(Until 1995 the constitution of the British Labour Party included clause 4):
To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most suitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.
p.6, "There Is No Alternative" Why Margaret Thatcher matters by Claire Berlinski
I felt a mix of emotions last week; I wish I could have seen my own face. There I was, driving in my car, and listening to a CBC interview of an educated middle-class British London university research associate. Let's hope I misheard or misunderstood. Like everyone else I know, including my old soldier friends, he was against war. What surprised me was that he was also against democracy… and he probably didn’t even know it! He has a passion for peace, and had just written a book covering several millennia. (The Glorious Art of Peace, from the Iliad to Iraq) A smart man, too bad he doesn’t get democracy.
My “aha” insight came when the fellow sounded so perplexed and dismayed at how the public greets returning soldiers from Afghanistan as being “heroes.” Suddenly I understand certain people better. I’ll return to that insight later.
In living memory, no two democracies have ever declared war on each other. Logically then, every peacenik should be a “ peacenik for democracy.” Nevertheless, wanting peace without democracy is not without precedent. After the horror of the Great War, amidst the agony of the Great Depression, many people thought we needed a radical change. For them, recent events had switched on an arc light; good and evil seemed as clear as white light and black shadows. They saw grown men reduced to selling apples in the streets, while children and crippled veterans starved. To many idealists, we should drastically downsize the armed forces… And so we did, and then there were consequences… We in the Western world were unable to oppose fascist wars in Asia, (Tojo) Africa (Mussolini) and Europe. (Franco)
At the same time the fascists were fighting, many idealists thought we should not only discourage capitalism but discourage nationalism too, “the cause of wars.” Instead we should encourage the Comintern: communist international. Under communism, plutocrats would no longer eat cake while starving children cried. Everyone would be happy and peaceful, far happier than under democracy…
The arguments raged for years. When I was a boy, you could not so much as write a book about being a P.O.W. of the North Koreans without also including an end chapter about trying to convert an honest communist guard to democracy. (General Dean’s Story) No one dreamed that, within our own lifetimes, the dark communist tide would ebb, freeing all but China, North Korea and Cuba. Last year, I read on a computer nerd forum where some commenter, stuffed with arrogance and contempt, said the term “leftist” was now outdated, too irrelevant to be used today. He was a really smart nerd, but he was wrong.
“Leftist,” I regret to say, remains relevant. Even after Margaret Thatcher the labour party, quoted above, still wanted "common ownership of the means of production." During the cold war, we learned to spot crypto communists, such as those gun-toting insurgents who claimed to be merely “agrarian reformers” We reasoned, “If it waddles like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.” Today some people may not be card-carrying communists, but they are still leftist between their ears. Unfortunately, their quacking on public forums is not from any practical or theoretical plans for a healthy alternative to capitalism.
Long after the Berlin wall has come a-tumbling down, today’s leftist, whether he’s an old professor or a young student, has no access to any carefully drawn blueprints to, say, collectivize all industry, but he has still retained a leftist sensibility. To me, that’s what leftist means: No coherent plans, only a feeling of opposition, of opposition to capitalism, government, rich folks, big business—in fact, anything that is big. Although, come to think of it, leftists do believe in a big national daycare for children—or at least, they will believe until two days after the big network of daycares is established… If, during conversations with me, these people are not vocally against small businesses too, well, maybe it’s only because they never have time to get that far down the list of things they don’t like. Don’t like? Say despise, say hate.
When I picture a leftist, it’s like a picturing a highway tailgater: I always see a male. A man of hatred.
Just as I see nothing wrong with women from the dawn of women's liberation being strident, not with the odds they were facing, I see nothing wrong with hatred from the communists of the last century. They hated with good reason. Chairman Mao, hiding out with the red guerillas, wrote in his Thoughts that China was feudal, not a democracy. His mentor, Karl Marx, writing in the British museum, must have raged at the factories and laws that so blatantly discriminated against workers without property. Vladimir Lenin, writing in a land where (I think) the aristocracy could ride with impunity over peasant’s crops, trampling the food meant for winter in a momentary pursuit of game, wrote, “Who, whom?” Meaning, within a nation, intramural-wise, betwixt the classes, who exploits whom? Lenin saw this as an eternal question, for every time and space.
Marx, who lived at the same time as Charles Darwin, would have instantly grasped Lenin’s words. (Origin of the Species was 1859, Das Kapita was 1867) The pioneers of communism, as did many Americans of the 1930’s, saw society as red in tooth and claw, class against class, struggling and hating, fighting and hating. It makes sense. If I am a nineteenth century cattle baron using guns to drive small ranchers away from all the watering holes, then I would surely resort to hatred, telling myself “those dam nesters” don’t deserve watering holes.
Now, living in twenty-first century America, with laws and regulations, checks and balances, speed of light communications and, most importantly, universal literacy, there are few cases where my class interests are separate and coherent. I don’t need hatred.
It has become accepted that a modern business with computers will have a flattened organizational pyramid. Not so many managers as in the days of Mad Men. Back in those easier times you could produce a good competitive product without needing to resort to recruiting minorities like Colin Powel or Hilary Clinton. The problem today is not fewer managers but greater world competition. It’s just not effective to treat my workers as wage slaves, as children I need to always be standing over. Increasingly, employees must be adults who are expected to buy into the demands of their position, adults who work with minimal supervision, who understand where their work fits into the needs of the organization as a whole. In my boyhood, pre-computer, this was not the case. Back then there wasn’t all this talk of everyone in the company knowing the vision, goals and mission statements. Remember? Those days are gone.
America is affluent. Most of us have never heard Lenin’s eternal question, while the leftists who have heard it somehow lack perspective. They don’t get it that “who, whom” is as outdated as “running dogs of imperialist lackeys.” Of course, there may always be a tendency to favor one’s class, but the word is “tendency.” I think leftists are just too serious. Sure, maybe some snobs try to say “limb” instead of “leg,” and maybe some people will go home and practice pronouncing foreign artist names foreign-style, instead of going in for common anglicizing, but all the while, fine art is getting more affordable and more widespread than ever before. Affluence.
Last year, at an art gallery showing, I enjoyed talking to a petroleum executive who traveled overseas on business. He told me how leaders in west Asia would corruptly rake in lots of dollars, but then after a few years, having made a bundle, would be less corrupt and better able to listen to reason, easier to do business with. He said it only took a few years. Again, when it comes to corruption, the word is “tendency.” As Lord Acton said, “Power has a tendency to corrupt…” I suppose when persons quote Lord Acton while leaving out the word “tendency” they are indulging in their own form of corruption.
Here in America, according to statistics, congressmen are apt to already be independently wealthy before they are elected. Needless to say, therefore, they have little tendency to savagely oppress and denigrate the lesser classes. To any congressmen, I’m sure, his class is merely a subset; he also sees himself as part of all of America. I’m sure if I suggested to a millionaire congressman his daughter should travel overseas to find a millionaire prince, he would laugh out loud.
All Americans, regardless of class, see themselves as part of a group called Americans. Forget the prince. Forget the “third world” or, as Trudeau called them, the “southern nations.” In those states the rich class, reminiscent of Lenin’s feudalism, still see themselves, if not as being blue blooded, as somehow separate from the people. Senator Robert Kennedy, in 1968, wrote that no South Vietnamese senior army officer was ever killed. This while a number of US generals had been killed defending South Vietnam. In contrast to southern nations, Americans fight as a total group. Such is democracy in action. I remember reading about a Captain and a young Lieutenant serving together in Korea. The captain later became a senator; his Lieutenant went on to be an intellectual, and editor of Harpers Magazine.
In any war, where the total group called America has agreed to declare war… (Which of course leaves out South Vietnam, a “conflict” where no war was declared) …the casualties normally include the sons of senators and generals. It was unremarkable when a former general, President Dwight Eisenhower, had a son in Korea. Less than a decade earlier a capitalist millionaire, Joseph Kennedy, had his eldest son, Joe, killed in the air force, and another son, Jack, had his PT boat blasted out from under him. Another son, Bobby, was too young to serve in the war… Joseph outlived him too.
(from Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt, p368, 2009)
Michael looked out at the Atlantic. “What have you been doing all day, Helen?”
“Watching the kids.” A sailboat was tacking with the wind. It was carrying two boys. Teenagers.
“The Kennedys?” Michael asked.
“Yes,” she said.
Michael studied them for a moment. Joe and Jack. “It’s good to see them enjoying themselves,” he said.
America is made up of many overlapping memberships. As Alexis de Tocquiville noted 1835, Americans are especially known to seek out groups. A computer millionaire who could have easily retired to be a playboy for the rest of his life, Paul Graham, wrote in a web essay, almost as an afterthought, that he got back in the working world to have something in common, membership, with other workers.
"There is a bit of a problem with retirement, though. Like a lot of people, I like to work. And one of the many weird little problems you discover when you get rich is that a lot of the interesting people you'd like to work with are not rich. They need to work at something that pays the bills. Which means if you want to have them as colleagues, you have to work at something that pays the bills too, even though you don't need to. ... (Why to Not Not Start a Startup, March 2007)"
With the possible exceptions of invalids, hermits and leftists, people no longer give their loyalty solely to their socio-economic class. There are social classes, yes, and also groups doing what individuals cannot do alone, groups including businesses, nonprofits, and charities. It is with a group of volunteers that we can most easily see a fundamental rule of human nature at the group level. To illustrate: If a group of “People for Sober Driving” agrees to a civil campaign for safe driving, then anyone enduring the hard work of envelope stuffing, or the hard stress of being the treasurer, will receive a generous round of applause at the general meeting. It’s just common sense: if a few members do extra work for the group’s purpose, then they are entitled to extra applause.
And if, as a nation-group, our purpose is peace making, if all of us agree to support some of us to go overseas in a military campaign, then common sense means applause. “Heroes.”
The more horrible the war is, the more honor our representatives accrue… Which brings me around to that perplexed professor of peace. He may not know as much about the horror of war as my buddies do, but still, he knows damn well. If he is dismayed at how we consider it common sense to greet our surviving young men and women as heroes, then … what’s his problem?
At last I come around to my “aha!” insight. While I can’t be real sure about that particular academic, I suddenly realize what a lot of folks similar to him are like. Maybe he wouldn’t label himself as being a modern day leftist, but I think he has a leftist mentality, “our class against theirs.” It’s as if he has divided the body politic into groups, and then, in his hatred, blacked out some groups of people as being beyond his comprehension. Yes, and beyond his affection too.
I can extend that thought: Perhaps he doesn’t feel any ownership or affection for the total group’s national flag, eh?
To the arrogant computer nerd I mentioned earlier, I would say, “You are wrong: leftists are still relevant, because they are still among us. But you are also right… because they shouldn’t be.”
In the land of milk and honey
~In the US, Jack is a nickname for John.
~That petroleum executive and I had more in common than just our taste in art: We both blushed to admit we like a program on the Tree House channel, Mighty Machines.
~To write a message, one begins by understanding the recipient. Despite my university degree, I can still try to understand and walk in the shoes of the common man. Obviously, anyone who writes “imperialist lackeys” understands no one but his fellow leftists. He certainly won’t understand why regular folks respect the flag.
~I wrote here about some professors with leftist tinged thinking, “the Regina sixteen,” who didn't want scholarships for the orphans of soldiers, as the topic of my essay called Socialists Reject Soldiers on April 16, 2010.
~As for Europeans and democracy, I just don’t know. Some decades ago, stationed in Germany, I had the sense they weren’t even moving in the same direction, that they would never become as democratic, as naïve and idealistic, as Americans. My impression, then and now, is the Europeans have more leftists than we do here, but I just don’t know.
~An artist, back when I was young, composed a song that contained the image of four family men in business suits walking together in the dusk, up a hill and into the sunset: Two brothers, a black man, and a tall man in a stovepipe hat. Would a European artist ever place a similar song onto the pop charts?
… “I dreamed I saw him walking, up over the hill, with Abraham, Martin and John.”