Socialism, American Style – Part One

“Socialism?  It’ll never work… never has, never will.”

“What makes you say that?”

“Two words… Vena Zuela.”

Actually, that’s one word, Bubba… Venezuela… and this brief exchange occurred in response to a statement I made about democratic socialism.  Needless to say, it quickly ended what might have been a futile attempt on my part to try and make up for a vacuum in historical and political education that might have been several generations in the making.

But it points out the fact that many Americans, perhaps a good percentage of them, judging by some of the responses my essays seem to attract, know little about socialism and what little they know seems to be shot through with many and similar false notions about both its concept and its history.  So these essays are intended to … if not educate, at least to present alternate perspectives that will essentially contradict much of the mythology and misinformation that’s out there.

Socialism has deep, ancient roots we can actually trace in recorded history, perhaps even farther back in time.  We could extend its existence to pre-history and the beginnings of human societal groups if the study of isolated primitive groups encountered by anthropologists in recent history is any indication of what those early tribal societies might have been like.  To be sure, the Bible, with its history of the early and primitive Christian “church” which is not to be confused with the post Constantine era, was noticeably communist in the social sense as recorded in the Book of Acts, chapters two and four.

And all that believed were together, and had all things common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.  And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”  Acts 2:44-47 (Italics mine)

And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all.  Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, The son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus, Having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.”  Acts 4:33-37

Tertullian of Carthage, who was an early Christian and who left many written works, lived from 160 to 220 AD.  He wrote of the Christian way of life thus, “One in mind and soul, we do not hesitate to share our earthly goods with one another. All things are common among us but our wives.”

There is little evidence, however, of Christian communism after the Edict of Constantine, which essentially took all the properties, temples, and religious paraphernalia of all the pagan religions and turned them over to the Christians.  The emperor Constantine made Christianity the religion of the Empire and instituted special status for the ministers and deacons and bishops.  It changed the character of Christianity and initiated a new social structure, which essentially gives us the Roman model of Christian hierarchies.  What began as the scriptural model of the “last shall be first” and vice versa, suddenly became… with the windfall of land and wealth that had previously belonged to the pagan temples… an imitation of the Empire, with a new aristocracy in a top-down tradition of authority.  Bishops who’d considered themselves the “servants of all” became rulers of all… and that’s probably when Christian tithing and the Catholic “priesthood” first began, with an imitation of the pagan religious societies they’d supplanted… even to the point of mimicry of certain pagan religious practices and traditions.  But hey, interesting though it is, that’s another thesis altogether.

Christian communism was part of the social construct in many religious monastic orders in the interim, but it also enjoyed a brief secular revivification in mid-seventeenth century England, during the time of Oliver Cromwell’s interregnum government… when the nation’s monarch lost both his divine franchise and his head simultaneously.  An Englishman named Gerrard Winstanley, quite aggressively and in the spirit of the times, led a group of primitive Christian socialists that called itself the True Levellers.  They occupied and farmed public land that had been set aside and marked off by ditches and hedges, destroyed the boundaries and began farming the previously unused land and began living in a communal setting, sharing everything among their number… shamelessly cooperative.  Much like their apostolic forefathers, they pledged themselves to have “… all things in common.”

Cheeky blighters!

Landowners in the neighborhood, concerned that common people, who certainly outnumbered them, might get similar notions… fearing the possibility that every blighted knave who lusted after bread, might suddenly decide private property rights were not quite exclusive, nowhere near as sacred a concept as previously imagined, were terrified.  The possibility that their crops, their farmland, their cozy, comfortable country manors might suddenly be seized, appropriated by radical thought and agrarian reform was, for them, intolerable.

Oh… anarchy… anarchy!!

Some of them went running to the zealously Puritan Oliver Cromwell, accused these dangerous socialist upstarts of licentious behavior and impious predilections.  Eventually a few of them were properly shot for their heretical thoughts and the movement was dispersed accordingly.

Long before Marx and Engels came along and codified their own specific and somewhat complex brand of socialism, one that included, even necessitated global application through an immediate and somewhat passionate call for world revolution… there were several less complex, less global, but less successful movements that were socialist in nature.  Though they were based upon a similar premise of community and cooperation, they were often expressed in diverse economic models.  Some were peculiar to be sure, even bizarre in their approach to the ideal, but they were socialist utopia nonetheless, designed with the specific condition of mutual benefit for all of their members through a sense of equality and conformity in cooperative ventures.

Charles Fourier’s brand of utopian socialism was the most structured of the lot, based upon a somewhat unusual theory concerning labor and its more “seductive” qualities.  A self-styled social scientist, Fourier was quite specific concerning the construction of his communities, even to the design of the buildings they should use and


though many communities were established around the world, none lasted much longer than the fervor of his disciples, which, sadly, did not survive beyond the seed money they planted in their ambitious projects.  Perhaps it may be said that, though the people involved were enthusiastic about the logical and humanistic idea of socialism, they lacked the necessary skills required to sustain it.  Nonetheless, Fourier’s socialist communes managed to plant their socialist seed on American soil with substantial communities in Texas, Massachusetts, Ohio, New Jersey and New York, even Kansas.  In Massachusetts, they attracted the scions of Transcendentalism and a great deal of notoriety accordingly.  In the end, however, the eccentricities of its founder and some of his bizarre ideas proved no decent basis on which to change the world, but I’ll leave the interesting details to the footnotes of history.  You can always google his name.

Meanwhile, back on the Continent… socialist theories were everywhere abundant.  Louis Auguste Blanqui was a leading socialist during the turbulent years of mid-nineteenth century France.  I would characterize him as socialism’s “angry man” and clearly an advocate of violence to achieve the aims of social progress.  Accordingly, he spent a great deal of his time in prison.  Whereas the utopian socialists, like Fourier’s disciples, proceeded to build their society anew separate from and quite in spite of the world around them, Blanqui insisted that the way was to be paved by revolution and the utter elimination of bourgeois society.  He was not, however, a Marxist, nor was he a social theorist.  His plan was “revolution now” and, though he believed that an equitable redistribution of wealth should follow in its wake, he evidently had no clear plan on how that could be achieved and sustained.

While Americans were struggling with the profoundly troubling institution of human slavery, with all the furies of hell unleashed in its Civil War, many socialist thinkers and activists found a receptive following in Europe, where the industrial and serf bondage of vast numbers of its poorest people lived with conditions that were not really much better than the actual slavery that existed in the American Southland.  The troubled society and unstable governments there, weakened by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, were a fertile field for the more compassionate thinkers of the age, men who were every bit as impassioned in their ideas of liberating working class Europeans as were the Abolitionists in America’s “free” states who sought to end the institution that upheld slavery in the South.  We’ll talk about their philosophical lineage and the conditions that led to actual socialist revolutions at various times in various European nations at a later date.  Mid-nineteenth century Europe was an ideological Petri dish that enabled the spread of socialism and anarchy, with plots and players by the score.  The subject is easily worth a few volumes, at least.

The intellectual marriage of the German economist and philosopher, Karl Marx, and his countryman Friedrich Engels, who spent much of his youth in England, could easily be called the Big Bang Theory of socialist ideology, the one unified theory that ultimately gave rise to the most successful revolutions… or more accurately at least, the longest lived.  I’ll discuss this dynamic duo, their prodigious beards, and the Communist Manifesto in the next essay here in a week or so, but for now… this will have to do.

Watch this space…

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Socialism, American Style by James Lloyd Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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