AMERICA 1620: Early American Socialism

“Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold”     Acts 4:34

 

Image00066_482
A communal feast where everyone shares the fruits of their common labor–sometimes known as “The First Thanksgiving.” No tipping was allowed.

Recently, the one-time “Newspaper of Record,” which in recent decades has become the unofficial shill for the Military Industrial Complex, issued a supplement intended, at once to assume the mantle of moral superiority, as well as to rewrite American history.
The Sunday Times Magazine, dedicated an entire issue to virtue signaling, entitled “America 1619” with the stated goal, “to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year,” the year the first Black slaves arrived at Jamestown.
     To be sure, all the awful things they describe that the Planter Class—the Slaveocracy—did, as well the active participation of northern Industrialists in it—is all quite true and bears commemorating. But if we are going to choose an arbitrary starting point, instead of the actual beginning of American History, I humbly propose that we choose instead the following year, 1620. This is the year when the first successful Socialist commune was established along the coast of New England: the Plymouth Colony.

While the history of American Socialism is not exactly a deep secret, most Americans, even academics, have a very poor understanding of what it is. In whatever manner or form one may regard Socialism, be it as a social, political or economic movement, the chances are good that you are wrong in your assumptions, be they good or bad.

At best, most voters know by now that Bernie Sanders is far from being the first socialist to appear on the American scene; but how far back does Socialist, much less Communist, economic behavior go?

—–Think it was begun by members of the American Communist Party in the 1930’s? 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; they were instrumental in the early labor movement and as mayors of cities and congressmen they had a spotless reputation for honesty and good government; but no they were not the first. But when Woodrow Wilson, pseudo-Progressive and friend of the second Klu Klux Klan lied us into World War, the Socialist opposed him and their political rights were brutally and unconstitutionally suppressed, Guess again.

—–How About Socialism during the Civil War Era, were they first? You’re getting warmer. There were a whole bunch of people who espoused Socialism before and during the War and were active in Abolitionism as well. To a man they volunteered to fight for the Union and helped rescue our nation from disunion, disloyalty and slavery; 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 the Thanksgiving Turkey, its origins in America go back to the very first English settlements–assuming, of course, we don’t include Native Americans, who lived successfully in communities devoid of private property in North America, and practiced direct democracy going back to at least the Mesolithic Era.

It was, in fact, the earliest settlers of New England who first practiced Socialism, folk whom you may know as the Pilgrims. Curiously, most Socialist historians seem to ignore this important milestone (or Plymouth Rock, if you will), leaving it to any number of right wing Conservative Christian pundits to totally misrepresent what actually happened.

Actually, there were two groups of early 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 can claim ancestors in both groups, although the lineage is a bit convoluted, (who knows, perhaps they said hullo! to Elizabeth Warren’s putative predecessors).  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 were, no doubt, fed in grade 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 conform too well with modern notions of Capitalism and big business. The Bible contains 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 among the Puritans and they became prosperous smugglers, merchants, manufacturers, whalers, transporters of slaves and assorted other activities that made one filthy rich, but were not particularly good for the soul.

If you travel through New England, even today, you will still find at least one 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 used 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”), 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, although alcohol was still allowed in moderation.

Plymounth Rock
A piece of the rock–Plymouth Rock that is, after several centuries of souvenir hunters have whittled it down.

When the first 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 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 (they later made restitution, with apologies).

plymouth-colony-samoset-granger
Local Native American leader Samoset welcomes the arriving Pilgrims.  Living communally much like the Native Americans, the Pilgrims tried to deal fairly with the natives, in contrast to “rugged individualism” of the Jamestown colonists, who were so busy hunting for gold they couldn’t be bothered to plant crops and at one point turned to cannibalism–a foreshadowing of the later Capitalist system, which depended on King Cotton and the Slaveocracy.

Local Native American leader Samoset welcomes the arriving Pilgrims. Living communally much like the Native Americans, the Pilgrims tried to deal fairly with the natives, in contrast to the “rugged individualism” of the Jamestown colonists, who were so busy hunting for gold they couldn’t be bothered to plant crops and at one point even turned to cannibalism.

This communal system did not sit well with some of the more able bodied males in the new colony: they had migrated in hopes of making a quick fortune in the New World in Virginia and perhaps join in on a pirate raid or two against Spanish treasure galleons, not sail along a frigid shore for religious reasons (these worldly folk were called “the Strangers” by the more godly) and had no desire to provide for other men’s wives and children when quick and easy riches were to be had with little work.

Eventually, in 1623, Governor Bradford and the English financiers of the enterprise abolished the system of the common storehouse and land was divided among settlers to farm as “families.” However, these families included all single unattached males, who greatly outnumbered the females, so the familial units, so-called, were not actually blood relations. The colony as a whole, moreover, still retained communal title to the land, even though it was farmed separately, and all the tools were still held collectively and doled out “each according to his need.” 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 private property and individual ownership remained absent from Plymouth for some years.

The Puritan by Augustus Saint-Gaudens
“The Puritan” by Augustus Saint-Gaudens: forthright, devout and, in the early days, Socialist.

As a City on a Hill
The story of the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, (begun by the Puritans, a different religious sect than the Pilgrims), was not dissimilar to that of the Plymouth colony, save that they were even more austere and, well, more puritanical.

The Puritan colony was planned from the start as a theocracy. In theory, not man but God ruled the Puritan communities. This Utopian society was intended to be an example to the world–as Governor Winthrop put it, “as a city upon a hill”–and it was to be organized along socialist–albeit Biblical socialist–lines. While initially centrally planned and organized by the Puritan leaders in England, as the colony grew each new unit, or township, was set up as an individual community, semi-autonomous, and socialistic in its economic organization.

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 common pasturage. There was no particular political ideology at work here, however; it was simply 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. The main difference was that in the New World they were working the fields in common for their own benefit, not for some oppressive lord or king. During the English Civil War, in the 1740’s and later, however, there were egalitarian Socialist groups, such as the Levelers, even more radical than the mainstream Puritans, who advocated an extreme communistic ideology.

As time went on, the virtues of the early Puritans gave way to un-elightened self-interest and greed. Regulating the fair and proper use of the common lands of the New England communities became more and more bothersome for beleaguered town elders constantly having to discipline those few 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 on the breakdown of the Puritan’s Agrarian Socialism than the economic superiority of “Capitalism” (which didn’t yet exist) or any other economic theory.

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 virtuous indeed.

But while greed ultimately triumphed over virtue in the Puritan heart, it should never be forgotten that the edifice of their later prosperity was firmly rooted upon the solid economic foundations which Puritan Socialism had lain. Moreover, during the early Republic, the Congregationalists—successors to both the Pilgrims and the Puritans–were one of a very few religious sects who fought hard against the evils of the Slavocracy, sometimes with their lives.

When taking in all the facts that modern schoolbooks leave out, the “City on a Hill” that is America, owes far more to early American Socialism in all its forms than most historians and popular pundits are still willing to concede.

Mass Bay Col coin
The Pine tree was the symbol of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In the end Money triumphed over virtue in Puritan New England.

Ambrose Bierce on Immigration

Ambrose-Bierce
Ambrose Bierce.  Cynic, observer of the human condition, disappointed idealist.

 

“Think what a better world it would be if we all-the whole world-had cookies and milk about three o’clock every afternoon and then lay down with our blankies for a nap. Or if all governments had as a basic policy to always put things back where they found them and to clean up their own mess.  And it is still true, no matter how old you are-when you go out into the world, it is best to hold hands and stick together.” Robert Fulghum

It seems like some issues in American politics never go away, they just change their context.  One such issue is the question of Immigration Policy.

This election year we hear the Republican candidate spewing racial stereotypes and absurd solutions to the problem of illegal immigration.  While members of his own party have condemned his statements, the truth is that for the last eight years their own stand on illegal immigrants has not been that much different than his.  Before the Great Recession of 2008, moreover, they positively welcomed “undocumented” immigrants because, they said, “we can’t get Americans to do hard work” and similar excuses for allowing cheap unskilled labor to undercut the American worker.

Conversely, the Democratic Party has embraced illegal immigrants–supposedly–even as President Obama has deported more illegal immigrants than his predecessors combined.  To be sure, some humane immigration policies have been temporarily put in place by the present POTUS, but this is like putting a topical anesthetic on the skin to cure an internal tumor.

The truth is, many American blue collar workers have seen their good paying jobs disappear over the years, only to be replaced by low wage, no benefit jobs.  Americans are not lazy, nor they unwilling to do hard work; they simply want to be paid a decent wage, something the multinational corporations who run our government and who are writing the international “Free” Trade deals that continue to ship whole factories overseas don’t want.  What most working class Americans don’t understand is that each wave of illegal immigrants flooding into our country are the byproducts of these phony trade deals, which are neither free, nor even much about trade.  NAFTA spurred a flood of illegal Mexican workers, displaced by the deal, who came north seeking work; CAFTA did the same thing to Central Americans, also desperate for work at any price.  Nothing spurs ethnic animosity like the perception that these new arrivals are here to take your already substandard paying job.

The moral philosopher and humorist, Robert Fulghum, once observed that “All I Really Need to Know, I learned in Kindergarten.”  Consider, if you will, the game of Musical Chairs; every time the music stops, everyone scrambles for a chair and someone ALWAYS LOSES. Then another chair is taken away and the music starts again;  again and again, the music stops and another chair is taken away, until only one person wins.  Do you all remember how many fights and arguments broke out over that game?  I do.  Our “rigged” economy is very much like that game of Musical Chairs.  So, yes, a lot of working class Americans are bigoted against immigrants, legal or illegal, because they blame them for the loss of their once prosperous and affluent lifestyle, without ever stopping to think who it is that is really manipulating the music and the chairs.

What has all this got to do with Ambrose Bierce?  Actually, precious little; but in the late nineteenth century many “real Americans” were also concerned about immigration and worried that the furriners were going to ruin our country. Having delved into Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce’s life and works for over six years as I worked on my current book, whenever I see a current political issue heatedly debated, it naturally reminds me of something Bierce said or did.  For you edification, therefore, I present Bierce’s take on immigration:

“America has issued a general invitation. Whether that may have been judicious or not is not for them to say who have accepted it. If we keep open house, we do not need, neither will we tolerate, an intimation from a guest that the company is not sufficiently select.” In other words, only Native Americans have a right to complain about more recent immigrants.”  AGB

Things have changed greatly from the day Bierce uttered his observation, but I would aver that his words still contain much wisdom.

 

Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife cover
Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, due out in 2016 and available at all the better bookstores.

 

 

 

 

 

Ben Carson and Biblical Economics: Bible Econ. 101

What the Bible says and what Ben Carson wants it so say are two very different things.
What the Bible says and what Ben Carson wants it so say are two very different things.

The foundation of Dr. Ben Carson’s political following rests on his credentials as a Conservative Christian ideologue; any of the pathological lies he utters about his personal past are ignored as the “Secular Humanist” Media, or alternately the imaginary “Liberal Media” distorting what their Good Christian Crusader may say, no matter how absurd or inconsistent it seems to all those not brainwashed into Religious Right dogma.  So the fact that Doctor Ben has used fetal stem cells in past research is ignored, so long as he states he is against the use of fetal stem cell research.  Likewise, when in the debates he states he is opposed to raising the minimum wage, even when last April he was for it, well, that’s just more of the Liberal Media trying to confuse us with facts.  It is therefore irrelevant to his supporters that Doctor Ben is a pathological liar: he is a Good Christian (so he says) and that’s all they know and need to know.

Trying to cite facts to the true believers of the Religious Right is akin to how trying to argue with traditional Leninist/Stalinist true believers used to be: they have their dialectic and everything that does not fit into it is willfully ignored.   So, when the Religious Right starts citing chapter and verse to justify trickle down economics and social Darwinism and all the other long disproved Republican propaganda masquerading as economics, it is useless to try to argue modern realities with them; their biblical dialectic won’t allow it.  However, like many Bible thumpers who claim to take the Good Book literally and are fond of using it for their economic and political beliefs, Ben Carson and the Religious Right are notoriously selective when it comes to citing examples from the Bible.  It goes back to the old adage: the Devil can quote the Bible to suit his purposes.  It is therefore quite legitimate to call Doctor Ben out when he justifies his wrong-headed ideas by basing them on the Bible, when in fact the Old and New Testaments do not support or justify those ideas.

Let’s start with Doctor Ben’s latest honker about the pyramids being ancient granaries and then move on to his more dangerous theories.  Now I make no claims to being a Biblical scholar, nor a theologian for that matter; but I did spend a few years of my mis-spent youth studying Ancient Near Eastern History and Archaeology, including both Egyptology and the history of Eretz Israel.  I was taught by eminent Egyptologists such as Dr. Helene Kantor and Professor Klaus Baer, as well as other stellar luminaries of the Biblical history and Assyriology, and while I cannot claim to aspire to their expertise in the subject, I did manage to stay awake in their lectures to understand that what Doctor Ben and his followers believe is utter garbage.  Firstly, the Story of Joseph, as recorded in the Old Testament, was written to about the eighth century BC, although it refers to events preceding the Exodus, which most scholars place towards the end of the New Kingdom, sometime towards the end of the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age (anywhere between the 14th and 12th centuries BC give or take).  Now admittedly, since academics still debate about the date of Exodus, there is a bit of wiggle room here—but not a lot.  The Pyramid Age—when the pyramids were constructed—was the Old Kingdom (ca. 2700-2100 BC), nowhere near in time to either the Story of Joseph or Exodus.  The other fact is that the pyramids were primarily the tombs of the ancient kings of Egypt and while their also held the king’s treasure trove, they were never, ever used as granaries, either in the Old Kingdom or later: FACT NOT THEORY.

Doctor Ben thinks Big

While Doctor Ben’s whacko theories about the pyramids may seem amusing, it points to a mind that is not only profoundly ignorant, but also refuses to learn differently.  His pyramid theory was not just an off the cuff remark; the other night Steven Colbert’s researchers dug up an old clip of Carson as a young man also proclaiming the same theory.  Apparently this man holds onto mistaken beliefs like a bulldog gnawing an old bone: facts that get in the way of his contrived theories are ignored.  This man is dangerously ignorant.

Dr. Ben one with demented Tea-baggers
Dr. Ben one with demented Tea-baggers

If one were to use the Story of Joseph for something other than its moral teaching value (its original intent) there is, however, a lesson in economics to be learned from the Bible tale.  Pharaoh, as you may recall, had a strange dream where seven lean cows devoured seven fat cows; Joseph was summoned to interpret the odd dream and divined that Egypt would have seven years of plenty followed by seven lean years of famine.  So, according to the story, on Joseph’s advice, the Pharaoh did indeed build granaries to house the surplus—not give it away to corporations and billionaires—and when the lean years came, (as they always do) the food was distributed to the population.  The Story of Joseph, therefore, is a classic example of the virtue of deficit spending during an economic downturn.  The Greeks told a lot of false tales about the ancient kings of Egypt that we still hear, but whatever you may think of them, at least the ancient kings of Egypt looked after their people and made sure the poor did not starve—and if you want to look to the Bible for economic policy, the Story of Joseph is as good a starting place as any.

Doctor Ben has also cited the Bible as his authority for instituting a flat tax when he becomes King—I mean President.  Here again, he has done a bit of selective reading when it comes to the OT.  Yes indeed, the ancient Israelites did have a Tithe—a flat ten percent tax—on agricultural products; but they also had a Temple Tax, plus a non-agricultural Tithe—whereby you gave ten percent of your income to the poor!  The Temple Tax was a small fixed amount regardless of income limited to adult males over 20; whereas the tithes were based on your income; that is, AN INCOME TAX.  Now the tithes were actually proportional, which is to say PROGRESSIVE INCOME TAXES, since those who were poor were either relieved of paying the tithe or allowed to pay a lesser percentage than 10; conversely, those who were wealthy were obligated to pay 20% of their income instead of the standard rate.  There were a number of other duties and customs as well: for example, there was the custom of gleaning, whereby the poor were allowed to go through the fields after harvest and collect the grains which had fallen to the ground and to take away whatever they could carry on their person.  Unlike modern America, where law and politics are totally divorced from morality, despite the hypocritical utterings of the Religious Right, to the ancient Israelites the Law was fundamentally moral in nature and social justice was engrained into every aspect of it—kind of what we would call Socialism today.

If the Pyramids are granaries then of course Easter Island statues were Goliath's toys.
If the Pyramids are granaries then of course Easter Island statues were Goliath’s toys.

Now, if we go to the New Testament, what we find is not Socialism, but outright Communism in early Christianity.  Do phrases like “give up all your worldly goods to the poor and follow me” or “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to inherit the Kingdom of God” ring a bell?  In fact there is a passage in the New Testament where it explicitly states that the early Christian communities held their property in common.  This is where the old communistic tradition in Christianity comes from: be they the Benedictines (who ran my old alma mater) or the Protestant Amana Colony of Iowa, or splinter sects like the Shakers (good music, but the celibacy was a little rough on the early American pioneers so they kind of petered out).  By comparison, Marxism is just a recent fad compared to the Socialism/Communism of the Old and New Testament.

Now I am not telling anyone to go thou and do likewise: the Bible is a collection of texts intended for spiritual instruction and moral guidance; it is not an economics textbook, still less is it a biology or climatology textbook.  Evolution and Global Climate Change are scientific facts, not opinions; if your theology conflicts with scientific fact, the problem is not with the Bible, OT or NT, but with your interpretation of those ancient sources of wisdom.  Don’t put that one on God; and don’t use God and the Bible to justify a hypocritical belief system which puts billionaires’ privileges ahead of the common good.  You don’t have to use the Bible as your guide to economics, but then again, there are worse guides to go by for economic guidance—just don’t cherry pick what suits you.