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Monday, June 27, 2016

Give Me Liberty

Rose Wilder Lane's epic essay from 1936

In 1919 I was a communist. My Bolshevik friends of those days are scattered now; some are bourgeois, some are dead, some are in China and Russia, and I did not know the last American chiefs of the Third International, who now officially embrace Democracy. They would repudiate me even as a renegade comrade, for I was never a member of The Party. But it was merely an accident that I was not.

This epic essay by Rose Wilder Lane was first published in 1936.

In those days immediately after the first world war it was not prudent to advocate fundamental changes in America. The cry was, “If you don’t like this country, go back where you came from!” I had friends, patriotic Americans from American families as old as my own, who had been tried and sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment for editing a magazine friendly to the Russian experiment. Ships lay with steam up and papers cleared, ready to whisk from these shores, without legal process or any opportunity for defense, groups of suspected radicals rounded up by agents of the Department of Justice. Policemen were breaking down unlocked doors, smashing innocent furniture and, with surprising lack of discrimination, beating up Russians who had fled from communism because they didn’t like it.

Amid all this hysteria and in quite real danger, Jack Reed was organizing the Communist Party in America.

I forget the precise locale of that historic scene, but I was there. Somewhere in the slums of New York, a dirty stairway went up from the filthy sidewalk. Haggard urchins at the door offered communist publications for sale. The usual gaunt women were asking for help for someone’s legal defense. “A dime, comrade? A nickel? Every penny counts now.”

We went up through the sluggish jostling on the stairs to the usual dingy room with the rented chairs, the slightly crooked posters on smudged walls, the smell of poverty and the hungry, lighted faces.

All those meetings were the same, that winter. Their light seemed to come, not from the grudging bulbs that dangled from the ceiling, but from the faces. Our police were shouting that communists were foreigners, and it was true that most of the faces were foreign, and many of the voices. But these people had a vision that seemed to me the American dream. They had followed it to America and they were still following it; a dream of a new world of freedom, justice and equality.

They had escaped from oppression in Europe, to exist in New York’s slums, to work endless hours in sweat shops and wearily study English at night. They were hungry and exhausted and exploited by their own people in this strange land, and to their dream of a better world which they did not hope to live long enough to see, they gave the dimes they needed for food.

I remember the room as a small room, with perhaps sixty men and women in it. There was an almost unbearable sense of expectancy, and a sense of danger. The meeting had not begun. A few men gathered around Jack Reed were talking earnestly, urgently. He caught sight of the man with me, and his tenseness broke into Jack Reed’s smile, more joyous than a shout. He broke loose from the others, reached us in half a dozen strides and exclaimed, “Are you with us!”

“Are you?” he repeated, expectant. But the question itself was a challenge. This was a risky enterprise. Jack Reed, as every communist knows, did not leave his own country later; he escaped from it. Federal agents, raiding police, might break in upon us at that moment. We knew this, and because I shared the communist dream I was prepared to take risks and also to submit to the rigorous party discipline. But the man beside me began a vague discussion of tactics; evaded; hesitated; questioned and demurred; finally, with a disarming smile, doubted whether he should risk committing himself, his safety was to valuable to The Cause. Jack Reed turned on his heel, saying, “Oh, go to hell, you damn coward.”

This brief scene had shown me my complete unimportance at the moment; I represented no group, carried no weight in that complex of theorists and of leaders. I was merely an individual, just then heartily in sympathy with Jack Reed’s words, and dazed by a miserable cold. I went home. The cold proved to be influenza; I nearly died, expenses overwhelmed me, I had to make my living, and before my health recovered I was in Europe.

By so narrow a margin I was not a member of the Communist Party. Nevertheless, I was at heart a communist.

Many regard the collectivist State, as I did, as an extension of democracy. In this view, the picture is one of progressive steps to freedom. The first step was the Reformation; that won freedom of conscience. The second was the political revolution; our American Revolution against an English king was part of that. This second step won for all western peoples varying degrees of political freedom. Liberals have continued to increase that freedom by giving increasing political power to The People. In the United States, for example, Liberals gained equal suffrage, popular election of nearly all public officials, initiative, referendum, recall, and the primaries.

But now, we confront economic tyranny. Stated in its simplest terms, no man is free whose very livelihood can be denied him, at another man’s will. The worker is a wage-slave. The final revolution, then, must capture economic control.

I now see a dominant fallacy in that picture, and I shall point it out. But let it pass for the moment. There is another picture. This:

Since the progress of science and invention enables us to produce more goods than we can consume, no one should lack any material thing. Yet we see on the one hand, great wealth in the hands of a few who, owning and controlling all means of production, own all the goods produced; on the other hand, we see multitudes always relatively poor, lacking goods they could enjoy.

Who owns this great wealth? The Capitalist. What creates wealth? Labor. How does the Capitalist get it? He collects a profit on all goods produced. Does the Capitalist produce anything? No; Labor produces everything. Then, if all working men, organized in trade-unions, compelled all Capitalists to pay in wages the full value of their labor, they could buy all the goods produced? No, because the Capitalist adds his profit to the goods before he sells them.

From this point of view, it is clear that the Profit System causes the injustice, the inequality, we see. We must eliminate profit; that is to say, we must eliminate the Capitalist. We will take his current profits, distribute his accumulated wealth, and ourselves administer his former affairs. The workers who produce the goods will then enjoy the goods, there will no longer be any economic inequality, and we shall have such general prosperity as the world has never known.

When the Capitalist is gone, who will manage production? The State. And what is The State? The State will be the mass of the toiling workers.

It was at this point that the first doubt pierced my Communist faith.

  • Rose Wilder Lane (December 5, 1886 – October 30, 1968) was an American journalist, travel writer, novelist, political theorist, and daughter of American writer Laura Ingalls Wilder. Along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Paterson, Lane is noted as one of the founders of the American libertarian movement.