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Sanitized Radicals: Whitewashing 20th Century Socialists

Ah, conservatives. From Fox News to the Wall Street Journal, their reflex response to any fundamental change to the market economy is immediate patronizing dismissal. Years ago the conservative National Review, for example, happily described the “all-too true adage,” that “If one is not a socialist before the age of thirty, one has no heart; if one remains a socialist after that age of thirty, one has no head.” This is a classic saw on the Right.

Someone should tell that to notorious imbecile Albert Einstein, who wrote about the need “to stop the intolerable tyranny of the owners of the means of production (land, machinery) over the wage-earners, in the broadest sense of the term.” And in 1949 he prepared an extensive essay on his political and economic views for the first issue of the great socialist journal Monthly Review.

Private capital tends to become concentrated in few hands, partly because of competition among the capitalists, and partly because technological development and the increasing division of labor encourage the formation of larger units of production at the expense of smaller ones. The result of these developments is an oligarchy of private capital the enormous power of which cannot be effectively checked even by a democratically organized political society. This is true since the members of legislative bodies are selected by political parties, largely financed or otherwise influenced by private capitalists who, for all practical purposes, separate the electorate from the legislature…Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights…

He concluded, “I am convinced there is only oneway to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion.” The National Review might have considered Einstein’s position before shooting off its mouth about dumb socialists.

Another man “with no head” was civil rights hero Martin Luther King, a longtime labor ally who commented “The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute, and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome.” Indeed, King said the labor movement and the civil rights movement both fought “the economic and political power structure.”

Although rewritten by mainstream media and scholarship as a liberal mainly focused on segregation and voting rights, he grew significantly more radical over his too-short career. Notably, at the time of his receipt of the Nobel Prize in 1964, he told the press “We feel we have much to learn from Scandinavia’s democratic socialist tradition.” More revealingly, while jailed in Selma, Alabama, King’s words are recorded as, “If we are going to achieve real equality, the United States will have to adopt a modified form of socialism.” Very few Americans are aware of this aspect of King’s thought, but it certainly shaped his activism, which grew more radical and fully political until his assassination while supporting a public sanitation workers’ strike.

Mahatma Gandhi had conflicted views of the subject over his career, with Norman Finkelstein’s book What Gandhi Says quoting his “hope” that India’s independence fight was “only part of the general struggle of colonial peoples against world capitalism and imperialism.” On the other hand he didn’t support the key socialist goal of relieving great property owners of their productive property. But he can surely speak with some authority about how powerless people can change society: “[C]apitalists were after all few in number. The workers were many. But capital was well organized and had learnt to combine. If labor realized its inherent strength and the secret of combination it would rule capital instead of being ruled by it.”

Or consider good old George Orwell, who is probably more identified than any other English-speaking writer with indicting the horrors of communist totalitarianism. His books Animal Farm and 1984 are globally known for their satires of Stalinist thought control, his writing is frequently cited by anti-government conservatives, and his work is often found in libertarian book catalogues. This is pretty hilarious, considering for example that Orwell wrote in 1946 that “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.”

Elsewhere, when Orwell described his experiences fighting fascism during the Spanish Civil War in his famous Homage to Catalonia, he observed that while there was “a section of the Socialists, standing for workers’ control,” there were other nominal socialists calling for “centralized government and a militarized army.” For Orwell socialism required not only “common ownership of the means of production” but also “approximate equality of incomes (it need be no more than approximate), political democracy, and abolition of all hereditary privilege,” aiming for “a world-state of free and equal human beings.”

Orwell also remarked that “In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy ‘proving’ that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this,” describing a “classless society.” And in The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell’s study of the English working class, he found that capitalism “makes freedom impossible,” and that “The only thing forwhich we can combine is the underlying ideal of Socialism: justice and liberty.”

A yet more inspirational figure is Malala Yousafzai, the brave girl who was shot in the head by Taliban gunmen for her activism for girls’ education in Pakistan. Her trip to the US, and meeting with Obama, were heavily covered by US commercial media, celebrating her heroic defiance of fundamentalist terrorism. However the media studiously kept from mentioning two facts, one of which was her admonishment of the president for his global program of “extrajudicial” drone assassinations, which she said were both morally wrong and only creating more enemies of the country. But also unmentioned was her message to a Pakistani Marxist convention saying “I am convinced Socialism is the only answer and I urge all comrades to take this struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation.” That bit stayed off the front pages.

There are many more examples like this, with global figures from Nelson Mandela to Pablo Picasso with a history of open, bold socialist views of various types. The immediate lesson is that the National Review is perhaps mistaken about the mental weakness of anyone holding a socialist worldview, but we could also contemplate the tendency of the Western world’s educational system to cleanse all these prominent figures of their dirty socialist radicalism. Meanwhile, the Right can foam at the mouth about the schools being communist burdens, churning out students indoctrinated with left-wing propaganda. Which somehow miss their best opportunities, apparently.

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Rob Larson is a professor of economics at Tacoma Community College and author of Capitalism vs. Freedom: The Toll Road to Serfdom, out this week from Zero Books.

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