The Past Isn’t Dead. It isn’t Even Past.

I have been on a reading program of sorts, working my way through a number of the left and right wing classics of yesteryear. Yesterday I posted this amazing quote from Henry George’s PROGRESS AND POVERTY (1879) on my Facebook page. Setting aside its dated language, it could have come off the op ed page of a newspaper today:

It is true that wealth has been greatly increased, and that the average of comfort, leisure, and refinement has been raised; but these gains are not general. In them the lowest class do not share….It is as though an immense wedge were being forced, not underneath society, but through society. Those who are above the point of separation are elevated, but those who are below are crushed down….

Edward Bellamy’s LOOKING BACKWARD (1887) is as clumsily written as Ayn Rand’s THE FOUNTAINHEAD–and like her book, climaxes with an interminable radio sermon (actually Bellamy’s is broadcast via telephone–the only new piece of technology he imagines in the world of the twentieth century are awnings that are rolled over city sidewalks, eliminating the need for umbrellas. He might have shared HG Wells’s socialism, but not his futurism). Despite myself, I was moved by its description of the benighted Americans of the nineteenth century who had yet to embrace collectivism:

It was the sincere belief of even the best of men at that epoch that the only stable elements in human nature on which a social system could be safely founded, were its worst propensities. They had been taught and believed that greed and self-seeking were all that held mankind together, and that all human associations would fall to pieces if anything were done to blunt the edge of these motives or curb their operation. In a word, they believed–even those who longed to believe otherwise–the exact reverse of what seems to us self-evident; they believed, that is, that the anti-social qualities of men, and not their social qualities, were what furnished the cohesive force of society. It seemed reasonable to them that men lived together solely for the purpose of overreaching and oppressing one another, and of being overreached and oppressed, and that while a society that gave full scope to these propensities could stand, there would be little chance for one based on the idea of cooperation.

Compare that to ATLAS SHRUGS’ pirate Ragnar Danneskjold’s speech on the evil of Robin Hood, that moral monstrosity who “assumed a halo of virtue by practicing charity with wealth which he did not own…who became the symbol of the idea that need, not achievement, is the source of rights, that we don’t have to produce, only to want.” Robin Hood “has brought us to a world where the more a man produces, the closer he comes to the loss of all his rights, until, if his ability is great enough, he becomes a rightless creature delivered as prey to any claimant.” The world Rand was writing about, I should remind you, wasn’t a future dystopia or the Bolshevik Russia that stripped her family of their rights and property–it was the America of the 1950s, an epoch that most people remember as being both prosperous and pretty firmly anti-Communist.

When you actually read old polemics you realize that the fact that people lived a long time ago doesn’t necessarily mean that their ideas were bounded by the limits of what we are primed to think of today as what is “old-fashioned.” And just because an idea or a system–market capitalism, say–outlived its competitors, that doesn’t mean that it ever enjoyed universal or even majority support.

America has been turning out anarchists, socialists, communists, communalists, free lovers, atheists, and spiritualists for a long time–not to mention milquetoasty liberals and moderate conservatives, people who occupied the same places on the political spectrum that Adlai Stevenson and Dwight Eisenhower had staked out for themselves when Ayn Rand inflicted ATLAS SHRUGS on the world in 1957 (the year of my birth, as it happens).

A lot of Americans were appalled by this country’s structural inequalities 150 years ago–and they would have been no less appalled by the selfishness, hypocrisy, and sanctimony of so many of today’s Republicans than they were by their own leaders’. When we don’t challenge the right’s self-description as “conservative,” we invite it to appropriate our history.

No idea today is so extreme or “progressive” that it wasn’t energetically advocated by someone 150 years ago. It’s worth remembering that whenever so-called conservatives stake their claim to the future on their supposed ownership of the past.

8 thoughts on “The Past Isn’t Dead. It isn’t Even Past.

  1. I’ve had a similar response to reading Mark Twain on American imperialism. His “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” is so atemporal it’s unnerving.

  2. I feel that way about Twain all the time–and the parallels between our two gilded ages (except we don’t have the radicals that they did).

  3. I recently started a small furniture manufacturing company. What I first discovered was that the profitability of the company and thus my income was not as much based upon the sales we generated, or the risk I took with capital, as the productivity of the people who built the furniture. I tried several approaches to increasing productivity until I finally fell upon one which seems to work. Twice a month we look at our income and expenses. Once expenses have been paid and some money set aside, we distribute the net income equally – based upon the hours contributed. I make more money from my company if my coworkers make more money. This isn’t a distribution of the wealth, it is simply what is appropriate – the way things ought to be. While I believe in the distribution of wealth, it is unnecessary when those who own private companies realize where their wealth comes – how their boat rises when the whole sea rises (to highjack a metaphor).

  4. I read Looking Backward and was pretty underwhelmed by it – much more so than I would have expected for a book that so many found so inspiring (reading Martin Gardner’s brutal critique didn’t help.) I did, however,enjoy a great deal Jules Verne’s Paris in the 20th Century which is kind of like a dystopian mirror book of Atlas Shrugged, where market forces crush individuality.

    And as to finding ourselves in past others; I like Barbara Tuchman’s metaphor of history providing us a “distant mirror.”

  5. I just put Paris in the 20th Century on my Kindle. I think I read it, but I would have been at an age when I would have focused completely on the plot. PS Except now that I’m actually trying to push the button, I see that a Kindle edition doesn’t exist–and that the book wasn’t published in English until 1996, when I was completely grown up. That’ll teach me to comment in haste!

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