On Human Nature

The other evening, some friends and I had a discussion about our societal woes and how to solve them. As I described the sort of world I would like to see, one of my friends called me idealistic. She related that there were people at her place of work who did the bare minimum they could possibly do and still keep their jobs. She also spoke about ambitious, hard-working millionaires. Her point, I believe, was that a system that neither rewards people with vastly more than they can ever use, nor deprives others of their basic needs, cannot work – because of human nature. The sort of society of which I dream would leave everything undone, since people would have no motivation to do anything.

My knee-jerk response was to say that ideas and habits are a result of the economic system, not vice versa. If we really want to change the undesirable ways people behave, we should change the system. This more or less ended that part of our discussion, and not because anyone was convinced of the wisdom of the statement.

The next day, I wanted to find a specific reference on this concept, and was pleased that an online search for “material conditions determine consciousness” quickly turned up this quote, from the preface to Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life.

It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution.

So our legal institutions, our politics, even our notions about ourselves and accepted concepts of justice – all derive from our economic relations. These relations determine our consciousness and norms of behavior.

The task is not to address faults in “human nature.” The task is to focus attention on material conditions, the inherent antagonisms that must exist in a society based on class, and conflicts that currently exist between productive forces and property relations. This offers an opportunity to raise consciousness of the essential nature of life under capitalism. Such is the basis for revolution.

We Shall See What Will Become Of His Dreams

“There are people who have come to see the moral imperative of equality, but who cannot yet see the moral imperative of world brotherhood. I would like to see the fervor of the civil-rights movement imbued into the peace movement to instill it with greater strength. And I believe everyone has a duty to be in both the civil-rights and peace movements. But for those who presently choose but one, I would hope they will finally come to see the moral roots common to both.”

– The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Remembering Du Bois

Let us remember the great W.E.B. Du Bois on this anniversary of his birth.

Du Bois, who said “One ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

The Final Word

I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.

– The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Born On This Day in 1929

On American Soil

The United States had Marxists in the past, it is true, but they were a strange type of Marxist, or rather, three strange types. In the first place, there were the émigrés cast out of Europe, who did what they could but could not find any response; in the second place, isolated American groups, like the De Leonists, who in the course of events, and because of their own mistakes, turned themselves into sects; in the third place, dilettantes attracted by the October Revolution and sympathetic to Marxism as an exotic teaching that had little to do with the United States. Their day is over. Now dawns the new epoch of an independent class movement of the proletariat and at the same time of genuine Marxism. In this, too, America will in a few jumps catch up with Europe and outdistance it. Advanced technology and an advanced social structure will pave their own way in the sphere of doctrine. The best theoreticians of Marxism will appear on American soil. Marx will become the mentor of the advanced American workers. To them this abridged exposition of the first volume will become only an initial step toward the complete Marx.

– Leon Trotsky

Order Versus Justice

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote these words from a jail cell.

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.”

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

The Language of the Unheard

Here’s a quote, apropos of the day.

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Speaking at Grosse Pointe High School on March 14, 1968

From a Young MLK

This is from a letter to Coretta Scott, written in 1952.

“I imagine you already know that I am much more socialistic in my economic theory than capitalistic. And yet I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits. It started out with a noble and high motive, viz, to block the trade monopolies of nobles, but like most human systems it fell victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today capitalism has outlived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Culture of Prosperity Deadens Us

“To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own. The culture of prosperity deadens us; we are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”

What Is America To Me?

From the Opinions and Editorials Page of the Los Angeles Times – Independence Day of 1991

We are created equal! No one of us is better than any of us! That’s the headline proclaimed in 1776 and inscribed across centuries in the truth of the ages. Those inspired words from the Declaration of Independence mock bigotry and anti-Semitism. Then why do I still hear race and color-haters spewing their poisons? Why do I still flinch at innuendoes of venom and inequality? Why do innocent children still grow up to be despised? Why do haters’ jokes still get big laughs when passed in whispers from scum to scum? You know the ones I mean – the “Some of my best friends are Jewish…” crowd.

As for the others, those cross-burning bigots to whom mental slavery is alive and well, I don’t envy their trials in the next world, where their thoughts and words and actions will be judged by a jury of One. Why do so many among us continue in words and deeds to ignore, insult and challenge the unforgettable words of Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence’s promise to every man, woman and child – the self-evident truth that all men are created equal?

That’s what the Fourth of July is all about. Not firecrackers. Not getting smashed on the patio sipping toasts to our forefathers. Not picnics and parades or freeways empty because America has the day off. Equality is what our Independence Day is about. Not the flag-wavers who wave it one day a year, but all who carry its message with them wherever they go, who believe in it, who live it enough to die for it – as so many have.

OK, I’m a saloon singer, by self-definition. Even my mirror would never accuse me of inventing wisdom. But I do claim enough street smarts to know that hatred is a disease – a disease of the body of freedom, eating its way from the inside out, infecting all who come in contact with it, killing dreams and hopes millions of innocents with words, as surely as if they were bullets.

Who in the name of God are these people anyway, the ones who elevate themselves above others? America is an immigrant country. Maybe not you or me, but those whose love made our lives possible, or their parents or grandparents. America was founded by these people, who were fed up with other countries. Those weren’t tourists on the Mayflower – they were your families and mine, following dreams that turned out to be possible dreams. Leaving all they owned, they sailed to America to start over and to forge a new nation of freedom and liberty – a new nation where they would no longer be second-class citizens but first-class Americans.

Even now, with all our problems, America is still a dream of oppressed people the world over. Take a minute. Consider what we are doing to each other as we rob friends and strangers of dignity as well as equality. Give a few minutes of fairness to the house we live in, and to all who share it with us from sea to shining sea. For if we don’t come to grips with this killer disease of hatred, of bigotry and racism and anti-Semitism, pretty soon we will destroy from within this blessed country.

And what better time than today to examine the conscience of America? As we celebrate our own beginnings, let us offer our thanksgiving to the God who arranged for each of us to live here among His purple mountain majesties, His amber waves of grain. Don’t just lip-sync the words to the song. Think them, live them. “My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.” And when the music fades, think of the guts of Rosa Parks, who by a single act in a single moment changed America as much as anyone who ever lived.

I’m no angel. I’ve had my moments. I’ve done a few things in my life of which I’m not too proud, but I have never unloved a human being because of race, creed, or color. And if you think this is a case of he who doth protest too much, you’re wrong. I would not live any other way; the Man Upstairs has been much too good to me.

Happy Fourth of July. May today be a day of love for all Americans. May this year’s celebration be the day that changes the world forever. May Independence Day, 1991, truly be a glorious holiday as every American lives the self-evident truth that all people are created equal. God shed His grace on thee – on each of thee – in His self-evident love for all of us.

Frank Sinatra
July 4, 1991

Photo from “The House I Live In

The Few Own The Many

“The few own the many because they possess the means of livelihood of all. The country is governed for the richest, for the corporations, the bankers, the land speculators, and for the exploiters of labor. The majority of mankind are working people. So long as their fair demands – the ownership and control of their livelihoods – are set at naught, we can have neither men’s rights nor women’s rights. The majority of mankind is ground down by industrial oppression in order that the small remnant may live in ease.”

– Helen Keller