A Big Tent

I’ve written recently about books by Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck—these books, especially the former, were very much in the school of “populist” socialism.  Indeed, the big reason for the existence of socialism was the treatment of impoverished workers after the industrial revolution, It was driven by humanitarian and charitable impulses.

But then, you have the other sort of socialism, the one advocated by people like Oscar Wilde, who saw socialism as a way of establishing an intellectual aristocracy—people would be afforded comfortable livings from redistribution of wealth, and so have time for intellectual pursuits.  Now, admittedly Wilde saw this as a universal scheme, with the labor to be done by machines.  But then you had people like H.P. Lovecraft, who would probably want the division of labor to be based on racial lines, in keeping with their usual prejudices.  And people like George Bernard Shaw, who were a bit of both.

Socialism was very much in vogue among intellectuals in the late 1800s and early 1900s, but there were (at least) two distinct kinds of socialist thought: the populists, “help the workingman” socialism and the “socialism is the new aristocracy”, elitist socialism.

These really are two very different aims, and it’s odd that people with these aims should have found common cause.  But one of the things people didn’t realize—at least until the 1930s and ‘40s, at great cost—was that “socialism” was really a very flexible concept; which could be used in service of all sorts of ideologies.

I have no point here.  Just musing.


  1. Populism found it’s voice in William Jenning Bryant’s “Cross of Gold” speech. Most of the social changes Bryant advocated came to fruition in the New Deal- Social Security, minimum wage, regulation of banks, ending the gold standard. All were good things. It took thirty years for the robber barons to get things back to their Ebenezer Scrooge liking.

    1. Yes–it’s interesting to watch how the ideas were advanced. Bryan and the Populists’ ideas were considered radical at the time, but many gradually became accepted, first in the “Progressive Era”, and then the New Deal.

      As you say, a lot of this has been rolled back during and since Reagan, but I’d argue that we still don’t see unfettered capitalism like existed in the 1880s and ’90s.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?