Saving Martin Luther King, Jr. and others from the capitalist “memory hole”

The socialist press around the world will mark January 18, 2021, with celebrations of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s fervent rejection of capitalism and resounding advocacy for socialism, in an attempt to rescue his political and economic philosophy from George Orwell’s “memory hole.” This was the chute in 1984 where embarrassing truths were sent to their destruction. Mainstream media outlets will remember King’s “I have a dream” speech, but forget that he also said, “We must see now that the evils of racism, economic exploitation, and militarism are all tied together.”

Yet Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is also a fine opportunity for the left press to note that King belongs to a pantheon of famous historical figures who were, to the surprise of many admirers, committed socialists. King questioned the “captains of industry” and their ownership over the workplace, the means of production (“Who owns the oil?… Who owns the iron ore?”), and believed “something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.” Other celebrated heroes believed the same and were likewise very public about their views—and, like King, their words and work in support of socialism, as they each understood it, have been erased from historical memory.

Orwell was sucked down a memory hole, too. Remembered today primarily for his critiques of totalitarianism and the communist Soviet Union in 1984 and Animal Farm, he was a self-described democratic socialist who spent time in Spanish radical communities, saw capitalist society as “the robbers and the robbed,” and wrote that

Socialism is such elementary common sense that I am sometimes amazed that it has not established itself already. The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.

Helen Keller’s story ends in the popular imagination when she is a young girl, first learning to communicate through sign language and later speech and writing. But as an adult, Keller was a fiery radical, pushing for peace, disability rights, and socialism. She wrote, “It is the labor of the poor and ignorant that makes others refined and comfortable.” While capitalism is the few growing rich off the labor of the many, “socialism is the ideal cause.” Keller went on to write: “How did I become a socialist? By reading… If I ever contribute to the Socialist movement the book that I sometimes dream of, I know what I shall name it: Industrial Blindness and Social Deafness.”

The socialism of a certain famous physicist is often lost under the weight of gravity, space, and time. Albert Einstein insisted on “the establishment of a socialist economy,” criticizing how institutions function under capitalism, how “private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education).” He continued: 

[The] crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism. Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career… The education of the individual [under socialism], in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

Mohandas Gandhi, with his commitment to nonviolent resistance and civil disobedience in British-occupied India, was an inspiration for King. But the two also shared a commitment to socialism. Gandhi connected these ideas, insisting that socialism must be built up from nonviolent noncooperation against the capitalists. “There would be no exploitation if people refuse to obey the exploiter. But self comes in and we hug the chains that bind us. This must cease.” He envisioned a unique socialism for India and a nonviolent pathway to bringing it about, writing, “This socialism is as pure as crystal. It, therefore, requires crystal-like means to achieve it.”

The list of famous historical figures goes on and on: Langston Hughes, Ella Baker, H.G. Wells, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Angela Davis, Pablo Picasso, Nelson Mandela, Bayard Rustin. They ranged from democratic socialists to communists, but all believed we could do better than capitalism, that we could in fact build a better world. They agreed with King’s other dream.

“These are revolutionary times,” King declared. “All over the globe, men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born.”

Let socialists spend the 2021 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day excavating not only King’s radicalism, but the radicalism of so many like him.