This polemical novel, published in 1906 by Life Publishing in New York, might seem an odd
choice for BoBuReview, but I must confess to a family interest in the matter.
It came to my attention because my grandfather, William Balfour Ker -- an avowed socialist (and
vegetarian) -- did the viscerally-impactful original illustrations. (See pix below.)
Far from being the dirty word it it these days, socialism was then seen as
a panacea, a cure for society's ills and injustices, which were, if possible, even more egregious than today's.
"The Silent War" was written by J. A. Mitchell for the early
version of Life magazine. It's an inflammatory story, so critical of capitalism, especially the "captains of industry"
who would be our modern-day CEO's, that it might have trouble finding a contemporary commercial publisher -- either that,
or shoot right to the top of the dissident best-seller lists.
The story itself is woven around a philanthropic millionaire, Billy Chapman (whose wealth in relative terms would
be equivalent to today's billionaires). Chapman inherits several large fortunes from different sides of his family.
But at least he's kind-hearted: "Never having known want, he is generous."
As a young man studying at Cambridge (Harvard), he gives some pocket money to a man named John Wilson who has
just been released from prison for the murder of a "human hog" named Rufus Dickson. Chapman even congratulates Wilson
on his actions. "Bully for you! 'Twas a mighty good thing. Everybody thought so . . . " (Dickson
was evidently a large-scale swindler, presumably of widows and orphans, probably on the order of a Bernie Maddoff.)
Twenty years pass. A People's
League forms a fanatical Committee of Seven which is determined to redress the wrongs of a system that "makes war on
the poor to enrich the rich." (Sub-prime mortgages, anyone?)
"You reap without sowing," says a lawyer named Tucker. "Instead of helping the
poor man, you not only swindle him whenever you get a chance, but you do it openly and with no shame . . . you would corner
the air he breathes if only you knew how." (They obviously hadn't thought of water or plant seeds yet.) The financiers snigger as they await the arrival of one of their cohorts, who is unaccountably late.
They discover, after a lot more rebukes from lawyer Tucker, that their colleague has been murdered by the Committee
Said group has drawn up a list of the top
100 millionaires in America and dunned them each for a donation of two hundred thousand dollars. "So that we may
buy Senators as freely as do you," one of their members explains. But if the targeted millionaire refuses to pay
up, the penalty is death.
This is all for a doubly
good cause, so to speak -- to prevent armed revolution on the part of the abused workers of America, something the Committee
of Seven is sure will come soon because the disparity of income has become so woeful and so widespread.
The People's League wants
to raise enough money to achieve their objectives -- fair and decent living standards for American workers -- by peaceable
means. "You think our methods brutal," Wilson continues. "We have no choice. The American
magnate disregards the law, for he owns it. He has no fear of public opinion, for he owns the press. As for the
United States Senate . . . those gilded patriots bear the same relation to Wall Street as a yellow dog to a butcher's cart."
How relevant and real-time can we get?
There probably is no such thing as a perfect poltical system and I am in no way an apologist for socialism or its
horrors under Stalin, but I honor J. A. Mitchell and my grandfather William Balfour Ker for their keen sense of outrage at
what unchecked and irresponsible capitalism does to its workers.
a Buddhist perspective, we will never find a solution as long as we look at the world in terms of dualistic black and white,
i.e., capitalism = good, socialism = bad. Starting with the basics, the genuine welfare and freedom from basic wants
of the general populace, surely there are elements of both systems that are beneficial to the public weal. Don't wisdom,
compassion and painful experience demand that we explore the middle ground?
-- Paki S. Wright