CHRIST IN CONCRETE: The Sacrifice of Immigrant Labor to the Pagan God of Capitalism

Christ in Concrete (1939) by Pietro di Donato

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          1939 saw the release of two celebrated works about the experiences of downtrodden American migrants to California during the Depression: John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath and William Saroyan’s drama The Time of Your Life. Both would go on to win Pulitzer Prizes in their respective genres and enter the canon as classic American works of the proletariat in the Depression-era. Both would be mythologized in Hollywood films — the former starring Henry Fonda and the latter James Cagney. Equally celebrated in that year was a work of fiction that also would be turned into a film ten years later, Give Us This Day, directed by the blacklisted Edward Dmytryk. The novel’s author didn’t win any awards or achieve the canonical status of Steinbeck or Saroyan, despite his novel’s passionate prose, timely narrative, and (as almost eighty years of time has confirmed) timeless themes.

          The novel was Pietro di Donato’s Christ in Concrete, which focuses on the struggles of urban immigrants back east who risked their lives for starvation wages in the 1920s to help build the sprawling cities that drove an American economic boom that would come crashing down in 1929. Like The Grapes of Wrath and The Time of Your Life, Christ in Concrete is a critique of the mythical American Dream — an idea that fuels the capitalist exploitation of immigrants, migrants, ethnic minorities, and the working poor for the prosperity and comfort of the upper classes, thereby excluding from advancement the very American citizens who drive the economic engine. It is a novel in which the stark, bitter reality of the American promise becomes clear to the Italian immigrants who toil as bricklayers: their labor, their bodies, and their blood are used to develop a nation whose laws, justice system, and business practices not only preclude them from the profits of their labor, but dehumanize them at every turn — or simply refuse even to acknowledge their existence.

          The novel opens with the death of a bright and skilled bricklayer named Geremio, the patriarch of a large family of Italian immigrants who assume that their father’s hard work and honest living will help them soon to achieve the American Dream: a steady job, their own home, financial stability, upward mobility, security for their children, etc. In truth, Geremio and his Italian-American co-workers are treated as expendable tools, whose safety is the last thing of concern to either the construction corporation or the law.

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Give Us This Day (Christ in Concrete), dir. Edward Dmytryk, 1949

          Geremio’s horrific death due to the negligence of uncaring bosses at his construction site is a brutal, visceral wake-up call: these immigrant laborers are not free and equal citizens in the American capitalist system. They are, instead, the Christs in concrete who sacrifice their lives for the pagan god “Job.” All that matters is Job. They live and die for Job. Job is their master.


His train of thought quickly took in his family, home and hopes. And with hope came fear. Something within asked, “Is it not possible to breathe God’s air without fear dominating with the pall of unemployment? And the terror of production for Boss, Boss and Job? To rebel is to lose all of the very little. To be obedient is to choke. O dear Lord, guide my path.”

–Pietro di Donato


          Commentators often comment on the so-called “personification” of “Job” in the novel. However, it is not so much a personification as a deification. Job is another word for the pagan god of Capitalism (or even more specifically, Corporatism) with the owners functioning as high priests, the foremen as deacons, and the immigrant labor force as the flock, ostensibly “saved” by the holy auspices of Job, but ultimately guided to their demise like lambs to the slaughter. As the sacrificial offerings to the pagan god of the New World, the men are martyrs to a nation whose economic system exploits their sweat, steals their blood, and gives them only the hope of some better life in the future — the “American Dream” as an eternal promise for their suffering. I would even suggest that the designation “Job” is a textual connection to the Biblical Job. Di Donato’s novel, like the Old Testament book, grapples with the injustice of innocent humans suffering purely on the faith of a silent god. In di Donato’s novel, that silent god is extended to include the pagan god of Capitalism.

          Set against this pagan god of the New World is the joyous, pastoral, communal celebrations of the Italian immigrants, as documented in the section titled “Fiesta.” Their Old World rituals are a stark contrast to both the stifling dominance of Job and the impotent emptiness of the Catholic Church, whose presence in the novel is epitomized by the Irish priest who dismisses a dire request for aid from Paul with a slice of “rich-rich cake.” Unable to nourish the spiritual needs of the immigrants or provide charity relief in their times of deep misfortune, the Church is the Old World equivalent of Job: taking from the people in the distant, empty promise of some mythical “better life” in the future. As a result, the working-class must rely on each other — as workers and as neighbors — drawing strength from their ancient, pre-Christian rituals of sharing food and song in a sense of communal bonding.

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Pietro di Donato

          As the narrative shifts from Geremio’s concrete crucifixion to the coming-of-age of his 12-year-old son Paul, the reader shares in Paul’s gradual awareness of his friends and family not as the recipients of the blessings of the Land of Plenty, but rather as the burnt offerings to this new pagan god. Although di Donato was drawing from his own personal experiences as the son of a bricklayer who died in an accident on the job, one can’t help but be reminded of Marx’s theory of surplus value from the first volume of Capital, in which he uses bricklayers as an example of highly skilled workers whose labor generates new value well beyond the labor-cost: “The distinction between skilled and unskilled labor rests in part on pure illusion, or, to say the least, on distinctions that have long since ceased to be real, and that survive only by virtue of a traditional convention; in part on the helpless condition of some groups of the working-class, a condition that prevents them from exacting equally with the rest the value of their labor-power. Accidental circumstances here play so great a part, that these two forms of labor sometimes change places. Where, for instance, the physique of the working-class has deteriorated, and is, relatively speaking, exhausted, which is the case in all countries with a well developed capitalist production, the lower forms of labor, which demand great expenditure of muscle, are in general considered as skilled, compared with much more delicate forms of labor; the latter sink down to the level of unskilled labor. Take as an example the labor of a bricklayer, which in England occupies a much higher level than that of a damask-weaver. Again, although the labor of a fustian cutter demands great bodily exertion, and is at the same time unhealthy, yet it counts only as unskilled labor.” Di Donato’s Christ in Concrete is one of the purest fictional depictions of Marx’s theory of surplus value. As Paul begins his bricklaying career, he soon comes to realize that the fruits of his labor far exceed the value of his compensation.


“Mister Rinaldi, if you don’t mind — I’d like to say something to you –”

Rinaldi bent his ear a little toward Paul but did not look at him.

“Mister Rinaldi, we can’t do anything with my five dollars — oh, please, Mr. Rinaldi, am I not worth more than five dollars? Oh please, I can’t go home with only five dollars…”

“You see, Pauli, I don’t run the corporation by myself. Understand?”

“But, Mister Rinaldi, don’t you think I should get more than five dollars…?”

“…I — say you are.”

“So, Mister Rinaldi…please…?”

“I can’t fight with the corporation.”

“But they knew my father and worked for him — they know I am worth more than five dollars — why don’t they help me? Mister Rinaldi, why?”

Rinaldi looked for the first time at Paul, and kindly, then said with a shrug:

“I’m sorry, Paulie…That’s the way the world is.”

–Pietro di Donato


          Di Donato’s deeply empathetic portrait of the Italian immigrant laborers is both humanizing and glorifying: like Paul, the reader comes to see these men as martyrs, whose gruesome deaths on the scaffolding of the new cathedrals of the pagan god Capitalism are preserved in concrete like the saints who adorn the stone parapets of medieval cathedrals — monuments in stone that were created, not coincidentally, by the guilds of Old World working-class stonemasons, carpenters, and metallurgists who were the forefathers (perhaps even literally) of these Italian immigrants.

          It cannot be coincidental that di Donato names his young protagonist Paul. Like St. Paul the Apostle, he witnesses a “crucifixion” and undergoes a spiritual transformation, accepting his role as an apostle of the new labor movement by testifying to the Christs in concrete who have suffered and died so that their families may one day secure a better life in a New World. Paul’s conversion roughly follows the new spiritual awakening described in the Pauline epistles, culminating in Paul’s mystic dream-vision  — not in subjugation to the false gods of Job or Church, but in service to the very human sacrifices of his fellow laborers. Paul’s dream details his conversion to a new faith in socialism and the labor movement.


He looks about Job. He is in a huge choir loft with scaffolding about the walls. In niches are Saints. They wear overalls and look like paesanos he dimly recalls. They step down and carry hods and push wheelbarrows. But what Saints are they? The little fellow and the curly-headed and the mortarman look like Thomas and Lazarene, and the Snoutnose who once visited the house.

— Pietro di Donato


          Paul’s allegiance is now with his working-class brethren, whose martyrdom he has witnessed on the scaffolding of Job. Paul’s mother, a devout Catholic, soon makes the heart-rending decision that her faith must be born anew, not in the “plaster man and wooden cross,” but in her fellow man: “Follow him,” she tells her children of this newly transformed Paul. His mother’s blessing is a testament to his new faith, which is documented in Christ in Concrete much like St. Paul’s own conversion was recounted in his First Epistle to the Corinthians.

Almost eighty years after its publication, di Donato’s autobiographical portrait — testifying to the sacrificial burden of new immigrants in a nation that purports to welcome them, while simultaneously exploiting their labor and dehumanizing their struggle — remains, unfortunately, all-too-relevant. The American conceit of being a land of hope and plenty for tempest-tossed refugees is belied by every new generation’s attempts to deny immigrants the same opportunities granted their ancestors. As we have learned from the fiction of so many great American writers who emigrated to the United States in the twentieth century — Yezierska, Cahan, Saroyan, Rølvaag, and di Donato, among them — the success of immigrants is won in the face of overwhelming challenges and hardships. For them, the promise of the American Dream exists at the expense of their struggle, rather than as a safe harbor from it. Their triumph is an overcoming of adversity built into a system that actively denies them its loftiest ideals.

 

BREAD AND WINE: The Reconstitution of Faith as Individual Resistance to the “Collective Stupefaction” of Fascism

Bread and Wine (1936) by Ignazio Silone

 

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“Do you remember the fantastic plans we used to make?”

“To me you seem to be recalling prehistory,” Nunzio said.

“When we went out into the world,” Pietro went on, “we found ourselves in a society that was totally unforeseen, and each one of us had to make his choice — to submit or to put his life in jeopardy. Once upon a time there may have been middle ways, but for our generation after the war they were closed. How many years have passed since then? Barely fifteen, and anyone who saw the two of us here now would never imagine that up to the age of twenty our lives ran parallel and we nursed the same dreams for the future.”

Nunzio seemed nervous and upset. “It’s true that we now belong to two different parties,” he said.

“Two different humanities,” Pietro corrected him.

— Ignazio Silone


          Bread and Wine is Ignazio Silone’s moving 1936 novel of the Italian socialist resistance to fascism in the early twentieth century. After only recently adapting to the industrial age of the long 19th century, the agrarian proletariat found themselves confronting the challenges of an emerging global age in the years leading up to World War II. It was an era ushered in by disasters: from the natural (including devastating earthquakes in the teens and twenties that killed tens of thousands of Italians and a flu pandemic that ravaged Europe) to the man-made (most notably the mechanized horrors of the Great War and a global depression in the 1930s). In the face of a rapidly advancing mechanized (and weaponized) society and the advent of mass communication, the former institutions of authority — from a myriad of local and regional assemblies to the all-encompassing Catholic Church — were shaken to their core. Suddenly, the methods of power to subjugate the masses (consolidation of wealth, control of the means of production, allegiance to rigid social/economic hierarchies, vilification of individuality, restrictions on public spaces/speech, adoption of a ritualized/mystical folk mythos, and the exploitation of cultural in-group/out-group dynamics) were harnessed by nationalists in Italy towards a new political force: fascism.

          Cast against this backdrop of a bleak modern age were the cafoni — poor, rural Italian peasants who, like their fellow working class brethren throughout Europe, were trapped by the threefold masters of fascism, communism, and capitalism. The hero of Silone’s novel, Pietro Spina, emerges from the peasantry to become a revolutionary, trying to balance the theory of Marxist intellectualism with the gritty reality of the day-to-day lives of the cafoni as they gradually succumb to the nationalist indoctrination of their new fascist masters. On the run from authorities and finding himself at odds with his communist comrades who are too rigidly adopting a similar type of authoritarian dogma, the atheist Spina must take the disguise of a Catholic priest and become Don Paolo Spada. Under this name, he lives among the cafoni, attempting to keep a low profile while simultaneously continuing his resistance to the Blackshirts. As the Catholic Church looks the other way when the political climate shifts to fascism (or, at worst, becomes complicit in its rise), “Don Paolo Spada,” ironically, becomes a saint-like hero to the cafoni as he tells them direct, honest truths that neither parrot the empty platitudes of religious doctrine nor placate the burgeoning fascists. In an age of “alternative facts” and magical thinking, the resistance fighter’s words become a source of comfort. In short, the atheistic revolutionary becomes the one who “keeps Christian honor alive in these parts” through acts of individual resistance to the authoritarian dogmas (political and theological) that had been crushing the spirit of the people. Through his resistance, Spina/Spada acts as the living embodiment of the most Christian virtue: individual sacrifice for the love of the oppressed.


Our love, our disposition for sacrifice and self-abnegation are fruitful only if they are carried into relations with our fellows. Morality can live and flourish only in practical life. We are responsible also for others.

If we apply our moral feelings to the evil that prevails all round us, we cannot remain inactive and console ourselves with the expectation of an ultra-terrestrial life. The evil to be combated is not the sad abstraction that is called the devil: the evil is everything that prevents millions of people from becoming human. We too are directly responsible for all this…

I believe that nowadays there is no other way of saving one’s soul. He is saved who overcomes his individual, family, class selfishness and frees himself of the idea of the resignation to the existing evil.

— Ignazio Silone


          Spina/Spada comes to understand that it is not enough to be passive when confronting evil on earth while maintaining faith in some later mystical “better world” in the afterlife. That type of thinking has led to the hypocrisy of religious institutions buttressing the political regimes and economic policies that represent true evil precisely because they cause widespread harm. In this new century, a person’s faith must be placed in (and derive from) the people. If the prevailing social structure perpetuates evil, then the only moral action is to actively resist those institutions. Instead of symbolically celebrating the mythical sacrifice of past religious figures (the “bread and wine” of passive religious ritual), one must be willing to sacrifice oneself in the here-and-now to create that better world on earth by ensuring the safety of the masses against such overwhelming evil (in other words, breaking bread and sharing wine with those who depend upon it for their survival). 


The men around the table ate and drank.

“Bread is made of many grains of corn,” said Pietro, “so it means unity. Wine is made of many grapes, so it means unity too. Unity of similar, equal, useful things. Hence truth and fraternity are also things that go well together.”

“The bread and wine of Holy Communion,” an older man said. “The wheat and grapes that are trampled on. The body and the blood.”

“It takes nine months to make bread,” old Murica said.

“Nine months?” exclaimed the mother.

— Ignazio Silone


          One of the main themes of Silone’s novel — that which Spina/Spada must grapple with in his personal writing and interactions with the cafoni — is reconciliation: between theory and practical living, between faith in institutions (including the party) and faith in people, between spiritual renewal and bodily security, and between individual sacrifice and communal strength. Perhaps the most important of those is faith, an issue tackled by many post-Marxist philosophers during and after World War II, and one which Silone offers as the primary metaphor of his novel (the bread and wine of the title). For Silone, the Kierkegaardian leap of faith still constitutes belief as the acceptance of the unreasonable; however, the perception of rationality (and reality) has been inverted, so that the choice to make that “leap” is no longer confined to the spiritual realm. In a world where ordinary discourse has moved beyond reason — where “alternative facts” and magical thinking are not the harbingers of personal leaps of faith, but the concrete norms of public rhetoric — then the power of belief must necessarily shift from (private) acceptance to (public) resistance. When irrationality becomes the norm, its acceptance becomes expected — and is quite often demanded! — by the masses who support those in power. The leap of faith made by Spina/Spada is one that must be made by all critical thinking people during times of widespread authoritarian rule where the public and private spheres are equally regulated, and represents a “faith” in reason, facts, truth, and virtue. It is the “unreasonable belief” that rationality (in the form of individual, public resistance) will prevail in the face of mass irrationality, what Silone terms the “collective stupefaction” of fascism.

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Ignazio Silone

          Silone’s novel is a defining text of the emerging democratic socialism of the mid-twentieth century, but also a fictional counterpart to the post-Marxist engagement with Kierkegaard’s philosophy and religious thought. If we, like the atheist Spina/Spada, accept the former but not the latter, then we must also heed what those post-Marxist thinkers — from Lukács to Adorno and beyond — have concluded about faith: that the political and theological crises of the twentieth century have dislodged faith as the cornerstone of any spiritual doctrine. Indeed, for Adorno, faith was an illustration of so-called negative dialectics. Both are born of suffering, but for Adorno (if not so much, perhaps, for Silone) the twentieth century response to fascism and Stalism had disintegrated or fractured faith from theology and reconstituted it as that which (paradoxically) must be both utilized and overcome through engagement with the historical, which Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith” rejects, according to Adorno, who positions Kierkegaard’s faith as “leaping” outside or beyond the historical. In a sense, faith is suffering — an existential truth certainly shared by writers and thinkers across a spectrum of centuries and ideologies, including Silone, Adorno, Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, and Camus. Even if Silone’s ultimate message in 1936 is not as bleak as Adorno’s post-war perspective, both writers chronicle the same point at which truth borne out of suffering “leaps” away from spirituality and toward “the denunciation of illusion” (to quote from The Dialectic of Enlightenment).

          For Silone, that denunciation is symbolized in bread and wine, reconstituted symbols of Christian religious faith that now represent a more earthly communion: the peasants who are trampled upon — like wheat, like grapes — and who are redeemed in their suffering through a unifying, life-sustaining collective force: the socialist resistance to fascist ideology. Like individual grains of corn or grapes, they combine to form a new united corpus — let us call them the Corpus Cafoni — whose bonds represent a faith in human unity when humanity is at its bleakest and most divisive.

          In Bread and Wine we see the same set-pieces that have been constructed in our own century around a uniquely American backdrop, even if their ultimate arrangement and performative function have been refashioned to suit the dramaturgy of Trumpism. We might look to Silone’s novel as a text of both comfort and moral orientation as the institutions meant to safeguard our rights are continually placed under siege. Through the testament of Spina/Spada, we come to see that “thoughts and prayers” are meaningless unless we are willing to take action. Our faith must be placed in present realities rather than in spiritual myths, dogmatic institutions, or divisive nationalistic rhetoric. Personal sacrifice in the form of public resistance is required to ensure the safety of the most vulnerable citizens, fostering unity against the divisive forces of power that would rather hope for passive acceptance of their ideology. Only in this active resistance can a renewed faith in a unified humanity fight the violence and lies inherent in the “collective stupefaction” of fascism.

AMERICA AND AMERICANS: The Lasting Hope of “One People Out of Many”

America and Americans (1966) by John Steinbeck

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          As Donald Trump prepares to be sworn-in as the forty-fifth president of the United States — to the considerable shock and lamentation of over half of this nation’s citizens, who did not vote for him– I can’t help but feel anxiety for the future state of the republic: its most vulnerable citizens, its institutions that have (until this moment) stood in resistance to any one leader who might exhibit authoritarian tendencies or exert tyrannical force, and its progress toward a more perfect union — even through all its stumbles and black-eyes along the way. In short, I fear that with the election of Donald Trump the United States is veering wildly off course, as perhaps it hasn’t done since the days of the Civil War.

          I don’t know if this doom-and-gloom feeling is overstatement or if it’s the accurate diagnosis of a wobbly political system that is close to the point of breakdown. In either case, I wonder: Is there a hope for a divided nation? Do we have anything at all to look forward to in the coming years? If we look to the past (and to literature) to answer those questions, then we might respond, “Yes, but it will be a long, hard road. And that hope might not translate into progress for many years, if not decades.”

          I wanted to end my Inaugural List on a note of hopeful-yet-realistic optimism. As low as things seem, our country has been here before. In fact, today is part of a larger struggle that has always existed in this nation. But it’s a struggle that we are winning, and will continue to win — a bright spark of optimism for when we feel our lowest.

          With these thoughts in mind, I recall a rally I recently attended to protest the policies and rhetoric of President-elect Trump, in which a protestor was carrying a sign that read, “AMERICA WAS NEVER GREAT.” I couldn’t disagree more. I understand the intent of the sign: to acknowledge that our nation has always perpetrated atrocities and injustices, even while claiming to be a lamp of liberty and tolerance. But our nation was founded precisely on that struggle to close the gap between our rhetoric of idealism and our reality of injustice. In that struggle lies our greatness.

          It’s a struggle that Steinbeck illuminates and celebrates in his final book, American and Americans, while neither resorting to the tired clichés of patriotic claptrap, nor thrashing away at the easy straw man of overgeneralized sentiments like those expressed on the sign held by my fellow Trump protestor. 

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John Steinbeck and Charley

          Instead, Steinbeck’s collection of essays — the only nonfiction book on my Inaugural List — is a meditation on the American people, character, landscape, history, and future. He offers insight on the paradoxes of our political system, the immigrant experience (and our treatment of immigrants), the myths that construct our shared American identity, the way we project our identity to the rest of world, our connection to (and destruction of) the land, our economic obsession, the pitfalls of our nation, and how we seem to overcome our flaws to continue progressing as a nation. Steinbeck offers an honest, frank, and highly-subjective analysis (which he freely admits on page one), and he does so out of an obvious abundance of love for the nation and its people. 

          Sometimes his essays are illustrated by personal experiences or stories he has heard from other Americans. The hardback edition from 1966 contains striking black-and-white and color photos offering a glimpse of America in the mid-twentieth century that perfectly compliments Steinbeck’s text. Photographs are included from Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Gordon Parks, and Alfred Eisenstaedt, among many others. The result is a literary and visual composite of a people in the mid-20th century, at the height of America’s influence in the world after WWII, but also in the midst of some of the nation’s most challenging and chaotic problems, including the Cold War, the atomic age, and the fight for civil rights. Steinbeck’s portrait still holds true fifty years later, and his warnings of a populace numbed by complacency and all-too-riled-up by emotional political rhetoric that panders to base fear and prejudice remains relevant as our nation enters the years of a Trump administration that threatens to take us down an authoritarian route.

          Perhaps we can understand the rise of Trump from Steinbeck’s view of what Americans desire in their politicians: “We want a common candidate but an uncommon office holder.” It’s an impossible contradiction, but one that has somehow worked in the past, which Steinbeck acknowledges. But what happens when that office holder is revealed to be decidedly “common”? Or even worse: dangerous? Again, I turn to Steinbeck to offer some words of hope. The final paragraph of his afterword reassures us that even in the midst of our darkest moments (which Steinbeck does not shy away from illuminating throughout the book) we always manage to progress. These are comforting words for those of us who recognize our nation’s tendency to slip backward on the road of progress, but who have hope that we can once again work together to overcome our basest human flaws to work toward our ideals. The paragraph is worth printing in its entirety:


From our beginning, in hindsight at least, our social direction is clear. We have moved to become one people out of many. At intervals, men or groups, through fear of people or the desire to use them, have tried to change our direction, to arrest our growth, or to stampede the Americans. This will happen again and again. The impulses which for a time enforced the Alien and Sedition laws, which have used fear and illicit emotion to interfere with and put a stop to continuing revolution, will rise again, and they will serve us in the future as they have in the past to clarify and to strengthen our process. We have failed sometimes, taken wrong paths, paused for renewal, filled our bellies and licked our wounds; but we have never slipped back — never.

— John Steinbeck


          I leave these words of hope at the end of my Inaugural List after twenty days of writing about fiction that explores some dark and often depressing subject matter. Moving forward with this blog during the Trump years, I’d like to see Steinbeck’s words as a small but necessary flicker of illumination in a very dark and vast — but not unchartered — path of America’s history. Let us hope that the Ideals of this nation, as expressed by Steinbeck, may ultimately rule the day, guiding us away from Mephisto’s Mother Night and back into the light that burns for “one people out of many.”

THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?: The Death of the American Dream

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935) by Horace McCoy

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          In the United States there is a great self-perpetuating myth that hard work and tireless exertion can lead to wealth, success, and prosperity for all. As an anesthetic to the monotonous daily grind of work-eat-sleep, certain distracting entertainments are dangled in front of the eyes of the working class, along with the promise of greater material gain for their continued efforts. Their will to live is soon usurped by their will to possess, which is intrinsically tied-up in the compulsion to work. As a result, labor becomes an end in itself: not that which sustains life, but that which promises prosperity —  a promise that is necessarily just-beyond-reach, as those who control the means of production must ensure that workers continue to strive for that ever-elusive golden ring without actually achieving it. Thus, the working class is defeated in their efforts before they even begin, born into circumstances that ironically reward those who labor the least by virtue of their inherited status, and wear down those who work the hardest for the smallest degree of potential gain.

          It is this circuitous grind that Horace McCoy explores in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, one of the most important works of existential fiction to come from the United States, employing a 1930s dance marathon as an allegory for the horrific, self-destructive competition that capitalism engenders in workers. The novel begins telling us exactly how events will end: narrator Robert Syverten is on trial for the murder of Gloria Beatty. He admits guilt and throws himself on the mercy of the court: he was only doing Gloria a favor, he states.

          Robert and Gloria are down-and-out Hollywood performers in the 1930s looking to make money as they strive for their dreams. They decide to enter a dance marathon — a grueling, weeks-long event in which promoters promise contestants cash for out-lasting one another in bouts of dancing and speed-walking derbies that continue for hours at a time. Contestants are given mere ten-minute breaks for food and brief rest, hardly time enough to recuperate from their hours of work.

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Jane Fonda and Bruce Dern in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (dir. Sydney Pollack, 1969)

          Like a real-life version of The Hunger Games, wealthy patrons in the stands can “sponsor” contestants, giving them money or other advantages, which pits contestants against each other — sometimes violently — for recognition. While the rules seem straight-forward, it is clear that the organizers are pulling strings behind the scenes, changing rules and making up new ones as the contest wears on. Their only goal is to promote the madness by exploiting the young couples for maximum profit. The $1,000 prize is dangled in front of the contestants, but ultimately there are no winners —  only downtrodden young couples in varying states of loss and grief.

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Horace McCoy

          As the marathon progresses, couples find themselves competing in special events and derbies that have no prize attached: they do it merely because they have gotten into the routine. Trapped in a system that promises them an ultimate prize at the end, they feel compelled to work overtime for no immediate gain in the hope that they will attain their ultimate reward at the end.


She shot the pistol and we were off.

Gloria and I let the racehorses set the pace. We made no effort to get out in front. Our system was to set a steady clip and hold it. There was no special prize money tonight. Even if there had been it would have made no difference to us.

The audience applauded and stamped their feet, begging for thrills, but this was one night they didn’t get them. Only one girl, Ruby Bates, went into the pit and that was only for two laps. And for the first time in weeks nobody collapsed on the floor when the race was over.

But something happened that frightened me. Gloria had pulled on my belt harder and longer than she ever had before. For the last five minutes of the derby it seemed she had no power of her own. I had practically dragged her around the track. I had a feeling we had just missed being eliminated ourselves. We had just missed. Late that night Mrs. Layden told me she had spoken to the man who had checked us. We had made only two more laps than the losers. That chilled me. I made up my mind then that from now on I had better forget my system and open up.

–Horace McCoy


          McCoy’s novel is a brief, stark critique of an exploitative system that destroys the will to live even as it promises prosperity. Ironically, the contestants enter the marathon as a means of survival, only to find the contest is the very event that is most hindering their struggle to survive. Robert and Gloria soon understand that the marathon becomes their only purpose in life — one that is so dreary and unending that it offers no purpose at all. The only thing that remains for Gloria is to ask Robert to put her out of her misery. As his guilty verdict is handed down by the judge at the end of the novel (a verdict that McCoy clearly telegraphs from the opening pages: this is a system in which we are all condemned from the very beginning), Robert speaks his defense as the last lines of the novel: “They shoot horses, don’t they?”

          It is no coincidence that McCoy sets the novel in Hollywood, a land in which the dreams and desires of a nation are manufactured as myth to be sold to a population desperate for hope as a distraction from their meaningless cycle of despair. Like its literary cousin The Day of the Locust (published by Nathanael West four years later in 1939, and also set in Hollywood), They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? is a Depression-era shot across the bow of the mythical American Dream — the failed promise of a capitalist system that thrives on promoting a prize it can never deliver. Eighty years later in the United States, the novel stills feels as honest and urgent as it was in 1935.

CANCER WARD: “Either Tyrant or Traitor or Prisoner”

Cancer Ward (1968) by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

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          At certain moments in a nation’s history, the body politic can become irrevocably sick. They catch a fever that spreads across the country by invading the moral fiber of the populace, turning individuals against each other, and then multiplying and dividing like so many cancerous cells. At some point, treatment cannot stop the spread, and the body necessarily breaks down.

          Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward is an allegory of the disastrous impact of Stalinism on the Russian people, and the lasting damage of the “tumorous” labor camps, which might no longer exist, but have nonetheless left a lasting scar on the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn’s observation is one that we are well advised to heed: even if a nation survives the cancer of totalitarian rule, the body politic remains forever damaged.

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Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn gulag mugshot, 1953

          The novel’s protagonist, Oleg Kostoglotov, is a labor camp exile (much like Solzhenitsyn was beginning in the late-40s) who is hospitalized with stomach cancer. His fellow patients are in varying emotional states, from denial to resigned acceptance. The primary atmosphere of the ward is overwhelming helplessness — not only from the perspective of the patients, but also from the staff. Both try to distract themselves from the painful reality that the men on the ward will likely die no matter what treatment is offered. Recognizing the symptoms and the nature of the disease do nothing to curb its spread or even provide comfort. As a result, the staff finds itself suffering as much as the patients. In one case, the head doctor becomes ill herself from the very type of cancer she treats. As another doctor tells her, “It’s the truest of all tests for a doctor to suffer from the disease he specializes in.” It’s a test insofar as the doctor in question must acknowledge the limitations of her own expertise, for even the experts can’t cure the disease. It strikes all equally.


“But can there really be a whole nation of fools? No, you’ll have to forgive me. The people are intelligent enough, it’s simply that they wanted to live. There’s a law big nations have — to endure and so to survive. When each of us dies and History stands over his grave and asks ‘What was he?’ there’ll only be one possible answer, Puskin’s:

‘In our vile times

…Man was, whatever his element

Either tyrant or traitor or prisoner!'”

Oleg started. He didn’t know the lines, but there was a penetrating accuracy about them. Poet and truth became almost physically tangible.

–Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn


          Those rare few who survive are neither stronger nor well ever again. The sickness of Stalinism lingers as a lifelong scar for the survivors, who must grapple with their own place in the historical context of the times. Did they stand up and fight against the illness, or did they put their heads down and ignore it? Or, even worse, did they take part in the denunciations and purges, enabling the illness to spread unchecked?

          Solzhenitsyn’s novel forces us to question where we stand when our social and political position appears to be helpless, even while acknowledging that our response might very well be in vain. If, by chance, the body politic survives the cancer, then the sickness still hasn’t ended, but has only just begun. Even so, do we still stand up and fight? Which role do we choose for ourselves: tyrant, prisoner, or traitor?

LIFE GOES ON: Fiction as “United Readiness” in the Face of Economic Injustice

Life Goes On (1934) by Hans Keilson

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          How do we face the harshest economic adversity, even as we understand that the cards are stacked against us to the point that hard work does not necessarily lead to success? What motivates us to continue when we realize that working just to stay afloat is impossible? When we’re born into a capitalist system that only benefits those who already have money or privilege — and even then on a system of credit that forces the wealthy to exploit the lower classes just to maintain their own inherited status — how do we push back in the face of such overwhelming hopelessness, unable to repair our own lives, much less fix the system?

          These questions are impossible to answer, even for those of us who aren’t facing the dire and immediate existential crises of the poorest of our neighbors. I would never claim that fiction can give us complete or satisfactory answers to these questions, but I do believe strongly that fiction might work to help us better understand the most vulnerable in an unjust economic system. For those who are struggling with these questions on a daily basis, fiction might even function as both a life boat and a beacon, offering a refuge and at least the possibility of charting a course out of the abyss. 

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Hans Kelison

          Hans Keilson’s highly-autobiographical novel — published when he was just 23-years-old in 1933 and burned by the Nazis a year later — is the story of one small family of merchants being slowly squeezed into financial ruin by the economic downfall in Germany between the wars. Albrecht (a thinly-veiled version of Keilson) and his mother and father struggle under crippling debt to borrow enough money to keep their small store stocked. Since their customers are also strapped for cash and borrowing on credit, the family finds themselves in the same dark hole as everyone else: they borrow items from bigger shops, selling them at a loss, and purchase items on credit that their customers in turn buy from them on credit, thus ensuring that no one can ever dig themselves out of the hole, no matter how hard they work. As this happens, those who already have enough money to survive continue to prosper — sometimes through shady means, such as burning their own businesses for insurance settlements — which only makes it more and more difficult for the impoverished workers to find jobs. Everyone purchases on credit, including those who are relatively financially secure, and no one has the money to pay back the loans, much less the interest.

          The novel is ultimately about Albrecht’s transformation from naive schoolboy to college-educated working man, earning money as a struggling musician as he comes to embrace the leftist politics that might unite the working class against this endless cycle of exploitation and labor strife. It is a sobering, melancholy read that presents a realistic depiction of economic hardship, offering no brazen solutions or false hope. Indeed, the novel ends with Albrecht and his father continuing to struggle in Berlin, but finally acknowledging the need for solidarity with workers, as opposed to going-it-alone in the spirit of independent entrepreneurship, which had only succeeded in isolating the family from their community as everyone’s finances continued to sink, including their own. The message is clear: we are stronger when united, if only to help each other carry our shared burdens.


In front, at the head of the procession, is a solitary man, and the rest follow behind him in well-organized rows of four that swell to a larger and larger demonstration. Workers, the unemployed, impoverished middle-class citizens, students — women and men — all marching at the same pace, and even though the man in the first row doesn’t know the man in the tenth row, doesn’t even know who he is, they are marching together. A mighty will streams out from them, a united readiness: they know why they’re marching.

— Hans Keilson


 

          Even before the novel was banned and burned, the publishers required Keilson to change the ending to be more ambiguous so as not to stir the wrath of the burgeoning Nazi regime. As a result, the marching workers are not explicitly described as striking Socialists, but Keilson leaves enough for the reader to understand that even though the writer was censored, the workers won’t be: “they know why they’re marching.” So do the readers. And, apparently, so did the Nazis, who banned the book, anyway!

          The novel stands as the quiet protest of a young writer who understands that literature has the capacity to document injustice and transform the attitudes not only of those who live through difficult times, but also the generations that follow. We can only begin to lift ourselves — and each other — by first sharing our stories. His novel is a living document that still speaks clearly to anyone struggling in the 21st century with employment, economic inequality, and social injustice. As Keilson wrote in his 1983 afterward: “Literature is the memory of humanity. Anyone who writes remembers, and anyone who reads takes part in those experiences. Books can be reprinted. The fact is, there are archival copies of books. Not of people.”

          Keilson is grounded in a realistic hope to the very end, suggesting that books can only go so far in preserving memory. It’s up to those of us who are living to carry on the lessons and traditions of the men and women whose memories are preserved in literature. Their stories live not just in the printed word, but in how we share their experiences, burdens, and joys, and in how we take up their causes during our own lifetime, announcing our own “united readiness” to join the march.

IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE: “There Are No Neutrals Here”

It Can’t Happen Here (1935) by Sinclair Lewis

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          In the past year, Sinclair Lewis’ novel about the rise of fascism in the United States has had an unfortunate resurgence in popularity as Donald Trump has increasingly dominated American politics and has, inexplicably, become President-elect. The novel is selling out in bookstores and remains one of the top-selling classic American novels on Amazon.com. Theaters and libraries presented a nation-wide simultaneous reading of a stage adaptation of Lewis’ work in October of 2016, almost in preparation for the unthinkable that might (and did) occur on November 8 of that year.

          But was it really unthinkable? All the signs were there. Americans were sick of career politicians, even if they were extraordinarily experienced. Their fear of Muslims, immigrants, and blacks was real (in their own minds), and horribly exploited by Trump, who used the most vulnerable of our citizens as scapegoats to distract from the genuine problems of labor, economic inequality, and an unfair justice system. He utilized and abused Twitter in a way that revolutionized how campaigns are run.

          And in doing so, the one man who most represented precisely the problems, challenges, and pitfalls facing modern America became the man Americans elected to fix those problems, not through policy suggestions, genuine ideas, or even hopeful rhetoric, but on a platform of nativism,  xenophobia, fear, militarism, and anti-intellectualism. Trump became Sinclair Lewis’ nightmare come to life. Those who have read Lewis’ novel understand that it can happen here because it always was here, long before Trump was ever born, much less descended the Golden Escalator.

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Sinclair Lewis

          Lewis’ novel was wickedly satirical. Unfortunately, that satire has become somewhat prophetic as we enter 2017 and continually push the boundaries of absurdity in American political discourse. The folksy, homespun Buzz Windrip seems clearly modeled on Huey Long, with touches of Eugene Talmadge, Theodore Bilbo, and Father Coughlin thrown into the mix — all of whom Lewis name-checks in the novel. In my early-20s I was fascinated with Depression-era demagogues (and read Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, naturally), so I was very familiar with all these names. Readers might benefit from some background study to understand the 30’s political climate that fostered these types of populists. However, while the book is firmly rooted in 1930s politics, there are significant parallels to the modern day that will resonate with readers in 2017. The fictional Windrip represents a unique type of American fascism that values equal parts P.T. Barnum buffoonery, Will Rogers schtick, and militarism. If this sounds like a recipe for Trumpism, then perhaps you’ll understand why this book still has a great deal to say to 21st century Americans.

          Into this fire, Lewis drops Doremus Jessup, a classic Twainsian Don’t-Tread-on-Me Connecticut Yankee — independent, skeptical, liberal, practical, and a bit curmudgeonly. He refuses both fascism and communism as dangerous collectives. His guiding worldview is pretty much “mind your own business and let others do as they please.” Yet he’s forced into action when Windrip is elected, giving Lewis free reign to satirize everyone form the dolts who fall for Windrip’s rhetoric to the housewives-turned-underground revolutionaries who rage against the machine.


Doremus Jessup, so inconspicuous an observer, watching Senator Windrip from so humble a Boeotia, could not explain his power of bewitching large audiences. The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his “ideas” almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.

Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.

–Sinclair Lewis


          Lewis begins each chapter with a quote from Windrip’s fictional book Zero Hour, but suddenly stops quoting about halfway through the novel, just as Windrip attains power. At that point, the novel becomes less about the rise of fascism and more about the way in which average people choose their destinies. Indeed, Windrip’s message is only the spark. The true horrors occur when regular people begin to make decisions (or refuse to act) based on collective fear. And here is where Lewis’ novel takes on prophetic form: not in its chronicle of how a fascist-leaning politician rises to become president, but in how Lewis imagines the American people would respond. They each make a decision to fall into line or to resist; to fight or to flee. Each more outrageous word and action becomes normalized, until Windrip’s own ignorant rhetoric fades into the background. At a certain point, even Windrip himself becomes irrelevant; the events he sets in motion move to a point beyond where he might stop them, even if he wanted to (which he does not). Americans like Jessup are forced out of their indifferent attitudes or politically neutral position and must resist. In the words of the protest song “Which Side Are You On,” written by Florence Reece and popularized by Pete Seeger: “There are no neutrals here.”

          When Lewis writes (ironically) “it can’t happen here,” he’s not talking about fascism so much as the overly-militarized, patriotic, and nationalistic groupthink that already is here, and which can so easily lead average citizens to accept or embrace fascist ideologies. (The SA-styled military unit patrolling the borders before an all-out war with Mexico is called the Minute Men [MM]. Again, this sounds all-too-familiar to modern American readers.) As we enter the Trump Era in the United States, sadly, the novel has become required reading for all Americans, even if its message falls on deaf ears, and might very well be too late to make an impact.

THE HARBOR: Socialist Fiction as a Voice for Labor

The Harbor (1915) by Ernest Poole

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          Ernest Poole won the first ever Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1918 for His Family, but it was his novel of three years earlier, The Harbor, that remains his most lasting work. It’s the story of a journalist named Billy (surely based on Poole himself), who grows up in a comfortable middle class house overlooking a harbor that his father runs as a small businessman. However, the harbor soon leaves his father behind as it becomes one huge corporate entity (along with the railroads) financed by Wall Street. Billy is stuck between two worlds, desiring to marry into a wealthy family whose patriarch is one of the engineers of the new industrial center, but strangely drawn into the world of the working class men who toil in the harbor, as represented by his radical college friend, Joe. We witness Billy grow up and come into his own as a writer while slowly beginning to understand the wage slave exploitation of the stokers and dockers who power international trade in the harbor but see none of the profits.

Poole’s novel is honest, balanced, and straight-forward in its portrayal. The rich owners and their Wall Street backers, represented by the engineer Dillion, are not evil monsters. In fact, they think their work is actually helping the nation to grow (which it is, but at the expense of its poorest workers). The middle class, including Billy’s father, are not out-of-touch or unsympathetic characters. They work hard, but have faith in the system. Billy’s father doesn’t agree with the strike, and he even looks down on the labor leaders, but he is not a character “type” who exists merely as antagonistic counterpoint to the strikers. He supports Billy’s writing and is hopeful for the future. Likewise, the labor leaders are not painted as saints or heroes. They are regular men who have family problems and health issues. Their ideals carry them through their work, but they understand that the fight will go on long after they are gone, even if they do believe that the revolution is near. We are shown the harsh lives of the stokers, but never in an emotionally manipulative way. Poole doesn’t exaggerate, nor does he hold back. We are witness to the workers bickering among themselves, and also their struggle to put aside their own personal prejudices.

In the midst of this, Billy acts as a type of connective surrogate. He reports on the events for both sides — first for the industrialists, then for the strikers. He remains on friendly terms with both, even as he begins to side with the strikers. He believes in the revolution, but understands that it will not happen as soon or as quickly as Joe believes. He also understands that the best way to get out the message is not to work outside the system, but to work from within, trying to get his articles published in mainstream papers.


Was the defeat of this one strike the end?

The grim battleships answered, ‘Yes, it is the end.’

But the restless harbor answered, ‘No.’

What change was coming in my life? I did not know. Of one thing only I was sure. The last of my gods, Efficiency, whose feet had stood firm on mechanical laws and in whose head were all the brains of all the big men at the top, had now come tottering crashing down. And in its place a huge new god, whose feet stood deep in poverty and in whose head were all the dreams of all the toilers of the earth, had called to me with one deep voice, with one tremendous burning passion for the freedom of mankind.

–Ernest Poole


One hundred years after the novel was written, some progress has been made, but we are still dealing with the same issues presented in the novel. Workers who drive their industries make barely enough to survive. They work long hours will little overtime pay (and, if some in the Trump administration get their way, none at all). Wall Street still reaps the profits while the average worker goes home with not enough enough money to pay rent. Conservatives with ties to big business continue to dismantle labor unions and work to protect the interests of the 1%.
The question we must ask ourselves: where are the strikes? Where are the national movements of workers demanding their rights? Occasionally, we will see strikes for a 15-dollar minimum wage or equal pay for women (a point that Poole makes in his novel, as the suffragists are an important inspiration for Billy to join the socialist movement). And, of course, we have seen the Occupy Wall Street movement. But with all the power that social media gives us in organizing, we haven’t made all that much progress in those marches translating to legislation, especially considering the work done on that front in the Progressive Era. The march forward continues, but at a pace that seems far slower than it was one-hundred years ago.

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Ernest Poole

Another question we must ask: where are the socialist literary voices helping to carry the banner in the 21st century? Where are our Ernest Pooles, Upton Sinclairs, Ida Tarbells, Carl Sandburgs, and Emma Goldmans? And if they do exist, do they have any mass appeal? Does anyone read their work, outside the halls of the academy or urban intellectual circles?

In an era when the gap between rich and poor is greater than it has even been — when the new Trump cabinet will have more wealthy businessmen than even Harding’s administration — Poole’s novel challenges us to question how we will respond, and whether or not fiction can still be a powerful force in the struggle.

THE IRON HEEL: “Fear the Coming of the Oligarchy”

The Iron Heel (1908) by Jack London

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          While presidential administrations have often been overwhelmingly represented by the elite classes, Donald Trump’s cabinet will be the wealthiest in our nation’s history, which is stunning, considering the concentration of wealth seen during the Gilded Age, as well as in the administrations of Harding, Eisenhower, Kennedy, et al. With the loosening of corporate restrictions and the easing of governmental oversight that will inevitably follow, the Trump administration runs a serious risk of fostering the type of corruption not seen in the United States since the Harding administration. Unfortunately, that type of pocket-lining might be the least of our troubles. With Trump’s push towards unchecked capitalism, protectionist trade policies, isolationism from international diplomacy, and an ultra-militarism that calls for a nuclear arms race via a Tweet (I can’t even believe I’m typing those words), we face a world order in which nations blindly pursue their own economic interests with no international diplomatic means to curtail the damage. On the home front, Trump has signaled that he will continue to disparage the press, refuse the White House press corps basic access, and (at worst) actively work to dismantle long-standing first amendment safeguards.

          A nation run exclusively by the wealthy, who are actively creating economic policies that benefit themselves, with an expansive military at their disposal and the power to manipulate elections, is precisely the dystopian vision presented in Jack London’s The Iron Heel. Written in the form of a manuscript that is discovered 700 years in the future, the novel is a dire warning about an out-of-control centralized government with militarized police that crushes labor to protect corporate interests. The Oligarchy, as London frankly terms the ruling power, is the American capitalist military-industrial complex gone berserk, with North American governments falling in line behind far-right corporate interests to form one massive, oppressive state. The only thing that stands in the way of this dystopian nightmare is the socialist resistance, in the form of labor unions in the United States (or what is left of it) and European socialist nations. (Considering the state of Europe right now, perhaps London was a little too optimistic in that regard!)

          As the Oligarchy consolidates power, the socialists still naively believe they can win at the ballot box. Only Ernest Everhard, the doomed leader of the revolutionary resistance, understands that the Oligarchy has crushed civil liberties and voting rights to the point where elections have become moot. He recognizes that a revolution of the working class is the only option. The people still refuse to believe their eyes, and insist that the Oligarchy can be defeated politically. (I am reminded of that famous declaration of denial from Sinclair Lewis’ novel of the same name: “It can’t happen here!” But those words are always spoken too late. It already is here.)  By the time the workers begin to fight back, it’s already too late. The struggle will continue for hundreds of years.


Thus the summer of 1912 witnessed the virtual death-thrust to the middle class. Even Ernest was astounded at the quickness with which it had been done. He shook his head ominously and looked forward without hope to the fall elections.

“It’s no use,” he said. “We are beaten. The Iron Heel is here. I had hoped for a peaceable victory at the ballot-box. I was wrong. Wickson was right. We shall be robbed of our few remaining liberties; the Iron Heel will walk upon our faces; nothing remains but a bloody revolution of the working class. Of course we will win, but I shudder to think of it.”

And from then on Ernest pinned his faith in revolution. In this he was in advance of his party. His fellow-socialists could not agree with him. They still insisted that victory could be gained through the elections. It was not that they were stunned. They were too cool-headed and courageous for that. They were merely incredulous, that was all. Ernest could not get them seriously to fear the coming of the Oligarchy.

–Jack London


          London’s novel is divided into two parts: the first half documents the political philosophy and rise of Ernest Everhard, with long speeches and conversations detailing London’s socialist views. The second half of the novel documents the violent revolution against the Oligarchy, which has an oddly paced spy subplot that seems an amalgamation of Conrad’s Secret Agent and the works of H.G. Wells. We get interesting predictions of a war with Germany (headed by a crazy tyrant), modern guerilla-style warfare in the cities, and even aerial bombing (via hot air balloons) with incendiary weapons.

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Jack London

          London’s framing device includes a scholar who has discovered this manuscript 700 years in the future and is writing footnotes describing the absurd institutions of the early-20th century. The resulting footnotes read like Ambrose Bierce definitions (one of which is quoted in the novel, so clearly London was inspired by Bierce). An example:”lobbies — a peculiar institution for bribing, bulldozing, and corrupting the legislators who were supposed to represent the people’s interests.”

          The Iron Heel remains starkly relevant in a Western world that is on the precipice of turning hard towards the extreme right. It is recommended for anyone interested in London, early-20th century American literature, or revolutionary fiction, but also as required reading for Americans living in the Trump era. At what point do we begin to fear the coming of the Oligarchy? When Trump’s economic policies begin to squeeze the lower classes, when his social policies begin to place the blame on vulnerable minorities, when the GOP’s political gerrymandering turns elections into farces, and when international diplomacy is eschewed in favor of a global escalation of military might, will we be in any position to reverse this abominable course, or will we already be too late to act? 

 

THE GRAVEYARD: Searching for Facts in a “Post-Truth” World

The Graveyard (1958) by Marek Hlasko

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          There are some political ideologies that are so twisted and wrapped up in skeins of illusion that the very concept of “fact” is called into question or even ceases to exist in the minds of adherents. Even when those of us on the outside peel back the layers of lies in search of that inner truth, we are often left with an emptiness surrounded by the cast-off rinds of fabrication. Oxford Dictionaries has chosen “post-truth” as the Word of the Year, signaling a new shift toward that type of ideological self-blindness throughout the Western world. Perhaps we should call this shift “post-fact,” since “truth” still exists, but only relative to how one accepts or willfully rejects facts.

          We see it in stark relief in the United States with the election of Donald Trump, whose words are so empty that fact and fiction become inconsequential to his followers — as long as the words are spoken by Trump, then those words are Truth, because Trump only speaks Truth. All else is a Lie. And so the tautology of totalitarianism begins its long, twisted warping of reality, spinning delusions so chaotically as to make the concept of “fact” disappear altogether in the haze. “Truth” still exists, but it is the Truth of Trump. Only the facts have become meaningless. (Social workers in the last couple decades have termed a similar manipulative warping of perception “gaslighting.”)

          Rebellious Polish writer Marek Hlasko would understand this phenomenon explicitly. His novel The Graveyard, written in 1958 and recently published after long being suppressed, is a sharp critique of the Communist ideology in Poland that rigidly defined the lives of its acolytes to the point where the illusion masking their reality ran so deep that the Party’s truth became the only truth they knew. The protagonist, a working man and loyal party member named Franciszek Kowalski, is dragged into custody one night for speaking a vulgarity to a policeman — a minor offense that is spun by the arresting officers as an insult against the Party — that sets in motion the unravelling of everything he understands to be the Truth about the party and its followers.

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Marek Hlasko

          As he is forced to confront the circular logic and injustice of the police officers, party leaders, and fellow workers who condemn him based only on what they “know” to be true, Kowalski soon comes to understand that tyranny and oppression have replaced political ideals and unity, and that service and social cohesion have transformed into a pattern of conformity, surveillance, and denouncement. When this happens, he realizes, all men are living in the graveyard of ideology, but they just don’t realize it. Kowalski only recognizes this after it’s too late. His mind has been so warped by the Party’s narrative that he even begins to question his own memory and believe the trumped-up charges (pardon the pun). Ironically, this event removes his ideological blinders, so that by the end of the novel he genuinely insults the Party in front of the same officer as his first open act of defiance against the Party he now rejects.


If I go on living, it means that I accept all this, and I have no right to squawk. A man can live through any hell, survive any tyranny, get out of any swamp and any oppression, if he has at least a crumb of certainty, or at least hope, that there is somewhere another man who walks and breathes like him; who suffers, seeks, or fights like him, preserving his purity. Among us, none can have this hope. Here, among us, the heart of the world has died. Here the great myth of the poor gave up the ghost. Not somewhere else, but here; in this place, toward which the eyes of all unfortunate and oppressed are turned. Here died the world’s faith. All the words. All the ideas. All the dreams of man’s emancipation. You are right: this is a graveyard. This is the worst. Where can we find strength?

–Marek Hlasko


 

          Not surprisingly, the novel was refused publication by the Communist regime in Poland. In the 21st century, Hlasko’s novel stands as a warning for anyone who might cast aside critical thinking and willingly (if unwittingly) accept the status quo. We must resist the gaslighting of reality and the obfuscation of fact that dangerous political rhetoric generates. Through the character of Kowalski, Hlasko suggests that the ones most capable of resistance are the outcasts, the misfits, and the marginalized. And even then, their only choice is to break away from the dominant ideology and go into exile — a traumatic experience that will not be easy or without pain (physical, mental, and emotional).

          There is no happy ending in the graveyard (or in The Graveyard). There is only the epiphany of self-knowledge and a sharper understanding of the Repressive and Ideological State Apparatuses whose coercive power we might resist, but can never escape.