That’s capitalism, folks!
For justice thunders condemnation a better world’s in place. The international party shall be the human race.
—“L’Internationale,” leftist fight song
Socialism has inspired almost every gain in human freedom in modern times.
—Michael Harrington, “Socialism Past and Future”
The poet Alexander Pope advised that “a little learning” is a dangerous thing, so we should “drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring” (mythological Macedonian site of knowledge).
I determined as a young man to “drink deep,” to rout my ignorance. So I read works on a list of “the most important 100 books.” Included were the great Ulysses by Joyce, an ode to human survival in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn, the classic Walden by Thoreau and stories of “unimportant” people in Working by Studs Terkel.
It was the beginning of a long march to socialism.
After graduating from Penn State in 1953, I spent two years in the army. One guy in my barracks said of me: “That cat’s always reading!”
Indeed I was. Red Badge of Courage by Crane, Candide by Voltaire, Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence and Devils of Loudon and Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley. And many, many more.
I voted for the first time in 1956, choosing the Democratic Stevenson over the Republican Eisenhower. I long ago had liberal genes. Then I read such books as Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which portrayed the injustices suffered by migrant workers. Its vividness turns any sensitive reader to socialism. Likewise with Germinal by Zola, showing French coal miners suffering the exploitation of capitalism, and Hugo’s Les Misérables, portraying the gross injustices of life.
Harrington’s The Other America depicts poverty in this land of plenty. The reform-minded Dickens cried out against child labor in David Copperfield. Orwell revealed poverty in Down and Out in Paris and London. The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon is a savage indictment of colonialism.
Native Son and Black Boy by Richard Wright and The Autobiography of Malcolm X portray the horror of being black in apartheid America. The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir, an educational feminist book before the word was commonly used. Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 shows the stupidity and butchery of war.
Reading inculcated in me a deep feeling for the downtrodden, the outcast, the despised, the put-upon and the victims of discrimination. Adelle Davis, food faddist, said you are what you eat. No, we are what we read, as journalism teacher Deidre Pike once noted in an RN&R column.
Socialism means social justice. It means equality. It means brotherhood, what the Germans call bruderschaft. It means cooperation rather than competition. It means that the qualities of economic life are central to the quality of life. L’Humanité, French Communist Party newspaper, is well named: humanity.
Capitalism is crass. It considers making money the most important thing in life. It stresses profits rather than human needs. It is an unholy pursuit of “filthy lucre.” It is obscene.
Capitalism is selfish. It means plutocracy. One Percenters rule. It is unfettered and unregulated. It means outsourcing and union-breaking. Capitalism can never have a human face. In stark contrast, Russia’s Gorbachev showed us communism with a human face.
Cato the Elder of ancient Rome decried Carthage, declaring it must be destroyed. If America is ever to have true egalitarianism, it must destroy capitalism.
Plato was the first writer to mention utopia. In The Republic (4th century B.C.) he wrote of the perfect city requiring either that “kings be philosophers or philosophers be kings.” He urged justice in a just state.
It doesn’t get
any better than this
Utopia by Thomas More (1516) revealed a passionate concern for the human condition. He was dedicated to the improvement of society. More declared that the function of government was to serve the people, surely the most utopian concept in all history!
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at,” Oscar Wilde wrote in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.”
The Communist Manifesto (1848) by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels is the socialist bible (the most famous and influential pamphlet ever written). It sums up the Marx oeuvre, history’s most savage criticism of capitalism. Marx remains the world’s greatest economist, dwarfing the puny conservative economists in American business schools today.
Engels, in a preface to the 1888 English edition of the Manifesto wrote: “It is undoubtedly the most widespread, the most international production of all socialist literature, the common platform acknowledged by millions of workingmen from Siberia to California.”
The first section of the Manifesto opens with, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” Still true in America today. Another truth in America today is in the Manifesto: “jurisprudence is but the will of your class (bourgeois) made the law for all.” Section three of the Manifesto speaks of “the crying inequalities in the distribution of wealth.” Still true in America.
Eugene McCarraher, Villanova professor, wrote a marvelous précis of the Marx thesis in a Nation article:
• Capitalism is pernicious and incorrigibly avaricious.
• Capitalism is “a giant vortex of accumulation.”
• Capitalism is unjust, amoral and rapacious.
• “Capitalism compels us to be greedy, callous and petty.”
• “The rage to accumulate remains the predatory heart and soul of capitalism.”
Thoreau complained 150 years ago that all Americans do is “work, work, work.” Columnist Robert Reich comes to the same conclusion today. He offers what he calls “a bold proposal”: three weeks of paid vacation every year for every worker.
“Most Americans get only two weeks vacation,” Reich writes. “One in four gets no paid vacation, not even holidays.”
True. But to civilized nations there’s nothing bold about his proposal.
France has six-week vacations. The European Union requires a four-week vacation. Europe has more paid holidays than America does. France has long mandated a 35-hour week.
That’s socialism—hardly to be despised in socially backward America.
Roughly 40 million U.S. workers in the private sector don’t get paid for sick days. The federal minimum wage is a paltry $7.25 an hour. It was passed by Congress in 2007 but since ravaged by inflation. Millions of Americans make less than $7.25 an hour. Many workers fall below the poverty line.
A new book by Christopher Hayes, Twilight of the Elites, provides a damning insight: “The 1 percent and the nation’s governing class are the same.”
Meet the new boss
America boasts of its one person-one vote democracy, but government favors the One Percent. The system begins with presidential advisers.
“To replace the multimillionaire Rahm Emanuel, the multimillionaire President Obama (net worth $5 million) named multimillionaire William Daley. Daley was replaced by Jack Lew, who spent four years with Citigroup where he got a bonus of $950,000 in 2009.”
Obama’s economic advisers pass through a revolving door from the private sector to the public service, rich white men getting huge consulting fees and flying in private jets.
Power attorneys make $10 million a year manipulating the loophole-ridden tax code to enable plutocrats to keep scores of billions from the IRS. In 2007, the richest 400 taxpayers had more money than 150 million Americans put together. America’s 10 most profitable corporations paid an average tax of 9 percent in 2011. ExxonMobil got away with paying 2 percent.
Mitt Romney, GOP presidential nominee, paid just 13 percent for decades on an annual income of $20 million. Even Adam Smith, apostle of the free market and exponent of the “hidden hand” that supposedly benefits everyone in society, advocated a graduated income tax.
Nearly one-half of the 535 members of Congress are millionaires. The Bush tax cuts handed $82 billion to the One Percenters. Obama, a gutless wonder, extended them.
The “cult of smartness” is an obsession of the elites, author Hayes points out. Justice Scalia of the Supreme Court is more “intelligent” than Justices Sotomayor and Kagan. Yet his judicial views are narrow and inhumane. Sotomayor and Kagan are worth more than 100 Scalias.
The 99 percent believe that government does not and will not work for them. They are right.
The Manifesto urges people to “rescue education from the influence of the ruling class.” Because of that ruling class many Americans derive U.S. exceptionalism from their high school history. The notion is absurd if you read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States or James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me.
America so often supports worldwide dictators because they are on “our side.” It does not practice what it preaches. It overthrows “disobedient” worldwide governments.
In 1953, Britain and America overthrew Iranian prime minister Mossadegh because he dared nationalize the Anglo-Iranian oil company. In his place the unholy alliance reinstated the Shah, who had been ousted in the Iranian revolution. During the 1980s, America armed the rebels in Nicaragua to defeat the leftist Sandinistas. America destabilized the economy and supported death squads.
Americans revile communist Cuba. Yet those “godless commies” have universal health care, free college education, free day care and 12-week paid maternity leave. That’s humane socialism.
America’s heartless capitalism has none of those civilized measures. Yet the United States has invaded and tried to overthrow the Cuban government because it is alien to the capitalist credo.
The democratically elected Allende embarked on a socialist agenda to lift the living standards of Chileans. But an angry President Nixon launched an economic blockade. The most cynical of the Nixon gang, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, told the CIA station chief in Santiago that U.S. policy demands that “Allende be overthrown in a coup.” He was.
Kissinger arrogantly declared that America had to act because “the Chilean people did not know what was good for them.” (Allende was murdered in the 1973 coup.) No wonder comedian Tom Lehrer cracked: “Satire died the day they gave the Nobel Peace Prize to Kissinger.”
Wilde wrote in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism”: “The most tragic fact in the French Revolution is not that Marie Antoinette was killed for being a queen but that starved peasants of the Vendée died for the hideous cause of feudalism.”
Still today many Americans vote against their own economic interests, as Thomas Frank notes in his book, What’s the Matter with Kansas? An example of such blinders occurred in the recall election of Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker earlier this year. Thirty-eight percent of union workers voted to retain the union-busting governor.
No union member should ever vote Republican. People should never vote Republican unless they are One Percenters.
In art you have two unforgettable “socialist” works.
One is the photo “Migrant Mother” (1936) taken by Dorothea Lange. The mother’s face is grim, weather-beaten, worried. Two children hide their heads behind her shoulders. An infant is swaddled on her lap. Sensitive souls cannot look at that picture without becoming a socialist.
Neither can you gaze at van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters” without becoming a socialist. The gnarled faces. The humble repast. The picture reminds you of the Edwin Markham lines in “The Man With the Hoe”: “stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox.”
The more you know
Privatization? Canadian law mandates free airtime on radio and TV for political parties during election campaigns. In privatized America politicians pay for broadcast political advertising. The cost is enormous, amounting to $3 billion this presidential election year. Broadcasters should not profit for providing an essential service to society.
Another tragedy of history is that social revolutions get sold out: Stalin in Russia, Napoleon in France and Mao Zedong in China. (The United States, unfortunately, has never had a social revolution.) Stalin’s crimes have few parallels in history: murders, purges, gulags, show trials, persecutions and assassination of dissidents like Trotsky.
But look at what the Bolshevik Revolution did do: established full citizenship for women including the right to vote, set labor laws that provided equal pay, introduced civil marriage, allowed divorce and legalized abortion.
Lincoln gave off a whiff of socialism in his message to Congress 1861: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital and deserves much the higher consideration.”
At the end of the 19th century the People’s Party (populists) promulgated the most radical political platform that America has ever seen. At its 1892 founding convention in Omaha, Neb., these were some of its planks:
• Women’s suffrage. (Women did not get the right to vote until ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.)
• Eight-hour day. (Then considered utopia carried to absurdity.)
• Graduated income tax. (The 16th Amendment ratified in 1913 provided for an income tax.)
• Demanded labor’s right to organize 44 years before the Wagner Act did so.
Henry Demarest Lloyd declared at a populist rally in 1894: “The People’s Party is more than the organized discontent of the people. It is the organized aspiration of the people for a fuller, nobler, richer, kinder life for every man, woman and child in the ranks of humanity.”
The populist party, despite its mass appeal, made the fatal mistake of merging with the Democrats.
The Muckraking Age, roughly from 1902 to 1912, was the most glorious era in U.S. journalism. Some of the most famous muckrakers were Upton Sinclair, Lincoln Steffens and Ida Tarbell.
Sinclair’s The Jungle (1906) exposed the beef trust, “the incarnation of blind and insensate greed, the spirit of capitalism made flesh.” Sinclair wrote that he “aimed at the public’s heart and by accident hit it in the stomach.” His book led to the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act in 1906.
Tarbell wrote a series of articles in McClure’s muckraking magazine blasting Standard Oil, the epitome of Gilded Age robber barons. It was turned into a book called the most important business book ever written. Steffens excoriated municipal corruption in “The Shame of the Cities.”
C.C. Regier, muckraker historian, noted the effect of specific muckraking articles: “Child labor was abolished, the Newlands Act of 1902 made reclamation of millions of acres of land possible [Francis Newlands was then a U.S. representative from Nevada], eight-hour laws for women were passed, and workmen’s compensation laws were enacted.”
But the muckraking era, as wonderful as it was, did not go far enough. It was not radical by definition: going to the root of the capitalist evil.
Seymour Lipset and Gary Marks explain in It Didn’t Happen Here (2000) the reasons socialism failed in America:
• Third-party presidential candidates are doomed by the stranglehold of the two major parties, candidates with mere pluralities win without a runoff as in French presidential elections, and the Electoral College makes it impossible for a third-party candidate to win. (The third-party campaign of Ralph Nader in 2000—to the everlasting shame of his huge ego—cost the election of a liberal president.)
• Americans lack working-class consciousness because they mistakenly think they already live in a classless society.
• Many immigrants were Catholics. As a Milwaukee archbishop said: “You can’t be a Catholic and a socialist.” (Theologian Paul Tillich disagreed. “Any serious Christian must be a socialist,” he pointed out.)
• Socialism is associated with atheism, abhorrent to so many Americans.
• Socialists, like Unitarians in religion, attract intellectuals, college professors and university graduates—but not many voters. (Just five of us belonged to the late Reno communist cell. Three had doctorates, and two had master’s degrees.)
Newspapers and magazines nibble around the edges of capitalism, attacking its excesses and wrong-doings but never confronting its evil. (Similarly, the Establishment press never prints articles questioning the existence of God.)
Some bankers argue that they are doing “God’s work” by sustaining the free-market system. Yet Matthew 6:24 is anti-capitalist to the core: “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”
Ayn Rand became the high priestess of capitalism after her novel, Atlas Shrugged, was published in 1957. Her philosophy was expressed in a collection of essays in 1964 titled The Virtue of Selfishness.
She exemplified unfettered capitalism, wearing a brooch shaped like a dollar sign. When she died in 1982 a six-foot dollar sign stood beside her coffin.
Lenin asked in his 1902 book: What Is To Be Done? He answered 15 years later with the Russian Revolution. Reform is not enough. Socialism is the only answer.
Capitalism has no soul. America will be soulless until it is wise enough to adopt socialism.