239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

August 6, 1912
Dublin, NH
Storify Feature

Socialism, Strikes, and Oscar Wilde

THE AIR IS CHILLY TONIGHT. The time is well past midnight and most of Dublin is asleep. At Brush Farm, George de Forest Brush is chatting with his guest, Margaret Sanger, who is busy adding another log to the fire. Margaret writes a column for the Socialist newspaper the New York Call. Three months from now she will start a new series on sex education entitled “What Every Girl Should Know,” which will be censored by the United States Post Office. Tonight she departs from the theme of women’s health and talks to George about Oscar Wilde’s essay, “The Soul of Man under Socialism.”

Margaret Sanger is one of the leading members of the Socialist Party of America and the radical labor union the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW for short. Earlier this year, on February 9, she had helped evacuate two hundred children from Lawrence, Massachusetts, where a strike of millworkers was taking place. The strikers were mainly immigrant women and they were striking over a pay cut. Industrial unrest is making itself felt in America and Margaret is in the thick of it. So tonight, as she sits down to her cozy chat by the fire on Brush Farm, she does so with enthusiasm.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá is sleeping tonight, but he had addressed the problem of strikes even before he was freed from house arrest in Palestine. “The principal cause of these difficulties,” he said, “lies in the laws of the present civilization; for they lead to a small number of individuals accumulating incomparable fortunes, beyond their needs, while the greater number remain destitute.”

“[R]ules and laws should be established to regulate the excessive fortunes of certain private individuals,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá asserted, “and meet the needs of millions of the poor masses.” But, as usual, he rejected the fundamental premise of Socialism: that perfect economic equality should be legislated. Excessive equality, he argued, would destroy the body politic: “[A]bsolute equality is just as impossible, for absolute equality in fortunes, honors, commerce, agriculture, industry would end in disorderliness, in chaos.”

George de Forest Brush’s ideas on Socialism vary greatly from those of Oscar Wilde and Margaret Sanger. Wilde considers all manual labor “absolutely degrading.” Margaret asks Brush a question: “You would not leave man [to] continue to do the laborious and disagreeable work which has so enslaved and degraded him today?”

George leans back in his chair. He is thoroughly enjoying the subject. His eyes sparkle as he answers her. “Labor is the most delightful thing in the world when one does the thing one loves to do,” he says quietly. “When man labors for the joy of it, when everything he does will be a thing of beauty, there will be joy in his labor.”

A log falls and Margaret prods it with the poker. Their conversation has veered away from Oscar Wilde and Socialism. As the night gets darker and quieter, and the fire burns low in the grate, George de Forest Brush rises and raises his hand in a goodnight to Margaret.

“In my Socialism there will be no getting on without art,” he says, “for every act of life will be an emotion and every work a piece of art.”

In New York in June, to an audience at his residence at 309 West 78th Street, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explained Bahá’u’lláh’s position on work. “All humanity must obtain a livelihood by sweat of the brow and bodily exertion,” he said, “at the same time seeking to lift the burden of others, striving to be the source of comfort to souls and facilitating the means of living. This in itself is devotion to God.”


  • Dean Hedges

    “The conception of civilization’s future course laid out in Bahá’u'lláh’s writings challenges much that today imposes itself on our world as normative and unchangeable.” …. “There is nothing in Bahá’u'lláh’s writings to encourage the illusion that the changes envisioned will come about easily.” …. “It would be difficult to exaggerate the psychological and social impact of the anticipated replacement of the jumble of existing monetary systems–for many, the ultimate fortress of nationalist pride–by a single world currency operating largely through electronic impulses. “  …. [{note … will we be happy when even our very own health is highly  taxing?}} ….  “Soon”, is Bahá’u'lláh’s confident promise, “will the present-day order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead.”

  • Dean Hedges

    “None must contend with those who wield authority over the people; leave unto them that which is theirs, and direct your attention to men’s hearts.”

  • Linda Leeb

    “Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to exempt all
    from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher portions of property in
    geometrical progression as they rise.” –Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1785. So this strange idea that taxing the rich is a socialist idea, current among Tea Partiers and demagogues, is demonstrably false.

  • jimtomkel

    “All humanity must obtain a livelihood by sweat of the brow and bodily exertion” …….?  I don’t understand.  What about the scientists, teachers, medical doctors, scholars in general?  They don’t sweat, as a rule, at least not until they go home and clean the house or weed the garden, but that’s not how they “obtain a livelihood”.  What does this mean?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=623264276 Peg McNaughton

      “Sweat of the brow” is an expression that refers not to physical sweat, but to intellectual or mental efforts.  For example: the US Supreme Court in 1991 rejected the “sweat of the brow” doctrine in copywrite law, because originality is what is protected under the law, not effort.

      • jimtomkel

         Thank you very much Peg.  I’m sure that “eases the course of understanding”, shall we say, for lots of us.

  • Loiemead

    With wisdom and concern for the next generation of children, we in the United States have the way to introduce guidelines and uphold standards in advertising.  In response to the volume and form of advertising permitted, the next generation of children could  easily become the most materialistic the world has ever seen. We are a free society in the United States; we are free to choose the kind of world we desire for our children. If we as fairminded, thoughtful adults fail to act in a free society, what have we done to advance civilization?

    ‘Abdu’l-Baha in “Some Answered Questions”, p. 141, told us:
    It is, therefore, preferable for moderation to be established by means of laws and regulations to hinder the constitution of the excessive fortunes of certain individuals, and to protect the essential needs of the masses.
     (Abdu’l-Baha, “Some Answered Questions”, p. 274)

  • Dean Hedges

    there is this idea of taxing the money itself. …. …. To accomplish this goal one would need a strong mayor and even a stronger body politic…….. ….. ….  The idea is along the lines of the stamp act of 1765, …. …. in brief, within a local/regional area the money is stamped out, i.e. something like first day covers. The money that is stamped out is good for thirty days. During the first 10 days the value of the money is at face value, during the 10 to 20 day cycle the value is decressed by a certain %, say 3%, during the 20 to 30 day period of the cycle the value of the money is reduced again by another 3% …. thus …. at the end of the 30 day cycle the money is worthless unless whomever is holding it pays the 6% to make it full value again … …. …. Tax the money itself … … this idea worked well in germany, the body politic was able to build a train station, upkeep police and sanation, even plans where to build a ski lodge … … until, the railroad and other parts of the german federation declared this form of money illegal …. …. perhaps one day on a local and/or regional scale we may again see isolated pockets of local currency …. …. of course the eye on the prize is our “single world currency” which , if we are to remain true to ourselves, we must acknowledge as being well thought out and perhaps even a well guard secert ….. ….. in brief, whether on local,regional,national, or even global undertakings it is possible to tax money itself, not the income …. …. this idea is similiar to property tax, but instead of taxing the property, ie house, we tax the currency iself

  • Colleen

    I really think we need to continue to build unity and oneness in society.  When there is genuine love and unity in a society, then the wealth redistributes itself.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Pascal-Molineaux/1203381202 Pascal Molineaux

    For unity to be established amongst us, justice is essential. Essential.  Justice implies that all human beings can live decent and noble lives.  Justice implies that all can have their basic needs satisified and have time and enrgey to dedicate to their spiritual and intellectual ´pursuits. It is clear that a world that accepts the reality of 1 billion people barely surviving on less that US$ 2 a day is not a world that is united or just.  Worse when we know that some 700 individuals have a personal wealth beyond a billion dollars.  There is something awefully wrong here.  It is just not fair that working class people pay a greater percentage of their meagre wages than wealthy financiers who hide their wealth in tax-free havens.  So many laws need changing if we are to live in a world united.  Absolute equality is, of course, a pipe dream, but basic human decency tells that today’s income distribution is grossly  unfair and unhealthy.

  • Craig_shere

    As a Baha’i, I agree the world remains very broken relative to the condition that will exist at the time of “the most great peace.” But we’re clearly MUCH better today than when Abdu’l-Baha visited the U.S. Interestingly, the “billionaires” and the “safety net” grew together (vs. one crowding out the other).

    The risk is in excess – giving a man credit for work he’s not done with his “own sweat” or limiting reasonable opportunity to a priviledged few are both destructive. While Baha’u'llah tells us what the future will look like, we don’t have a detailed map of how to get there. Looking back in time at what’s worked and what’s not is certainly a good starting point. Frankly, the U.S. municipal bankruptcies and European sovereign wealth problems today clearly stem from excessive government largess (especially in the form of gold-plated government pensions and healthcare guarantees not afforded to private sector participants who “pay the bill”). The example of Haiti is also a good lesson. A century ago, a hurricane devastating Haiti would have yielded little attention (much less action) from richer nations. But while people are kept alive with the ubiquitous presence of NGOs, what underlying progress is being made in the organic Hatian economy? Is there any end in sight (even in generations) to the cycle of dependence?

    There is clearly much of the world where these philosophical questions of how to structure an optimal working society are irrelevent – because people are still enslaved, murdered and systemically deprived of opportunity due to gender, race, or religion (from rapes in Cairo’s Tahiri square to Syrian government brutality, to Myanmar’s treatment of Muslim minority, to the brutality of the Iranian regime, etc., etc., etc.). But for those of us fortunate enough to live in advanced societies that no longer intentionally oppress people, we need to tap our intellect to uncover the map to the “most great peace” that will serve as a lesson/light unto humanity. This map must reconcile sharing opportunity (education, healthcare, career, housing, etc.) while never crossing the line of standing between a man and the repurcussions of his own actions. True wealth is not a static thing (bank account, pile of cash, capital ownership, etc). There is no amount of wealth that one or two generations of poorly educated children (within one dysfunctional family unit) can’t squander (yes – even billions of dollars).

    If we find the right “rational” balance that respects the individual while following through on collective obligations, then we’ll have a far greater pool of creative resources (i.e. independent/interdependent individuals) that will freely and gleefully uncover the innate abundance of wealth God’s creation has to offer. Charity and community work is no doubt a significant part of this ultimate “map” to human destiny, but so is personal responsibility (for general education, developing value added skills, work, and family planning). 

  • Pear Tree C

    I am learning about this topic daily. Today I was relieved to know that my union had come to an agreement with the government. Earlier I was anxious that the government would stamp out our right to strike as they have with other unions here in Canada recently with back to work legislation. All of this has given me pause to think. It is frightful when labour disputes can’t be solved peaceably. It is frighful indeed when employers callously overlook labourer’s rights. We have certainly come a long way in considering the rights inherent to labourer’s. But, as ‘Abdu’l-Baha mentions, we as yet need to have laws that curb the enormous wealth garnered by the very few. And that is where the general strike had headed just last year with the Occupy movement. It no longer was a strike of one union against its employer but of the general populace against the invisible few. So perhaps the next battle has already begun and in the near future may be resolved for the benefit of the generations to come.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Malugssuak Dalton Garis

    Careful peer-reviewed research published in the near past has unequivocally set the beginning of the current formation of the extremes in wealth and poverty now seen in the United States as beginning with the Reagan Tax Cuts of 1985. Before that year marginal income tax rates were more graduated, with higher income levels being taxed more than for lower income levels. However, after that date income taxes became flatter overall: the wealthy were able to keep more of their wealth, while there was little change in tax rates on the middle class.

    Thus, with taxes unchanging for the vast middle class and falling for the wealthy after 1985 two trends began at once: (1) the wealthy became vastly more wealthy at the expense of the middle class–an historical transfer of wealth from the middle to the top tiers of earners, and (2) it became harder to cover the necessary costs of government.

    Furthermore, reversing a trend in the United States begun since the late 1930′s wherein hired workers were capable of earning compensation sufficient to cover basic and extended needs for themselves, their dependents, and through taxation, society at large, the value of human capital employed in direct production of goods and services has significantly decreased in terms of marketplace compensation, while the value of human capital utilized in managerial functions has increased significantly in terms of market compensation.

    Dalton Garis, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor, emeritus
    Economics and market price behavior
    Flushing, New York