. This experience weighed heavily on the minds of socialist revolutionaries worldwide after the fact. It was certainly on the minds of Bolshevik leaders like Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin. History taught that revolution leads to counter-revolution, and not only did the Bolsheviks have the historical case of the Paris Commune to point to, but they also had the aftermath of Russia’s failed 1905 Revolution to consider when planning revolution in 1917. Once power was seized, letting go could easily mean bloody repression on the scale of Paris 1871 if not much worse.

In general, the Paris Commune raised a question that still remains with us today- how do you liberate society, and maximize freedom, while simultaneously securing that society from more powerful forces that wish to crush the revolution? Historically anarchists have shown the ability to establish very free societies, albeit ones that are either short-lived or if they do last, ones which do not manage to equal the standards of living in developed capitalist nations. On the other hand, the Marxist-Leninist model has managed to conquer huge swathes of land and withstand the worst onslaughts in modern history, but they utilized incredibly authoritarian means to do so and ultimately failed to achieve their economic promises or convince a majority of people to fight for the preservation of the system.

Today there is such a struggle going on in Syria, where the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) led the fight against ISIS in Syria and created what is known as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria. Currently it is facing an armed invasion by Turkey and its Islamist Syrian proxies, and if the Assad regime decides to get involved with Russian help, the autonomous territory will be in a critical situation.

The PYD claims it is building a confederation where people exercise control over decision making via local direct democracy and the election of representatives to higher bodies. Those who observe on the ground, however, say this is not exactly true, and that while local communities do have control over local issues, the PYD is firmly in control of the area. But this just raises another question: Given the situation the whole territory finds itself in, doesn’t it make perfect sense for the well-organized, well-armed (relatively) PYD to exercise more direct control, if only because of the war?

A fanatical anarchist might insist that war doesn’t justify the suspension of what they see to be essential liberties (an argument heard during the Spanish Civil War as well as in America after 9/11). Others might see the centralized measures as justified by the circumstances. But if we choose the latter, we must also ask as to what sort of actions are justifiable.

In the Soviet Union, which in many ways became the model to one degree or another for every other self-proclaimed socialist state, heavy-handed measures were used, often with terrible results. For example, in the book Farm to Factory, Robert Allen shows that the advantage in industrialization gained by collectivization (which of course led to the Holodomor and a lot of other excess deaths in Russia and Kazakhstan) was only slightly higher than what they would have achieved had they stuck with the NEP (New Economic Policy). But more industrialization means more tanks to fight the war that Stalin predicted was coming as far back as 1931, right? Well that argument might work better had the USSR not performed so dismally in the start of the war with Germany despite all its tanks and planes. At the battle of Dubno (also called the first battle of Brody), the Red Army had around 3,500 tanks against 750 German tanks and the latter won. The Soviets lost 800 of their tanks and many of them never made it to the front lines thanks to mechanical failure or lack of fuel.

Now suppose the USSR had tried a different strategy to defend itself from a fascist threat. Rather than centralized control and repression, the government stressed liberty and worker control of their means of production based on the concept that a populace which experiences such freedom will be more likely to defend it to the death. Programs like Ukrainianization are allowed to continue, but without the heavy-handed methods that drew some pushback from the Russian-speaking populace. In short, the Soviet government decides that their best weapon is their society itself (in fact Stalin would later claim that it was the USSR’s socialist system that really deserved credit for the victory in WWII).

Obviously this is a very counter-factual scenario, but what we can say for sure is that the methodology used by the USSR to defend itself from foreign invasion not only costs millions of lives directly and indirectly, but also failed to establish a sustainable socialist system capable of surpassing the capitalist West. In our counter-factual version, the USSR might have instead built a society where every man, woman, and child was more than willing to defend the gains they felt they’d made from any foreign invader. The invading Axis troops might find no crowds cheering them as liberators, willing collaborators, no mass of soldiers surrendering in droves. Seeing as how even in 1941 there were people (including many Ukrainians) who defended the USSR that tenaciously in spite of everything that had proceeded the war, it isn’t too far-fetched to imagine that had the Soviet system not been so repressive far more people would have rallied to the colors from day one instead of after months of defeat. More importantly, perhaps the Soviet stagnation and collapse never would have happened, and perhaps today the Western capitalist world would be struggling like Cuba while a massive socialist super-continent enjoys the benefits of a system run according to human need and not the profit motive of the few.

But for now it is enough to say that in the case of 20th century socialism, much of what bad did happen had nothing to do with socialist theory but rather military and geopolitical considerations. This by no means absolves the decision makers who were responsible. With actions like the deportation of entire ethnic groups they put strategic and geopolitical goals above the humanistic values of socialism. By putting rapid industrialization ahead of any concern for the peasants producing grain, the authorities essentially committed the same crime that capitalists have been committing for centuries up to this day. Specifically, they put economic results above human life. If that is socialism, or more specifically if that is what socialism must inherently be, then we would be right to reject it today. But the simple truth is that this is not inherent in socialism, nor is it inevitable.

So what can be done? 

Again, laying out a solution to the problem of how to implement socialism is far beyond the scope of this article, but I would like to lay out a few points.

The first is that it is important to remember that Karl Marx really didn’t write much about this socialism or Communism that he envisioned. To Marx this would be like the utopian socialists which he tried to distance himself from. Rather Marx analyzed and critiqued capitalism; he concerned himself more with understanding the problem, not the solution. What we’ve seen in the decades since his death is that in spite of all the failures of 20th century socialism, Marx’s critique of capitalism not only still holds up, but is far more explanatory than mainstream neo-classical or Austrian school economics. This means the ball is in our court to determine how we resolve the contradictions of capitalism in order to create a better, more moral system.

Many solutions and combinations thereof have been suggested in order to build a socialist society, besides the 20th century centralized state-based methods. Some of them include labor-time calculation using computer networks, some form of a Universal Basic Income, sovereign wealth funds, or the de-commodification of goods deemed necessary to life.

As for my own opinions about what socialism will be, in recent years I have come to realize that the foundation of building socialism must be ethical. Put simply, capitalism is immoral. It forces people to act in immoral ways. It is also unsustainable. The Earth and the universe do not require there to be human life. Earth has had mass extinction events before. Now that we are faced by existential crises such as climate change and everything that can result from that change, we cannot sit back and hope that the world’s richest capitalists will see enough promise of profit in sustainable technology to redirect sufficient investment into that field. We cannot properly husband Earth’s resources to preserve human life on this planet if we are divided into national and racial groupings at odds with one another. Oh you’re a patriot? You love your country? Well nobody’s going to give a shit about your country and its illustrious history after mankind is wiped out following a massive war over resources exacerbated by irreversible environmental degradation. Capitalist apologists insist that somehow capitalism can solve all these problems itself, but history and the present say otherwise, and the longer we wait, the worse things get.

Apart from being rooted in ethics, socialism must be rooted in human rights. Karl Marx’s son-in-law, Paul LaFargue, once wrote an excellent satirical piece called “The Rights of Horse and the Rights of Man.” In it, LaFargue lampooned the liberal idea of the rights of man (what we’d later call human rights) by pointing out that in society of that era, the rights of horses, who were given shelter, food, and the greatest of care by their owners, were much more desirable than the so-called rights of man. Truly he was right on the money, but unfortunately many decades later I know many socialists tend to discard the concept of human rights as a meaningless liberal idea. That liberal society is hypocritical when it comes to human rights doesn’t negate the concept itself- only liberal society and the capitalist system. Human rights implies an equality of humans which simply does not exist in capitalist society. Thus as socialists our aim should be not to simply roll our eyes when we hear liberals speak of human rights, but rather take up that torch and use it to beat them over the head with it. For example, have you ever read Article 25 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights? The first paragraph reads:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

This concept should form one of the foundations of a future socialist society. What is this but a call for distribution according to one’s needs? More importantly, what liberal democratic society today actually manages to avoid violating this human right?

In the future, socialism must be democratic. This might not mean direct democracy for every aspect of life (after all, the idea of socialism is to work less and attending endless councils or meetings counts as work), but any organ with any measure of vested authority needs to be accountable to the people it serves. The idea that the entire working class can be “represented” by one party which will inevitably act in its interests because it is run by “true Marxist-Leninists” (whatever that even means) has been disproved by history.

On that latter note, socialism will also need to be pluralistic somehow. This might sound like heresy to some, but one cannot ignore the fact that the world’s most successful capitalist countries are often run by two or at most a handful of parties, which often hate each other with a passion, and yet somehow the capitalist system runs along like clockwork (well, clockwork with periodic crises and environmental degradation). The United States, for example, has a remarkably stable political system from the time of the ratification of the Constitution till today, when the President is a man whose brain is being feasted upon by spirochetes. If one insists that socialism can only be built by one hegemonic “party of the working class,” we must ask what basis there is for this claim when that exact system failed. If someone says “because Stalinism!” or “because revisionism,” they must then explain why things like Stalin or revisionists managed to irreversibly fuck everything up. Andrew Johnson was a shit president and got impeached. Nixon was forced to resign. The system went on, as usual.

One key component that might help solve the mystery as to why capitalist countries manage to maintain stability in spite of cutthroat competitive political systems is the concept of rule of law. Of course as socialists when someone speaks of rule of law we should always ask “whose law?” But as with concepts like freedom or human rights, it does not mean the idea should be dismissed offhand. If we look at the government of the Soviet Union, for example, we see that almost nothing worked the way it was supposed to according to the Soviet constitution (which also changed several times). The Supreme Soviet was elected via universal suffrage, but real power in the USSR was in the Central Committee of the Communist Party and in particular, the Politburo (which was chosen by the Central Committee during party congresses). In post Soviet Russia today, the State Duma and Federation Council are basically rubber stamp legislative organs which offer no opposition to President Putin, but apart from that one point power nominally rests more or less where its supposed to even in the kleptocratic, authoritarian Russian Federation. The result of the lack of rule of law in the USSR (and many other socialist countries patterned after it) was that politics almost always boiled down to conspiracies and interpersonal struggles within the party, out of sight of most of the people this party supposedly represented.

Another reason rule of law is crucial is in order to facilitate direct democracy. Within a firm set of rules establishing citizens’ rights and responsibilities, direct democracy could become nothing but mob rule. Some things shouldn’t be left up to the majority, particularly things that violate human rights. One’s individual freedoms end where another’s begins. Rule of law can also help explain how pluralism can exist in a socialist society. The idea that every member of society would become a committed anarchist or Marxist-Leninist is simply a pipe dream. If anything, the cult of the individual in advanced capitalist society means that many people would reject such labels simply in an attempt to be different or not follow the crowd. Is this a disaster? Does it make socialism impossible? Not at all.

To understand why, just watch people playing football or basketball in a park. Here you have people with different values, life experience, beliefs, religions, etc., and yet they all manage to play this competitive game without continually resorting to fist fights or rampant cheating. The reason is because in order to accomplish the task of playing a game of basketball, everyone agrees to certain basic rules. Sure, arguments do occur and in formal games referees are necessary to enforce closer observance of the rules, but nobody can dispute the fact that countless games of pickup basketball or football are routinely played in parks around the world, many concluding without incident.

The lesson from this is that a socialist society can exist without everyone declaring themselves to be a fervent socialist or even a socialist at all. We do this by making everything based on core ground rules that everyone can abide by. This is where human rights and the moral imperative shine. Virtually all religions around the world have some form of what we call “the Golden Rule.” Socialism must advance its form of this as the basis for cooperation between people with disparate personal beliefs and values.

I think above all socialism must produce results for the people living under it. If it’s super democratic but requires a communal lifestyle far below that of developed capitalist societies, it will only attract people who personally happen to value living in that society. It will not be able to attract large swathes of any populace or expand and overthrow existing capitalist systems. On the other side of the coin, if it is just as authoritarian as a right-wing capitalist system, it will produce only bitterness and resentment, which leads to betrayal and collapse. In short, a socialist society needs to give people tangible benefits they simply cannot get in any capitalist society. It must go beyond things like free healthcare or higher education, which is in fact quite common in developed capitalist countries which are not named the United States of America. Most of all, I think people need to truly, viscerally feel that they personally own a share of society, a share of their country, and that is also paired with a responsibility to defend it. If they let up and capitalism is restored, that which they own will be taken from them and they will no longer be fully in control of their own lives and destinies. If people feel they truly own a share of the means of production and the society itself, they’ll defend it even when times are tough and their socialist revolution is at a disadvantage relative to the capitalist states. If everything is owned by the state and the worker exercises little to no control over that property, they’ll question whether it matters if that property is owned by the state or a private capitalist.

Lastly, on the topic of defense of the revolution, future socialists must realize that the key to defense will not be large conventional military forces and secret police, as the Soviets used. None of these things managed to stave off the collapse of those societies. If there is a socialist revolution anywhere, surrounding capitalist states will try to strangle it. They will resort to the playbook that worked during the 20th century- exert pressure, stoke fear and paranoia, and wait for the socialists themselves to tear themselves apart. Future socialists must not fall for that trap. They must never fall victim to institutions like intelligence agencies or conventional, traditional armies. I would recommend a small volunteer professional force augmented by conscript reservists of both sexes. Both would train together to excel in unconventional warfare. Any invading army would find every town crawling with snipers, spies, assassins, and IED teams. Special teams should be ready to carry out operations against the invader internationally, striking at legitimate targets on a global stage. Having an open policy towards media and engaging with global audiences in their languages would also help garner the power of public opinion (a crucial factor in many successful insurgencies) and stymie attempts to crush the socialist country in question with military force.

Conclusion

It’s important to realize that I’m merely putting forth a few very general observations here, based on many years of study and experience. Don’t look at these recommendations as answers but rather questions that need to be discussed. I need to discuss them myself because I don’t believe I have adequate answers yet. I do realize that many of these observations may sound heretical to socialists of various tendencies, but what every one of those tendencies must admit is that to one degree or another, their politics have thus far failed to abolish capitalism.

My approach to politics is very much influenced by the martial arts of judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu (itself derived from judo). For those not familiar with the art, judo was developed by Kano Jigoro by refining traditional jiu-jitsu techniques so they could be practiced against a fully-resisting opponent in real time. While traditional styles of jiu-jitsu from that era emphasized “lethal” techniques, Kano rightly determined that techniques which could not be practiced in real time would be unreliable. In forming the Kodokan school of judo, Kano and his students would have to go through challenge matches with representatives of other schools, even if it meant facing their deadly techniques. Kano’s students almost always came out on top, proving the efficacy of his art. When judo was introduced to the Gracie family of Brazil by the master Maeda Mitsuyo, it went through a similar refining process in no-holds-barred streetfights. Decades later, Brazilian jiu-jitsu would help popularize mixed-martial arts competition in the United States and demonstrate that efficacy once again.

The lesson here is that you have to go with what works, and discard that which has been shown either to not work at all in real-life conditions or to be unreliable. Even after grappling arts like Brazilian jiu-jitsu, judo, and sambo, as well as striking arts like Western and Thai boxing demonstrated their efficacy in MMA competitions, the representatives of discredited traditional martial arts were undaunted. They began dreaming up excuses as to why their martial arts were useless in the ring yet deadly on the street.

 

And look, I realize that building a totally different society with a different mode of production is far more complicated than a martial arts system, and of course there are external factors that will be outside of any socialist party or organization’s control. But that’s just more reason to discard techniques or policies which have been proven not to work or proven not to be sustainable instead of making excuses for failure and insisting on defending or advocating the same failed policies out of some fetishized love of some historical leader we never lived under and might not want to have lived under if we were being honest. That may sound harsh but that’s reality, and as socialists we’re supposed to be guided by reality and not our imaginations.

Anyway, that’s the end of my massive quasi-polemic. I am happy to try to answer any reasonable questions. In the near future I promise to get back to the usual observations about Russia and Ukraine, as well as the dick jokes. At least before I decide to wrap all this blogging business up for good.

Domestic Stupidity

As much as Russian society has been going full potato this year, I still have this lingering fear about moving to the United States. People who find me critical of Russia often fail to understand the concept that I live here, work here, and have in fact spent most of my adult life here. Ergo I talk about the society in which I live, the society which is my daily reality. When I lived in America, guess what society I criticized the most? Once I do move back to America, I will have a lot to deal with, and I will have lost a certain luxury that living in any non-English speaking country provides.

This can be hard to explain to anyone who is monolingual, but I’m going to try. You see, there is a certain level of fluency one can achieve where the foreign language is not as natural as your native language, but you can still understand virtually anything someone is saying so long as you pay attention. In  other words, if I’m out on the street or in a supermarket, I can pick up all kinds of Russian conversation, but if I choose not to “tune in” it basically becomes background gibberish that can be easily ignored. This comes in handy on those many summer nights when drunk people decide to have parties throughout the night. It also means that when someone is expressing an idiotic opinion, such as the idea that America shot down the Malaysian airliner to cover up the genocide of Donbass children by their “Greywater” mercenaries, this ridiculous idea is unlikely to be noticed and processed by my brain. If I should realize that someone is sounding off with similar bullshit, I can just tune them out. Since I don’t constantly watch Russian TV or videos, and I rarely have to communicate in Russian on most days beyond a few sentences, it’s unlikely that I’ll lose this ability.

Now to some this might sound like a deficiency, but it’s actually quite a luxury. On the few occasions that I’ve been able to visit the US in the past decade, the first and most shocking thing upon arriving at JFK in New York is hearing English being spoken everywhere. Suddenly you understand everything that everybody is saying all the time. You feel as though you’re eavesdropping on everyone around you whether you like it or not. You recognize signs and notices instantly, without any effort to consider them. They are just there and the message is already in your brain before you know it. Having experienced this two times in the US, and following American politics as best as I can from abroad, I realize that I’m going to be in for some serious bullshit when I finally do move back.

Why am I writing about this now? Is it really so bad to be able to readily understand and process Americans expressing opinions out loud, in public?  You tell me:

Yep, this is the kind of bullshit I have to look forward to in the US- I mean the opinion, not “Obamacare.” That’s another matter entirely. Now I think readers on this blog can probably surmise that no, Stalin did not in fact say this. I also wonder if the hammer and sickle was put next to the portrait just to make sure that the audience for this picture understands that he was a Communist. All of this is beside the point though. The point is that a vast majority of American citizens are intellectually lazy beyond all recognition, and they suffer for it.

First of all, the so-called Affordable Care Act was signed by Obama on 23 March 2010. This after roughly a year of debate and public discussion, complete with near-constant news coverage. Single payer healthcare, which is the closest thing possible to “socialized medicine,” was off the table for discussion from the very beginning. Next came the widely discussed “public option,” whereby the government would sell its own health insurance so as to force private providers to compete. This is basically a market-based solution but even that was too Communist for pot-bellied old white people. Finally Obama settled with a plan which was originally devised by the conservative Heritage Foundation, wherein people are forced to buy healthcare from for-profit providers. Since the insurance companies are still private, such a system would have been literally impossible in the Soviet Union or any other socialist country, seeing as how they all abolished that form of private property.

Information about every conceivable detail of the law and its provisions has been readily available to anyone with even temporary access to the internet or a public library.  That same access can be used to look up things such as “socialized medicine,” and “single payer healthcare.”  One can learn about how virtually all industrialized have some form of single payer healthcare, and that so long as it is well funded, these systems work. The better the system, the better the health statistics of the country. Cuba, in spite of a blockade spanning decades and which continues to this day, still has some of the best health statistics in the region, with many indicators such as life expectancy actually rivaling those of the United States. Virtually every criticism which can be raised against Cuba’s health care system can be attributed to the embargo. So even in a tiny island blockaded by the world’s greatest superpower, “socialized medicine” works miracles.  That phony, ignorant picture was posted on Facebook, and commented on by other morons who also managed to secure Facebook accounts. There is no excuse as to why they cannot Google “Affordable Care Act.” None whatsoever.

It is said that ignorant people like this don’t read or do research. No, they “do research.” They’ll happily fork over money to some ex-radio DJ for his new book about “what’s destroying America”(HINT: It’s liberals and the breakdown of the family!). They religiously watch the news…on Fox. They love watching Youtube videos with some jackass wearing multi-cam telling them about how to survive the coming UN invasion. What they won’t do, under any circumstances is type a few words into Google to read even the most basic information about something they are apparently very concerned about.  The Affordable Care Act has a Wikipedia page. The UN’s Agenda 21 has one as well. This is not to say that everything you might find on that page is accurate, but you will find links to the original sources, and at the very least you should know what you are criticizing.

I struggle over whether I should call this stupidity or extreme laziness. These people always see themselves as being informed, but they religiously get their information from a narrow field of approved sources. I’ve had a lot of interaction with conservatives in the past, and there’s one which I regularly communicate with since moving abroad. What’s interesting is how she’ll rant about this horrible thing Obama is supposedly doing, and half the time it’s either some manufactured scandal of the week that never happened, or it’s something that plenty of other presidents have done long before Obama came along. Virtually every time I inform her that this information can be easily verified, and whenever I do this I’m always hit with this sob-story about how busy she is and how she doesn’t have time to check simple facts.  There’s time to browse the internet and read those horror stories, but no time to open a tab, type a few words into Google, or check out Snopes.com. I’ve never quite understood this form of logic, that you are confronted with some story and your reaction is, “I must believe this story and get angry about it right now.”  Then when confronted even with mild skepticism from someone else, rather than wondering if you’ve been had you inform them that you don’t have time to check and see if something you’re really upset about might be utter bullshit. You think they’d be relieved to know that Obama won’t be imposing Sharia law in public places after taking your guns and forcing your kids to marry partners of the same sex.  But no, some people just prefer being angry and afraid all the time.

Is it stupidity? Yes, I do think this is a just label in this case. We’re not talking about ignorance, but rather willful ignorance. These people know that they have other avenues of information regarding the things they are so worried about.  To use the words of Fred Clark, internet-famous for his hilarious but informative dissections of the Left Behind series of novels, these people don’t believe stupid things because they are stupid, they become stupid because they believe stupid things. What I mean is that in order for a person to believe, for example, that Obamacare is “socialized medicine” and that this will lead America to Soviet Communism, one must be actively ignorant. One must avoid reading anything about the ACA from an even remotely neutral point of view, as well as avoid learning anything about countries which actually have single-payer healthcare. This just isn’t as easy to do these days with so much access to information. Since the ACA is the law and no doubt many conservatives have signed up, they must understand that they are paying a private company which would not exist under socialism, yet they ignore this. They live in a world surrounded by private corporations and businesses wielding a massive amount of power, even over the personal lives of their own employees, and yet they continue to loudly proclaim that their country is on the verge of Marxist socialism, if it isn’t there already. It takes conscious effort to eat a breakfast consisting of products made by different private companies, get in a car also made by a private corporation, go to work in a private business, consume private media via radio, television, and internet, go shopping in a private supermarket, and then as you eat your roast chicken which came from a privately-owned agribusiness company, lecture your wife and kids about how Obama has turned America socialist. Likewise, it also takes effort for many of these people, who often receive some form of government benefits one way or another, to insist that “big government” is socialism and that welfare is bankrupting the country. Numerous individuals recount hearing rants like this from people who are actually state and sometimes federal employees.

Discourse on Russia often shows the distinction between simple ignorance and active stupidity. It is terrifyingly easy to get Russia wrong, seeing as how most press on the subject is ridiculously one-sided and biased towards one side or the other.  In the roughly seven years between my first visit to Russia and my return in 2006, I was duped both by the Western press and the Russian foreign-language media. The former said Putin was a strong man who was standing up to the West and restoring Russia’s pride. I saw that as a good thing and thus I believed it. The Russian press just backed that up.  In this case, I had prior experience in the country, something many people don’t have, plus I was actively using the information at my fingertips via the internet so as to be informed. And yet I was wrong, utterly, totally wrong. Now at this point I could have just rejected the reality I woke up to every day. I could have dismissed the anecdotes of hundreds of Russian citizens I knew. I could have pretended all manner of things never happened, or I could have dismissed them by thinking of an example of a similar thing that happened once in the United States.  I could have ignored reality and lived in a fantasy land, but what would that have brought me, aside from a lucrative career at RT?  No, I prefer living in reality, however ugly that may be.

And that’s an important point to keep in mind in case you’re a reader who thinks I’m being unfair to conservative or right-wing people. First of all, I’m well aware of leftist being similarly duped by Facebook memes and conspiracy theories. I’ve had to spend a fair bit of time debunking Russian propaganda about the Donbass for many leftist friends, and I’ve definitely lost more than a handful for exposing the deceptive efforts of Russian nationalists to deceive leftists in the non-Russian speaking world.  Far more important, however, is the fact that I come from conservative roots and was for a significant portion of my life quite radically right wing. Why did I change? Well the simple answer is that I grew up, but a large part of it had to do with me repeatedly finding out that I’d been lied to by the intellectual figures I’d trusted, from talk-radio pundits to obscure, radical authors. Each lie I discovered made me wonder what else they were lying about. And over time I started to learn, through actual research which takes time, money, and effort, that almost every conservative claim, when held up to scientific scrutiny, crumbles. Crime is out of control and our streets are war zones? I was hearing that since my childhood in the late-80’s and early 90’s. Too bad violent crime has been declining during that same period.  Teen pregnancy is through the roof and kids are having kids? Well actually that’s been declining in America for quite some time, and if it weren’t for abstinence-only sex education it would probably lower in accordance with other industrialized countries which teach comprehensive sex ed. The government’s gonna take our guns? Really? When are they going to get around to that? I’ve read the work of people who said this would happen in the 70’s, even the 60’s. What is taking them so long?   Liberals and leftists have their delusions, but they generally aren’t the sort which can be debunked with a simple Google search or a trip to Snopes. That tells you something about which side is closer to reality.

A lot has been said and written about the ignorance of Russians’ regarding society in Europe and the United States. Mark Adomanis and many others including myself have pointed out that Russians seem to live in an alternate reality. That may very well be the case, but they actually have an excuse. Their media is almost entirely controlled by the same people. The main “opposition” parties go along with the government most of the time and the one Russian Duma deputy who dared voice his opposition and vote his conscience has been repeatedly attacked and threatened for doing so. Independent activists and journalists have been assaulted by unknown thugs who are rarely caught. While Russia has some of the most internet and computer savvy people in the world, the percentage of the population with regular internet access is much lower than people realize, and more importantly few of those people can speak English. Understanding English means being able to read news from a variety of different sources, from RT to Al Jazeera or CCTV. One need not depend on the BBC or Voice of America.  In fact, being able to understand fluent English and examine just the US media alone would tell any viewer that there are many competing points of view in America. What tends to happen instead is that pro-Kremlin forces happily cherry-pick and translate blatantly anti-Russian points of view and then present these to the public as representative. The audience rarely has any way of checking these claims for themselves, much less refuting them.

So perhaps before we laugh at them for believing that the two crashed Malaysian airliners were actually the same plane, captured and then shot down by the US to justify anti-Russian policies, we ought to consider how popular idiotic beliefs about the Illuminati, chem trails, and GMOs are in the West, among people on the left and right. Perhaps we ought to examine the question of how so many Americans actually believe that libertarianism is a valid philosophy in spite of the fact that it has failed miserably anywhere its been tried, and to the extent that anything like libertarian policies have been implemented, life was that much worse. Maybe we ought to think about how millions of Americans, though surrounded by, working for, and in some cases owning private businesses, still believe that the United States is teetering on the edge of Soviet socialism.  Maybe we should speak up at the Thanksgiving table when your uncle starts ranting about government handouts in spite of the fact that he receives a pension from his former federal job, plus social security. For all their faults, the Russians have an excuse for their failure to be informed. What is America’s?

THIS IS WHAT AMERICANS ACTUALLY BELIEVE.

THIS IS WHAT AMERICANS ACTUALLY BELIEVE.