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Full transcript of this episode:
Hello and welcome to the Sensibly Speaking Podcast. This is Chris Shelton, the Critical Thinker at Large coming at you for show #91 and this one we’re calling When the Left Isn’t in the Right. Of course, this podcast is available through iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play as well as here on YouTube with video, although this week you’re just going to be seeing my happy mug talking at you for a while.
I’ve been correctly accused of having left-wing tendencies, although I am definitely more of a centrist at this point and am someone who is willing to consider most any idea if it helps move this ball of civilization down the road for another day. I’m not about identity politics but most important of all, I’m against extremism in almost any form – left, right or center.
So this week, my friend Nick helped me with some historical research so we could present a long-term look at progressive or liberal thinking and point out some things wrong with it. As with so many things us human beings dream up, sometimes our best of intentions can lead to some of our most horrific blunders and even tragedies and I think it’s a good thing for any of us who think we are engaged in crusades to save the world to stop what we’re doing and maybe look around and make sure we know what we’re talking about. Yes, some of the more infamous people in history did just want to watch the world burn, but there were far more people whose hearts were in the right place, who had what they thought were honestly the best of intentions but whose beliefs and actions led them down roads to atrocity. And just because we have the benefit of knowing what they did and why they did it is no guarantee that we won’t do the exact same thing because we think that we’re so much brighter and smarter and wiser than our forefathers. So let’s take a ride in the Wayback Machine, dialing it back to 1707. Our journey begins with the union of England and Scotland in what was called the Treaty of Union and created what we still call Great Britain.
Not everyone was pleased with the union at the time, but in hindsight, one thing is certain: the 1700s were significantly more peaceful than the 1600s, which saw, among other major violent events, a civil war culminating in the beheading of King Charles I in 1649. That’s one way to enact political change, but maybe there are more reasonable roads. In Scotland, the 1700s and early 1800s were to be a period of rapid progress in technology, science, arts, and social thought, so later historians called this period the Scottish Enlightenment.
A major figure of the Scottish Enlightenment was Adam Smith, a professor at the University of Edinburgh. In his day, economics wasn’t yet recognized as a standalone discipline, so no one thought of him as an economist but instead he was a professor of moral philosophy. He was first made famous in 1759 with the publication of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, followed in that oh-so-famous year of 1776 with his most famous work, or infamous depending on how you look at it, entitled The Wealth of Nations. This was his magnum opus and is thought of today as the first modern work of economics, earning Smith the title “the father of economics.” Now what’s interesting is that the moral insights into human nature in these two books are very different, yet, in the end, not incompatible.
In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith explicitly stated his belief that people are natural altruists. He wrote:
How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it.
Almost two decades later, in The Wealth of Nations, he put forward a somewhat different take:
Every individual endeavors to employ his capital so that its produce may be of the greatest value.
Essentially, Smith saw human beings as driven by sometimes conflicting needs: the need to do good and the need to do well, the need to be a part of a thriving community and the need to be successful, self-sufficient and self-sustaining. I’m sure all of us can relate to that, because these are the push and pull of the left and the right when it comes to ideological principles and oftentimes people find themselves holding very different views economically and socially on this left-right spectrum. For example, if you are pro-abortion, you are said to be on left but if you want less taxation across the board, you are said to be on the right. These two things are not mutually exclusive ideas but they do fall on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. We can see this very well in perhaps the earliest of all left-wing movements, which, incidentally, also began during the Scottish Enlightenment: the utopian socialism.
Practical utopian socialism started with Robert Owen, a wealthy Welsh-born industrialist who was also a social reformer and as you’ll see, a man way ahead of his time. One of Owen’s most successful experiments took place at a cotton mill in the village of New Lanark, 25 miles southeast of Glasgow. Some time in the early 1800s, 2,500 people (including 500 children), many previously resident in poorhouses of Glasgow and Edinburgh, moved into the village to work on the mill. What set this mill apart from others was Owen’s consistent interest in improving his workers’ well-being. He started by paying above-market wages, but by no means stopped there. And despite what most capitalists would think, the higher wages didn’t bankrupt the mill, but made it more profitable; workers felt empowered and actively sought to improve the mill, so Owen was rewarded both as a philanthropist and as a capitalist.
Owen was not just interested in making a profit, but in actually morphing society into something better and was using his mill and township as a model which he hoped would grow. He carefully planned the buildout of the village to avoid overcrowding and poor sanitation; this was one of the earliest examples of modern urban planning.
He was also very interested in education, thinking that much of a person’s character was a result of events and incidents which they could not control as they grew up in life, so it was in the best interest of society to give children strong moral, physical and social influences from a very early age. His interest in early-age education led him to inventing the pre-school, or, as it was known at the time, the infants’ school; the first infants’ school in Britain (and probably in the whole Europe) operated in New Lanark. Other social inventions by utopian socialists include the cooperative (Owen had a hand in that, too) and the employee-owned company. What I find endlessly fascinating in this story is the fact that these social inventions, especially urban planning and early-age education, are universally practiced today even though the movement that first put them forward has retreated into the shadows of history. And oh by the way, the idea of an eight-hour work day was first proposed by Robert Owen in 1810, when the accepted norm was closer to 14 hours. Owen wanted people to have eight hours of work, eight hours of leisure and eight hours of rest.
Essentially, the utopian socialists wanted to plant and grow the seeds of a new society within their contemporary society. They envisioned a culture (and tried to build communities) in which wage earners not only made a living wage, but lived in well-designed spaces and had ample opportunities for self-improvement through education.
Despite some early successes, the utopian socialists eventually found themselves in an untenable position. On the one hand, they faced hostility from the elites. Owen himself saw it firsthand; his efforts in New Lanark were opposed by his co-investors, so in order to continue, he had to buy all of them out. Eventually, he left Britain and moved to Indiana to attempt another social experiment called New Harmony. That experiment failed within two years, and Owen returned to Britain. The indirect outcomes, however, were rather significant. Four of Owen’s sons chose to stay in the U.S. and become U.S. citizens. Owen’s second son, Robert Dale Owen, was eventually elected to Congress, where he sponsored legislation by which the Smithsonian Institution was created. The seventh of Owen’s eight children and the youngest of his sons, Richard Dale Owen, became a noted geologist and served as the first president of Purdue University; there’s also a building named after him at Indiana University, where he taught for a long time. But I digress…
To repeat, on the one hand, the utopian socialists faced hostility from the industrialists and elites. On the other hand, they lacked understanding and acceptance by the masses. Even members of utopian communities often found themselves at odds with each other. Josiah Warren, a former member of the New Harmony Society, later wrote, “It appeared that it was nature’s own inherent law of diversity that had conquered us… our ‘united interests’ were directly at war with the individualities of persons and circumstances and the instinct of self-preservation.” It seems that human nature itself rails against the idea of a society where we can all get along and help each other out.
Long story short, the idea of building the seeding cells of a new society within the contemporary society has not achieved consistent success, and that’s putting it mildly. So by the mid-1800s, a new strand of socialist thinking emerged: the revolutionary socialist. In a nutshell, it was thought that the masses, held down by monarchy and religion and conditioned to worship both of them, don’t understand what’s good for them, so the socialists should take over the government and govern in the best interest of the majority to uplift it from poverty and ignorance. A variation on this theme held that the masses will wake up and join the uprising after a few heroes undertake high-visibility acts aimed at destabilization of the unjust incumbent government.
To be fair, socialists didn’t make all this up on their own. They borrowed a lot from the movement for the unification of Italy. You see, through much of the 1800s, Italy was a collection of small kingdoms and princedoms; also, parts of it were at times annexed by France and Austria. To make things more confusing, there were some socialists in that movement, along with anarchists and bourgeois nationalists, so it’s hard to draw an exact line between Italian unification and revolutionary socialism. But regardless of where it came from, extremism is something every group seems to eventually fall prey to and the socialists were no exception.
Probably the most notorious case of this revolutionary socialist thinking in action was the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881. First, here’s the background. Between 1866 and 1879, there were three attempts on the Tsar’s life by lonely gunmen (literally: loners with handguns; all three were apprehended, tried, and convicted). The first and third attempts were undertaken in Russia by socialist-leaning idealists; the second one by a Polish separatist which happened in France while Alexander was visiting there.
In 1879, on the heels of the third attempt, a revolutionary socialist organization was formed called People’s Will. The executive committee of People’s Will quickly resolved that the Tsar must be assassinated, and, given the gunmen’s failures of the past, a new weapon was chosen: the explosive device. Later the same year, People’s Will made their first attempt on the Tsar’s life; a bomb was placed on a railroad to derail the imperial train. Their timing was off, however, and the train passed over the device before it detonated.
In February 1880, attempt number two took place. An explosive device was placed in the Winter Palace’s guard room, exactly below the royal dining hall, and set to detonate at dinner time. But the Tsar and his family were late for dinner that night because the Prince of Bulgaria, who was also the Tsar’s nephew, arrived later than expected. The device did go off as planned, but caused no casualties in the royal family; instead, there were dozens of dead and wounded among the palace guard and household staff, making the revolutionaries outright murders of innocent people.
Finally, the third attempt, even more sophisticated, was staged in March 1881 and they finally succeeded. Three bombers were positioned along the known route which the Tsar, accompanied by palace guards on horseback, rode in a carriage every Sunday to inspect troops. The second and third bombers were instructed to act only if the previous bombers didn’t succeed. The first bomb damaged the bulletproof carriage which had been a gift from Napoleon III of France, but Alexander wasn’t harmed. The bomber was immediately captured. The Tsar got out of the damaged carriage, and that’s when the second bomb was thrown under his feet. Alexander was mortally (and horrifically) wounded and driven back to the Winter Palace, where he died a couple hours later. The third bomber never activated his device. And in case you are wondering, Napoleon III had some experience in needing the bulletproof carriage he had gifted to Tsar Alexander, because that same three-bomb setup was used by a group of Italian nationalists led by Felice Orsini when they had unsuccessfully tried to assassinate Napoleon III back in 1858. If Tsar Alexander had just stayed in his carriage, he probably would have lived and the entire world would be a very very different place right now.
Here’s the ultimate irony though: nothing of what People’s Will hoped for happened. People didn’t rise up; the popular sympathy was largely with the brutally murdered monarch. Moreover, it later became known that shortly before his death, Tsar Alexander approved a package of reforms which he himself characterized as “the first step towards a constitution.” Had he lived through that weekend unhurt, the reforms would be announced the following week. His son and heir, Alexander III, immediately abandoned the as-yet-unannounced reforms and instead chose to strengthen the autocratic power of the monarchy.
The aftermath was every bit as horrific as the assassination. People’s Will was obliterated. About fifty members were tried and convicted for their roles in the regicide. Most received lengthy terms of penal servitude while the few directly involved in the bombing were executed by hanging.
Over the years, several groups tried to revive the name. One of them plotted to assassinate Alexander III, but the plot was discovered while still in the making. Another round of harsh sentences followed. One of the people sentenced to death this time around was Alexander Ulyanov, a biology student at St. Petersburg University and the oldest son of a senior public education official from the provincial city of Simbirsk. Ulyanov came from a large family; he had 11 siblings. One of the youngest was a brother named Vladimir. When little Vladimir grew up and began to write articles for newspapers, he took a pen name. You guessed it: Lenin. The rest, as they say, is history. Circles within circles within circles, all spinning, sometimes together and sometimes in disarray but affecting each other in often unpredictable and unknowable ways.
Numerous other instances of socialist terror occurred in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In almost all cases, they neither sparked popular unrest nor endeared the perpetrators to the masses. Anarchist terror proved similarly fruitless. Nationalist terror, however, has had some success in that regard (particularly when undertaken by Italians against French and Austrian targets), but this is beyond our scope for today.
At some point, despite the socialist revolutionaries running around murdering people, the European political landscape changed. Most monarchies transitioned from absolute ones, where the king was the supreme authority above the law, to constitutional ones, with elected legislative bodies and legal limits on the power of the king. A few were deposed altogether and replaced with republican governments, in which not only the legislators, but also the heads of state were to be elected. In this new climate, the cooler heads in the socialist movement began to think, terror isn’t working, so shouldn’t we try something different to advance our political goals? Like maybe elections? The result is known as social democracy.
Modern social democracy is usually centered around a political party (sometimes, a coalition of two or more parties), which promotes leftist policies through its parliamentary delegation and, when it is in the majority, the government it gets to form. A typical European social democratic party supports labor unions, equality, and advocates the maintenance and expansion of the social safety net, including a single-payer health insurance system.
Meanwhile, the revolutionary socialists (some of whom with time began to call themselves communists) didn’t exactly go into oblivion. Not all monarchies were willing to self-reform, so there still were places where the revolutionary socialists could be seen as the voice of the voiceless and the representatives of the unrepresented and seek political power by whatever means necessary, including armed uprising. In fact, violent revolution is not merely considered a viable option amongst many socialists and communists, but a total necessity. And here’s the kicker: if they were successful, these revolutionary socialists who were all about the power of the people, inevitably turned to large-scale suppression of dissent, both in the society in general and within their own ranks. And this happens every single time revolutions take place because revolutionaries know exactly how the mechanism of revolution happens and inevitably believe that it takes drastic and violent measures to prevent the revolutionaries from themselves being kicked out of power. It doesn’t happen to be true that this is the case, but history unfortunately tells us that revolutionary leaders never seem to mean it when they claim that they are working in the interests of the people they are liberating.
High-profile splits within communist movements include the expulsion of Leon Trotsky from Russia by Joseph Stalin in 1929 and the break between Fidel Castro and Che Guevara that led to Che leaving Cuba for good in 1964. Also, almost all communist governments at one point or another practiced “purges”, or mass removal of individuals perceived as disloyal or ideologically suspect from positions of authority in the government, the armed forces, the media, and the educational system. In its softest form, a purge would lead to demotions and terminations of those implicated; the harsher forms involved imprisonment and even executions. Somewhere in-between, and reserved only for the select few in the highest echelons of power, was exile, such as that of Leon Trotsky or Che Guevara.
Every now and then, social democracy and revolutionary socialism both figure in confusing stories where some social democrats side with the revolutionaries, while others condemn them from a safe distance. This was the case of the Paris Spring of 1968.
Since after World War II, the left has become an integral part of French politics. Both the socialists and the communists have had a fair share of electoral success. In the 1967 election, the left-wing parties collectively won 40% of the seats in the French National Assembly while the larger majority of seats went to the right and center-right parties broadly allied with Charles de Gaulle, who was President at the time. And then, seemingly for no reason whatsoever, things went out of control. Badly.
It all started with a months-long conflict between students and administration at the University of Paris at Nanterre, a western suburb of Paris. The students felt that the university was engaged in class discrimination and that its financial policies were driven by the administration’s political agenda. The administration thought it was well within its rights to manage the affairs of the university as it saw fit. Heated debates led to the occupation of a university administration building by 150 students accompanied by a few far-left public intellectuals. The administration called the police, there was a stand-off, but, thankfully, there was no violence and the occupiers left the building after their demands were made public. The worst, it seemed, was over, but the administration decided to investigate the actions of student protesters to determine whether their conduct warranted expulsion or even the filing of criminal charges. That hit a nerve; students began to protest, and on May 2, 1968, the administration decided to suspend classes until further notice.
Other universities and the National Student Union noticed and called for a protest march, which took place four days later, on May 6 in the Latin Quarter in central Paris. That’s when it turned ugly. Police charged at the crowd with batons; the crowd initially dispersed, but quickly rebounded and began to put up makeshift barricades and throw paving stones at the police. Police responded with tear gas and another frontal assault with their batons. The next few days brought no improvement, as the negotiations to end the hostilities broke down and students were joined by trade unions, which called for a series of strikes. At their peak, the strikes involved 11 million workers, over one-fifth of the country’s workforce. Parisian banks ran out of cash; gasoline suddenly became hard to come by in the Paris metropolitan area and the entire country was said to have come to a standstill. Civil war was not just some fantastic idea, but was being talked about seriously as a grave national concern.
On May 29, President Charles de Gaulle failed to appear for a scheduled meeting of the Council of Ministers, but later that day, surfaced in Germany, at the headquarters of the French forces stationed in that country. After forceful persuasion by the French military commanders in Germany in person and by Prime Minister Georges Pompidou over the phone, de Gaulle returned to France the following day. Meanwhile, French army units were concentrating around Paris, preparing to take it by force if given the order.
French Communists, meanwhile, were divided. Some advocated a full-blown revolution, to be accomplished by occupying government buildings and installing a new administration. Others, unwilling to risk a civil war, insisted that the only way to create a legitimate government was through a fair election.
On May 30, President de Gaulle dissolved the National Assembly and called a new general election to be held in late June. This seemed to take the edge off things, and life little by little returned to normal. The result of the election? The left lost, by a wide margin. In the 1967 election, the left-right balance of National Assembly seats in percentage terms was 40-60; in 1968, this changed to 19% left to 81% right. But that wasn’t the whole story yet; de Gaulle’s brand of heavy-handed conservatism was doomed, too.
The following year, de Gaulle devised a constitutional reform, put it up for a referendum, and promised to resign if the reform were rejected. It was; he did; thus ended an epoch in French politics. George Pompidou, a well-liked moderate conservative, was elected President and stayed on the job until his death in 1974. He was succeeded by the centrist Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, who in turn was succeeded, in 1981, by the Socialist François Mitterrand, who served two consecutive terms. Only in 1995 did French conservatives manage to come up with a candidate capable of winning the election, but even that candidate, Jacques Chirac, is widely recognized as a purveyor of Pompidou’s, rather than de Gaulle’s, style of conservatism. Long story short, following the events of the Paris Spring, the French voters have consistently, for decades, shunned both hardline Communists and hardline conservatives.
Does it mean that the extreme left has disappeared? Sadly, no. Unable to participate in the political process, the extreme left chose to resort to revolutionary heroics just like the Russians had done back in the 1800s. Times may change and places may change, but people’s temperaments don’t. One French group, Action Directe, was responsible for approximately 50 attacks between 1979 and 1987. Similar groups also existed in Germany and Italy.
In fact, moving on from France, one of the most harrowing tales of left-wing terrorism is the story of former Italian prime minister Aldo Moro. A centrist politician, Moro was instrumental in bridging the political gap between his party, the Christian Democrats, and the Italian Communist Party. Specifically what happened was the head of the Italian Communist Party, Enrico Berlinguer, saw from the overthrow of the legally elected Marxist government in Chile in 1973 that there was no way that communists were going to rule in a democratic country unless they first compromised and worked in partnership with more moderate parties. So he reached out to Moro and they created what was called the Historic Compromise and the Italian Communist Party started distancing itself from the Soviet Union and started a more moderate form of communist thought called Eurocommunism. The Spanish and French Communist Parties also joined in to this way of thinking.
As things moved forward, the more radical elements in the Communist Party were unhappy with this new direction and started engaging in terrorist activities. Because Moro as Prime Minister was the one at the head of this Historic Compromise, that was enough to make him a target of a leftist paramilitary group known as the Red Brigades. On March 16, 1978, the Brigades kidnapped Moro, killing five members of his security detail in the process. They demanded the release of several members of the Brigades who had been arrested for earlier violence in exchange for the release of Aldo Moro. The Italian government refused to negotiate while conducting a vigorous investigation trying to recover Moro. After holding Moro captive for 54 days, the Brigades shot him dead, put his body in the trunk of a car, and abandoned the car on a Roman street half-way between the headquarters of Christian Democrats and the headquarters of the Communist Party. A member of the Brigades later confessed to murdering Moro, was sentenced to six life terms, but was conditionally paroled in 1998 after serving 15 years.
I already mentioned Germany, but I don’t have time to recount the activities of German left terrorist groups such as the Red Army Faction. I invite you to research it on your own.
Okay, you might say, this is Europe. How does it all relate to things closer to home here in the US? The answer is a resounding somewhat. Let me explain.
The utopian socialists, as we already know, were active in the U.S.; the movement largely failed here as it did everywhere else, but left a rich heritage of ideas and institutions. For much of the remainder of the 1800s, the left existed in the form of anarchist groups that had laudable goals, such as the introduction of an eight-hour work day, but went about it in ways that today would be considered totally insane. The most notable example of this is probably the Haymarket affair of 1886 where the use of an explosive device against the police resulted in a tragedy for the leftists.
The deal was that in the 1880s, Chicago was home to a large number of immigrant workers from Germany and Bohemia. Today, Bohemia is a part of the Czech Republic. At the time, a typical wage-earner worked a six-day 60-hour week. There was a lively German-language culture, including their own radical, anarchist-leaning newspaper called the Workers’ Times, which was published in German. The paper consistently advocated for higher wages and mandatory eight-hour work day. Back then, this was considered radical thinking and industrialists and the conservative press railed against such ideas.
On May 1, 1886, there was a national strike in the U.S., held under the slogan, “Eight-hour day with no cut in pay”. Different estimates give the number of striking workers between 300,000 and 500,000. Employers responded by recruiting strikebreakers and calling on the police to secure factories against occupation by striking workers.
As a major industrial metropolis, Chicago was a flashpoint of this strike. In fact, on May 4, 1886, a demonstration was held to protest police brutality at Haymarket Square. Speakers included several people affiliated with the Workers’ Times, as well as the editor of The Alarm, an English-language radical newspaper, and a visiting socialist from Britain. Mayor Carter Harrison attended and declared it a peaceful protest, but after he and most of the demonstrators left, a contingent of police arrived and ordered the crowd to disperse. At 10:30 pm, the police moved in. At this point, an explosive device was thrown in the path of advancing police. When it exploded, one police officer was dead and several dozen wounded; for six of them, the wounds would later prove fatal. What happened next is not clear. Some claim there was a gunfight between the police and some of the demonstrators who carried concealed firearms; others say that the police simply fired again and again at the retreating demonstrators.
This incident caused widespread hysteria against immigrants and labour leaders, who were blamed for the deaths. Eight people — five German immigrants, one British immigrant, one U.S.-born citizen of German ancestry and one U.S.-born citizen of English ancestry — were rounded up and stood trial for the murder of the police officers, even though some of these infamous Chicago Eight had not even been present at the demonstration. Most of them were affiliated with the Workers’ Times. All of them were found guilty of murder and all but one sentenced to death. Four were hanged on Nov 11, 1887 and another committed suicide. In 1893, Illinois governor John Altgeld was petitioned by Clarence Darrow – the famous lawyer who would later argue for science and common sense in the Scopes Monkey Trial – to grant clemency to the three surviving men. It was granted once the governor reviewed the trial transcripts and saw how the jury had been stacked against them, the judge was biased and much of the evidence had been fabricated.
Another story from those times that made a lot of noise is that of Gaetano Bresci. Born in Tuscany in 1869, he immigrated to the U.S. at a young age and made a living working as a weaver in Paterson, New Jersey, which had a large Italian community. In Paterson, he was one of the founders of The Social Question, a local Italian-language anarchist newspaper. In 1900, he returned to Italy carrying a five-shot revolver and on July 29 of that year, shot and killed the king of Italy, Umberto I, a monarch hostile to the workers’ rights movements and indifferent to the plight of the less fortunate. He was immediately apprehended, tried, and convicted. By then, Italy has abolished capital punishment, so Bresci was sentenced to a lifetime of penal servitude. Less than a year into his sentence, however, he died in prison at a ripe old age of 31. The official cause of death was suicide, but rumors persist that the prison authorities had a hand in his death.
Of course, there were numerous other episodes of leftist violence, from the Galleanist movement in early 1900s to the Weather Underground of the 1960s, but that’s revolutionary socialism. What of social democracy? Strangely, it never developed in the U.S., but not for lack of trying.
One name worth mentioning in this regard is Eugene V. Debs. Originally a Democrat and a union activist, a one-term member of the Indiana legislature, he tried to establish a mainstream social-democratic party at least three times, in 1897, 1898, and 1901. Somehow, it just couldn’t hold itself together; the moderates were too close to the Democrats, while the militants were too close to anarchists and communists. Debs’s greatest political success was winning a modest 6% of votes in the presidential elections of 1912. It could conceivably have been developed into greater success down the road, but history intervened: World War I broke out. Debs was an outspoken critic of the U.S. involvement in the war, which led to his arrest and conviction in 1918 under the Sedition Act. He was to serve a 10-year sentence, but in 1921, president Harding commuted his sentence and received him in the White House as Debs was making his way from Atlanta, where he was serving his sentence, to his home in Indiana. By then, Debs was 65 years old and suffered from a heart condition, so he didn’t return to politics and died in 1926 from heart failure.
Perhaps more than any other century, social and civil rights were a major focus of attention throughout the 20th century, with sweeping national reforms in child labor, women’s suffrage, worker’s unions and equal civil rights for African-Americans.
The Progressive Era from the 1890s through the 1920s was, amongst other things, a reflection of the change in thinking that technology and communication had brought through the Industrial Revolution, the influence of science on social as well as industrial institutions, the transcontinental railroads and mass media. In other words, people were able to do things easier, faster and more efficiently than ever before and this bought them some time to reflect on where this was all going and what a more perfect system might look like. Corruption in politics and industry was recognized by more and more people as having a direct effect on the quality of their lives and people wanted more of a say and more of an ability to do something about it, and they were able to form a resistance faster and easier than ever before because of things like telegrams and the relatively new nation-wide postal system. It’s no accident or random chance that innovations in technology that enabled people to share their ideas and coordinate their actions faster and easier than ever before led to increased social activism and change.
Another major factor influencing the progressive movement was the huge influx of immigrants that had flooded into the United States in the last 1800s, coming for jobs and the opportunity of the American Dream. The expansion of industrialization led to huge increases in the job market and increases in wages, but all sorts of factors from race inequality to a devastated South still trying to rebuild after the Civil War to political machines being built in population centers which catered to Big Money influence in politics were causing social strife, injustice and huge economic problems. In other words, despite apparent economic and wage growth, the rich were getting richer while the poor were getting poorer.
Progressives implemented change at local levels first and this led to state and then national reforms. Contrary to popular belief amongst conspiracy theorists, the change in the Federal Reserve System in 1913 actually was fueled by popular sentiment which sought to make America’s finance system simpler and easier to control. While this may not have been the result and there are always unintended consequences when you are talking about Big Money, it was one of many reforms including four Constitutional Amendments to give women the right to vote, implementing a nationwide income tax, allowing citizens to directly vote for their state Senators and the start of Prohibition. Of course, Prohibition turned out to cost much more than it was worth and it was repealed 13 years later by the 21st Amendment but the rest of these reforms have stayed in place.
The rise of mass media did not only see William Randolph Hearst’s yellow journalism take root, but also gave voice to muckrakers, the people who actually pioneered investigative journalism such as Lincoln Steffens, Ida Tarbell and Ray Stannard Baker. They used the mass media to expose corruption, graft, unsafe working conditions, race relations and other societal ills on a scope never possible before mass media existed and their stories were the impetus that forced changes and reforms in these areas.
Progressives wanted citizens to take a more active role in their government and to have a more powerful voice, passing powerful legislative measures such as the first law allowing citizens to introduce or approve proposed laws or amendments to a state constitution and the Seventeenth Amendment which allowed citizens to vote for their own state Senators. Prior to this, Senators were appointed by state legislatures and this process was heavily controlled by political bosses who were influenced by Big Money.
While there were some advances made in exposing the plight of minorities in the US, many Progressives were not so strong on equal civil rights for all citizens, and in many ways contributed to or even enforced racial segregation and Jim Crow laws.
Now despite these broad strokes I’m painting, the Progressive movement was not a united association, political party or singular force for change. In any society of any size, especially a growing one like the United States, there are numerous factors at play and all kinds of circles spinning within circles within circles. Simplifying historical events is really a bit of a fool’s errand, but I think you get the idea that turn of the century America was experiencing social upheaval from a number of different groups for a lot of different reasons: religious, political, economic and social.
The progressive spirit of reform and improving conditions for citizens across the boards continued into the civil rights movement and eventually won the day with Brown vs Board of Education in 1954 and with the Civil Rights Act of of 1964 and the Voting Act of 1965.
And now circling back to the theme of this podcast, it seems that there is a rather ugly but simple truth at the bottom of social change which we human beings have not yet figured out how to solve and that simple truth is this: you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. When it comes to social, economic and government reform, in order to force a change to occur it seems to take violence and force. Or perhaps more accurately, it seems that the people who drive these changes believe that it takes violence and force to overcome the perceived oppression they want to defeat. If there is anything someone can learn from my channel, it is hopefully the fact that just because we perceive things to be a certain way, that doesn’t mean it is that way or it has to stay that way.
When it comes to violence and extremist rhetoric to censure, stop or destroy any opposition, we have to stop and look at what is actually going on. Violent revolution is not a foregone conclusion nor is it a necessity to enact change. Not when you look at how society-level change was enacted by the work of peaceful activists like Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. Their policies of civil resistance and peaceful revolution worked. It’s harder, much harder, to turn the other cheek, to not raise your fists in anger and give in to the impulse to beat the shit out of people who oppose you because you think they are stupid or evil. It’s so easy to justify violence by looking to violence in the past, but that doesn’t make it right or necessary.
These days we have people who have gone to extremes on the left preaching to “punch a Nazi.” The Regressive Left, in an effort to preach cultural tolerance and understanding, end up siding with violent Muslim extremists and instead of supporting freedom of speech for everyone, instead shout down any opposition to Muslim extremism by calling such people Islamaphobes, race haters, bigots and worse. This extremist thinking goes on with almost every part of left-wing thinking, with extremists involved in feminism, LGBT rights, the abortion issue, etc. The thinking of people who push this sort of thing is really no different from what I talked about early with the social revolutionaries and is actually just a hair away from the mentality of a destructive cult member – the end justifies the means, it’s us vs them and if we don’t win, the whole world will lose.
I’m sorry to say this but no social revolutionaries have ever enacted long-term positive change on their own. Most of the time, the monsters they think they are fighting are really just different versions of themselves, people with just as extreme beliefs on the opposite end of the political spectrum. And more often than not, like those who killed Tsar Alexander II, they are actually getting in the way of the social reforms they supposedly are fighting for. It takes a long-term look and a rational perspective of the big picture to see this, but unfortunately human beings are addicted to immediate gratification and tend to think that if something doesn’t happen right this second, it’s never going to happen. Such people really need to take a harder look at history.
Now having taken a good solid look at the left, from moderates to extremists, there are a few remarks I’d like to make to wrap this up about the state of things here in the US compared to other places in the world, and where we could stand to make some improvements.
Ironically, while social democracy has never taken hold and communist scares were the order of the day through the 1950s, the truth is that America has never really been anywhere close to embracing the principles of social democracy. Even Social Security is not truly a socialist program, but is really more of a social safety net for people who pre-pay into a giant pool of money which they later are paid back from to support them when they can no longer work. That’s not what socialism looks like. It’s simply a government-sponsored pension fund. Come 2026, the ability to keep the Social Security system operational is going to be in jeopardy because of changes in the size of the work force, but that is a subject for another day.
There are many conservative-leaning Americans who are terrified of socialism, claim that libtard leftists only want to take their hard-earned money away and loudly proclaim that they will never elect a socialist like Bernie Sanders into office. I would argue that such people don’t really know much about social democracy or how socialist principles in government would directly benefit them and their families. There’s been such a tradition in the United States of anti-communist and anti-socialist rhetoric that far too many people are wholly incapable of even being able to rationally think for themselves on this topic. All you have to do is drop the word “socialist” or “leftist” for some people to fall into apoplectic fits of anxiety that you are coming to take their guns away from them. And it’s amazing how despite the fact that no one has ever come for anyone’s guns, these kinds of beliefs persist because corporations and groups like the NRA that profit from gun sales keep pushing this on gullible, paranoid people. So let’s take a look at some real-world examples of socialism in action around the world that are not implemented here but probably should be:
Single-payer healthcare. This raging debate is going on across the nation right now and we aren’t anywhere close to passing a single-payer system. In fact, we’re moving backwards because the GOP doesn’t want anything to do with socialized medicine and health care, even though it’s a system that without question works to the benefit of citizens in every civilized Western nation in the world. There are many reasons this hasn’t happened here and many hurdles to get over before single-payer healthcare will be a reality, which is a shame because the United States outspends every other country in the world per capita for health care and yet consistently ranks last or near the bottom of every survey of international health and fitness.
A 2015 survey found 43 percent of low-income Americans went without medical care because of costs. In the other countries, these rates ranged from 8 percent in Britain to 31 percent in Switzerland. And it’s not for lack of throwing money at the problem because Americans now spend $9,523 per person per year on medical expenses — by far the most among developed countries. Health spending now tops $3 trillion a year. Health insurance premiums have been steadily rising since 2008 and employers, who cover 60 percent of Americans, have been increasing the amount their workers must contribute to their own medical care.
Maybe Obamacare is the first step of a solution and maybe it’s not, but one thing is clear. If something doesn’t change with health care in the United States, within two or three generations it won’t matter because there won’t be that many Americans left to care.
Antitrust policy. For nearly a century before Reagan, starting with the passage of the Sherman Act in 1890, if not before, antitrust policy was a major area of activity for the U.S. government. The legal action by the Department of Justice broke up Standard Oil and AT&T; GE and Westinghouse were exposed as colluding to raise prices on domestic appliances (if memory serves, a few executives actually went to prison on that one). Since Reagan, not so much. We now live in a country where a very large number of households and businesses have only one option for broadband Internet access, two if they’re lucky. England, in comparison, has six or seven providers to choose from. Go into a shopping mall and take a look at places that sell eyeglasses. A large percentage of them will be owned by an Italian (well, originally Italian, it’s multinational now) company called Luxottica. Their overall market share in the U.S. is about 20%, but among eyewear retailers who do business in conspicuous high-traffic locations, it’s much higher. This past January, Luxottica announced its intent to merge with Essilor, the world’s largest manufacturer of prescription lenses with approximately 45% share of the world market. Then there’s a worrying number of airline routes that are served by a single airline. The list goes on.
Labor policy. In a typical developed country, most workers whether they are paid hourly or on salary are represented by a union, which has a collective bargaining agreement not with a single employer, but with an industry association that represents all employers in the industry. Very often, these agreements are tripartite, meaning there are three parties. The third party is the government, which serves as a hands-on arbiter and guarantor. In many countries, large companies are required by law to give unions representation on the Board of Directors. As a result, Sweden, where wages are among the highest in the world, has no minimum wage law at all; the tripartite agreements drive wages up way higher than any law could. In the U.S., meanwhile, we have union membership in a long-term decline, with all the wage effects we can expect from that.
National secondary education policy. People from outside the U.S. often refuse to believe that the U.S. has no national curriculum and that matters of curriculum are routinely decided by elected local officials with no background in science, education, or education policy and, sorry to say, with considerable religious baggage. Also, local control makes it impossible for the national government to effect improvement measures. Did you know, for example, that in Northern Europe, underperforming school districts automatically qualify for both financial aid and brain infusion in the form of bonuses for experienced teachers who choose to transfer from performing districts to underperforming districts. In the U.S. (or even in any one state) this is impossible; school districts are all independent.
National higher education policy. Most industrialized countries worked very hard to eliminate the notion of student debt. As a result, higher and graduate-level education is affordable, even if it is a little bit rigid; it’s best suited to educate those who decided on their calling early and didn’t change their mind along the way.
So what now? Will the Draft Bernie and Our Revolution groups succeed in establishing a social-democratic party in the U.S.? Will Justice Democrats manage to steer the Democratic party towards social democracy? We don’t know, but one thing is certain: there’s no substitute for an open and honest policy discussion and the evolutionary political process. Authoritarianism and violence, whether right or left, create far more problems than they solve.
People just want to get along in life and get along with others. Political ideologies and philosophies are just different ideas we have of how to achieve mutual cooperation, support and survival. We should keep these ideas in the realm of civil and social debate by allowing the free flow of ideas in public forums, on our media channels and in our political forums and events. It’s only by being exposed to all sides of issues that concern us that we can make rational and informed decisions. I hope that this podcast has helped you all who listened and maybe encourage some of you to take action to stop the violent rhetoric we hear and replace it with calm and reasonability.
Thanks a lot for coming around to listen to me ramble on here. I very much want your feedback on this, your ideas about what I may have gotten right and gotten wrong and what you think we should maybe be doing about the extremists on our media channels and in our government. Leave your comments on my YouTube channel or at sensiblyspeaking.com. I’ll see you guys next week.
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