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Posts Tagged ‘communes’

I Ain’t A-scared A No Socialists

Back in the day, when people still spoke in hushed tones, or not at all, about the “big one”, and kids at school had weekly ‘drills’ that included hiding under your desk while you (fruitlessly) covered your head, the Eastern Bloc was often referred to as the “communist bloc” or “soviet bloc”, and folks were afraid of the Russians as if they were the ‘boogeyman’.
Americans today throw the words ’socialist’ and ‘communist’ around like two bit words, as my father would say, without truly reflecting on what those labels mean. Some fear that the U.S. will soon become a “Socialist Bloc”. Perhaps it’s time to examine socialism and its implications in today’s American society as a democracy.

What do people really mean when they label the leader of our democratic society, as it is, a socialist?

In 1970, when I was 10 years old, my parents, then in their 30’s, decided to form a ‘commune’ in deep south Louisiana. My father was a prominent lawyer in the town we lived in, my mother an artist from New Orleans. They were very involved in Catholicism not as ‘charismatics’ but as believers in the ‘ecumenical movement’. The community they formed with other families was called “Open House Community” and was to include people of all faiths, races, and belief systems.

The idea of living communally was a social experiment first conceptualized over a century ago by ‘modern socialists’. Modern socialism originated in the late 18th-century as both an intellectual and a working class political backlash in response to a quickly changing industrialized society and in response to the capitalist societies rising in various parts of the world. Some of the movement’s members tried to found self-sustaining communes by ’seceding’ from the capitalist society model. Those people were known as ‘utopian socialists’.

Perhaps my parents and their friends were in search of utopia. I’m certain they’re still searching.

Henri de Saint Simon (1760–1825), was the first individual to coin the term socialism as a broad term. He advocated technocracy and industrial planning; governmental organizational methods that we continue to ascribe to today.
If you look up the word ‘socialism’ in a Webster’s dictionary, you’ll find it described as “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods”. The definition dates back to 1837. Note its definition reads “any of various . . .” immediately making it a difficult word to use as a simple label, since labeling infers that a decision has been made about what something actually is, and thus it shall be so called.

The United States under our current president is being accused as becoming a ’socialist’ nation. Indeed, our President is often referred to, usually by his opponents, as a ‘socialist’, a ‘Marxist’ and (ooooooh) a ‘communist’.

The first ’socialists’ dreamed of a world that could be improved by commanding the best of technology in combination with a more organized social order which would include individual affiliations with ‘party’ politics. However, others of the first socialists, and indeed many today, favored a more individualistic society that would flourish according to individuals’ merits, an almost Darwinian approach.

There were also “libertarian socialists’, who believed much like the current American Libertarian party– that government should stay out of individuals’ lives and societies should reward (or deny) each of us as individuals, not collectively. Libertarian socialists rejected the government’s role in societies altogether while advocating for a ‘workers democracy’.
When the term ’socialist’ is used today, it can infer a more egalitarian approach to governing, or a ‘nationalistic’ approach known as ‘national socialism’. Indeed, an egalitarian form of governing on the surface sounds ideal. After all, in personal relationships, do we not all strive for equality? If we don’t, shouldn’t we? And indeed, doesn’t a democratic society seek to achieve equality within a nation among a richly diverse people? Isn’t that what this social experiment called “America” is all about.

Do you see the pattern here?

So from where does the fear of ’socialism’ as a word truly stem?

My father was a rather successful lawyer with a flourishing plaintiff’s law practice. So, while we were living in ‘the community’, as we referred to it, he decided to run for District Attorney. Crazy, huh? You have no idea.

The backlash from the people in the town of about 90,000 was incredible. While he did have a strong grassroots campaign rooted in the black community, most of the rest of the town was threatened by him and his populist ideals. In fact, a group of them made a cloth, life-sized dummy of my father and hung it by a noose from a tree near a bridge that divided South Lake Charles, where the whites lived, and North Lake Charles, where the poor and the blacks lived. We received death threats by phone and mail. The KKK burned a cross in our yard. As a young girl, my parents spent a lot of time in hushed tones trying to talk about this without scaring their 6 young children. We knew what was happening. We could see it with our own eyes.
In general, this naively-conceived idea to run my father for office while living in a commune was regretful. Needless to say, he lost his bid for office, badly.

That someday he would become a State Senator and serve 3 successful four year terms could not have been foreseen.

In the Open House Community, my family only lasted 2 years. This is why. Many of the people in Open House Community – and there were only about 7 families, all living in their own homes on a shared 80 acres w/ a shared community center and a garden, – earned less money than my father did. The joint bank account that was established by the group began to rely most heavily on his deposits, which became a source of added pressure for our family. There were also other things – the houses that we each lived in were very small, only about 1200 sq ft., and we had a large family. My parents wanted to be able to build a larger model, but the other families resisted the request. Also, some people were not contributing their fair share to the daily work load, people’s different ideologies and parenting techniques clashing, and likely a series of other small and large conflicts that contributed to my parents being unhappy living life within a communal model.

And then there were the people of the town at large. They would gossip of orgies and free sex and drugs and general crazy talk of what went on out in the country on those 80 wooded acres. All of it was rumor, none of it was remotely true, and it took a toll on my father’s business.

We moved back into the capitalist town and lived a more ‘acceptable’ life among a lot (not all) of very small minded, judgmental people who eventually accepted us back into the fold. Somewhat.

And so, therein lies the thing about socialism and why it sounds so scary to some – perhaps many – Americans. We like to share – it’s an essential lesson in child rearing – but we don’t like to share everything. And socialism allows for that possibility. We are conscious of the possibility that there will always be those who don’t hold up their end of the deal and will abuse the ’system’, or take advantage of the harder workers, or better earners, among us. But isn’t that the way life is, in general? Don’t we share and give of ourselves often, all the time, with nothing expected in return?

In Erich Fromm’s political psychological book “Escape from Freedom”, he discusses three ways we as humans avoid the responsibility and gravity of being truly free. One of them is by surrendering to ‘authoritarianism’, thereby allowing others, including our government, to make all of our decisions. Scary, huh?

In socialism, as ambiguous a term as it is, we are called upon to be responsible for ourselves and thus for society as a whole.
Progressives, a rather new term recently coined by people having a hard time calling themselves any particular party while we wage this ‘party line’ war, also feel that while people should take personal responsibility for their lives, they should also be willing to care for others in a society that is rarely fair and balanced. Progressives, like socialists, are encouraged to be more free with their thoughts, words, money, time. Being a progressive, like a democracy, is an experiment based in compassion and balance. Though it can seem burdensome to seek balance and fairness, as Fromm would point out, it can also be freeing – for those not afraid of freedom.

In the end, socialism is only a word, like all the other words we use to describe ourselves in a complex, multifarious world. And of words, we need to be the least frightened, and the most beholden.

And so it is with our President, a well spoken man, a man whose even staunchest opponents will call a great orator, that we become less impatient and more careful. If we continue to try to label him, we will lose. For he defies labels, as does this country. We are a mixture of so many incredible adjectives and nouns, and it is that ‘mixture’ that makes us profoundly unique. As we fervently aspire to many a verb: love, peace, forgiveness, progress, might we remember with pride that we are a country built on words, as in built from one piece of paper filled with meaningfully, meticulously crafted words; the U.S. Constitution.

So to those who are afraid of ‘socialism’, I assert that it is only a word, with many different meanings and forms. It’s not really scary, and it needn’t be labeled that way. And the beauty of this awe-inspiring country is this: nobody’s forcing you, or your leaders, to be only one thing, to think only one, rigid way. We can be a little bit of a lot things, and still call ourselves, with pride a ‘great American’!

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