To whom it may concern,
I have been using my Concise Oxford for many years. Having been given a more recent edition, I noticed some changes which cause me some concern.
For many years I have been fighting a losing semantic battle with the forces of reaction, as the English speaking world staggers erratically to the Right side of the political spectrum.
My battle ground is nothing less than the identity of the Left. My battered old Oxford defines Left Wing as:“progressive, radical”… and “more advanced or innovative section of any group”. The “Right”, is simply defined as “conservative”. The broad definition of “conservative” remains, averse to change or innovation.
I have noticed that the current definition of Left Wing includes an association with socialism. Such a connection is indisputable because it is certainly correct that socialism was a concept created by the Left. However, I suggest that common misapprehensions notwithstanding, such an association should not be an intrinsic part of the Left’s definition, unless such definition also embraces cultural innovations like: empiricism, market economics, participatory democracy, the idea of universal human rights, education and health care and more recently, environmental accounting.
I suggest that history rather unambiguously supports the assertion that it is axiomatic that most, if not all innovations promoting liberal democratic societies, are creations of the Left.
The Left is both a cause and an effect of the Renaissance and subsequently the Enlightenment. The Anglophone world was particularly influenced by the singularly surprising phenomenon of the Scottish Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that spawned so much of what we take for granted as the foundations for liberal democratic societies. Adam Smith in particular saw the benefits of unleashing the potential of individual ambition and creativity in a market place free from the heavy hand of political orchestration.
The liberalism of the Scottish Enlightenment is a paradigm of Leftwing politics. How could Smith and Hume’s radicalism be anything else than Left Wing? They were not motivated by the desire to entrench the privileges of an elite. Just the opposite is true. They envisaged an open society of broad opportunity. They were not attempting to justify the status quo, but proposed dramatic watersheds in assumptions and thinking.
The creativity of the left has led to some disappointing results. Utopian socialist economic theories led, via Marxism, to totalitarian communism; and Smith’s vision of a free market economy has led to the nascent threat of fascism via global capitalism.
Like virtually all popular revolutions, the Russian Revolution was, by definition, Left Wing.
However, after the Bolshevik coup and certainly by the time Joe Stalin stole the show, it is hard to fit the USSR into any definition of “Left Wing”. The revolution had gone the way of many before: autocratic tyranny. Such regimes are invariably characterised by fear and suspicion, of and by the dictator(s), who must exert centralised control. This fear and suspicion infects the entire culture of the state and serves to paralyse incentive and innovation. Such regimes tend to be intensely conservative.
The Soviet Union differed from the standard totalitarianism that litters human history, in that it was wrapped, not just in mystery and enigma, but also in the dogma of a secular religion. Heresy was usually fatal. It was, to all intents and purposes, a theocracy; probably the most conservative form of government yet devised. That is the very type of government that led, via the Renaissance and Reformation, to the theories of Adam Smith. In this regard, the USSR (and subsequently other communist regimes) had more in common with the Holy Roman Empire than any contemporary state, with the obvious exceptions of Nazi Germany and North Korea.
Whilst the USSR, through huge sacrifice by its people, did achieve some astounding collective enterprises and innovations, by most measures, it was a very conservative and thus Right Wing society.
It is simply fatuous to define the Left only in terms of socialism.
History strongly supports the contention that new ideas and innovation are the defining feature of the Left and it is perverse to attribute to the Left, the negative consequences which result when those ideas have atrophied into ideology. The point at which an idea becomes an “ism”, constrained by dogma and orthodoxy, is the point at which progressive becomes conservative and Left becomes Right.
I understand that language must always be a work in progress and adapt to common usage. However, I suggest that embracing vernacular changes to words like “cool” or “awesome” have few profound social or political consequences, compared to the corrupted history and meaning resulting from redefining concepts like Left Wing. To acquiesce to popular misconceptions about such important ideas is dangerous. I do not object to your inclusion of socialism in your definition; it is entirely appropriate. However, I recommend that in addition to the association with socialism, your definition be expanded to include a more representative sample of the Left’s achievements. To do so would not only serve your presumed ambition to intellectual rigor, but also aid the preservation of our increasingly fragile notions of democracy.