Chad Eagleton, Rise! Magazine
John Reed is probably best remembered, if he is at all, as the guy Warren Beatty played in the film Reds and maybe as the author of Ten Days That Shook The World, his first-hand account of the Russian Revolution. Opinions on Reed have varied over the years from true radical to rich boy playing revolutionary to communist hero to the socialist who quickly tired of the Soviets. In the January 1919 issue of The Revolutionary Age, he published an op-ed entitled “A New Appeal.” Writing in a clear and direct style, Reed discusses why socialism holds such little draw for the American worker and what is necessary to move forward. The most striking thing when reading his piece nearly 100 years later is how little has changed.
And that’s really the entirety of our problem.
Reed’s first point echoes the oft-repeated Steinbeck quote. He writes, “…the American worker has always believed, consciously or unconsciously, that he can become a millionaire or an eminent statesman.” With Horatio Alger’s bootstrap nonsense firmly entreated in mind, socialism offers zero appeal for the average person. As Reed goes on to explain, to the worker it appears to be a “system worked out in foreign countries, not born of his own particular needs and opposed to ‘democracy’ and ‘fair play,’ which is the way he has been taught to characterize the institutions of this country.”
Furthermore, in his estimation, even though the worker “knows that Congress, the State Legislatures and the City Councils are used by business interests for their own selfish purposes” he doesn’t know who to vote for. He’s too busy still thinking of the system in strictly political terms and not considering the economic factors—Big Business needs to be stripped of their power before an election. As Reed argues, since the worker hasn’t realized that the true power of politics comes from money, he cannot grasp it as the dominating force in our society. Economic force controls our government, not the ballot box. That economic force will remain in play as long as all sources of wealth belong to the capitalist class. And all sources of wealth will belong to the capitalist class until we get more people on board. Again, this is an idea the opposition understands implicitly and has used to their advantage [see the deceptively named Citizens United].
“The American worker does not see to the heart of the society in which he lives. When the truth becomes too obvious, he is easily persuaded that all abuses can be corrected by agitation, by the law, by the ballot box. He does not see that the whole complex structure of our civilization is corrupt from top to bottom, because the capitalist class controls the sources of wealth.” So, even when the common man becomes conscious of his actual class interests, voting for a socialist seems like throwing a vote away. Why?
Reed outlines two reasons: 1) Socialism seems like this strange system worked out somewhere far away that’s directly opposed to all those good “American” things, like fairness. 2) It seems just plain impractical because the Socialist won’t win.
Capitalism’s elite understood point one a long time ago, and we’ve allowed them to dominate and distort the conversation ever since while we’ve squabbled over theory and whose name we prefer in front of our -ism. Socialism/socialist has become a boogie-man word. What passes for the American Left can engage in magical thinking until the stars burn out, but President Obama is the equivalent of a ‘90s-era moderate Republican. But that doesn’t matter to the new Right Wing, simply labeling him a “socialist” is enough to call the boogie-man out from under the bed in the minds of most people and circumvent his appeal.
Take a moment right now. Click over to the Urban Dictionary. Type “socialist” in the search box. Read the first nine top-rated entries and you’ll see why this has been so effective a strategy for his opposition.
Currently, Bernie Sanders is probably the only Senator in Washington not generally reviled by the American people. The interesting thing about Sanders is that technically he’s an independent, he caucuses within the Democratic Party and even counts as a Democrat for committee assignments, but he considers himself to be a Democratic Socialist. Socialism is a dirty word, right? But here’s the thing, Sanders gets it. When he speaks on issues he speaks in clear, direct terms the American people can understand and frames his argument in a way they can clearly see how this applies to their lives.
Because that’s the thing about the American people. When polled about an idea, they clearly favor socialist policies, but when asked about “socialism” they don’t want anything to do with it.
There’s been a lot of talk about a Sanders run for president. Now, I guarantee if that occurs, we will see him go from being labelled “independent” in the press to being a “socialist” in an immediate attempt to diminish his appeal with next to no effort.
Point number two has since been firmly embraced by both sides of America’s current Coke/Pepsi political dichotomy (basically tastes the same unless you prefer a certain marketing campaign, neither is good for you and both rot your teeth). This dichotomy has been used as a weapon to maintain the capitalist machine. For better or for worse, Ralph Nader has been the only outside radical presidential candidate in recent memory who had any sort of real chance, however slim, of getting elected. Nader has the broad public awareness that all the other would-be left candidates have lacked, and he first entered the public eye actively confronting Corporate America while looking out for the safety of the general populace. Now, take a moment, and think back. Both Republicans and Democrats made sure to repeat time and time again that a vote for Nader was throwing your vote away. And when that seemed like a broken record, a vote for Nader was packaged as a vote for the opposition. Back to the possible Sanders run for President, I guarantee we’ll see the same thing.
In his article, “A New Appeal,” Reed goes on to talk about unions. Citing a few examples of ones who were doing it right, those who remembered that all workers belong to the working class. Most of his points, however, about unions are now invalid since they’ve all been busted and had their power effectively gutted with cleverly titled legal maneuvering like the so-called “right-to-work” laws. For example, my home state of Indiana was already an “employment-at-will” state, now it’s a “right-to-work” state too, and, furthermore, under state law, as an employee of a public agency, I and my fellow workers are prohibited from striking. What’s that leave us in terms of addressing wrongs? Not much of anything really. I’m paying union dues for muscle-less bargaining.
I think the thing to take away from the union section of Reed’s piece is the problems he outlines. I believe those are part and parcel to their downfall. The gist is that unions tend to concern themselves only with their particular needs (I’d argue this has long been the entire problem of the left—my take is more important than your take, this one issue is sacrosanct and must be protected at the expensive of anything else, my riff on the law of accumulation is more germane to the modern world than yours) and are concerned about protecting the jobs of skilled workers from the untrained masses. The power of skilled labor perished under the immense weight of technological innovation and the general discontent of the people. Simply think back to the automotive crisis in America and the bailout. In my experience, if the Detroit bailout was discussed, the first thing people brought up was their disgust at being told to help out a bunch of guys who made $30 an hour.
Again, all workers belong to the working class. Let’s not forget this.
With all that in mind, what’s Reed’s ultimate point with his appeal? And, for that matter, what the hell is mine? They’re one and same. What do we want? Capitalism to finally give way to socialism, correct? A classless society where the worker controls his own life and happiness, and together we make everyone’s life better.
So how can we move forward toward that goal?
It was quite clear then, as Reed explained, “Comrades who call themselves ‘members of the Left Wing’ have an immediate job to do. They must find out from American workers what they want most, and they must explain this in terms of the whole Labor Movement, and they must make the workers want more—make them want the whole revolution.”
And it’s still quite clear now. We need to reach people—not other socialists, Marxists, neo-Marxists, Leninists, Trotskyists, etc.—but average people and explain to them clearly and succinctly what socialism can do for them, without sounding like we’re out of touch and over-educated liberals or trying to sell them on some weird, foreign thing that isn’t suited to our society. Our neighbors, our fellow workers, the guy on the bus, the war veteran, the young kid flipping hamburgers, and the retired person returning to work to greet customers at Walmart all need to understand our ideas and how it relates to them, to their world, to their experiences, to their needs in very real and very grounded ways right now, this very moment.
The cleverest idea in the entire world is useless unless explained in a manner which the average person can understand. The power of an idea increases exponentially as more people accept it. Otherwise, what good is any of it? Idea fetishism is no more useful than commodity fetishism and both only help the capitalist class.
It’s time we take a lesson from our opposition and consider our use of words. Now, unless I’ve missed something, your labor still creates wealth for your employer, doesn’t it? Has being referred to as an “associate,” “a partner,” or a “colleague” instead of a “worker” improved or even altered your status, your standard of living, or your satisfaction with life? You have to attend “team meetings,” but do you really have any more say in your livelihood and employment?
But it sure sounds good, doesn’t it? Especially if no one really thinks too hard about it.
Right now, we stand, I believe, at a turning point in history. Here in the United States, it’s become quite clear to everyone not under the terrifying thrall of their own cognitive bias that opportunity is not only dead but its bones have been cracked and the marrow sucked clean. Furthermore, beyond the pale of opportunity, the natural state of capitalism breeds suffering. You have only to look toward the recent “border crisis” or the current Ebola outbreak for examples.
The crisis in Texas that Governor Perry attempted to spin into an early PR coup for another Presidential run was really about children who had endured a hellish continental trek to escape their lives of poverty in violent countries. The bulk of the children came from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. On average 25% of the citizens in those three countries live on less than $2 a day. Honduras has the world’s highest homicide rate. And all three countries had been victimized by the United States’ corporate-supported and corporate-favoring foreign policy. The 2009 coup in Honduras, the Salvadoran Civil War, and the 1954 Guatemalan coup.
Meanwhile, the results of the 2013 Budget Sequestration maintained tax cuts for the wealthy and countless corporate benefits, yet resulted in countless social programs being cut and, in a threat to global well being, nearly a billion dollars cut from all health programs. National Institute of Health representatives have made no secret that these cuts have severely hampered their efforts to contain the Ebola outbreak that began in West Africa before spreading.
Just like John Reed asserted nearly 100 years ago, our entire system is corrupt from top to bottom, from left to right, from inside out. This has never been clearer. If we don’t fundamentally address how we spread our ideas, then in a hundred more years, someone is going to be saving up their company tokens to buy a pencil so they can write an article about why socialism still holds such little appeal to the American serf.