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Modern Populism—Marxism NOT

In my last essay, I dipped my toes ever so gingerly into the troubled waters of class analysis.  For my troubles, I was informed by some commentators that all studies of class were derived from Marx and that I had made fundamental errors because I had not properly understood the master.

Because this is a widely held belief, I believe I need to provide a history lesson on American progressive movements to clear up some confusion.

The REAL issue is industrialization

The French and American Revolutions were about making social adjustments to the trappings of feudalism--including slaveholding, serfdom, and indentured servitude.  Of course, there were some rumblings about the conditions of trade and manufacturing, but these were mostly line items on a much larger list of grievances.

In the meantime, there was a very real revolution going on in England.  Some may scoff that the Industrial Revolution does not qualify because there was so little armed struggle involved, but it was the most important revolution of all.

Away from the capital and denied the benefits of a proper Oxbridge education, Quakers and other dissenting Protestants combined a love of tool-making precision and a fascination with fire to produce a recipe for generalized prosperity that is still widely copied throughout the world.  We call it industrialization.

Of course, the potential for widespread prosperity and its actual realization are two very different things.  In a few cases, the new wealth was shared out fairly, but mostly, industrialization made the rich richer, more powerful, cruel, and loathsome.

By 1848, with the anti-royalist sentiments spawned by the French Revolution safely contained in Europe, folks were ready to start a revolution over the huge gap between the potential for widespread prosperity promised by the Industrial Revolution and the hellish reality.

The Revolutions of 1848 spawned probably the most important piece of political writing in the history of mankind.  The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx made him a superstar for those whose jobs were dangerous, dirty, and horribly underpaid.

How important was Marx?  Marx had more disciples than Jesus Christ, his writings were the most widely published of any person in history, and at the height of their influence, his followers ruled half the earth.  Yet ultimately, Marxism crashed and burned.  There are still a few nostalgic folks who refuse to believe that Marx is finally dead but it is unlikely that his influence will ever again reach the heights of, say 1968.

The rise and fall of Marxist thought

Marx was important because he was utterly correct about one BIG subject--the lives of workers can and should be meaningful no matter how lowly the job.  He wasn’t the first or only person to believe this but because he was the first to make the claim in the context of the Industrial Revolution, and by doing it so well, Marxist thinking became a benchmark.  From 1848 on, those making the economic case in favor of the folks who performed the community’s necessary tasks were going to be called Marxists by their enemies--even if they only agreed with Marx on the BIG subject.

And in fact, there have been a whole host of pro-producer strategies tried in attempts to spread the prosperity of industrialization.  There were religious colonies like the folks in Amana Iowa who created industries to support the community.  There were self-styled enlightened industrialists. There were company towns where subsidized housing, food, and health care was used to purchase employee loyalty. There were producer cooperatives. And of course, there were guilds, trade unions, and other collective attempts to regulate working conditions.

Virtually all these activities would have been tried even if Marx had never written a word.  And in fact as recently as 1916, Marxism was merely one of the contenders for intellectual dominance in minds of those who would champion the exploited.  But after the Russian Revolution, the folks who called themselves Marxists ruthlessly eliminated any competing progressive agendas.  And in the rest of the world, competing ideas were overshadowed by the success of the Bolsheviks.

But in the end, it did not matter.  Neither intellectual intimidation nor police state brutality were enough to keep the Marxists in power.  Because even though Marx was undeniably correct about the BIG subject of respect for work, he was wrong in so many other areas that eventually the Marxist experiments had to be abandoned.

What went wrong?

The Marxist dead-enders would like us to believe that the great experiments failed because those who led the revolutions were insufficiently pure in their understanding of the great teacher.  Or perhaps because the forces of rollback were simply too powerful.  And such people have a point.  But it is a small point because MOST of the failures of Marxism can be directly traced to teachings that were faithfully applied.

There are good reasons to understand why Marxism failed.  The biggest one is that no one wants to see the BIG subject discredited.  THAT is simply unacceptable.  And maybe it is time for those competing BIG subject strategies that were destroyed through Bolshevik ruthlessness to be given a second look.

ONE:  Marx did not understand the revolutionary nature of industrialization.  By the time they became rich in Marx’s mind, industrialists were as parasitic as any landowner, priest, or tax farmer.  In fact, they were worse because they invented news ways of human exploitation.  The fact that industrialists were devout Protestant pacifists (Quakers were heavily involved in early stage industrialization) who were in the business of applying scientific rationalism to the problems of production seemed to have never gained traction in Marx’s mind.  To prove that he really didn’t get industrialization, he claimed that the problems of production had been solved in early capitalism.  This is a serious error for the simple reason that solving the problems of production is an ongoing and evolutionary process.

By underestimating the importance of industrialists, the Marxist countries became known for shoddy, UGLY, and environmentally insane production.  Turns out the problems of production not only had NOT been solved, they are a LOT harder than they look at first glance.  Political agendas mix very poorly with industrialization’s tyranny of the facts on the ground.  At one point in his Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong declared that villages should have their own ability to make STEEL. People were executed for pointing out that such an idea was insane--even though those troublesome facts proved that it WAS insane.

In 1989, there was a miner’s strike in the Donets region of USSR.  One of the key demands was for sufficient soap to clean up with after a day under ground.  Imagine a system striving to be a worker’s paradise that cannot provide soap to miners.  It is such a perfect example of what happens to those who assume that the problems of production have been solved and all that remains is proper political supervision of distribution.

TWO:  Marx was openly scornful of agriculture.  His “idiocy of rural life” remark was probably the MOST damaging of his life.  It may be possible to get by with industrial junk like Ladas, but it is impossible to get by without food.  With Marx ringing in his ears, Stalin thought nothing of destroying his agriculture system.  He actually murdered the people who could grow food. The politically-driven replacement of collectivized farming was such a perennial failure that the Ministry of Agriculture was were political careers went to die.  Mao’s agricultural experiments produced famines that killed millions.

Marxism might have succeeded in USSR if they had just maintained a LITTLE respect for the difficulty of growing food well.  Hard to respect people you call idiots!

There were other gaping holes in Marxist reasoning but time and charitable intent leads me to end this here.  After all, if you cannot feed yourself and cannot make anything worth buying, you have truly produced a failed society.

The Progressive alternatives 

After visiting East Germany in 1970 and USSR in 1972, I became convinced that Marxism in practice clearly had too many problems to be taken seriously as an alternative.  And trust me, I was looking for something better than the cold-war Liberalism of USA.  I was horrified by the Vietnam War and the lies this society had to tell its citizen in order to gain public backing for mass murder and mayhem. 

It required some small amount of bravado to travel in the East to see socialism in action during those Cold War years.  But I had to see it for myself.  I had met an intensely bright Finnish scholar who had assured me that my government had told me some large lies about the Marxist states.  Considering that military briefings in Vietnam were actually called “The 5 o’ Clock Follies” in the press, I had reason to believe he might be correct.

In many ways, he was.  Turns out EVERYONE in Finland is a self-proclaimed expert on Russia.  Maintaining their independence from USSR after World War II was an awesome struggle considering their lightly defended 1000 km border.  The Finns survived because they developed a no-nonsense view of their powerful neighbor.  My Finnish expert was a credentialed Marxist scholar in country where news of the USSR was regularly featured on the front pages of the papers.  If he said it was worth looking at the East, I could rise above the paranoia of knowing that any such trips would become a permanent entry on my passport record.  I was PUMPED!

Whether you traveled from Scandinavia into USSR or from West Germany to the East, the visual shock was stunning.  The Nordics and Germans are a fastidious lot who take a rigorous approach to maintenance.  Aesthetically, it was like falling off a cliff.  In West Germany, they made Porsches and Mercedes Benz. In East Germany, they made Trabants and Wartburgs.  In Sweden they made Volvos and Saabs.  In USSR, they made Ladas and Moscovitches.

Some might argue that I was being grossly unfair to judge an economic system by the quality of vehicles it produces.  Yet motor vehicles were simply the most visible manifestation of a wider set of problems.  And sure enough, when Marxism crumbled and USSR’s industrial practices were exposed, it became quite obvious indeed that her incompetent vehicles were even exceeded in trashiness by other elements of her industrial infrastructure.  In one notorious example, nickel processing plants near the Norwegian border produced hundreds of times the pollution for each ton of nickel as a Norwegian plant.

Back in USA, I started a serious search for something that was neither Cold War military-industrial capitalism nor its ruthless, industrially backward Marxist opposite.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to look far.  For all around was the evidence of some profoundly progressive thinking and with a little diligence, I could uncover the ideals behind it.

Upper Midwest (Western) Progressive Populism

The Revolution of 1848 come to USA indirectly.  This was also the year that Wisconsin became a state.  As the Revolution was crushed in Germany, many of the high visibility figures joined their countrymen in a migration to USA.  Many landed in the newest state.  The so-called 48ers helped found the Republican Party as an anti-slavery party.

A farm boy who was one of the first graduates of the University of Wisconsin, Robert M. LaFollette would become the very personification of progressive ideals.  A lifetime booster of the University, LaFollette supported the “Wisconsin Idea”--that his beloved land-grant University should serve every citizen of the state. It is because of LaFollette that we tend to think of Progressives as left Populists with a college education.

This citizen-university arrangement would lead to such legislation as :

1) Primary elections,
2) Workers' compensation,
3) State regulation of railroads
4) Direct election of United States Senators
5) "Progressive" taxation

Wisconsinites will also claim that the enabling legislation for Social Security was crafted at UW.

In 1889, North Dakota became a state.  It was also the year that Germany passed it first social welfare legislation under the administration of Otto von Bismarck.  In a bid to woo enlightened capital and investment from Germany, North Dakota would name her new capital Bismarck.

But North Dakota would struggle for its very existence.  The problem was a gang of crooks that stole the settlers blind.  Finally, in a bid to end the corruption, the Non-Partisan League was formed.  The NPL achieved its greatest success when the party won control of the state legislature and elected Lynn Frazier as governor in 1916, leading to the establishment of state-run agricultural enterprises, such as the North Dakota Mill and Elevator and the Bank of North Dakota.

In the middle was Minnesota which may have had the most progressive traditions of all.  There was Ignatius Donnelly who wrote the constitution for the People’s Party. There was the Farmer-Labor party that ran the state during the worst years of the Great Depression.

And then there was Thorstein Bunde Veblen.  Veblen was the son of Norwegian immigrant farmers who was born in Wisconsin in 1857 and moved to Minnesota in 1864.  He was clearly one of history’s great geniuses.  His seminal work The Theory of the Leisure Class was first published in 1899 and has not been out of print since.

Because he was almost two generations younger than Marx and was a severe critic of predatory capitalism, Veblen is often misclassified as a sort of Marx-lite.  But while Veblen and Marx were both political economists, the similarity ends there because Veblen was the first to really understand industrialization as demonstrated by his monumental work “The Instinct of Workmanship.”  He also had a deep and profound respect for the problems of agriculture.

The lessons learned

Agriculturally and industrially illiterate social thinking is more than merely anachronistic, it is profoundly dangerous--especially in the hands of zealots who think nothing of murdering those whose worldviews do not match their own.  The greatest difference between the American Progressive Populists and the Marxists is that the Pops actually respected the people who grow and make things, while the Marxists destroyed their lives and often murdered them.

There is an ugly idea that folks cannot be true leftists unless they have a working understanding of Marx.  This idea is demonstrably false.

Why this is important

In the struggle to feed the world, global agricultural systems teeter on the brink of collapse because of soil erosion, aquifer depletion, and an over reliance on fossil fuels. 

At the same time, a the global manufacturing systems faces similar problems caused by the end of cheap liquid fuels and the saturation of carbon sinks like the atmosphere.

It is also true that the current system of rule by finance is leading to ruin.  Something MUST be changed in our understanding of political economy.

So yes indeed, we are going to need real Progressives.  The LAST thing we need is to be sidetracked by the pseudo-religious teachings of Karl Marx.  They are profoundly ignorant.  They are known failures.  And people who called themselves Marxists have been some of history’s greatest mass murderers.

It IS important to learn from history.  It is even MORE important to choose the lessons carefully.  Fortunately, there are plenty of lessons worth learning from the Progressives who helped the USA become the success it once was.

See also:

Part One: Populism—an introduction
Part Two: Populism--Size matters
Part Three: Populism--a matter of class
Part Five: Populism--technological literacy

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