It remains to be seen whether the presidential candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders is just an outlier or the beginning of a major sea-change in American politics. In either case, it would be good at this juncture for us all to reflect on Socialism and its history in American politics and society. The history of American Socialism is not exactly a secret, but on the other hand most Americans have a very poor understanding of what it is and was. Whatever one may think of it as a political and economic movement, the chances are you are wrong in your assumptions, good or bad. At best, I think most folks know that Bernie Sanders is far from being the first socialist to appear on the scene, but how far back this movement goes is very poorly understood.
Do you know–or think you know–who were the very first Americans to practice Socialism?
—–Think it was members of the American Communist Party in the 1930’s? Nope: they were outspoken, militant and slavishly devoted to Joe Stalin, and most people during the Cold War associated them with disloyalty and treason; but no, they were hardly the first or only ones to advocate some kind of socialist solution.
—–How About the Socialists active during Gilded Age and the early 1900’s? Well, there were a bunch of folks active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and as mayors of cities and congressmen they generally had a good reputation for honesty and good government; but no they were not the first. Guess again.
—–How About the Civil War Era, were they the first? You’re getting warmer. There were a whole bunch of people who espoused some kind of Socialism and were active in Abolitionism as well; but no, they weren’t the first, not by a longshot.
—–How About the Early decades of the Nineteenth Century, were there Socialists around during the Early Republic? Yes, there were and in addition to those espousing political ideas, many organized communes were established as bold social and intellectual experiments, reminiscent of the Hippie communes of the 1960’s; But no, sorry no brass ring; they weren’t the first.
OK. If you’re still with me, let me clue you in: not only is Socialism as American as apple pie and a Thanksgiving Turkey, its origins in America go back to the very English first settlements–assuming we don’t include Native Americans, who lived in tribal communities without private property going back to the Mesolithic Era here. It was, in fact, the early settlers of New England who first practiced Socialism, folk whom you may know as the Pilgrims.
Actually, there were two groups of settlers in New England, the ones we call Pilgrims (although they didn’t use that name) and the Puritans; the Plymouth Bay Colony and the Massachusetts Bay colony respectively. According to my family’s genealogists we claim ancestors in both groups, although the lineage is a bit convoluted. Regardless, these early settlers are usually held up as models of the Protestant Work Ethic and cited as positive role models for the Capitalist Way, which is a popular lie you no doubt were told in grammar school.
Protestants they were, and pretty austere ones at that, but they also did something modern Bible thumpers rarely seem to do; they read all the passages of the Bible, not just the ones that were convenient or suited some media evangelist’s get rich quick gospel. If you get deeply into both the Old and New Testaments, you will find quite a bit there that does not jibe too well with modern notions of Capitalism and big business. The Bible has things like, oh, a progressive income tax (OT), or, say, passages where it tells you to give all your possessions to the poor and follow Jesus (NT); stuff like that.
Eventually, of course, Mammon won out over Jehovah with the Puritans and they became prosperous smugglers, merchants, manufacturers, whalers, transporters of slaves and assorted other activities that made one filthy rich but are not particularly good for the soul.
If you travel through New England, you will find a vestige of the region’s socialist roots. Just about every little town or village has a “commons” and, of course, the Boston Commons is well known to residents of Beantown. Originally, every community’s land was held in “common” and distributed according to the town Elders’ dictates.
Across the state line in New York, the center of town is usually called the village “green” (as in “Tavern on the Green”) which is short for Bowling Green. Of course, the Dutch in New Amsterdam were fond of their bowling and would play Nine-Pins in the town square whenever weather allowed while quaffing the product of a nearby inn or tavern. In Puritan New England, such merriment was strictly forbidden; hard work and prayer substituted for singing, dancing and gaming.
When the Pilgrims first arrived in 1620, they did not have an easy time of it. They did not arrive off the New England until November of that year, far too late for growing any crops and that first winter nearly half of the 102 colonists died. Of more interest for our concern was the fact that, at first, everything that the colony produced was pooled together and held in the “common storehouse” at one end of the Plymouth settlement. This system was in force for the first couple of years, partly out of necessity: the colony was facing starvation for first few seasons, and more indigent immigrants arrived by boat from England, but the extra mouths to feed were not accompanied by enough supplies to provide for them. The Plymouth colonists at one point were reduced to stealing parched corn from a local Indian tribe to avoid starving.
This communal system did not sit well with some of the more able bodied males in the colony, many of whom had migrated in hopes of making their fortune in the New World and not for religious reasons (they were called “the Strangers” by the more religious) and had no desire to provide for other men’s wives and children. Governor Bradford and the English backers of the enterprise abolished the system of the common storehouse in 1623 and land was divided among settlers to farm individually. However, the colony still retained communal title to the land even though it was farmed separately, and all the tools were still held in collectively and doled out as needed. Moreover, meadowlands for the grazing of livestock were still managed in common, plus fishing, hunting and fowling rights were held in common as well, so the concept of private property and ownership still remained a weak one for some years.
The story of the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, (begun by the Puritans, a different religious sect than the Congregationalist Pilgrims), was not dissimilar to that of the Plymouth colony, save that they were even more austere and, well, more puritanical. Moreover, the Puritan colony was planned from the start as a theocracy; in theory, not man, but God, ruled the Puritan communities.
Each new township established by the Puritan elders had about six to ten square miles of land, effectively some 30 to 40 thousand acres, and each resident of a township had access to the community’s common pasturage. There was no particular ideology at work here, however, it was just the best way to organize a Godly community and, in many cases, they were simply continuing the traditional open field system they’d known in the Old Country, itself was a holdover from the middle ages. As time went on, and austere virtue began giving way to unelightened self-interest and greed, and regulating the fair and proper use of the common lands of the New England communities became more and more bothersome for beleagered town elders having to discipline those who took more than their fair share.
In the end, the fact that most of the land in New England was ill suited to intensive farming probably had more influence in the breakdown of Puritan agrarian socialism than the economic superiority of Captitalism or any other economic theory. Then too, many frugal Yankees found that building ships and transporting goods across the open seas was far more rewarding than the backbreaking work of being a Jabez Stone style farmer in a rock filled field. Moreover, it became a firm tenet of Puritan belief that material wealth was Jehovah’s way of rewarding the virtuous–and by the end of the seventeenth century, Yankee merchants had become very virtous indeed.