5 people you didn’t know were socialists
Mainstream media narratives try to make us forget that many of the people we admire, many of those who are held up as important, respectable figures, were and are socialists. With the resurgence in support for socialism since the recession of 2008–2009, particularly among young people, it’s worth remembering why these people thought socialism would create a better world than our capitalism system is capable of delivering.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
A symbol of racial equality, Martin Luther King Jr. has come to represent the Civil Rights Movement and the struggle to end segregation in the United States. We hear about his “I Have a Dream” speech and his vision of a world where blacks and whites live side-by-side, but we’ve forgotten his critique of the capitalist economic system and how it institutionalizes racial discrimination.
In a letter to Coretta Scott in 1952, he wrote
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 falls 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.
He had clearly developed a solid critique of the capitalist system, and was engaging with the works of various socialist and communist writers. More than a decade later, and two years before his death, he told his staff
You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was a socialist, and believed that without an end to the exploitative, profit-motived capitalist system, there could never be true racial equality.
One of the most well-known scientists in history, we know Albert Einstein for his work in physics, particularly in developing the general theory of relativity. We’ve also developed an odd adoration of his mass-energy equivalence formula, E=mc².
However, Einstein was also very political. As a German Jew, he was lucky to be visiting the United States when Hitler came to power in 1933, and never returned to his homeland. He spoke out against nuclear weapons, and in May 1949 the Monthly Review published an essay he’d written called “Why Socialism?” where he criticized the capitalist profit-motive and advocated a socialist economy, which would be planned in a democratic matter, not directed by a sprawling bureaucracy.
I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils [of capitalism], namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, 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.
It should come as no surprise that Einstein saw education as key to the success of socialism. The profit-motive continues to make education prohibitively expensive for the masses to access, and many who do pursue it emerge with debts they need to repay for decades. Higher education has also shifted from a means to impart knowledge and critical thought, to focus more on teaching people skills needed to get a job.
He also rejects the fanatical support for markets that is typical of capitalists, instead advocating for an economy planned by workers and communities. This is also a rejection of the Soviet model of bureaucratic planning. Capitalists argue that socialism would bring an end to progress and innovation, but it’s clear that one of the most renowned scientists in history disagreed.
Author of “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, George Orwell’s critiques of authoritarianism have led the mainstream press to also present him as a supporter of Western capitalism, but nothing could be further from the truth. Orwell travelled from England to Spain in 1936 to aid the left-wing Republicans in their fight against Francisco Franco’s fascist Nationalists, and it was there that he developed his disdain for Stalinism.
In 1946, in an essay entitled “Why I Write”, he attributed his experience in the war as the reason he’d become so committed to political writing, particularly that which opposed authoritarianism.
The Spanish war and other events in 1936–7 turned the scale and thereafter I knew where I stood. Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic Socialism, as I understand it. It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.
Orwell wrote about his experience in the Spanish Civil War in “Homage to Catalonia”, which he published in 1938. In it, he described his vision of socialism.
Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all. And it was here that those few months in the militia were valuable to me. For the Spanish militias, while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of a classless society. In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no bootlicking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see socialism established much more actual than it had been before.
We mustn’t allowed the mainstream media to confuse us. Orwell’s critiques of Stalinism and authoritarianism were not support for Western capitalism, but expressions of his desire to see a socialist world where everyone was equal, not oppressed by anyone—communists, fascists, or capitalists.
When we think about important leaders of liberation movements, we’re told Nelson Mandela should be placed next to pacifist Mahatma Gandhi, but he’d be better placed next to revolutionary Fidel Castro. After the fall of apartheid, there’s no denying that Mandela was absorbed into the sphere of influence of the United States, particularly because the other major power (the Soviet Union), had collapsed. But that doesn’t mean Mandela renounced his support for socialism.
Mandela supported the Freedom Charter of the African National Congress, written in 1955, that called for a democratic state that would uphold “the equal rights, opportunities and status of all”; the nationalization of “mineral wealth beneath the soil, the Banks and monopoly industry”; land reform to redistribute it “amongst those who work it to banish famine”; amongst other proposals. He initially supported non-violence, but in 1961 he co-founded the armed wing of the ANC, which led to his arrest and imprisonment in 1962.
Soon after his release in 1990, Mandela went to Cuba to meet Castro and thank the Cuban people for their support. He credited the assistance the Cuban military provided to Angola in the 1970s and 1980s for helping to bring an end to South Africa’s apartheid regime, which was supported by the United States. Mandela remained on the US terrorist watch list until 2008.
In his speech in Havana in 1991, Mandela recalled how the defeat of the apartheid army against the combined forces of Cuba and Angola at Cuito Cuanavale was a turning point.
We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us. […] Your presence and the reinforcement of your forces in the battle of Cuito Cuanavale was of truly historic significance. The crushing defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale was a victory for the whole of Africa! […] The decisive defeat of the apartheid aggressors broke the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressors! The defeat of the apartheid army was an inspiration to the struggling people inside South Africa! Without the defeat of Cuito Cuanavale our organizations would not have been unbanned! The defeat of the racist army at Cuito Cuanavale has made it possible for me to be here today!
In a statement for his defence trial in 1964, Mandela stated his unequivocal support for socialism.
I should tie myself to no particular system of society other than of socialism.
Prominent socialists aren’t just historical figures. For a while, Malala Yousafzai was everywhere. The media seemed to be constantly reporting on her statements and awards, until suddenly she seemed to disappear. This isn’t because she hasn’t been active, but because she was being openly critical of capitalism and the policies of the United States.
Malala has been a passionate advocate for the education of girls and women, particularly in her native Pakistan. In 2013, she sent a message to the 32nd congress of Pakistani Marxists stated her belief that socialism was the way to spread equal access to education.
I just want to say that in terms of education, as well as other problems in Pakistan, it is high time that we did something to tackle them ourselves. It’s important to take the initiative. We cannot wait around for any one else to come and do it. Why are we waiting for someone else to come and fix things? Why aren’t we doing it ourselves? I would like to send my heartfelt greetings to the congress. I am convinced Socialism is the only answer and I urge all comrades to take this struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation.
She’s also been critical of the drone policy of the United States government, and was brave enough to express her concerns directly to President Barack Obama when she met with him. In a statement following the meeting, she wrote
I also expressed my concerns that drone attacks are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed in these acts, and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. If we refocus efforts on education it will make a big impact.
Socialists are all around us. They’re leading figures in our history books, in the sciences, the arts, and leading the modern struggles for a better world; but we rarely know this to be the case. The media is happy to tell us about these people, but they leave out their politics, or they try to make it seem as though they’re supportive of the Western model.
We shouldn’t be scared to challenge the narrative of the establishment, and to fight for the fair society that capitalism is unable to provide. Support for socialism is growing, and showing people that many of those they admire were and are socialists can help the movement grow.
Paris Marx writes about the growing divide within the capitalist system, the movements for alternative forms of economic organization, and ways of living that challenge traditional narratives. He occasionally makes videos on YouTube, and is very active in sharing news and opinions on Twitter.