Bernie Sanders is not the first person to try to establish socialism in America:
If Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic nomination and goes on to beat Donald Trump in November, we will have our very first full-blown socialist (actually, Communist) President of the United States. Heaven forbid. But it will not be the first time socialism has been tried there.
Various attempts have been made – or at least called for. Indeed, from the very earliest days it was briefly tried, and it almost destroyed the early colonists. Early in the 1600s when the Pilgrims first arrived, socialist experiments in the New World were being implemented.
For the first two years after their arrival, common ownership was tried – but it was a dismal failure. I have already written about this failed experiment, so let me simply quote parts of what I have said earlier. In an article from last year I mentioned one commentator who said this:
During those first two growing seasons, the tillable land was worked in common, and the meager harvest shared equally. Bradford’s account places the daily corn ration during the worst of times, incredibly, at just 3 kernels. Starvation and disease were constants. Clearly, the communal approach wasn’t working. Bradford writes that most of the work was performed by a half dozen of the strongest young men, whom the whole community relied on for sustenance. So Bradford set a new course. Instead of holding all the land in common, it was divided between the colonists to plant and work themselves.
And another author I quoted from said this:
The “common property” approach killed off about half the settlers. Governor Bradford recorded in his diary that everybody was happy to claim their equal share of production, but production only shrank. Slackers showed up late for work in the fields, and the hard workers resented it. It’s called “human nature.” The disincentives of the socialist scheme bred impoverishment and conflict until, facing starvation and extinction, Bradford altered the system. He divided common property into private plots, and the new owners could produce what they wanted and then keep or trade it freely. Communal socialist failure was transformed into private property/capitalist success. billmuehlenberg.com/2019/11/28/god-socialism-and-thanksgiving/
Another equally famous attempt at socialism in America lasted just as long and was just as great a failure. Many have written about this episode. Let me here draw upon one excellent resource. In Joshua Murachik’s Heaven on Earth (Encounter Books, 2002, 2019) there is a detailed chapter devoted to Robert Owen and his New Harmony socialist experiment.
Robert Owen was a Welsh textile manufacturer, social reformer, and utopian socialist (1771-1858). Several of his sons – Robert Dale Owen (1801-1877) and William Owen (1802-1842) – went with him to America to establish a communal homeland. In January 1825 they set up their socialist utopia along the Wabash River in Indiana.
They bought some land with a small town and called it New Harmony. The communal experiment attracted some excitement and attention, especially among intellectuals, and around a thousand residents eventually settled in it. But it proved to be an economic failure. New Harmony lasted just over two years and was dissolved in April 1827.
Muravchik tells us about three key motivating factors – or rather, three key dislikes – of the senior Owen. He shares this from a speech Owen gave in July of 1826:
Man, up to this hour, has been, in all parts of the earth a slave to a Trinity of the most monstrous evils that could be combined to inflict mental and physical evil upon the whole race. . . . Private, or individual property – absurd and irrational systems of religion – and marriage, founded on individual property combined with some of these irrational systems of religion.
Hmm, he sounds like a lot of other more recent socialists and communists: a hatred of God, a hatred of private property, and a hatred of marriage and family. But simply by seeking to do away with private property, Owen sealed his own fate.
Muravchik quotes Robert Dale Owen, who seems to have been much more sober minded about such things than his father. He said this was the “most potent factor” in the collapse of New Harmony:
All cooperative schemes which provide equal remuneration to the skilled and industrious and the ignorant and idle, must work their own downfall, for by this unjust plan of remuneration they must of necessity eliminate the valuable members – who find their services reaped by the indigent – and retain only the improvident, unskilled, and vicious members.
Muravchik goes on to say this:
The failure of New Harmony cost Robert Owen much of his fortune, but it did not shake his faith in his ideas. He paid it little more attention than he paid to the arguments of his adversaries. In his autobiography he devoted a total of three sentences to the entire New Harmony venture, commenting that he “found the population of the States far too undeveloped at that period for the practice of a full true and social life.”
Hmm, sounds like another socialist millionaire today: Bernie. He can pontificate all he likes about how ordinary Americans must tighten their belts to save the planet and to be true, ‘caring’ Americans, while he enjoys his three homes, his private jet travel, and all the rest of the perks of the good life.
Muravchik winds up his chapter by noting how Owen’s children subverted his socialist dream:
His four sons and one of his daughters remained in America and contributed more than their share to shaping and strengthening the country that would prove to be the insuperable obstacle to socialism. They were among the several hundred survivors of Owen’s experiment who took possession of individual holdings at New Harmony. Relieved of his blueprints, the community thrived.
And his closing paragraphs are equally telling. Robert Dale Owen went on to become a member of the US House of Representatives, and he said this about the difference between the Old World and the New:
“In Europe, where men are trained to bear any and every thing, even steady, respectable heads of families are content to be life-renters or mere tenants at will.… But here, fortunately, the state of things is very different.… [A]ny man who has the smallest share of honest ambition, and who can wield an axe or plough a corn-row, chooses to have his own homesteading [from which no] haughty landlord [can] dispossess him. So ought it to be every where; so is it, in these United States.”
Thus, the son who had written of his rapturous expectations as he first crossed the Atlantic to join his father’s colony found the “Land of Promise” not in New Harmony, but in America itself.
Yes, America, the land of the free and the home of the brave. But all that might be undone if folks like Bernie and their supporters get their way. Clearly we have not learned the lessons of history, including the history of socialism’s various failures in the United States.