Karl Marx had little use for America. From what he knew it was “pre-eminently the country of religiosity,” and yet it seemed to be the one nation that had been most thoroughly corrupted by ambition. Two strikes against America right there.
The “free inhabitant” of New England, Marx wrote in “On The Jewish Question,” is convinced “that he has no other destiny here below than to become richer than his neighbor.” When he travels, he worries “only of interest and profit.” The world for the New England Yankee is “no more than a Stock Exchange.” As to idols, he has but one, and that is, of course, mammon.
Marx wrote this in 1843, when J.P. Morgan was a first grader in Hartford, Conn., and Marcus Goldman was peddling goods from a horse-drawn cart in Philadelphia. One sees in his rant a precocious anti-Americanism that would deform the thinking of the international left for the next 165 years and find full flower, most recently, in the Occupy Wall Street movement.
What Marx almost assuredly did not know is that 200 years earlier, the very first New Englanders had taken a serious stab at the social scheme he was in the process of formulating.
Plymouth Plantation Gov. William Bradford describes here the outcome of the colony’s ambitious “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” experiment:
The experience that was had in this common course and condition, tried sundry years and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanity of that conceit of Plato’s and other ancients applauded by some of later times; that the taking away of property and bringing in community into a commonwealth would make them happy and flourishing; as if they were wiser than God.
For this community (so far as it was) was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort.
For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men’s wives and children without any recompense.
The strong, or man of parts, had no more in division of victuals and clothes than he that was weak and not able to do a quarter the other could; this was thought injustice.
The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalized in labours and victuals, clothes, etc., with the meaner and younger sort, thought it some indignity and disrespect unto them.
And for men’s wives to be commanded to do service for other men, as dressing their meat, washing their clothes, etc., they deemed it a kind of slavery, neither could many husbands well brook it.
Upon the point all being to have alike, and all to do alike, they thought themselves in the like condition, and one as good as another; and so, if it did not cut off those relations that God hath set amongst men, yet it did at least much diminish and take off the mutual respects that should be preserved amongst them.
And would have been worse if they had been men of another condition. Let none object this is men’s corruption, and nothing to the course itself. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in His wisdom saw another course fitter for them.
Freed from the theoretical, Americans set about creating a distinctive and largely spontaneous commercial culture. Self-interest would drive it, and self-control would restrain it.
The Judeo-Christian legacy would inform that self-control and inspire it, but always imperfectly, given the fallen nature of man. The relative absence of external control would allow this dynamic to work itself out and, in the process, forge the most productive industrial enterprise in world history, but the balance between forces would always be a delicate one.
On Nov. 6, we saw how the mis-education of our children has helped upset that balance. Let the re-education begin, and there is no better way to start than by sharing Bradford’s words of wisdom over the Thanksgiving dinner table.