Socialism: The Impossible Dream. A review of Bernard K. Johnpoll’s 1981 study, subtitled, “The Rise and Demise of the American Left*”

I was fortunate to have taken a class with Professor Johnpoll in the 1970s when I was a graduate student at the University at Albany. He was sui generis––a cigar smoking, iconoclastic, child of Communists who admired people who flirted with the Left while despite concluding that their dreams can never be achieved.

Why never? The conundrum socialists have been unable to solve for two hundred years is how to get from present circumstances to the “cooperative commonwealth.” Further, they have not and never will reach a consensus on what the cooperative commonwealth looks like. Each person has his own vision of utopia, which makes it easy for the leaders of the Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions to get away with calling their un-cooperative societies socialism and imposing their totalitarian rule on their subjects.

In The Impossible Dream, Johnpoll dissects the history of the socialist leaders, movements, and organizations in the U.S. from the early nineteenth century to the 1970s. Based on extensive use of primary and secondary sources, he documents his thesis that these organizations and movements were bound to fail despite their high ideals.

The Long History of Protesting Capitalism

In the early days of industrial capitalism in England and the United States people chafed at the negative side effects of the “industrial revolution”––the lack of restraints on working conditions that chewed up people in the name of profit.

Not that pre-industrial societies lacked poverty or suffering, but what prevented the rise of reform movements in that era was an absence of a clear path to a better world. Once technology, starting with steam engines, introduced the possibility of a world where you were not tied to your previous station in life, reformers and reform movements sprouted like dandelions.

The primary critics of early capitalism were craftsmen whose skills were becoming irrelevant in the face of a new competitive environment where products could be produced in large numbers and sold for less than hand-crafted items. Combining religious images like the golden rule with visions of how industry could be re-organized, Robert Owen and others preached the coming of a society built around cooperative communities. Although the model communities Owen and others set up invariably failed––and did so very quickly by the way, they planted seeds which others sowed in the fertile fields created by early capitalism’s destructive excesses.

The goal of socialism––whether Marxian, Christian, or communitarian, is to take over ownership of the “means of production” and put it in the hands of the workers. The problem socialists have never solved, according to Johnpoll, is how one gets there. Nowhere was that more evident in the reformers’ dealings with the working class.

Labor Unions versus Socialism

In the nineteenth century, while reformers were preaching their individual variants of the total reformation of society, workers who couldn’t wait for the arrival of the cooperative commonwealth, began to form labor unions. For a time the interests of socialists and unionists were allied because owners backed by the police and legal system of the state resisted––often by force––all efforts of workers to organize.

Once the unionists demands began to be translated into law, however, their leaders broke with the socialists. When he expelled the socialists from his American Federation of Labor in 1903, Gompers said, “I want to tell you, Socialists, that I have studied your philosophy; read your works upon economics, and . . . I have heard your orators and watched the work of your movement the world over . . . Economically you are unsound, socially you are wrong, industrially you are an impossibility.”

For Gompers and others, socialists wanted to revolutionize all of society, while unionists were satisfied with improving the present-day lot of their members. This caused huge problems for socialists––some eschewed ameliorative gains while others saw reforms as the path to God’s kingdom on earth. Either way they failed again and again to win over the working class.

Socialist leaders, most of whom did not come from the working class, had an even harder time when it came to the problem of whether or not to participate in the electoral process. Some felt socialism could be brought about democratically, while others felt the owning class would never allow that to happen and only through an uprising by the working people of the world could a revolution that overthrew capitalism be accomplished.

Throw in conflicts born of ethnic differences and leaders personalities and you have a history of organizations being formed, making temporary gains, and then failing apart. It happened over and over again. Each generation of leaders thought this time will be different: this time the workers will vote for us or respond to our call for a general strike or join our socialist labor union. When that didn’t happen, they always had fellow socialists to blame.

Johnpoll clearly admires the reformers of the nineteenth century more than those of the twentieth with a few exceptions. Early reformers didn’t have experience to guide them and they paved the way for positive changes in society once social opinion or historical circumstance convinced the political party in power to implement reforms. They didn’t achieve their dream, but we take for granted many of the reforms they called for, from an end to child labor to unemployment insurance, from compulsory education to the right to collective bargaining.

Are Today’s Democrats advocating Socialism?

In recent years, the rhetoric in the Democratic Party in favor of some form of socialism has escalated. Bernie Sanders came close to winning the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2016 and remains one of the favorites in the 2020 race. This time around nearly the entire cast of presidential candidates is advocating one or more programs that amount to increased governmental control over various aspects of the production and distribution of goods and services. Health care and the environment are the most prominent areas where socialistic policies have won favor with the Party’s activist base, but except for Sanders none of the others seem willing to go full bore and denounce capitalism.

From a historical perspective what the Democrats are moving towards is more like the system that ruled the Soviet Union than the cooperative commonwealth envisioned by nineteenth century social philosophers––including Karl Marx. The Soviet Union was a totally statist society in which the state apparatus controlled everything, including personal choices in many areas. (There was nothing communistic about it.) We’re not there yet, but that’s the direction we’re heading in––namely, the sacrifice of personal liberties on behalf of the “common good.”

The problem is who defines what’s good and proper. In the Soviet Union, it was the Communist Party. In the US today, the federal bureaucracy has assumed the responsibility for defining specifics of vaguely wording legislation, often going against the will of the current chief executive.

The fact that we still elect the president is a critical difference between the U.S. and the Soviet Union because it offers the possibility that the power of the state can be restrained. Yet, to the average citizen, there’s little difference when waiting to get an appointment with the VA hospital in the U.S. or the poor quality of socialized medicine in the former USSR.

Ultimately, most reformers are totalitarians. They don’t like conditions in the present. Fine. They see a better world. Fine. They want to impose their vision of a better world on everyone else. Not so fine. We only have to look at Russia, China, and Cuba to understand what happens to the individual when reformers grab the power of the state. The individual becomes acted upon, not an actor. That’s the danger we’re facing in the U.S. in 2019. Reading Johnpoll’s Impossible Dream can help elucidate why the future world painted by today’s reformers is impossible to achieve no matter how appealing the picture.

Coda: Marx’s scientific socialism predicted the most advanced capitalist societies would be the first to undergo a conversion to socialism. Clearly that prediction was wrong. Lack of economic development where the elements of a capitalist system are non-existent or weak, is often coupled with a non-democratic political system, while in the US, where democracy while not perfect, is nevertheless deeply embedded, capitalism has raised the standard of living of the entire society even under the restraints of social legislation. Like democracy, capitalism is the best option available on a list of imperfect choices.

* An earlier version of this review was posted on Amazon and Goodreads in 2014.

 

Wake Up People: Stop Fear Being Called a Racist

A self-defined Black caller to a national talk show today made a point I’ve been trying to make for a long time––namely, that the term racist has become bastardized to the point where it is meaningless. Still many people fear being called a racist, and as long as people act stupid to avoid that label, there are those who will bring it out and slap it on.

Race to start is an artificial category. It came into use centuries ago by those who wanted to oppress others on the basis of artificial distinctions, such as religion (used by Christians to define non-Christians as heathens), use of language (non-English speakers were considered inferior) and oh, yes, skin pigmentation. Over time, the effectiveness of that practice came to be diminished as overwhelming evidence showed that not all Jews are money-grubbers, not all Irish are drunkards, and not all people of African origins are incapable of higher learning.

That there are still a tiny number of idiots who buy into the notion that there are groups of people all of whom share certain negative physical traits is unfortunate, but their number is infesimal and they are powerless as a group.

Now, let’s examine why some people still throw the term racist around at their political enemies. First, they do it because the media will report it without questioning it the way they would question they would if someone accused a political opponent of being a satan worshiper. Second, it elevates the accusers in their own eyes, justifying their willingness to by-pass traditional rules for discourse on the floor of the House of Representatives (Nancy Pelosi), and to their willingness to make accusations without feeling obligated to provide evidence or answer questions explaining the basis of their charges (Rashida Tlaib, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar).

The mainstream media plays a sad role in this spectacle. For instance, when President Trump criticized four female Congresswomen for their anti-Israel and anti-American rhetoric, he was accused of being a racist even though he didn’t refer to the women’s race or even mention them by name.

On a side note, it’s interesting how it’s possible today to self-define yourself as a person of color. Rashida Tlaib comes from an Arab background. Arabs don’t normally define themselves as people of color, and what about Ocasio-Cortez? Her parents are from Puerto Rico, but does that make her a person of color? Is everyone with a Hispanic surname a person of color? Yet both claimed they were victims of Trump’s racism. Again, the media seems to fear being called a racist since they never challenge anything these women say––not matter how absurd.

The only way to put a stop to the irresponsible use of the term racist is to stop being afraid of being called one. That doesn’t mean you have to have been pure of thought throughout your entire life. It doesn’t mean you can’t ever have used the “N” word or had a momentary negative thought about a whole group of people on the basis of their religion, national origins or eating habits. You’re not a racist if you don’t believe that there are groups of people who share negative physical characteristics that justify their being treated as second-class citizens. Pure and simple.

Once people stop being afraid of the term, those who love to use it will find their power diminished and they’ll move on to something else. Meat-eater perhaps?!

 

The Wall: Another Take

How does one explain the fact that prominent Democrat politicians not so long ago advocated the very same policies sought by the Trump administration with respect to the southern border and Central American migration crisis, but won’t back those policies as long as he is president?

Here are the facts:

When campaigning, Obama told migrants to leave their children at home. He also built the detention centers where children by law are kept separate from their parents when the parents are required to remain in custody. At one point, Pelosi and Schumer favored constructing a wall, knowing a partial wall has made southern California safer.

A wall makes sense to cut down on the dangerous and, as we saw recently, the often fatal efforts of people to cross into our country illegally. To oppose it is to advocate the idiotic position that there should be no borders and that anyone who wants to come here should be able to do so.

Having a policy of not screening would-be immigrants for health problems can’t be defended logically. Why do people who apply for the right to immigrate have to undergo medical tests when those who cross our southern border illegally do not? Do we really want to welcome those carrying contagious diseases? Do we really want to provide free health care to all of Central America?

What about dealing with criminal behavior by illegals above and beyond their coming into the country illegally? Why are Democrat politicians protecting people who commit serious crimes, as well as interfering with efforts to detain and deport them?

The answer to the above questions is simple. The Democrats would rather play politics, counting on the naiveté of the voting public. It is absurd to deny that an open border is an invitation to those who would smuggle guns and drugs into the country. It is absurd to give carte blanche to ‘coyotes’ who make false promises to would-be migrants and then abandon them in dangerous situations. It is absurd to allow those who kidnap the children of poor families to use as a ruse to get into the country.

Has the voting public considered the cost of having a million undocumented illegals enter the country each year? Have people looked at the cost of all those free programs from free health care to free higher education? Doesn’t playing compassionate savior mean tax money that should be helping American citizens attend college without having to take out loans won’t be available?

The problem comes back to the decision the Democrats made not to allow Trump to accomplish what he promised during his campaign. By labeling his motives racist they think they can pull the wool over the eyes of the voters, getting them to endorse policies that are harmful to the country and to many of them personally.

Here’s my question for you, dear reader. Even if Trump’s motives were impure––which I don’t believe­­­­­––is that sufficient reason to obstruct policies that are necessary, reasonable and rational? Is giving him a “victory” so unthinkable that the Democrats will continue to jeopardize the safety and well-being of our citizenry?

The migrants too are victims of the Democrats game. They suffer, not the politicians. Will their dreams be realized? It is unlikely. Some may land in communities where they can get off-the-books jobs mowing grass and harvesting fruit, but many will resort to crime––to prostitution, to drug and gun smuggling, and who knows what else in order to survive. That’s the reality.

Is the U.S. responsible for the conditions in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua? Marxists will say yes because they blame private property, free enterprise and the rule of law for all of the world’s problems. Is that where the Democrat Party wants to live? Hopefully, the American people will take a look at life under communism and “democratic” socialists countries before they endorse that solution. A better choice for the rest of the world––one that is working in many countries––is to adopt our system as a model.

Legalizing Pot = Legalizing Trouble

Those championing the legalization of marijuana are selling phony stories invented by pr firms in the employ of governments seeking tax revenue and would-be pot entrepreneurs. They falsely claim pot is not a gateway to harder drugs; that legal pot will be safer; and that legalization will help those suffering from pain. Let’s look at the facts.

The notion that pot reduces the pain of physically ill is in doubt as a result of a recent study in Australia. What about pot as a gateway? A recent American Journal of Psychiatry paper reported cannabis users three times as likely to graduate to opiates. What about safety? Legal pot is more than ten times stronger than the pot smoked in the 1960s and 1970s. Eleven percent of psychosis cases in emergency rooms in one study were heavy pot users. But the least-known danger is the connection between cannabis and violence.

The voices of mental health professionals who have seen the connection between marijuana, mental illness and violent crime has been largely ignored. Overseas studies support the connection. A Swiss study, for example, found young men with psychosis who use pot had a 50 percent greater likelihood of becoming violent. An Australian study re-enforces that connection.

In the U.S., one only needs to look to Colorado. Earlier this year, USA Today reported “Pot is sending more people to the hospital in Colorado with extreme vomiting, psychosis” backing up an earlier analysis reported in the Denver Post which found pot use linked to increased crime and driving fatalities.

We’ve heard and ignored all the glowing promises for other solutions to social ills. Legalized gambling is supposed to stop illegal gambling. All it’s done has increased the number of problem gamblers while illegal gambling has not been shut down. The truth is that those dreaming of big profits and big tax revenues are selling America a bill of goods. They will get rich while the average citizen and health community deals with the fall out.

It’s fools’ gold to think regular use of an addictive substance doesn’t have negative social and familial consequences for those who use it. Who’s going to come out on top––those who want the money or those who care about their children and their community?

Is there such a thing as Democratic Socialism?

There are only two types of socialists: those who believe socialism will come by revolution––the uprising of the working class––and those who believe socialism can be voted in. The problem comes after socialism arrives. Then little distinguishes the policies that are advanced and the means by which they are implemented.

In the Soviet Union, the Communist Party implemented its policies by force, using the police and military to get people to do the party’s bidding. There were no individual rights in the Soviet Union, except for the Party’s top leaders of course. In Argentina, where socialism was voted in, the police and military have become the means by which a socialist dictatorship remains in power. Today people have numbers written on their arms to show their place in the food lines. Echoes of the Holocaust.

So, is there such a thing as democratic socialism? The answer is no. There are European countries that have adopted some socialistic policies, but none are truly socialist societies. Private ownership of wealth and property cannot be allowed to exist under socialism. Corporations and small businesses may operate under severe restrictions in Europe, but they exist in all European countries. In a truly socialist society any attempt to restore capitalism even by electoral means has to be crushed by force. Take Cuba as another example where the people do not have political liberty and where private ownership is extremely limited.

What would “democratic socialism” mean in America? Loss of individual liberties in the name of the society as a whole. Loss of freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion. Those losses would not be labeled as such. They would be announced as great accomplishments for the “working class,” but they are inevitable.

Elizabeth Warren wants to know where the family lore blank is on the presidential application form?

Writing in the May 17 Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan defended Elizabeth Warren against Donald Trump’s calling her Pocahontas by arguing that Warren was “merely repeating family lore.”

That is b.s. to put it mildly. You can’t tell me that Warren didn’t know that attaching “Native American” to her applications for graduate school, professorships and grant applications didn’t give her a step up over other candidates. “Female and Native American. Wow. We want one of those,” said the law school dean who hired her at Harvard.

She can’t say she didn’t know she was benefitting from that claim without appearing out of it. Identity has become a primary qualifier for academic positions for decades. She had to know that, which is why she referred to herself as Native American.

And for Sullivan to accept Warren’s excuse as legitimate and also to say “She does have some such ancestry, but not very much” is also disingenuous. The results of the DNA test she took “cannot show that she or any other person is ‘NativeAmerican’” according to Jennifer Raff writing in Forbes Magazine.

In other words, Trump is entirely justified for his calling Warren Pocahontas because that’s what you do to people who cheat. You call them out. Thank goodness that name is sticking because it reminds people that when she had an opportunity to cheat to advance her career Warren didn’t hesitate. Is that the kind of person we want as president?

Elizabeth Warren Is Barking Up the Wrong Trees

Given her academic credentials and past political successes––having won her Senate seat twice––you’d think Elizabeth Warren would run a smart campaign for the Democrat Presidential nomination, but you’d be wrong. Polls show her below the top male contenders and she’s far behind in fund raising. Lately, her policy pronouncements sound desperate rather than calculated.

Tax the Richest

Warren began her campaign calling for an “ultra-millionaire tax.” She claims America needs to tax household net worth, not just income, on the basis of statistics that show the richest Americans are richer today than they were forty years ago. She claims that is due to government policies that facilitate wealth accumulation at workers’ expense.

(Workers is her word. It’s a term used by Communists and Socialists and goes back to Karl Marx and the 19th century. It’s not only slanted, but it’s intentionally imprecise. In socialist jargon everyone is a worker except capitalists.)

There is a false assumption underlying her calculation, which is that the same families who were super rich forty years ago are superrich today. If that were true, then we could consider her argument that government tax policy is a factor in keeping the rich rich, but it’s not true. Just as many of the top 25 corporations of 1975 have been replaced by new corporations today, many of today’s wealthiest families gained their wealth recently. They didn’t inherit their wealth. They earned it.

Her wealth tax also ignores that fact that the top wage earners in America already pay a hefty percentage of income taxes, which is why Warren wants to tax household net worth including assets held in trust, retirement assets (401k plan monies) and even assets held by minor children. This is a soak the rich scheme the consequences of which can only be bad for the economy. Why? The tax would force people to withdraw billions out of the stock and bond markets, which would slow economic growth and result in layoffs. Further, a significant portion of the collected money would have to pay the thousands of new IRS employees who would be necessary to assess the household wealth of millions of Americans. It could take one fulltime employee weeks per millionaire.

Warren Boards the Runaway Electoral College Wagon

Not satisfied to ride the tax the rich train, Warren joined the crowd clamoring to get rid of the Electoral College. “Everyone’s vote should count equally,” she argues. That would make sense if we were a country like Israel, whose population is around 10 million, but we are a federal republic made up of 50 states. To nationalize our electoral system taking political power away from the states would represent a dangerous step towards nationalizing the entire country, making the federal government all powerful and reducing state and local governments to puppet shows. That is exactly what the founders feared when they designed our constitution.

The Electoral College gives power to small states like Rhode Island, Utah and Mississippi. Abolishing the Electoral College would lead to candidates spending all their time in the five or six most populace states. It’s a terrible idea and even worse that a law professor who should know better endorses it.

Chasing Bernie: A Bad Plan

Off to a slow start Warren seemingly saw Bernie Sanders leading the early polls and decided to compete with Bernie by coming out with her “universal free college and cancellation of student loan debt” plan. Some of her analysis of the problem makes sense––in particular the fact that public college tuitions have escalated faster than inflation disadvantaging lower income families.

There two major problems with her plan, however––her analysis of the source of the problem is skewed and her solution introduces a measure of unfairness and false hope.

Warren claims it’s “virtually impossible” for a young person to achieve what she achieved––rising from a poor small town family to become a teacher, law professor and U.S. Senator. The basis for this unsubstantiated and rather absurd claim is the high cost of higher education. Costs have increased faster than inflation and many students are forced to borrow money, but what’s to stop someone from following a similar career path once they graduate? To make that claim, Warren makes assertions that are patently false.

Why has college become unaffordable? Warren says it’s become the state and federal government would “rather cut taxes for billionaires and giant corporations and offload the cost of higher education onto students and their families.” This is a backhand slap at the Trump tax cut, but Warren admits elsewhere the high tuition problem is not recent in the making. It’s been building for decades, under both Democrat and Republican presidents and governors.

She can’t resist taking a whack at capitalism claiming government has “stood by as employers demanded higher credentials while offloading the cost of getting those credentials onto workers.” What? Job credentials reflect the skills and knowledge required to do the job. Government has no role in determining what skills an employer feels an applicant should possess for any particular job title. I don’t even think the Soviet Union went that far.

Then she claims employers have not passed along in the form of wage increases the profits they’ve earned as a result of the skills workers bring to the job. That must come from some academic statistician who decided to find figures that matched his or her bias because the fact of the matter is that employers today are paying high wages for skilled workers. Ask any computer programmer if s/he is compensated fairly in relation to the cost of his/her education!

How Much Will It All Cost?

Warren admits her debt cancellation plan would cost $640 billion and universal free college would double the cost of the total program. Where will $1.25 TRILLION dollars to pay for this come from? The ultra-millionaire tax program, of course.

Fine, except Bernie Sanders wants that money to pay for universal health care, Beto O’Rourke wants it to battle climate change, and Warren herself needs some of that money for her universal child care program.

Warren should know that chasing Bernie’s socialist student crowd is political suicide. Students don’t register to vote at the same rate as older adults and their turnout rate is poor. Young adults 21 to 30 may be attracted to all these give-aways, but retired people and those who are in the middle of a career, whether married and raising a family or not, have gained enough life experience to understand these politicians are playing a zero sum game. Here’s why: if you start taking money out of the pockets of the 75,000 richest families, they will not only fight back with tax accountants and lawyers challenging the IRS’ every move, but her program will reduce their wealth resulting in revenue shortfalls. Then what happens when all those giveaway programs can’t pay their bills?

Warren has not separated herself from the crowd because she’s playing the same game as Bernie, Beto and the rest––promising what can’t be delivered with full knowledge that she’ll have to have someone to blame from preventing nirvana. Guess who that would be? That’s right: Republicans and corporations. The next step would be a call for outright socialism. Before that could arrive, however, hopefully Americans would take a look at the Soviet Union, Cuba and Venezuela and decide if that’s the future they want for themselves and their off-spring.