What Is A Socialist?
February 20, 2019 12:25 PM   Subscribe

"I’m beginning here, with a basic example of an unjustified inequality, because I think it’s important to see what I might call “the socialistic instinct” starts. Jack London, of Call of the Wild fame, was a socialist, and he explains in his essay “How I Became A Socialist” that it was not because he had read Karl Marx and accepted the dialectical materialist conception of history. It was because he went out into the world, and he realized that not everyone was like himself, and that the things he told himself about why some people deserved more than others simply broke down once he actually got to know people." Nathan J. Robinson's speech about Socialism to students at America's oldest, most expensive High School.
posted by The Whelk (43 comments total) 107 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's too early to present my results but I'm beginning to recognize a pattern in your posts, Whelk.
posted by stinkfoot at 12:41 PM on February 20 [65 favorites]


Bless you, Nathan J. Robinson.

Yes, and you to, The Whelk.
posted by No Robots at 12:53 PM on February 20 [3 favorites]


I think the pattern is mostly characterized by awesomeness.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 12:53 PM on February 20 [7 favorites]


And...people such as Kim Jong il are not Socialists. I dislike having them shown as examples.
posted by Oyéah at 12:55 PM on February 20 [4 favorites]


I really want to film a fun movie starring Daniel Day Lewis as Engels and Norm Macdonald as Marx, just gallivanting around Europe, having their publications censored and being exiled.
posted by gucci mane at 1:05 PM on February 20 [8 favorites]


I really want to film a fun movie starring Daniel Day Lewis as Engels and Norm Macdonald as Marx,

Probably not what you're looking for, but this exists: The Young Karl Marx [YouTube][Trailer].
posted by Fizz at 1:09 PM on February 20 [3 favorites]


Just show everyone this video of Mark Twain
posted by Automocar at 1:15 PM on February 20 [2 favorites]


It gives you the feeling that “we can’t do anything about that” or “that’s just the way of the world” is not acceptable.

I think it's really interesting that's what all psychotherapists tell their clients. Stuff that you can't change, other people whom you can't change; you can only change yourself. And it's a default attitude that's quite mainstream. "It is what it is".
posted by polymodus at 1:17 PM on February 20 [10 favorites]


oh I LOVED this essay

I admit I love Jack London and grew up surrounded by his books, which I had read over and over - except for The Iron Heel, which I didn't know about until college and which shocked the hell out of me, a kid who was raised during the Cold War. THAT Jack London had written a book about COMMUNISM?! - oh, young me. And then briefly went through a period of not liking Jack London as part my attempts to reject the individualistic rugged Western myth that I had been brainwashed raised with. Re-reading the rest of his canon after read The Iron Heel revitalized his books for me, however, and completely changed the messages I got from his stories. They're completely different books! White Fang, for example, is totally about socialism, just as much as The Iron Heel is. (It especially changed The Sea Wolf, which had previously had seemed like it didn't fit in with his other books in a way I hadn't been able to put a finger on.) No wonder Teddy Roosevelt didn't like London! I really hope that since then the message about his canon has changed to better reflect those themes instead of what was pushed to me, and it's more well-known he was a socialist (or it had already changed in other parts of the country and my area was just slow).

One of the reasons why I grew up surrounded by his books is that he was "acceptable" literature, which I don't really want to expand on - hopefully the gist is obvious. It kills me that so many of the people who claim to love London for those rugged, individual man vs. nature themes are in complete denial or just plain ignorance of what his books are actually about, even though I was once one of them.

Anyway, thank you for this. London is problematic in other ways, but - aside from his work about socialism - for me his canon represents one of the most clear cut examples in my own life of why critical thinking skills about the media you consume, from developing them to actually using them, are very important, as well as an education that takes you out of your comfort zone. He's a decent argument of why everyone should get a good liberal arts foundation no matter what field they're in. It's to be hoped that some of those kids take this speech to heart, and maybe a few of them will make their own journey of discovery.
posted by barchan at 1:17 PM on February 20 [30 favorites]


Phillips Academy Andover, which was founded in 1778, is not even close to being America's oldest high school (the oldest were founded in the 17th century), nor is it the most expensive. Business Insider did a list of the top-25 most expensive in 2016 and Andover didn't even make the list.
posted by Jahaza at 1:29 PM on February 20 [7 favorites]


One of my biggest frustrations watching US politics from the outside (I'm Canadian, eh!) is that the two sides have such different starting points for what they consider "socialism".

Liberals tend to think of democratic socialism of the Norwegian/Finnish/continental European extraction (although the reaction of some of the Democrats at the recent State of the Union when socialism was mentioned shows that not every liberal understands the "good" kind of socialism either) while conservatives cite places like Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, China - basically anywhere that's got a more communist-influenced version of socialism.

Another frustration is that no one, not even Bernie Sanders, points out that it's not like you're either 100% capitalist or 100% socialist. Every country on earth is some blend of the two styles of governance and the reality is that the US *is* partly a socialist country - anytime you have universal social programs like Medicare, government run services like public education or highways and so on.

Heck, if you squint really hard, the US Military could be considered the biggest socialist program in the world since it's government-run, features a huge redistribution of wealth, and operates outside most normal market forces!
posted by Jaybo at 1:49 PM on February 20 [28 favorites]


Business Insider did a list of the top-25 most expensive in 2016 and Andover didn't even make the list.

Oh look! Georgetown Prep is number four. How very surprising.
posted by holborne at 2:01 PM on February 20 [2 favorites]


The article mentions, "Andover is one of the oldest and most expensive private schools in the United States." (emphasis mine).
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 2:02 PM on February 20 [2 favorites]


That's a good speech. When I think back on all the different kinds of Socialists I've known, the common dominator is a sense of fairness.

Somehow, I only encountered "Call of the Wild" and "White Fang" a few years ago, and I was amazed those books were given to kids to read- they are pretty political. Speaking of Jack London, Joyce Carol Oates's "The Accursed" takes place in Princeton New Jersey and is a gothic thriller starring Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair and Jack London. It won't make you a socialist, but it will make you hate Wilson, so, recommended.
posted by acrasis at 2:49 PM on February 20 [6 favorites]


Liberals tend to think of democratic socialism of the Norwegian/Finnish/continental European extraction (although the reaction of some of the Democrats at the recent State of the Union when socialism was mentioned shows that not every liberal understands the "good" kind of socialism either) while conservatives cite places like Cuba, Venezuela, Russia, China - basically anywhere that's got a more communist-influenced version of socialism.

The weird thing about this, though, is that while the authori/totali-tarian states (with varying degrees of socialist ideals actually reflected in policy) are the extreme examples conservatives like to deal in.... little-s social institutions like public schools or transportation (much less welfare programs) are also socialism, signs to them that the boiling of the frog has begun and the same stripe of menace as the big scary states is coming. And so these public institutions are a step on a slippery slope that's so steep it totally bypasses scandinavian/euro mixed-market democratic socialism on the swift slide into dystopia.

Which seems to make the difference less a question of starting points and more a question of a middle that's missing and/or studiedly ignored.

Of course, that's assuming there's any real social philosophy going on here, and that's anything but a safe bet; I suspect most of those engaging fear of socialism are repeating a collection of phrases as totems against a tribal other they see as some threat to values, and any effective response has to happen on the same level (catchphrases connected to and reiterating relatable values).
posted by wildblueyonder at 2:56 PM on February 20 [5 favorites]


Dear The Whelk,
Thank you for posting this. I have on occasion wondered how I could continue to call myself a socialist without having widely read socialist literature. This is exactly what I needed.
Sincerely,
evilDoug

P.S. I will continue wanting to "Burn it all the fuck down!" however, I will try to moderate my statements and say something more along the lines of "Perhaps an incandescent conflagration in the seats of power would be a distinctly non negative event!"
posted by evilDoug at 3:07 PM on February 20 [8 favorites]


Great speech. Too many Americans are invested in the comfortable lie of the Prosperity Gospel to ever embrace socialism, even though socialism is closer to what the New Testament preaches than any other style of government. The Prosperity Gospel promises folks that they are rich and *blessed* because they are GOOD and the poor and distressed are *unlucky* because they are BAD. So, the Good are not responsible for the Unlucky, because God made them unlucky because they were bad and who are they, the Good, to second guess God? IT'S THE PERFECT SCAM.
posted by pjsky at 3:14 PM on February 20 [14 favorites]


Another frustration is that no one, not even Bernie Sanders, points out that it's not like you're either 100% capitalist or 100% socialist.

In my experience there's a divide between more orthodox Marxists and social-democratic types on this question. See the "socialism is when the government does stuff" meme, but beyond that I've had people tell me that the Marxian economist Richard Wolff is not a real socialist because he only proposes to eliminate private ownership of the means of production, not also commodity exchange and profit. Some of these arguments are also historical - looking back one could view the creation of the social welfare state in the first half of the 20th century as a victory for socialism, but a hardline lefty at the time might have seen it as a compromise to save capitalism.

I'm not a hardliner - and really I find these arguments pretty tedious when you get to the "is Richard Wolff a real Marxist??" point - but I think the rhetorical usefulness of the idea that "America is already socialist" is mixed if you are trying to convey the urgency of significant change.

It's also interesting how a lot of these lines get drawn - as far as I know Venezuela still has a significant private sector and probably could be framed as a social democracy of sorts. But the more aggressive posture of Chavez and Maduro regarding the desirability of further expropriation (in the eyes of socialism's supporters) and its recent crises (in the eyes of socialism's detractors) get it put in the "radical socialist" camp.
posted by atoxyl at 3:30 PM on February 20 [5 favorites]


Canadian here. From the so-called Left Coast. In my particular network, I'm hearing more and more people calling what concerns them The Social. The notion that it ain't some grand and glorious revolution we're working toward -- we just know we need to take care of people. A social safety net. It's not about theory at all. It's just pragmatic. The neighborhood works better if your neighbors aren't in constant and immediate danger of running out of money, getting evicted, going hungry, getting sick, falling through the cracks. Kind of like trickle down economics, except completely opposite.
posted by philip-random at 4:00 PM on February 20 [16 favorites]


Just show everyone this video of Mark Twain

Ehh...he's no Hal Holbrook.
posted by Greg_Ace at 4:08 PM on February 20


I'd never seen that London essay before, but squinting a tiny bit and swapping out ranching for the markedly less glamourous financial services sector, and I can see my own journey reflected back at me.

Also, I can't help but be delighted by how much "It was not because (Jack London) had read Karl Marx and accepted the dialectical materialist conception of history. It was because he went out into the world," sounds like "You don't become a good communist by going to meetings, or by memorising the manifestio; you do it on the streets."
posted by MarchHare at 4:10 PM on February 20 [3 favorites]


Loved the speech, and love Nathan J. Robinson. This might finally tip my hand to subscribe to Current Affairs. (I also enjoy their podcast greatly.)

I'm going to have to re-read White Fang. I read it when I was around 10 or so and probably didn't pick up on any political messages at the time (though I also would have told you that I believed in feminism).
posted by invokeuse at 4:41 PM on February 20


America's oldest, most expensive High School.

Minor quibble: America's oldest and most expensive high schools are not the same school! The oldest high school is Boston Latin, which sounds like it would be private, but it's a public magnet school. It was founded in 1635.
posted by lunasol at 5:05 PM on February 20 [3 favorites]


It kills me that so many of the people who claim to love London for those rugged, individual man vs. nature themes are in complete denial or just plain ignorance of what his books are actually about, even though I was once one of them.

It's not just London. Many famous figures have their stories and legacies reduced or simplified in the American public's understanding to avoid addressing their socialist or other "undesirable" leanings: Mark Twain is the grandfatherly Huckleberry Finn guy, Helen Keller is an inspiring woman who overcame diversity, etc.
posted by Sangermaine at 6:25 PM on February 20 [8 favorites]


You don’t need a “safety net” if people aren’t falling down
posted by moorooka at 6:31 PM on February 20


Helen Keller is an inspiring woman who overcame diversity

I'm guessing the word you wanted was adversity.
posted by rochrobbb at 6:31 PM on February 20 [7 favorites]


And then London's The Valley of the Moon, written years after The Iron Heel and White Fang, starts with working-class labor activists and is utter `socialism for white people' by the end.

Of course, he bought a lot of real-estate between Iron Heel and Valley of the Moon. Also, the latter is both a bad and a boring book.
posted by clew at 6:32 PM on February 20


I'm hearing more and more people calling what concerns them The Social... A social safety net... It's just pragmatic. The neighborhood works better if your neighbors aren't in constant and immediate danger of running out of money

Pro-society vs anti-social.
posted by wildblueyonder at 6:33 PM on February 20


I'm guessing the word you wanted was adversity.

My inspiring tale is the fight against auto-correct and typing too fast without paying attention.
posted by Sangermaine at 7:15 PM on February 20 [12 favorites]


Helen Keller is an inspiring woman who overcame diversity, etc.
There's something brilliant in this slip of autocorrect's inner workings, though, because the way that people like Hellen Keller are taught in American schools is precisely as nice folks who triumphed against their own diversity and gained admittance, through hard work in a society that rewards hard work, into the homogeneous ranks of those marching inexorably, successfully, towards American progress, with no change of course required. Or is it, to use the popular metaphor, the melting pot to which such hardworking and meritorious people gain access?
posted by a certain Sysoi Pafnut'evich at 7:32 PM on February 20 [8 favorites]


Thank you, The Wheel, for your posts including especially this one.
posted by blue shadows at 8:59 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]


(The Whelk, didn't catch darn autocorrect.)
posted by blue shadows at 9:55 PM on February 20 [1 favorite]


Whether we’re talking about a government redistributing wealth, or whether we’re talking about the internal workings of a company, people should be taken care of according to their needs and give according to their ability

I just don't get what's so fucking controversial about this central thesis. Socialism (and I sincerely hope the time is coming when we can take this word back from Stalin and Castro) is basically a synonym for "functional democracy" and is as American as Abraham Lincoln, proud auto workers, public schools, and the best military force the world has ever known. Soviet Communism is the same thing as extreme capitalism; kiss ass to the right people and play the game right and you too can subjugate your neighbors and get ahead. I swear, if we can unbrainwash ourselves from the media and the current power brokers, the things the west coast liberal elites and the MAGA flyovers actually want are the same. It's just that our political and financial support is constantly being hijacked by people trying to gain the upper hand (clearly by one party more than the other -- I do NOT believe they are equally bad). But the person who figures this out has the potential to be the next truly great revolutionary leader. Unfortunately, almost anyone who understands all of this either doesn't crave the political power enough to get elected, or once elected is susceptible to the trappings and protections that the political/economic power in our system gives them.

This is a great, pragmatic speech and a great post, so thank you Whelk. I'm proud to call myself a socialist, particularly because it makes me a boogeyman to the people who currently hold power in a system that utterly fails the vast majority of people around the world.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:36 PM on February 20 [4 favorites]


To be clear, capitalism has given us smart phones and affordable air travel but has failed to provide affordable health care, the highway system. and universal education. It is a totally bogus argument that you can't a free market approach to some problems and a socialist approach to other problems at the same time.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:45 PM on February 20 [3 favorites]


Except that ‘capitalism’ didn’t give us smart phones and air travel. It just distributed the proceeds.
posted by moorooka at 1:42 AM on February 21 [5 favorites]


I love capitalism. Capitalism is like fire, and fire is great. Fire keeps us warm, lights up the night, cooks our food. It's great stuff, fire. Without it we'd still be huddled together in the dark gnawing on raw bones. However, it does not follow that:

a) The solution to every problem we face is to set something on fire.
b) Anything that is not on fire is morally inferior to things that are burning, and thus should be set ablaze immediately.

If you don't keep fire carefully controlled, it will end up destroying everything you love, and you're going to die screaming.
posted by Naberius at 7:33 AM on February 21 [12 favorites]


Except that ‘capitalism’ didn’t give us smart phones and air travel. It just distributed the proceeds.

Most of the great technological advances we credit to capitalism are just the products of government-funded research privatized later. We still socialize big capital losses if you're "too big to fail."
posted by Kitty Stardust at 7:44 AM on February 21 [8 favorites]


Metafilter: The solution to every problem we face is to set something on fire.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:06 AM on February 21 [4 favorites]


When I think back on all the different kinds of Socialists I've known, the common dominator is a sense of fairness.

Unfortunately, fairness is entirely subjective and is the core of most arguments against socialism (it being "unfair" to take money from someone who earned it and give it to someone who didn't). Fairness is also an abstract concept and not based on anything real. It's a feeling.

I base my socialism on the concept of net reduction of suffering. If you take $10,000 from someone who makes $250,000/year, the suffering imposed on them is small. If you give that money to someone who makes $10,000/year, the reduction in their suffering is relatively huge. Even capitalists will have to agree on that. So the whole redistribution transaction has resulted in a significant net reduction in overall suffering.

If that's unfair then I'd argue that unfairness can often be a good thing. I want more of that kind of unfairness.
posted by rocket88 at 9:36 AM on February 21 [6 favorites]


our community employs specialists to make informed decisions on how coordinate our resources and labor so that we all benefit. Our community is all human beings and their time, their benefits and the suffering avoided for them is weighted equally.

Vs

specialists have power over our community to exploit us and our resources so that they benefit. They will invent hierarchies and divide groups into factions so that we fight each other while they screw us and each other.
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 12:32 PM on February 21 [1 favorite]




I just came across the Japanese term “バイトテロ”, translated as “part-time worker terrorism”, describing the phenomenon of people making prank videos at work and posting them to social media, which then causes PR problems for the employer. The dystopian phrasing reminds me of the Soviet concept of “wrecking”, wherein basically failure to meet production quotas was blamed by managers or the government on a conspiracy and workers were punished as having committed a crime. I'm surprised I'm not able to think of more English-language examples besides maybe the WWI “slacker raids”; you'd think that under late-stage capitalism there would be an entire legendarium of work-crimes.

Maybe it just shows that socialism really has been in play in society all this time and holding back a tide of even worse excesses.
posted by XMLicious at 12:47 PM on March 13


I don’t know every so often you hear about not looking at advertising is stealing from the company.
posted by The Whelk at 1:07 PM on March 13 [1 favorite]


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