Socialism, American Style, Part Two

This series will be a long-running essay, maybe turn into a book length feature you can buy someday, but for now… it’s free to read…

Before we talk about Marx and Engels and their particular and very successful brand of socialism, we have to remember that a successful idea is not necessarily the best idea.  No one can argue against the notion that the explosion of industry and commerce fueled by coal and oil and natural gas was incredibly successful in terms of economic and technological advancement and in quantitative measures.  However, in terms of raising the standards of the majority of peoples in the world, in terms of qualitative measures?  Not so great.

 No doubt the twentieth century was good for people like the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Fords and the Morgans, all the industrialists, the financiers, the corporate giants and the money people.  To be certain, power shifted over time as competition for resources made enemies of nations, but it condensed and eventual turned global for the mutual benefit of all the wealthy individuals and their borderless corporate behemoths.  And in spite of two global wars, rumors of wars, plagues, famines, genocide, conflict, colonial bondage, economic upheaval, and natural disasters that claimed untold millions of lives and enslaved many millions more in virtually untenable conditions of economic and actual bondage, starvation, disease and suffering… this new class of global oligarchs managed, not only to thrive, but to gain and maintain unprecedented control of the world’s wealth.

One has to believe that all that suffering and poverty, not to mention the measurable and damaging effects of global warming, and quite in spite of the economic and technological advancements, was not such a good thing for humankind after all, seeing that it only seems to benefit only a small percentage of the world’s population.  We have smart phones and Twitter, cable and Kardashians… but not much else.

Marx and Engels saw this coming (well… maybe not Twitter, certainly not selfies, but they did envision some of the troubling effects of the industrial age) and it gave them an idea.  They took socialism, economics, and history… boiled it down to its essence and gazed into the future through the prism of their time.  They saw the world as a struggle, an endless conflict between the owners and the renters, the industrialists and the workers, the bankers and the common man and the little guy was always losing.  It was every bit as bad in their day, possibly worse in terms of social inequities, poverty, and bondage in labor.  They leaped from their perspective of a duality in conflict to a conclusion that basically states, “There’s ever so many more of us than there is of them.  And their control is an unsustainable tyranny based entirely upon a mythology of ownership.”  They understood that the disparity in numbers and the abstract, illogical basis for ownership could easily be exploited in an argument for the purpose of economic reformation.  The injustice of drastic economic inequality could be used to inspire change, to bring about true equality and common ownership… social cooperation as opposed to competition for the vast wealth of resources in the world.

But how to make it happen?

Because they understood that privilege and power were not something that would ever be offered up or willingly surrendered by those who hold it simply for the good of all mankind… simply because it was the right thing to do.  No… it had to be taken. Revolution was the only possible means to their desired end.  They further hypothesized that the change… in order to work at all… would have to be global, universal, in order to eliminate all opposition, which they rightly presumed would be passionate and brutal.  Their goal was nothing less than world revolution.   Ambitious, to say the least, but theirs was a seductive idea, one that brought promise to the suffering masses.  The masses.  That would be the innumerable people who worked for other people… in factories, shops, mills, and in mines, the serfs who still plowed fields that did not belong to them through countless generations, tenant farmers.  The masses.  The proletariat.  The have-nots.

Imagine you are one of these, contemporaries of Marx… a man in a tavern somewhere in Europe at the end of an endless day in a coal mine.  You put down your glass and contemplate another.  Then some little guy at the far end of the room stands up on a table and starts calling out the Marxist plea…  “Workers of the world unite.  You have nothing to lose but your chains.”  You recognize this man.  He’s not some wild-eyed agitator, not some radicalized university student slumming on the poor side of the tracks… you’ve seen him in the mines, sweating alongside you in the half-light of a kerosene torch. 

You listen to his impassioned speech and you are moved.  The argument is not merely seductive, it’s a lifeline.  He speaks of a world where all men are truly equal, where there is no division of class between the bosses and the people who work with their hands, where democracy rules the workplace, where no profit drives production, just the needs of all the people… all… the people… a world where everyman provides what he is able and where everyman is given his fair share according to the dictates of his need… a world where the curse of God does not exist and everyman and everywoman and everychild will equally share in the abundance of the earth.  One minute, you are a hopeless, half-drunk wreck of a man in endless bondage to his labor, leaning in to a slow, short walk on a killing ground… and the next?  You can see yourself reborn… as the Vanguard of the Revolution, a working-class hero, a Marxist, the savior of the common man.  You push your way through the sweaty crowd and call out to your comrade… “Brother, I hear you.  Where do I sign?”

Fast forward to one of those odd moments in history.  Ronald Reagan in Berlin.  It’s 1987. The world was then defined by two “super powers” which were the United States and the Soviet Union.  In the mind of Reagan and many of his contemporaries, the entire world was engaged in ideological and actual combat… locked at an impasse in what has become known as the Cold War, a struggle to the death between capitalism and communism, between the Marxists and the bastions of liberty, between the “The Free World” and the “Evil Empire.”

Immediately following WWII, as Allies, both the Americans and the Soviets, along with troops from other nations such as England and the Free French, Africans from the colonies, Canadians, Australians, all converged on the German homeland, some units meeting together, embracing one another in celebration and friendship… and why not?  The Axis nations of Germany, Italy and Japan had threatened not only the freedom, but the very lives of everyone they tried to overcome in a war of domination that involved virtually every nation and race of mankind upon the earth.  Yet, almost immediately, and as though in preparation for some future conflict between them, the intelligence apparati of both the Americans and the Soviets, the predecessors of the CIA and the KGB began to pick apart and commandeer the dreadful technology of war on which the Germans had been working, recruiting both German scientists and Nazi military intelligence officers for the purpose of some future conflict that the leaders of both nations must have thought inevitable.

True enough, with the division of Germany into Eastern and Western sectors… with the East under strict Soviet control and total isolation from the West… with the appropriation of Soviet occupied nations East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania into the USSR… with the isolation and division of Berlin, deep within the Soviet sector and the building of walls and barbed wire fences to isolate East Germans from even their families and friends in the Western sector… all seemed to prove the fact beyond the speculation that another, a Third World War was indeed a possibility, only this time it would be fought between nations who possessed the dreadful nuclear weapons that had already entirely obliterated two cities in Japan and caused devastating after effects from radiation poisoning for decades afterward.

That specter loomed over every spurned attempt at conciliation between the US and the Soviets and they had once brought the world to within a hair’s breadth of nuclear annihilation over missiles in Cuba.  Their conflict was not about religion, not about any territorial dispute, but about a simple ideological idea that had somehow gone horribly wrong.  The workers’ paradise envisioned by Marx and Engels had become a totalitarian menace even greater than that which Hitler, Mussolini, and the mindless imperialism of the Empire of Japan had ever presented. 

You can get a sense of the feelings of apprehension in the West by listening to the famous “Iron Curtain speech delivered by Winston Churchill on March 5, 1946 at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri:

“I have a strong admiration and regard for the valiant Russian people and for my wartime comrade, Marshal Stalin. There is deep sympathy and goodwill in Britain — and I doubt not here also — toward the peoples of all the Russians and a resolve to persevere through many differences and rebuffs in establishing lasting friendships. It is my duty, however, to place before you certain facts about the present position in Europe. From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia; all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere, and all are subject, in one form or another, not only to Soviet influence but to a very high and in some cases increasing measure of control from Moscow. The safety of the world, ladies and gentlemen, requires a unity in Europe, from which no nation should be permanently outcast…  …In a great number of countries, far from the Russian frontiers and throughout the world, Communist fifth columns are established and work in complete unity and absolute obedience to the directions they receive from the Communist center. Except in the British Commonwealth and in the United States where Communism is in its infancy, the Communist parties or fifth columns constitute a growing challenge and peril to Christian civilization.”


Sen. Joseph McCarthy listens to his attorney, Roy Cohn, during the televised Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. The series of hearings badly damaged the senator’s image and led to a vote of censure by the Senate.

Churchill was acutely aware of the threat, viewed the world in conflict, and he did his best to impress Americans with the dangers, whether real or imagined.  Politicians in the USA were already using the Soviets as a bogey man to stir up mistrust of socialists and communists in our own nation and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, eventually weakening the labor movement, the early civil rights movement, and virtually every liberal cause by placing the mark of Cain on many American intellectuals who had aligned themselves with the leaders thereof. 

McCarthyism was not the first Red Scare. There had been others in the past and it was but the tip of the iceberg.  The result?  One could say that the long-standing practice of periodic purges of socialists from the American political melting pot and the fear of the Russian Revolution since the day it broke out in 1917 has led us to the point where we are at today, overwhelmed with the ascendancy of right-wing nationalists, militarists, corporatists and burdened with an unyielding and powerful politically conservative intellectual primacy within the leadership of both parties.  

History illuminates the present with a necessary backlight.  People forget these things.  Context is essential and history provides us with the context that leads to understanding phenomena.  But how is it that the idealistic vision of a workers’ paradise as drafted by a German philosophical duo became such a monster in the Soviet Union?  We can’t even begin to tackle that one… would take volumes to express, but to be sure, the Russian Revolution in 1917 was hardly the revolution Marx and Engels had envisioned and… as it emerged from the chaos of wars, privation, and famine, the genocidal police state that was guided by a paranoid sociopath named Stalin was ultimately built upon the unmarked graves of innocent millions.  The emergent empire, The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was never even close to the socialist model outlined by Marxist ideology.  Simply put, the Soviets weren’t socialists.

How does that happen?  I suppose that if you can answer the question, how did the Christian Church, founded upon the precept of humility expressed in the words, “the last shall be first and the first shall be last”… how did it become an imperial power at various times in its history?  How did followers of the Galilean who said, “I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also….” how did these people eventually institute the various Crusades and Inquisitions that may have been the cause of some pretty horrible deaths in numbers that no one can begin to properly estimate, though some say it’s between 30,000 and 300,000 men, women and children… how did that happen?

You guessed it… they got it wrong.   It’s really that simple, hard to comprehend, difficult to accept, but ultimately?  That simple.

Anyway, let’s get back to where we left old Ronald Reagan… in 1987, standing at the Brandenburg Gate and the famous Berlin Wall dividing East and West Berlin, ready to launch a verbal assault thereon.  Some conservatives get all teary eyed to recall the moment and the man, who was looking every inch the cowboy actor turned President, but there he was.  No denying, it was a very dramatic moment, hallowed… some might say (not me, but some might).

Fact is, he said a lot of stuff that day, but this is what’s remembered best… a march of words, soft, conciliatory tones at first, slowly building to a forceful, masculine crescendo at the end: “We welcome change and openness; for we believe that freedom and security go together, that the advance of human liberty can only strengthen the cause of world peace. There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev…Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

The speech was made on June 12, 1987 and only a little over two years later, in November of 1989, the Berlin Wall did come down as the Evil Empire’s Iron Curtain and the reign of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe came to a slow, but inevitable collapse.  Now… did Ronald Reagan have anything to do with that… was he a modern day Joshua, whose little marching band of rams horns is supposed to have caused the walls of Jericho to collapse?  Did Ronnie’s resolute jaw and well delivered lines bring on the collapse of the Soviet Empire?

Once upon a time (true story) I was talking to some friends in the parking lot of the shipyard where we worked.  The last line of the story I was telling them was meant to impress, to suggest that I had some personal political clout with the national union… of which our Local was an unimpressive, but spirited member.  We were talking about an upcoming strike and whether the national would listen to us and support the strike for the length of time we expected it would take to get everything we wanted in a new contract.   

My last line was delivered with all the drama it required, when I said, “Trust me, I’ve got friends in high places…”  And then, though there was not a cloud in the sky and no hint of a storm within sight, the loudest clap of thunder you can imagine resounded overhead, signaling a lightning strike we did not see, but which must have been very, very close… a loud, crack that echoed off the side of a ship in the drydock nearby and pretty much caught us all by surprise.  It took every bit of self-control for me to do it, but I just nodded, tilted my head to look heavenward, and said, “…and I mean really high places.”

I believe that Ronald Reagan’s speech brought down the Berlin Wall with the same conviction that I believe that odd, serendipitous crack of thunder over the shipyard that day was divine validation of my boastful and somewhat exaggerated claim.  I’ll let my readers decide for themselves, but hey… I’ve drifted away from my thesis.  I promise to get back on course in Part Three. 

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

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