(I’ve placed all the essays titled Socialism, American Style here in continuous form for clarity where they will remain until I am ready to start working on the book it seems to require. At that time, I will remove all the content from my web site… but for now, please feel free to read it here. Consider it a teaser for the book. Thanks.)
“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.”
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, but for now… this will have to do.
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.
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.”
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.
As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America, I more or less agree with the following Article of their Constitution, which states their Purpose:
“We are socialists because we reject an economic order based on private profit, alienated labor, gross inequalities of wealth and power, discrimination based on race, sex, sexual orientation, gender expression, disability status, age, religion, and national origin, and brutality and violence in defense of the status quo. We are socialists because we share a vision of a humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning, equitable distribution, feminism, racial equality and non-oppressive relationships. We are socialists because we are developing a concrete strategy for achieving that vision, for building a majority movement that will make democratic socialism a reality in America. We believe that such a strategy must acknowledge the class structure of American society and that this class structure means that there is a basic conflict of interest between those sectors with enormous economic power and the vast majority of the population.”
Fairly broad implications, no? It does however, satisfy one sense of what socialism could be in America, though it does not lay out a plan for how such a structure could be achieved when the present established order seems to have a stranglehold on not only the wealth, land, and resources, but has even managed to gain the lion’s share of influence upon our supposed constitutional democracy. If it comes, change will come from some sort of populist movement, an organized effort. But, what course will that movement take in order to bring about change… what does it require? Many believe that shift has already begun, that Bernie Sanders’ candidacy in 2016 was the opening salvo in an inevitable political revolution. The Sanders campaign, though unsuccessful in the Democratic Primary, never really lost its momentum, but gradually morphed into a political movement called Our Revolution, which is a nationwide political force that was active in developing candidates for mid-term elections in 2018 and is building up now for the big one in 2020.
Check out their website. Their agenda is not merely ambitious. It’s quite successful. Here’s the link to: Our Revolution
And, no doubt, there are probably some people today who still hearken back to the Bolshevik Marxists of 1917 and dream of a Marxist revolution in the Soviet model. To be sure, in the 1960s, there were some who talked of being the Vanguard of the Revolution in America and even committed acts of violence accordingly. Here is an excerpt from a document written by members of the Weather Underground movement, responsible for multiple bombings across America in the late 1960s. These people were deadly serious…
“People ask, what is the nature of the revolution that we talk about? Who will it be made by, and for, and what are its goals and strategy? The overriding consideration in answering these questions is that the main struggle going on in the world today is between U.S. imperialism and the national liberation struggles against it. . . . So the very first question people in this country must ask in considering the question of revolution is where they stand in relation to the United States as an oppressor nation, and where they stand in relation to the masses of people throughout the world whom U.S. imperialism is oppressing. The primary task of revolutionary struggle is to solve this principal contradiction on the side of the people of the world. It is the oppressed peoples of the world who have created the wealth of this empire and it is to them that it belongs; the goal of the revolutionary struggle must be the control and use of this wealth in the interests of the oppressed peoples of the world. . . . The goals is the destruction of U.S. imperialism and the achievement of a classless world: world communism. Winning state power in the U.S. will occur as a result of the military forces of the U.S. overextending themselves around the world and being defeated piecemeal; struggle within the U.S. will be a vital part of this process, but when the revolution triumphs in the U.S. it will have been made by the people of the whole world. . . .”
Hard to imagine how it might have begun, with a bunch of kids sitting around the floor, guys with long hair and beards, girls in sandals and paisley sundresses… passing around a communal joint, listening to Grace Slick… “One pill makes you larger… one pill makes you small. And the one that mother gives you, don’t do anything at all… go ask Alice…”
Then one of the sullen group holds up his hand, says, “Flash on this, man. Tell me what you think. Let’s get serious about this revolution scene. Let’s stop talking it up like tourists, man. Let’s get down and get real. Let’s blow up a bank.”
Some guy on the other side of the room says, “Whoa !” He stops, thinks, speaks… “Cool. But first… don’t we, like, need… a manifesto. I mean… that’s how they do things, right?”
It’s probably unfair to characterize them in this way, just for a grin. Of course, as in every movement, there are poseurs and dilettantes, tourists looking for some kicks, finding themselves in over their heads… but many were sincere, people who actually believed in the concepts of true justice in equality, but ultimately? They were children. There was violence, to be sure, and the violence of the 1960’s led to blowbacks in the 1970’s… like the killing of six cornered members of the Symbionese Liberation Army in Los Angeles, a massacre and a conflagration that ended what seemed like an incredible, legendary run of success in subversion. Blowback… like the killing of young student protesters and innocent bystanders at Kent State and at South Carolina State University, Blowback… like the Hough race riots in Cleveland that were capped by a flyover by Air Force jets, a subtle reminder of the awesome and dreadful power of the established order. America was never closer to cataclysmic class warfare than it was in the 1960s and progressive movements were never more systematically and brutally suppressed than they were in the years following the apex of unrest in 1968. I speak of it because we often forget and dismiss the possibility of such a thing happening in America.
But is the grand concept of a socialist revolution… either political like that of Bernie Sanders or violent like that once espoused by groups like the Weather Underground even necessary? America is a free society still and there are ways to actually live the socialist dream under the umbrella of existing law. If we are sincere in our ideals, we can build a socialist society right alongside that of the corporatists and design it in such a way that it would not only compete with the less humanistic culture of profit and exploitation, but quite possibly and eventually supplant it.
“Okay, Jimbo, what are you smoking?”
Let’s consider growing problems in the US that have not yet been properly addressed, for instance, that of the aging Boomers born in prosperous post-war America in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They are a huge population that is aging now, many of whom are now retired and who will likely and soon be in need of the kind of health care that can only be provided in an institutional environment. In the meantime, income inequality has been exacerbated to the degree that too many Americans can no longer expect the same benefits of prosperity enjoyed by a wide membership in a middle class that once permitted unchallenged mobility, guaranteed job security, a pension and a family home for so many people in the two to three and even four of the decades following World War II. At the same time, our society’s institutions have degraded to the point that community, even familial relationships no longer provide the security that cushions individuals from life-altering disaster following even minimal economic hardships.
Social isolation makes us dependent upon our ability to pay our way in the world and those elements of government that once served to make up for the growing lack of community and family assistance… that so-called “social safety net” is fast disappearing. American social norms require us to be consumers of products and without the ability to pay for what we need, we could immediately become mere aliens, strangers, homeless cast-aways in the street surrounded by lighted windows in comfortable homes in the night, the homes of people whose doors are closed and locked to us… people either ignorant of our desperation… or critical, even hostile concerning our needs.
Many in America, a fast-growing population of the have-nots, are now rapidly approaching a demographic majority. The so-called War on Poverty that I recall from the grand and hyperbolic rhetoric of the 1960s… seems to have been quite as abandoned as were the Nike missile sites I saw as a child in the 1950s and, later, the vast network of ICBM missile silos that dotted the rural countryside during the Cold War. Both metaphorical wars, in fact, were abandoned, one because Russian Communism failed and the USSR dismantled itself, the other because… disinterest? God knows, not unlike the Soviet Union, the War on Poverty never survived the Reagan era. And so we now have an enormous population of Americans who are not sharing in the American Dream, which has become more of a nightmare these days… and many Americans are returning to an old love affair with socialism, which makes perfect sense, since capitalism is failing to meet their needs and is the fuel that drives the engines of economic and social inequality.
The question then becomes, “What now? How can we do this?” The solution? It’s not rocket science. We don’t need secret, subversive cadres of violent Vanguards of the Revolution. We don’t need politicians. We don’t need bold, brilliant programs centered around some revolutionary new idea. All we need is each other. Socialism is so easy it’s absurd. It exists all around us already, with thousands of people currently involved in the everyday practice thereof. It’s not just an ideology… not a program… not something you put on and off like a shirt or the latest fashion and it has no specific rules or protocols. You could call it user defined, like open source software. It’s a way of life, an attitude, a perspective you can acquire, a skill you can learn… and it’s called cooperation. All we really lack to make socialism a success is to do it. It’s really nothing more than people coming together to help one another. But for those of you who must have a program or a label for every institution and every segment thereof, these distinctions do exist. And if you want something new and shiny, some packaged idea that’s neat and tidy and ready for prime time? We can do that too.
Say that you live in a small town or city in America. Chances are, you’re not very far from a large urban area with rural lands and farms in close proximity. You have a diverse population and a significant number of people in need of waning social services, some poor, some aged, some working, some not. Chances are you have people who were recently laid off from a factory that went belly up or moved away, people with no real prospects beyond what McDonalds or Walmart might have to offer them, which is hardly a living wage. You have vacant lots, empty storefronts, vacant houses, open and uncultivated fields. You have kids with degrees from decent colleges living with their parents because… no jobs… and enormous debt due to student loans from institutions that are ready and waiting like vultures to swoop down and sweep up their share of any gains whenever they do manage to find decent work. You have people who have spent most of their life with their heads just above water, decent, hardworking folks who raised children and built homes, maintained the marrow of the nation’s economic wealth… but now in their old age, it’s harder every day to keep going. They need help and, like many, cannot count on their children to provide it and they wonder, “How will I ever manage to survive when that day finally comes… that day when I can’t take care of myself anymore.”
Chances are that all of these people are disconnected one from the other. We live in a society that promotes a lifestyle of independence, that champions the image of rugged individualism, a mythology that tells us we only have worth and value to the community when we can pay our own way and make our own way without help or assistance. But… just suppose for a moment that all of these people were somehow united and joined together in a social collective… an organization that seeks to provide for the needs of each member by pooling the resources of all… eliminating duplication of assets and resources within the group… establishing a fund between them, money they all contribute according to their ability, a common fund that makes up for the economic shortfalls of those who have less money than the others, while tapping into the collective reservoir of skills and abilities of everyone within the group in order to provide services for one another, services each member might otherwise have to purchase for themselves.
A social collective. What the hell is that?
I would answer that it is nothing more than people joined together for the purpose of ensuring that no one among their number need ever have to face a challenge on their own. Too simple? Hell yes. So simple you might think that if it was a good idea, it would have caught on a long time ago. But there is history enough to attest to the fact that it did and we’ve covered some of that history already. And, to some extent, there are groups of people even today, folks who have established social collectives of varying size and function. They exist all around us under various names and with differing motivations. There are grocery cooperatives, trade co-ops, extended families, indigenous tribes, employee owned businesses, religious groups, even collective farms and intentional communities. They are, for the most part, successful in their limited versions of the concept of a social collective and it has always amazed me that so many… if not most American people are not aware of them, even if they know they exist.
Maybe Americans are inimical to the concept because they are socially primed from birth for a lifetime of productive labor for wages, brought up to be a part of some grand plan under the auspices and vicissitudes of the free market economy… but join a co-op?
“Sounds… I dunno, unAmerican. Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett went out there on their own… chopped down trees, built log cabins, planted some corn, killed a lot of bears, smoked a lot of meat… fought Indians and opened up new territory. Hell, they’d never go live in some kind of ‘intentional community’ wouldn’t join no co-op. No’sir… they were good Americans. Co-ops? Communes? Collectives? Sounds all hippy-like and whatnot. No thank you.”
But the truth be told? A lot of the frontier was opened up by people who formed intentional, socialistic communities. Barn raising is not a practice exclusive to the Amish, but was quite common on the frontier and even in areas that had long been under cultivation in America because…
Well, while some men can build their own homes… few men, even such giants as Daniel Boone have the ability to build their own barns. Barns are enormous.
Once upon a time in America, people practiced a brand of socialism they called community and cooperation… concepts that seem to have gone out of favor in this modern age of capitalism, competition, commercialism, consumerism and the social isolation that follows in the wake of American exceptionalism… the idea that individuals should make their own way and take their rightful place according to the privilege afforded them by the contents of their wallets.
We can do this. There is enormous power and strength in solidarity.
Do you consider yourself a socialist? If so, how do you intend to go about making socialism a reality in a nation like America, a country whose people seem to be inimical… not merely to the concept… but even to the name of socialism? Why start a revolution that is designed to tear down the old world and start all over again from scratch… why do all that when you can build something now… something that will sustain itself through whatever the future might bring? Suppose you just got together with a lot of your neighbors, people in your own community. Suppose you all looked around, hashed it out, determined what the needs are. You can then establish priorities… design and build a custom fit, local social collective to suit yourselves. But… how do you go about it making it happen?
And what’s it supposed to look like when it’s done?
The Social Collective
In another life, when I was still a young man just back from the war in Vietnam, I tried to find work in my hometown of Norfolk, Virginia and had to settle for a low paying job in an auto parts store for minimum wage, which was sub-minimal and totally insufficient for anyone addicted to three meals a day.. It wasn’t enough, but lacking either a college education or a useful trade, I had trouble finding anything that would pay me a decent wage. After I moved across the river to the city of Newport News, the home at the time of the nation’s largest shipyard, I was hired there and though the pay was not particularly high for the work it entailed, relative to the same jobs up north where unions dominated the trades, that Virginia shipyard did pay the highest wages for skilled trades in the region… and they were willing to train those who had not the skills. Accordingly, the yard need drew many young men from all over the South.
My first assignment in 1968, after attending a brief class on welding, was to help lay the keel and work the inner bottom tanks of a huge nuclear attack aircraft carrier. Worked there for about a year and a half as a shipfitter, responsible for assembling the steel structure of that ship according to designs and specifications laid out on drawings, enormous blueprints that were two dimensional representations of the structure, thousands of pages of which were required to direct dozens of trades in all the infinite details of the ships construction and assembly. The creation and printing of these documents and drawings required an enormous pool of engineering expertise in dozens of technical disciplines, drawings that were completed by hundreds of designers, engineers, draftsmen, mathematicians, experts all, men and women who worked in a building the size of an entire city block.
They’d labored there for over a year designing that ship. In the actual construction, besides the shipfitters who did the work of assembling the plates and the molded shapes, an army of welders knitted the cellular components of the hull and the superstructure together such that all its physical components are as one united body. Behind these structural trades, there were pipefitters, electricians, loftsmen, machinists, riggers, painters and countless other tradesmen and technicians of every sort, each with their own set of skills, thousands of men and even a few women were involved, though it would be decades before women managed to become a significant part of the labor force there.
The ship was nothing but a hull number when I worked on it and it was not completed until long after I’d moved on from Virginia, launched and christened the USS Nimitz, CVN 68 in 1972. But it was not finished after launch from the drydock, but fitted out and completed dockside, finally delivered to the Navy and commissioned as a ship of the line in 1975, a little more than seven years from the day the shipyard got the order to build it… a massive project, one that easily dwarfs such primitive world wonders as the Great Pyramids in Egypt. Designed to last fifty years, the Nimitz is still in operation today, operating out of Bremerton, Washington, and she is not scheduled to be retired from service (de-commissioned) and replaced until the year 2022.
My point in telling you these things? Simply this… as individuals, we can never begin to accomplish that which can be achieved by groups of individuals working in concert, one with many, each bringing specific knowledge and skills to the greater task. When people work together, they can accomplish virtually anything they can imagine and deem worthy of the effort.
The question then arises… these great things we accomplish? What benefit do they ultimately bring to the many people who actually do the work? For me… and for many, the work and the wages were a short term benefit, but I was aware that shipyard work was subject to long lay-offs according to the ability of the yard’s owners to obtain contracts. In Newport News the owner was a bloodless corporation that had acquired the yard from private ownership… after which they immediately employed a small army of time-study analysts armed with clipboards to begin the process of winnowing those they deemed ‘inefficient’ from the labor force. These “experts” were mostly young men in white shirts and ties who had never done any shipyard work in their life and who interpreted as “unnecessary and inefficient” even a gang of fitters awaiting the drop of a huge section onto the hull by a crane. They were particularly interested in eliminating older fitters who received the higher wages so that they could hire younger, less experienced men who could be hired at a rate far less per hour than the veterans. A corollary benefit to the corporation was this…. if they could rid themselves of men who’d worked for decades, they would not have to pay them a full pension. You can believe or disbelieve their motivations as you wish, but I will tell you without any reservation that practices like that are fully in line with the concept and reality of capitalism which is not subject to moral, but rather to financial motivations… bottom line… profit.
But the immediate answer to the purpose served in the construction of the USS Nimitz was “national defense” and, even if we question the need for construction of such a massive vessel in an age where a single tactical nuclear missile can neutralize an entire fleet, national defense is the stated purpose for which it is built. At the time it was built, it cost the American taxpayers about $1,000,000,000 (that’s one billion) which equates to about $4,750,000,000 in today’s dollars. Though I have no idea how much it cost to maintain and operate the Nimitz over the last four decades, the expense has been justified by the various military adventures our nation has precipitated globally… limited warfare with nations who could never challenge the American military juggernaut and survive. Proportionately and metaphorically speaking, we’ve built ourselves a military monolith that equates to a massive sledge hammer with which to deal with minor flea infestations in the houses of people we can’t even see beyond the vast oceans that separate us, places that we will likely never visit, even as tourists. National “defense” and the abuses that are inherent in a powerful military-industrial complex is a moral issue… and quite beyond the scope of this humble document… but, sometimes, I simply cannot help myself from casting an elbow in that general direction hoping to connect with the appropriate chin.
Given a budget of nearly five billion dollars and the collective skills of thousands of engineers, mathematicians, designers, draftsmen, technicians and tradesmen from every skilled and technical craft known to mankind, what would you have them produce? Speaking entirely for myself, it wouldn’t be a nuclear aircraft carrier and the profit in dollars required to overpay the CEOs and the CFOs et al. in a massive corporation, or to offer the various bribes and donations to however many admirals and politicians it takes to win the contract… all the while maintaining a small army of lobbyists to ensure a steady flow of more billions in lucrative government work… and then, above all, to produce sufficient dividends for the corporation’s greedy stockholders. But hey… that’s just me. I can’t even begin to change the world, especially at my age and with few resources on which to draw… but I can influence one small part of it… and when this series is complete, it’s my plan to begin putting the theory of the institutional model of a local social collective to work by planning and building one in the little city where I live.
Social collectives are, I believe, the corporations and the governance of the future and an immediate solution for the growing needs of many Americans today, those who have not been fulfilled economically or socially within the current environment of capitalist-inspired inequities within the profit motivated society in which we live. Social collectives are a way for everyone to get their fair share of the collective benefits supplied by their individual effort invested in a collective venture… and the return? Equal shares for everyone… no matter the effort and the investment of each… there will an equal return for every member of the collective and equal access to every resource, with democratic control of the work and the outlay in every benefit it may produce. You can call it socialism. You can call it community. You can call it co-operation. You can even call it Fred if it pleases you to do so. I prefer to call it a social collective rather than a socialist collective or a cooperative or simply a collective, which choice bears not a dimes worth of difference either way. The purpose of its construct is neither an “ism” nor an ideology… neither a brand nor a religion, though its authors can make it thus if they so desire… and all its membership agrees.
In fact, no single individual should drive the creation of a social collective. One person can do the work of attracting others to the idea, acting in the role of an organizer… and he or she may even guide its formation for a time, but the group itself must be the author of its purpose and its focus in a purely democratic process that will, over time, require occasional and consistent commitment and effort on the part of every member. Remember, the collective is a democratic institution and democracy is not a spectator sport. It’s a way of life.
Let’s say that you are the organizer… an individual who has the energy and the desire to get things started. What steps should you take? Is there a model you can follow, an example that provides you with the framework for a plan? Simple answer is “Absolutely.” If you have ever done the work of an activist, chances are you already have the skills… or at least some of them. If not, here is an excellent manual you could use to help you on your way: Click on the link to the manual here:
It is important however, to always remember that, even though it takes initiative and leadership to get something started, the leadership role in a social collective is not the same as a leadership position in an enterprise devoted to profit. A social collective is founded upon the essence of community in absolute and universal equality, such that every member is equal to every other member, each bearing the same rights and the same privileges as does every member of the collective. The best model you could possibly choose is that of what the founder of Christianity, the carpenter from Nazareth declared to his disciples two thousand years ago, “…If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.”
Or, you could follow the words of the author of the Tao te Ching, Lao Tzu, who, 500 or so years before Jesus, declared, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, ‘We did it ourselves.’”
And this single characteristic… equality… is essential to the concept of a social collective, the acceptance, the embrace, even the celebration of absolute equality within and among the membership, such that even its leaders, its founding members, no matter the personal investment they make, is ever permitted any greater benefit or privilege than any other individual within the collective. Without an understanding that equality is the utter foundation for its existence, every social collective will fail.
As I have tried to demonstrate from the beginning of this work, history is rife with examples that show us that socialist governance without democracy and equality in every aspect of its structure is not capable of surviving. Every attempt at establishing a socialist institution could eventually morph into some form of autocracy when its principles are compromised. When the group places a premium on leadership it will eventually adopt all the characteristics of a plutocracy. In the early Christian church, the concept of Christian leadership was utterly reversed from that which is paramount in its doctrine. In the Soviet socialist revolution, the Party leadership became a new aristocracy that proved even more oppressive and brutal than the Tsarist regime from which the people had supposedly been liberated in 1917.
The social collective derives its success, even its reason for existence from the concepts of equality and democracy, but equality above all. If it cannot maintain the ability to afford to every member, it will fail. Every dispute must be settled, every conflict resolved within the dictates of the principles of equality in justice, so if you plan to build a social collective, the language of its founding document must somehow reflect the essential understanding and means for obtaining justice within the group based upon the absolute equality of its membership. Secondly and with no less importance, it must outline the structure through which democratic governance can be realized. In a social collective, it’s leaders must be democratically chosen, answerable to the membership and they can receive no more privilege, no more esteem, no more benefit than any other member. They must be willing to accept that the work they accomplish is a responsibility they accept without any additional compensation beyond that which is required for them to accomplish the demands of their job.
As Americans, we have a much better chance than any previous peoples or nations to establish socialist institutions because our personal freedoms and our rights guaranteed in our Constitution are founded upon the bedrock principle in the Declaration of Independence that preceded the founding of our nation’s government and states… “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Equality may not be the driving motivation of our economy… and true equality has been a slow and evolving process we have yet to achieve, but it is in our psyche… it’s in our blood. Having said all that, I would also state that it is important to develop a reason for anyone to join a social collective, to get an understanding of its benefit to the membership and the possibilities inherent in group solidarity. It has to begin somewhere, so the task of the organizer is to take some initiative and canvass the community, determine a need, and suggest a a purpose around which a social collective could be formed. The founding theme could be absolutely anything, for instance, these:
- A grocery co-op in a food desert.
- Acquisition of a business by its employees from an owner wanting to sell in order to keep jobs in a community… or the foundation of any new, worker-owned business to create employment where jobs are scarce.
- A health care and transportation collective in a community of retirees providing in-home medical care and assistance and/or transportation services for people who cannot drive themselves or do not own a car. An Uber collective, if you will.
- An intentional community providing housing for its membership… offering both privacy for individuals and families along with all the advantages of extended family through a social collective.
- A child care co-op.
- A credit union.
- Community work spaces developed for the acquisition and use of special, expensive tools that the membership can share… and/or storage space with an option for shared equipment like lawn mowers, tractors.
- Community gardens for the collective effort and benefit of growing fresh vegetables, fruits and flowers.
- A mutual aid or a legal aid collective, providing help for its membership such that they need never be forced to rely upon charitable institutions or state-sponsored social welfare organizations… a collective that springs from the concept that a people united in solidarity through a social collective, however poor, need not rely on the charity of those who possess greater resources than they do, but can fend for themselves with the dignity and respect every one of us deserves as a human being.
The possibilities are endless and they can include any number of goals such as those listed in combination according to the needs of the members. The initial purpose can be ambitious or modest… but you have to start somewhere.
In the next essay, I will provide details of the steps an organizer can take to get things started… and perhaps even suggest a narrative in a specific example for the kind of social collective I might plan to initiate in my little city here in Ohio, how it can be be formed, how structured, logistical and legal issues, etc.
Watch this space.
Socialism, American Style by James Lloyd Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.