My Father's Socialism

by Earl Schwartz

My father was a working man. He began working to help support his family, like many others in his generation, when he was still a child. He was proud of his thick biceps. They bore eloquent testimony to his life of labor. On more than one occasion I heard him speak of the good impression he made on his future father-in-law by hefting hundred pound sacks of potatoes over his shoulder. I remember him sitting at the dinner table in a sleeveless undershirt, turning his fist and kneading the bulging muscle above his elbow, to his own great satisfaction and the delight of his children.

His life belied the insidious myth that hard work is the sure key to wealth. He worked incredibly hard and never became wealthy. If wealth were truly the reward of all those who work hard, my father and the working people with whom he identified would have inherit the earth long ago.

It was from my father that I first learned of socialism. His heavy arms, sculpted by years of labor, were buoyed by socialist ideals. He saw socialist concern for the well-being of "plain people" as common decency. He did not believe that human beings come into the world so that the poor might struggle and the rich might strut, He saw socialism as the logical extension of democratic principles, worthy of creatures made in the divine image. It was his conviction that labor creates the value that capital represents. He believed that capital might give power to the rich, but work bestowed dignity on the worker.

Some report the present buckling of communist regimes as if we were witnessing the wreck of the socialist ideal itself, dispatched by the unyielding straits of human nature and history. But what we are now witnessing is the close of a tragic episode in the socialist drama, not its epilogue. The ancient vision of freedom through willing cooperation and equity that we call "socialism" preceded Marx's and Lenin's variations by millennia. The socialist principles my father embraced are rooted deep in the moral promise of the great historical faiths. In the broad expanse of history, socialism is not the imaginary science Marx launched, but the abiding socialism of prophets and apostles that speaks for the ages. It is, after all, in the Acts of the Apostles that we find the original version of the Marxist by-words "From each according to their ability, to each according to their need:"

All those whose faith had drawn them together held everything in common: they would sell their property and possessions and make a general disposition as the need of each required. (Acts 2:44-45)

This plain spoken manifesto lives on, though communism now founders.

A deadening hubris led communists to see themselves as history's darlings and their cast of socialism as history's consummation. It is this hubris that crumbles now. My father's socialism, broad-shouldered heir of a noble tradition, is nourished by broken hubris. It grows in far-flung fields, one season at a time, one harvest at a time. It is not the harvest of a state, but of free and willing hands. It lives among those whose faith has drawn them together to form the myriad of mundane cooperative efforts from which a sound social fabric is woven.

Marx and Engels beheld a "specter of communism" haunting modernity, but they saw through a glass darkly. It was Gabriel's horn they glimpsed, and he still plays my father's tune.

See all articles by Earl Schwartz