I predict this coming summer will find more residents of Mid Coast Maine, where I live, wearing Bernie Sanders t-shirts than the current favorite, Che Guevara model. The women will still sport the obligatory side-crew cuts and the men ponytails, but the go-to-T-shirt will change for the first time in decades!
It’s also logical to assume that, had Che not been executed in 1967 at the age of thirty-nine, he might very well be making campaign appearances on Mr. Sanders’ behalf today, even in his late eighties. They might at least be spotted fighting over the breakfast tab at a diner.
My first encounter with the trappings of socialism, outside of history class, came from reading a biography of Jack London, a writer I’ve long admired. Remembered for his more than fifty books, and the famous short-story, “To Build a Fire”, most who read London, be it by choice or by assignment, remain unaware of the notoriety that contemporaneously followed London and his strong commitment to building a global, socialist society.
A prolific propagandist for the international cause, London laid out the goals of socialism in a 1908 article titled, Revolution:
We are revolutionists. The cry of this army is, ‘No quarter! We want all that you possess. We will be content with nothing less than all that you possess. We want in our hands the reins of power and the destiny of mankind. Here are our hands. They are strong hands. We are going to take your governments, your palaces, and all your purpled ease away from you, and in that day you shall work for your bread even as the peasant in the field or the starved and runty clerk in your metropolises. Here are our hands. They are strong hands’.
Who doesn’t love Jack London’s delivery? That incendiary prose sure does make one Feel the Bern! Say what you want about political and economic theories of social organization, but that’s good agitprop there. London’s pro-socialist writings have survived to inspire generations of aspiring commies since Bernie Sanders was crawling around in red diapers.
Interestingly, as one of the world’s first internationally successful and subsequently wealthy fiction writers, London, while barely thirty-years old, had already retired to his 1,000 acre California ranch to live out his years safe from the evils of capitalism. The “Boy Socialist,” as he was once known, had grown bored of all the social activism, opting instead for a life of rugged, though lavish adventures, and cranking out a few more books, “for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate.” London died at the age of forty, his estate appropriately being turned over to the government for the creation of a state park and national historic landmark.
So, how is it that an icon of American strength such as Jack London, the very figure of the wild frontier and rugged individualism who gave us White Fang and The Sea-Wolf, a man who was living proof that hard work and perseverance can reap enormous financial rewards, became the most eloquent spokesman for an economic system based upon community ownership of the means of production, onerous governmental regulation, constrained liberties and culturally-crafted equality?
It could be that London attended the University of California at Berkeley, but with the Free Speech Movement still more than sixty years away in 1897, Berkeley was hardly considered the bellwether of radicalism that it has since become. In fact, when young Jack London enrolled in UC Berzerkeley, military training was still required for all male undergraduates. Rather, his close association with Eugene Debs, who was then running as a socialist candidate for mayor of Oakland, seems to have been the major influence in the teen-ager’s burgeoning love for socialism.
The problem, of course, is that everything about the socialist economic system is diametrically opposed to the economic theories that served as the underpinnings for the development of the American nation, and the ideals that are outlined in that most important of our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence. Socialism would have prevented Jack London from acquiring his beloved Beauty Ranch.
Adam Smith, widely considered the founder of free market economic theory, cited the American Colonies as a fine example of the benefits of such a system. Young America grew the world’s largest and most vibrant economy within a century of its birth, and has remained the world’s strongest economy ever since. Outperforming the economies of nations that had centuries-long head starts, America did not achieve her greatness, her ability to protect and create life, liberty and happiness both at home and abroad throughout our 240-year history by employing a socialist economic system.
Recent polling suggests that fully a third of millenials, and over 40% of registered Democrats hold a favorable opinion of socialism. Our union-controlled public school system, in teaching our future electorate about the country they pledge allegiance to, has failed to delineate between American values and European values. This has left many young voters with the perception that, by voting for an avowed socialist like Bernie Sanders, or adopting socialist policies and programs such as local, state and our own federal government has been doing for decades, we are merely embracing economic policies that are already being used by European countries. Sanders Socialism is a Softer, Kinder Socialism. No big deal, dude… don’t get so gnarly!
Except that it is a big deal. I’m no economist, but even I understand that socialism is incompatible with the American ideal. Liberty and Socialism are mutually exclusive concepts, and there is no bridging the gap. Don’t take my word for it. One of the more astute and prescient observers of the American experiment was French historian Alexis de Tocqueville. A passionate defender of liberty, Tocqueville spoke in great detail of his misgivings about socialism in an address before France’s Constituent Assembly following the 1848 revolution:
A trait which, in my eyes, best describes socialists of all schools and shades, is a profound opposition to personal liberty and scorn for individual reason, a complete contempt for the individual. They unceasingly attempt to mutilate, to curtail, to obstruct personal freedom in any and all ways. They hold that the State must not only act as the director of society, but must further be master of each man, and not only master, but keeper and trainer. For fear of allowing him to err, the State must place itself forever by his side, above him, around him, better to guide him, to maintain him, in a word, to confine him. They call, in fact, for the forfeiture, to a greater or less degree, of human liberty, to the point where, were I to attempt to sum up what socialism is, I would say that it was simply a new system of serfdom.
Recall the words Jack London used to describe the goals of socialism: “We will be content with nothing less than all that you possess. We want in our hands the reins of power and the destiny of mankind. Here are our hands.”
Observing the rising popularity of Bernie Sanders, and the net effect his success has had in pushing the rhetoric of his opponent farther left, can have a disillusioning impact on the casual observer of American history. Why are so many Americans rooting for a fundamentally anti-American form of governance? It’s not unlike if the Catholic Church were to reach out to Atheist Alliance International seeking advice on how to save more souls. The advice would not be helpful to the cause.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that this grand experiment we call The United States of America come to an end, or, at least a “fundamental transformation.” Seasons come and go, climates change, history unfolds, and nations rise and fall. Tocqueville had another observation about human nature that may have presaged this coming election, if not the last two: “But one also finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom.”