During his evening spent with the Thomas Harbison family in Highlands, Vachel Lindsay observed that the professor “was full of Spencer and Huxley, an anti-socialist willing to die fighting socialism.”
I suspect that Lindsay recoiled upon this discovery. Let’s introduce into evidence a poem written long after 1906, but written by Lindsay nonetheless:
WHY I VOTED THE SOCIALIST TICKET
I AM unjust, but I can strive for justice.
My life's unkind, but I can vote for kindness.
I, the unloving, say life should be lovely.
I, that am blind, cry out against my blindness.
Man is a curious brute—he pets his fancies—
Fighting mankind, to win sweet luxury.
So he will be, tho' law be clear as crystal,
Tho' all men plan to live in harmony.
Come, let us vote against our human nature,
Crying to God in all the polling places
To heal our everlasting sinfulness
And make us sages with transfigured faces.
Nowadays, “socialism” isn’t much more than a hot-button expletive used to punctuate Tea Party rants. But a century ago, socialism was a significant movement in America, aiming to correct the same imbalances and inequities that continue to plague this country.
Just two years before Lindsay’s great tramp across the south. Eugene V. Debs was the candidate of the Socialist Party of America, drawing 402,810 votes, or 2.98% of the popular vote in the 1904 Presidential election. Debs remained a highly visible figure in American life into the 1920s, working for social and political change.
Debs proclaimed his philosophy:
While there is a lower class, I am in it;
While there is a criminal element, I am of it;
While there is a soul in prison, I am not free!
Something Debs wrote in 1915 could just as easily apply to present circumstances:
I am not opposed to all war, nor am I opposed to fighting under all circumstances, and any declaration to the contrary would disqualify me as a revolutionist. When I say I am opposed to war I mean ruling class war, for the ruling class is the only class that makes war. It matters not to me whether this war be offensive or defensive, or what other lying excuse may be invented for it. I am opposed to it, and I would be shot for treason before I would enter such a war.
Capitalists wars for capitalist conquest and capitalist plunder must be fought by the capitalists themselves so far as I am concerned, and upon that question, there can be no compromise and no misunderstanding as to my position. I have no country to fight for; my country is the earth; I am a citizen of the world. I would not violate my principles for God, much less for a crazy kaiser, a savage czar, a degenerate king, or a gang of pot-bellied parasites.
I am opposed to every war but one; I am for the war with heart and soul, and that is the worldwide war of social revolution. In that war, I am prepared to fight in any way the ruling class may make necessary, even to the barricades. There is where I stand and where I believe the Socialist Party stands, or ought to stand, on the question of war."
[From "When I Shall Fight," by Eugene V. Debs, in Appeal to Reason newspaper, September 11, 1915.]
And here’s how Debs summed up his efforts:
My purpose was to have the people understand something about the social system in which we live and to prepare them to change this system by perfectly peaceable and orderly means into what I, as a Socialist, conceive to be a real democracy. . . . I am doing what little I can, and have been for many years, to bring about a change that shall do away with the rule of the great body of the people by a relatively small class and establish in this country an industrial and social democracy.
At the time they met, Lindsay and Harbison would have had fresh memories of the Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902, which became a milestone in the history of the labor movement. And, during the long strike, talk of socialism entered the debate. Mine owners were determined to wait out the workers, rather than conceding to any of their demands. Meanwhile, many people were calling on federal intervention to end the strike and relieve the hardships resulting from the shutdown. One letter writer to the New York Times urged a laissez faire approach lest “socialism” gain a foothold:
As the settlement of the coal strike is not yet in sight, the people of New York can look forward to very dear coal next Winter…Lord only knows what will become of the poor in cheap tenements who buy their coal by the bucketful.
But it will be very much better to have this condition than to infringe on “the sacred rights of property,” which constitute the basis and bulwark of society: better far to suffer the pangs of cold and hunger and death than disturb the existing order of things.
All this talk of compelling the coal barons to operate their mines is the rankest socialism, communism, and anarchy. The coal lands are the property of these men, just as their pocket knives are their property, and to demand the operation of the mines is as socialistic and dangerous to property rights as to demand than they operate their pocket knives. They have just as much right to hold their lands idle as any other class of landowners throughout the world….
Why single out the owners of coal lands for special attack? Logically the only people who should have votes are the landowners of the country, for they own America. It is wrong that the rest of us, who own no land, should have any voice in the making of laws or government in a country of which we do not own one square foot.
None but stockholders have a voice in the management of a business concern, and none but the owners of this country should have a voice in it.
Disenfranchisement of the masses who own no property would put an end to the dangerous doctrines we now hear so much of, and the “sacred rights of property” would be fully safeguarded.
Leonard Tuttle, August 9, 1902
One month later, a socialist group went beyond pressuring owners to reopen the mines. They urged state ownership of the mines. Again, from the New York Times:
The meeting in Boston on Monday evening, called to urge the settlement of the anthracite coal strike by “mediation, arbitration, or conciliation,” was captured by the Socialists, who turned the discussion into unexpected channels and passed the following resolution:
Resolved, That we, the people of Massachusetts, in mass meeting assembled in Faneuil Hall, the historic Cradle of Liberty, on this Sept. 8, 1902, demand the Government ownership and operation of the coal mines as the best means of ending the strike in the anthracite coal regions, and of securing justice and liberty to the mine workers and of preventing the occurrence of all such deplorable and unhappy conditions.
President Theodore Roosevelt did not go that far, but he did break from previous presidents who would have sided with the mine owners, and attempted to level the field for labor and management in seeking an end to the strike.
Today, we might frame things differently, but the basic issues remain the same. What are the consequences of the imbalance of power between capital and labor? What is the proper role of the government in correcting those imbalances?
Tea Bagger bigots...errr, "patriots"... hit the streets on behalf of their corporate overlords
With their loud voices dominating the political stage these days, the Tea Bagger loonies have their own convenient answers to those questions, while ignoring the tyranny of unchecked capitalism.
Consider this fact:
The share of total income going to the richest 1 percent of Americans peaked in both 1928 and in 2007, at over 23 percent. Between the two peaks is a long, deep valley. After 1928, the share of national income going to the top 1 percent steadily declined… to 9 to 11 percent in the 1950s and 1960s, finally reaching the valley floor of 8 to 9 percent in the 1970s. After this, the share going to the richest 1 percent began to climb again… reaching its next peak of more than 23 percent in 2007.
Sounds like “trickle down” economics to me! Thank you, Ronald Reagan.
Some people ARE concerned with this trend toward greater and greater concentration of wealth and the deterioration of the middle class. With his book, Aftershock, economist Robert Reich has delivered some of the most astute analysis I’ve come across in a long time.
You can follow this link to hear the Fresh Air interview with Reich, which I highly recommend:
Reich sees economic woes reflecting not just normal cyclical patterns, but structural deficiencies in our economic and political policy:
[The middle class] can't go deeper and deeper into debt. They can't work longer hours. They've exhausted all of their coping mechanisms...And people at the top are taking home so much that they are almost inevitably going to speculate in stocks or commodities or whatever the speculative vehicles are going to be... Unless we understand the relationship between the extraordinary concentration of income and wealth we have this in country and the failure of the economy to rebound, we are going to be destined for many, many years of high unemployment, anemic job recoveries and then periods of booms and busts that may even dwarf what we just had.
Whether they did or not, Vachel Lindsay and Thomas Harbison could have had a spirited after-dinner discussion on this subject.
Like they say, “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”