On Steinbeck, Socialism, Internet Quotes, and the Need for Materialist Analysis
“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
― John Steinbeck
This quote by author John Steinbeck has been circulating online in different social medias for quite a while recently. Like many popular sayings spread online there is a question of its authenticity, as almost all of the forwards never cite a source. Further research turns up where it really came from. And the popularity of this quote, whatever its factual basis, reveals much about the state of the Amerikan Left.
The original citation is likely a misquote from a passage of his book America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction, a collection of Steinbeck’s work as a journalist:
Except for the field organizers of strikes, who were pretty tough monkeys and devoted, most of the so-called Communists I met were middle-class, middle-aged people playing a game of dreams. I remember a woman in easy circumstances saying to another even more affluent: ‘After the revolution even we will have more, won’t we, dear?’ Then there was another lover of proletarians who used to raise hell with Sunday picknickers on her property.
I guess the trouble was that we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist. Maybe the Communists so closely questioned by the investigation committees were a danger to America, but the ones I knew—at least they claimed to be Communists—couldn’t have disrupted a Sunday-school picnic. Besides they were too busy fighting among themselves.
So the quote that has been spreading over the internet was not quite accurate. Steinbeck did say that ‘we didn’t have any self-admitted proletarians. Everyone was a temporarily embarrassed capitalist.’ But he is referring more to his experience with self-admitted Communist organizers in the United States, and the privileged backgrounds they had, rather than the state of Amerikans overall. This is an interesting observation, for even in the Depression era when Amerikans were more likely to have been proletarian, there was few Communist advocates from that class itself. Yet why do so many people in the U.S. today accept this quote as the truth, even in its bastardized form? From this one can take a look at how the idea of Amerikan Exceptionalism has taken root even among the Amerikan Left, and the different ways they have tried to explain it, with Steinbeck’s quote being one of them.
Steinbeck wrote several novels depicting average people during the Depression and their struggles. Although he espoused leftist views in his writings and was influenced by many other leftist writers, at the end of his life he supported the Vietnam War from an establishment liberal position. One of his most famous novels was The Grapes of Wrath, depicting the life of white migrant workers during the Great Depression. It was attacked by right-wing forces for being communist propaganda. In contrast, the film version of his novel The Grapes of Wrath was reportedly banned in the Soviet Union because it portrayed even the poorest Americans being able to afford cars. Whether this last incident is true or not, it says something about the bigger picture of Amerikan Exceptionalism.
We at RAIM and Anti-Imperialism.com have analyzed Amerikan history and society based on the ideas of the global labor aristocracy, where the workers inside the U.S. get more than the value of their labor due to imperialist superexploitation of the rest of the Third World. The U.S. became so wealthy it spread part of the wealth to ‘its’ population. This stems as well from its history as a settler-colonial country. Whereas Europe had to ship dispossessed peasants across the Atlantic Ocean to ease social tensions during its nascent capitalism phase, class conflicts in the US were more readily smoothed over by settling on more land to the West (stolen at gunpoint from its original indigenous inhabitants, of course). These ideas were formulated in the past by many different national liberation and anti-imperialist movements. They were further articulated by J. Sakai in Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat, and picked up by the Maoist Internationalist Movement and later groups.
These ideas have been minority viewpoints in the Amerikan Left, which generally insists on the potential vitality of class struggles in the First World. Adherents of this line do not give any objective material reasons for this, often explaining away the actual lack of class struggle as due to the “false consciousness” of Amerikan workers. Many have talked about the seeming lack of class consciousness in the United States. As we can see, this struggle has been going on even before Steinbeck.
Back in 1914 there was a debate between Morris Hillquit, the head of the American Socialist Party, and Samuel Gompers. Gompers was the head of the American Federation of Labor, which advocated conservative “business unionism” that rejected class struggle in favor of the goals of just getting gains for their own members under the capitalist system. This model proved popular for workers even then, for with more material benefits the workers saw no need for socialism. The debate Hillquit and Gompers had is described here in a passage from John Patrick Diggin’s book The Rise and Fall of the American Left:
“But to the left-wing intellectuals, the AFL offered no ideological challenge to capitalism other than demanding more of its profits so that workers could purchase more of its products. Gomperism, as George Bernard Shaw said of trade unionism, was the capitalism of the proletariat.
American socialists attempted to challenge Gomper’s leadership. But a key to the weakness of that challenge may be seen in the famous debate in 1914 between Gompers and Morris Hillquit. A Latvian immigrant, Hillquit became one of the chief spokesmen for the philosophy of socialism in America. A leading popularizer of Marxism, he effectively answered the attacks by critics who feared collective ownership as a threat to individual liberty. Yet, in his debate with Gompers, he was reluctant to define an “end” or “ultimate goal” of socialism other than to say that socialists’ demands went “further” and “higher” than those of the AFL. The basic difference between socialism and trade unionism was, Hillquit admitted, “a quantitative one – that the Socialist Party wants more than the American Federation of Labor.” Such a formulation had serious limitation. Without an enduring ideal toward which labor must struggle, without a theoretical vision that would guide everyday decisions, it was difficult for socialists to check practice against theory and even more difficult for workers to know how to distinguish the “quantitative” promises of socialism from those of capitalism.” (1)
As one can see here, even in the early 20th century Amerikan leftists, like the Communists observed by Steinbeck, saw socialism as a means of getting more than they were under capitalism. And these were the radicals of their time, one does not need to think much about how average Amerikans would have seen socialism. Even today, where socialism is seen as synonymous with un-Amerikan, leftists within the United States still do not seem any different from those who came before them. They still try to explain away American Exceptionalism with notions of “false consciousness,” see any labor actions popping up as proof of nascent class struggle, and conflate reformist goals as revolutionary aims.
Marxism distinguished itself from other socialist ideologies advocated then because of its base in materialist analysis. Yet today many Amerikan leftists eschew materialist analysis for idealism or wishful thinking. For those of us who do stay with looking at objective material conditions, we must also put forward a truer vision of socialism. For one, looking at conditions globally, at the extreme exploitation and poverty of the Third World caused by imperialism that benefits whole sectors of the First World. Class struggle continues today, but it is now on a global scale. Socialism is not simply one of more for Amerikan workers who are already privileged and the continuation a way of life that is ecologically unsustainable, but one of equality and justice for the entire world. We must dare to struggle, dare to win, and dare to face reality.
1. Diggins, John Patrick. The Rise and Fall of the American Left. Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc. 1992. Pg. 70.