I intentionally used the word “Statism” in place of “Socialism” in the title to this piece because no matter what anybody ever says “socialism” is, it isn’t that; that being whichever most-recently-failed flavor of Marxism has descended into an authoritarian dystopia in which the “workers of the world” are getting it good and hard, promises of free “healthcare” and free “education” (and more) notwithstanding. More importantly, however, I do so because in the United States there are two genus of Statist philosophies, one known as Republican and the other as Democrat, and rather than get confused by their official histories, I’d like to offer an alternative philosophical taxonomy (and history) that helps explain why Americans keep losing freedom with each successive election, regardless of which party wins, and in spite of what both claim publicly to be doing for Individual Liberty.
Taxonomically speaking, and in the broadest sense, there are only a few possibilities for the philosophies that circumscribe an individual’s relationship to some authority over him/her that can – and does – mandate rules for Man’s conduct. God (Religion) or Government (State) are the two most well-known members of that family and come in an almost endless supply of genus and species that can be grouped under certain objective, measurable criteria, in much the same way a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is a particular species of the genus fox (Vulpes), which is a member of the larger canine (Canidae) family. (As an aside, Aristotle’s “Categories,” part of the larger Organon, does this for… well, everything, and is one of the great intellectual undertakings of any age, in my opinion. It is well outside the scope of this piece, but it looms in the background any time one engages in taxonomy.) I’ve left out “None” (Anarchy) as the other major player, and the possible fourth of Minarchism, which might include Market rules that dictate how a person may voluntary participate in commerce with others – because they are beyond the scope of this essay’s concern.
The Statism Tree in America has two trunks – or maybe it would be more correct to say one trunk with two branches: the first I will call “Religious Utopianism” and the other I will call “Social Utopianism.” The first version would include most of the early settlers you’ve read about and for whom you’ve eaten turkey the third Thursday every November. The Pilgrims were undoubtedly fleeing religious persecution in their homelands, but it is no exaggeration to say that the Puritan Separatists were the Christian equivalent of the Taliban of their day. It was no accident they needed to go to completely undiscovered lands outside of Europe to live. Lest this seem a bridge too far, consider that 35 of the 102 passengers aboard the Mayflower were Puritans, an illegal (under English law) and radical Christian sect who originally fled England for the more religiously tolerant Netherlands in 1607 – so that they could oppress each other… more freely… without any interference from their English King. After a few short years, however, fearing the loss of their English identity among the Dutch, they decided to go to the New World and join the already existing Virginia colony – in the area around the Hudson River. Navigation being what it was in the 1600s, they wound up at what is now Cape Cod. Before they even went ashore, however, there were problems. While the Puritans made up the largest minority on the ship, some 60 or so ‘others’ – known by the Pilgrims as ‘strangers’ – decided they were no longer bound by the original charter because they weren’t in the Virginia Company territory. (We might call these people the original American anarchists or minarchists).
Only 41 people signed the Mayflower Compact, an explicitly Christian charter. We might well have a very different history as a Nation but for the combination of the New England winter of 1620-1621 and disease, which together wiped out over half of the original 102 travelers who went ashore in what is now Plymouth, MA… leaving only the Puritans. So much for early attempts at minarchism(!) – and the Mayflower Compact continued in force until 1691, when Plymouth Colony became a part of the larger Massachusetts Bay Colony. The very next year, 1692, were the Salem Witch Trials, in which John Hathorne (1641-1717), the great-great-grandfather of author Nathaniel Hawthorne, was one of the chief inquisitors and by all accounts an incomparably cruel man. He was also a Church elder, businessman, and among the leaders of the Puritan community in Salem. His father, Major William Hathorne, was one of the original settlers of Massachusetts Bay Colony and the stories of him include that he once chopped a man’s ear off with an axe for some breach of religious doctrine – I believe it was for drinking or not keeping the sabbath or somesuch – and then tied the “sinner” to a wagon and paraded him through the town to serve as an example.
“He was, as Hawthorne later characterized him, ‘a bitter persecutor’ of Quakers. In particular, he is remembered for ordering the whipping of Ann Coleman.” (From the embedded wikipedia link.)
Having lived in Afghanistan for some 16 months, 11 months of it in one particular area, and having worked with hundreds of Afghans who told tale of their suffering at the hands of the Taliban religious police, I stand by my statement that the early Puritans were not unlike the Taliban in their religious fervor. I had an interpreter who was caught by the sharia police for not having a long enough beard. Because he has a rather heavy beard, the Taliban surmised that he must have shaved it recently. And so he was thrown in jail to await a public lashing at the local soccer field. Luckily, he and several others escaped the day before they were due to be lashed and the U.S. invasion came not long after – suddenly the beard police had more important things to do.
Judge John Hathorne had a man crushed to death, slowly, using rocks, when the man refused to “acknowledge” that he was a witch. When the hysteria of the Witch Trials began to wind down, Judge Samuel Sewall (eventually) recorded in his diary that on January 14, 1697, he – Sewall – stood up in church while his minister read his confession of guilt for having persecuted the innocent. John Hathorne, however, so far as we know, never publicly repented of his part in the Witch Trials or the Trial themselves.
It might well be asked by the discerning reader what this history, however interesting it may be, has to do with modern American political sensibilities. I would submit that John Hathorne is the perfect example, the very archetype, of how we arrive at modern evangelicals in the Republican party. Now, I can hear my conservative friends throwing their collective backs out trying to jump up to say it’s a long way from the Puritans to the modern Republicans, but I’m not talking about a direct political line of descent from one to the other, but rather a broad philosophical one. The urge to punish religious dissenters for heresy is rooted in nothing more than the urge to protect the prevailing orthodoxy.
How does a guy like Hathorne come to be? As I have previously detailed in this piece I wrote on public education in America, the first mandatory public school law in the U.S. was in Massachusetts. The “Old Deluder Satan Law” of 1647 was explicitly intended to ensure that the Bay Colony’s children could read the bible and knew the central tenets of their Puritan faith; John Hathorne was 6 years-young when it was passed and almost assuredly was a byproduct of the mandatory public school system of his time. Hathorne may have been unusual in his lack of mercy, but he was no black swan among his peers. All of the judges of the Salem Witch Trials were learned and respected men and most went on to careers in the law and in Massachusetts government, some even after the Witch trials. (Some might say that they were the “Toppe Men” of their day, much like politicians and other luminaries of today).
A big chunk of the settlement of the early American colonies took the form of “religious utopianism” – the desire to build communities that could and would properly worship God. Of course, what properly meant was the subject of such intense debate – and the Puritans such… well, puritanical a-holes — that they even spawned new colonies… of more religious utopians. One notable exception to all of this, however – and now I beam with the pride of a studious Rhode Islander – was Roger Williams. Williams was a Separatist like his fellows in Massachusetts, though he had not been a part of the first wave. He came to the New World in 1631 and had a post in – of all places – a church at Salem, Massachusetts – exactly sixty years before the Trials. By 1635, however, he’d already worn out his welcome by preaching that King James’ charters were “a lie.” The basis for Williams’ blasphemous claim? Because Williams believed that the land should have been purchased from the Native Americans, rather than merely declared owned by the Crown to be distributed by Royal Charters and Decrees. In other words, Williams was calling the entire legal order or property, the very structure of English society transplanted to the New World, into question. He was more than once called before the General Court in Boston to answer for his “erroneous” and “dangerous opinions” between 1632 and 1635 and finally convicted of sedition and heresy in October of 1635. He was ordered to be banished, but allowed to stay through the winter if he shut his mouth.
Of course he wouldn’t… and didn’t.
Local officials came to his house to discuss his (continuing) heresy in the middle of the winter – January of 1636, but they found that Williams had already fled – three days earlier, in fact, during a blizzard. He took shelter among the Wampanoag natives 55 miles to the south until spring, then he founded Rhode Island. Despite being a Puritan himself, Williams founded Li’l Rhody on the concept of religious freedom and the separation of religious opinions from the engines of the State. Williams and Rhode Island were the first colonists to explicitly divide the two and allow for complete “liberty of conscience.” They accepted notable exiles and dissenters from all over, but principally from other Massholes who had also gotten sick of the Puritans’ schtick.
These early anglo-Americans strains of Religious Utopianism perpetuated themselves through Statism, specifically through two kinds of laws: laws mandating indoctrination (i.e. “public education”) to ensure the next generation were properly learned, and laws against heresy – the First Amendment is both a reaction to early heresy laws and – simultaneously – a bulwark against the State getting to have an official, legal opinion on the matter at all. The founding of other religiously dedicated or dominated colonies along the eastern seaboard, from New Sweden’s Lutherans (near modern-day Wilmington, DE), to Lord Baltimore’s haven for Catholics a little further south, became necessary because if there was one thing the various Protestant denominations from England and Europe arrived-in-the-New-World could agree upon, it was the absolute need to repress the “papists” – and keep them from having any kind of control of government, or even strong influence on the people. If this seems to prove too much, one can peruse the correspondence of Thomas Jefferson and George Wythe in 1786 and find rampant anti-catholic sentiment; public education was intended to ensure that the papists in private schools didn’t ruin the minds of the children.
To the larger point about Statism, the problem with Religious Utopianism – with the notable exception of Roger Williams – is that it couldn’t – and never can – allow heresy to “peacefully coexist” with existing orthodoxy. And if my religiously conservative friends are feeling a bit beset upon, I ask them to indulge and read a bit further; we’re coming to the political Left’s turn (speaking of persecution of heresy!) and this is a point to which we shall return.
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Volumes have already been written about Karl Marx, so there is no need for me to even attempt what others have already done better. (Although I will note that there is a rather nice gloss on his economic theories on his Wikipedia page). Of salience for this essay, however, is only one quote from Wikipedia regarding a far less well-known work by Marx – his doctoral thesis:
The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, which he completed in 1841. It was described as “a daring and original piece of work in which Marx set out to show that theology must yield to the superior wisdom of philosophy.” (emphasis mine)
I hate to draw too much from a work I haven’t read, but Marx is also widely known to be atheist, and it appears that his graduate thesis was an attempt to show the inferiority of theology to philosophy, an undoubtedly controversial position to hold in 1841. This is not to say that he was blazing new ground, as many others had come before – and done it better – during the Enlightenment, but Marx remained, if not hostile to religion, opposed to it because he saw
Religion [as] the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.
For Marx, poor people are religious solely because of the misery of their circumstances. If the workers could be liberated from their capitalist oppressors and given ownership of the means of production, then they would no longer need the opium-like escape of belief in a God. They could… kick the religious habit, so to speak.
It’s all too-easy to find the philosophical strains of Marxism in the current Democratic party, but the line from the original Jacksonian Democrats to the current Bernie-Bros and Progressive SJWs is such a twisted skein that has been covered – and covered up – so much that arguing over particular issues that led us to where we are is an exercise in futility. Historians and apologists (but I repeat myself) line up issues using the European Left-Right political dichotomy and ignore the essential axis of Liberty-Authority that undergirds the origins of the American experiment, causing significant confusion about how we got the democratic platform of (of 1828) to the current Marxism.
The Democrats represented a wide range of views but shared a fundamental commitment to the Jeffersonian concept of an agrarian society. They viewed the central government as the enemy of individual liberty. The 1824 “corrupt bargain” had strengthened their suspicion of Washington politics. […] Jacksonians feared the concentration of economic and political power. They believed that government intervention in the economy benefited special-interest groups and created corporate monopolies that favored the rich. They sought to restore the independence of the individual – the artisan and the ordinary farmer – by ending federal support of banks and corporations and restricting the use of paper currency, which they distrusted.
Quite the shift to now, no?
The original democrats may have had very different policy prescriptions than their current name-claiming descendants who wear blue and bear the donkey logo, but populism, and majoritarian impulses more broadly, have always been at the heart of the democratic party. It is no wonder then that they would simply switch out their economics in the 1920s for the broad populist veneer (and appeal) of Marxism – and ignore what it meant in principle.
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One of the most important ways to understand American politics and its history is to understand that no party has ever had a monopoly on the American voter: the two U.S. political parties have always had to cobble together coalitions to accomplish their goals at the ballot box. This is the reality of the “melting pot” and the founding of distinct colonies with variegated histories, religions, languages, and cultures: and jurisdictional terrain upon which to exercise their prerogatives. Rust Belt voters had – and have – very different political concerns than southern farmers and Maine lobstermen.
To find the common root between these two seemingly-opposed political viewpoints of the democrats and republicans, you have to look to the Progressive Movement in America. Progressivism united significant numbers of these two seemingly disparate factions in response to the externalities of rapid American industrialization and modernization. The urge of Progressivism was the “purification” of American society: the elimination of waste and excess in both business and broader society. Among racist democrats, this meant disenfranchisement of blacks and a push for more direct democracy: the referendum, the direct election of senators, and what amounts to municipal administration. The abolitionist movement, with its roots in Christian notions of the equality for all, having achieved de jure legal status for blacks, if not de facto, now turned its eyes to the bigger chunk of the disenfranchised: women. Organizations like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union saw themselves as a part of this broader reform movement and agitated for child labor laws, mandatory public education to get children off of the streets, and – of course – the franchise for their core constituency. It was this merger of seemingly disparate ideologies, of populism with a demand for more “efficient” and “clean” government, of equal franchise for women and education for children, that yielded some of the most important structural changes in the country, including the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th Amendments at the height of Progressive political power.
It is also important to note that progressivism included numerous legal luminaries of the day, including Louis Brandeis and Oliver Wendell Holmes. The Progressives used “social science” methodology – statistics and legislative committee studies – to “prove,” for example, it was necessary for “society” to sterilize people being held in institutions for the mentally handicapped. It was the populist impulse – the democratic political ideology – that gave “society” a voice in denying the individual the protection that the Constitution had previously been deemed to afford. It was the republican religious impulse that helped guide Progressivism on matters related to childhood education, women’s suffrage, and the Prohibition of alcohol. For almost 50 years, Progressivism dominated the American political landscape and cut a swath through its institutions. The modern, TL/DR version of this history is that the Progressive Era was the perfect fusion of the Karens with the Racists, allowing for the widespread disenfranchisement of newly freed blacks, the growth and imposition of the bureaucratic state, and the restriction of civil rights for everyone else.
Modern Marxist democrats will be appalled at this re-casting of history, but most of them are direct philosophical descendants of the Progressive fusion of republican religious zeal with a slavish devotion to the State as new church of the secular social scientist. There is no better example of this than the current “hate speech” codes and the tendency of Progressives to rely upon the phrase “You can’t shout fire in a crowded theater!” with absolutely zero awareness of just how terrible that Progressive era decision is, (Schenck v United States), how wrong Holmes was in his example, nor that the petitioner in the case were known socialists and union organizers who were jailed for distributing pamphlets arguing that the draft for WWI was a violation of the 13th Amendment. THAT is what “speech” Holmes was analogizing to shouting “FIRE!” in a crowded theater – protesting against the draft for WW1 with some socialism sprinkled in… but you can’t find a handful of people in American popular media or culture who could or will tell you that.
“Fire in a crowded theater” is now simply a phrase that Progressives repeat like a cafeteria catholic reciting the Apostle’s Creed, except with more faith and less understanding from the former than the latter. Indeed, any moral person who stops to give the issues a detailed consideration might well consider it a moral imperative to yell “Fire!” if they thought they saw one, especially in a crowded theater. The issue isn’t solely the possibility of injury in the resulting stampede – it’s weighing that possible outcome against the possibility of everyone being burned to death trapped in a theater if it actually is on fire. Holmes’ rhetorical trick was to focus solely on the one harm while ignoring the other by inserting the word “falsely” and giving no discussion to the actual, competing interests at stake. That Schenck continues to be cited – and recited – by modern democrats to allow them to shout down and shut down their opponents’ speech is an irony that requires actual understanding of the issues at hand to appreciate, but it’s gut-wrenching to those of us with a modicum of intellectual curiosity and love for individual liberty. Moreover, it’s yet another slam dunk against the public education system and resultant piss-poor state of public discourse, to my mind.
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The “breakup” of the Progressive fusion back into respective Republican and Democrat camps was largely as a result, in my opinion, of two forces. First and foremost, they succeeded wildly in their ambitions, achieving four Constitutional Amendments and a slew of Supreme Court decisions that were the functional equivalent of amending the Constitution. It is extremely difficult to hold together a political coalition in the aftermath of success. The second reason was the increasing atheism and racism of the populist democrats into the 1920s and 1930s that nicely dovetailed with the burgeoning eugenics movement. Margaret Sanger might be the archetype of the split in the Progressive movement and I would encourage anyone to read even just the wikipedia on her life for illustration of the point. Her journey from daughter of a Christian stonemason to ardent advocate for eugenics, including of blacks, perfectly illustrates the split in the Statist tree, when some Christians in the Progressive movement went back to their ‘republican’ roots and Progressives heard the clarion call of socialism and its atheist founder, Marx. The misapplication of both Darwin and Einstein to areas far afield from their own led intellectuals down some dark alleys from which we have yet to recover.
This is why we find ourselves in the current era with only two political parties, both well-studied in the use of the State to enforce their own particular views onto others. It is also why both find solace in Schenck’s ignorant command: the most important value common to both modern democrats and republicans is their intolerance for heresy – neither is capable of allowing dissent from orthodoxy. This is also why the First Amendment finds itself in tatters, and the values it was meant to protect nearly dead. Courts now look at the list of particulars and treat the Amendment as a collection of individual “interests” to be “balanced” against the “State’s” countervailing “interests,” rather than understanding that the Amendment as a whole is meant to protect dissenters and heretics. Period. The entirety of the First Amendment is like a monument to Roger Williams, the one-time Puritan who felt compelled to speak up against the orthodoxy of his day. The rights of free speech AND free association AND freedom of assembly AND freedom to publish AND separation of church and state (the establishment clause) are ALL ideas that are the fruits, individual blossoms, of a single tree designed to preserve Liberty – and the most important right for a free man or woman is the right to be able to speak their mind and associate with others of the same view. Forced association, speech codes, speech defined down because it makes money (commercial speech), all derive from a crippled understanding of Liberty. But if you’re looking for a reason why both Progressive democrats and conservative republicans agree you need to be quiet, why Twitter and Facebook now sound just like the moms and church ladies who were against rap music and explicit lyrics, it’s because neither is really interested in you correctly shouting “bullshit!” to what both have to say in the theater of public opinion. Heresy remains the ultimate sin to either Orthodoxy.
 There are arguments to be made for various others in the class, including “None,” under which we might place both Atheism and Anarchy, or make additional distinctions that would allow overlap and hybrids, or even a slightly different taxonomy. Regardless, both are outside this essay’s scope of concern.
 It also included some people who were not specifically religious, but only one kind – explorers – might fall under banner the “None”
 I mean that in the legal sense, not religious, though Williams undoubtedly would have meant it in both meanings.
 My kinda guy.