Early Episodes of American Socialism


In last week’s column, I posed the question of whether Barack Obama was a socialist or not, given the current definition of the ideology.  I think the evidence is clear that he is.

Obama likes to boast that we, as a nation, have learned from our history.  But, as he seeks to implement more socialism, have we really learned anything?

In the academic world it is common to hear defenses of the failures of socialism, most notably the oft-repeated statement that “true socialism has never been tried.”  But alas, my dear friends, it has.  As a matter of fact, it has been tried right here in America, during our earliest years, and it is being tried right now.

Surprising to most people is the fact that one of the first institutions of socialism occurred in the two earliest New World colonies, at Jamestown in 1607 and again at Plymouth in 1620.  Though it had no name attached to it, these two early systems actually resembled a pure communist structure, which is, according to Marx, socialism’s highest state, with the establishment of a scheme of communal property.

Everyone in the Jamestown and Plymouth colonies had to work for the colony and only the colony, not themselves.  Colonists owned no land and did not gain personally from any of their work, with everything going into a common treasury to be dispersed.  And as a result, these attempts failed and failed miserably, to the extent that both colonies nearly succumbed to starvation, as colonists, with no incentives, simply quit working, a common problem in any socialist society.

Governor William Bradford, in his famous book, Of Plymouth Plantation, chastised these communes and those who mistakenly believed that communal wealth could make people “happy and flourishing, as if they were wiser than God.”  However, he noted, “God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them.”  It was the implementation of a system of private property – capitalism, in other words – whereby everyone had their own plot of land and reaped the fruits of their own labor.

“This had very good success,” Bradford wrote, “for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means” the government could enact.  Workers “went willingly into the field” to work, rather than remain slothful.

But even though communal ideas failed, they never died away completely, as they should have.  In the 19th century, new political ideologies emerged, mainly in Europe.  One of which was socialism.  The new socialists rejected the world as it was.  History, Marx said, was a class struggle of the “haves” versus the “have nots.” Socialists, like modern Democrats, condemned the concentration of wealth and called for public ownership of business.

Soon those dangerous ideologies crept across the Atlantic when Americans began examining ways to deal with the concentration of wealth in the New World.  Edward Bellamy, a Utopian Socialist from Massachusetts, authored an enormously influential book in 1888 entitled Looking Backward, and it outsold every 19th century fiction book with the exception of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

A Rip Van Winkle-type of tale, Looking Backward described the experiences of a young Bostonian, Julian West, who went to sleep 1887 and woke up in the year 2000, finding a new social order based on collective ownership of property.  The nation was now the “sole capitalist and land-owner.”  All forms of private property had been abolished.  The state was “everything,” and with private property absent, there was no poverty or crime, no politics and no vice, and no wars.  Industry had been nationalized and everyone was unbelievably happy.  Bellamy’s book was still selling big in the 1920s and “Nationalist Clubs” began popping up across the country, and in Europe, to promote his ideas.

Playing on Bellamy’s words, FDR’s campaign book in 1932 was entitled Looking Forward but it contained the same ole formulas.  He attacked “enormous corporate profits” and “corporate surpluses,” seeking to “restrict the operations of the financier.” FDR believed this was the wave of the future and called for national economic planning, which he implemented with his New Deal.  America, as the Founders knew it, has never looked back.

Barack Obama has only built on these earlier attempts.  But can we call our nation a socialist one?  The short answer is yes.  Today the federal government still owns stock in big banks and in GM, while wealth re-distribution programs are soaring.

In a report out last week, excluding true entitlements like Social Security and Medicare, federal welfare spending is now more than $1 trillion per year.  The nation spends more on anti-poverty programs than on Social Security, Medicare, and national defense combined.  These programs are up nearly a third since Obama took office.  And, given that fact that the bottom half of the population does not pay any federal income taxes, it is fair to say that this is wealth re-distribution.

But the more we implement socialistic ideas, the weaker our nation becomes, and if the tide is not stemmed soon, we most definitely will become the new Greece and wind up where all socialists nations find themselves, on the ash heap of history.

This column was published in the Laurel Leader Call (Laurel, MS) on Tuesday, October 23, 2012.

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