“Socialism” as a defined economic system did not emerge until the 20th century’s great industrial revolutions drove Russian laborers to unite behind Vladimir Lenin — but don’t tell that to Congressman Todd Akin (R-MO).
Akin, according to a speech given on the floor of the House of Representatives on Tuesday, instead believes it started much earlier. He claimed that the first group of settlers to set sail for the new world were fleeing an “unbiblical” socialism that had gripped their homeland.
It’s a new spin to the oft-repeated, still untrue conservative fairy tale that casts the pilgrims as America’s capitalist forefathers.
“They came here with the idea that after trying socialism that it wasn’t going to work,” Akin said. “They realized that it was unbiblical, that it was a form of theft, so they pitched socialism out. They learned that in the early 1620’s.”
That’s clearly untrue, according to accepted historical record.
Not only did socialism not exist in the early 1620’s, communal production efforts were crucial to the survival of the first European settlers to arrive in America.
Akin’s fiction also runs roughshod over a fact even school children know: that Pilgrims left Europe seeking freedom from religious persecution. Quite contrary to the Congressman’s allegation, their migration had nothing to do with differences on economic policy.
This video was broadcast by C-Span on Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2010, as snipped by Think Progress.
The tale has been regurgitated several times this year by high-profile figures on America’s political right. One is Fox News contributor John Stossel, who claimed in a recent column that Pilgrims almost botched the first Thanskgiving because they “organized their farm economy along communal lines.”
“Long before the failure of modern socialism, the earliest European settlers gave us a dramatic demonstration of the fatal flaws of collectivism,” Stossel wrote. “Unfortunately, few Americans today know it.”
“The Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony organized their farm economy along communal lines,” he continues. “The goal was to share the work and produce equally. That’s why they nearly all starved.”
He suggested that the abolition of community property had the effect of turning once lazy and thieving Puritans into industrious capitalists with bountiful harvests.
There was, however, no famine at Plymouth Plantation (there was at a settlement in Jamestown). Stossel’s retelling is a crude version of historical events. The New York Times’ Kate Zernike debunked the account earlier this week.
“Historians say that the settlers in Plymouth, and their supporters in England, did indeed agree to hold their property in common — William Bradford, the governor, referred to it in his writings as the ‘common course,'” she wrote. “But the plan was in the interest of realizing a profit sooner, and was only intended for the short term; historians say the Pilgrims were more like shareholders in an early corporation than subjects of socialism.”
“It was directed ultimately to private profit,” Richard Pickering, the deputy director of Plimoth Plantation, told Zernike.
“The arrangement did not produce famine,” the Times reporter continued. “If it had, Bradford would not have declared the three days of sport and feasting in 1621 that became known as the first Thanksgiving.
“The celebration would never have happened if the harvest was going to be less than enough to get them by,” Pickering was quoted as saying. “They would have saved it and rationed it to get by.”
“To call it socialism is wildly inaccurate,” Karen Ordahl Kupperman, a historian at New York University, told the Times. “It was a contracted company, and everybody worked for the company. I mean, is Halliburton a socialist scheme?'”
The irony of this tale is, of course, that natives were kind enough to share their food, knowledge and land with the first European settlers, yet the conservative polemics of 2010 portend fiction over history in order to castigate the very behaviors that ensured America’s birth.
With prior reporting by Daniel Tencer.