Americanism: A World Menace


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As part of my research for a book that I hope to publish in late 2020 (its predecessor, All the People, is due for publication on 28 February, 2020), I read Americanism. It was published in England in 1922. I wrote a review on Goodreads and repeat it below. The quotation from the book is shown in italics. One had to remember that this was written a century ago, but, in the age of Trump (and Brexit / Farage) you have to pinch yourself to realise how much pertains to 2019. It is a sombre realisation that, while we may have, the much of the world, benefitted materially in the past century and progress has been made in the areas of human rights, so much of the underlying tensions in society remain as they did when William T Colyer wrote this book:


When William T Colyer wrote Americanism, he was an Englishman in the United States, having emigrated there with his wife, Amy, in 1915. They had fled England a week after they married, wishing to have no place in a land that was willing to go to war to defend the ruling class against similar others (like the Prussians). William and Amy saw England as the old land, ruled by the wealthy few and they saw the United States of America, the land of Independence, of Tom Paine, of the Declaration of Independence, of the Constitution as a free land where they could be free.

William and Amy were, in 1915 when they boarded the Carpathia, socialists. They believed that the land of freedom would welcome them. By the time William wrote Americanism, they had become Communists, joining the newly-formed Communist Party of America in 1919, just two years after the Russian Revolution. They worked with Communists like John Read to expand the following in the country in a era now known as the Progressive Era, when, up to and just beyond WWI, the trend was to human rights over big business and corruption. This all changed when the Soviets took control of Russia and fear took over America. The Red Raids of the Attorney General Charles Palmer in 1919 and 1920, when crowds of American police and federal agents (under the control of the 24 year-old J Edgar Hoover) rounded up alien Communists throughout the USA and sent them into prison, bound for deportation.

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William and Amy were arrested in their home in Wellesley, Massachusetts on the morning of 2nd January, 1920 and detained in Deer Island Prison in that state. They were held separately and amongst the hundreds in over-crowded and infested prison facilities. They were then subject to detailed questioning and sentenced for deportation. A band of human rights lawyers then managers to overturn that ruling but they had always accepted that they were Communists and, in 1922, mere membership of that organisation went against them and they were deported back to England, where William completed the book and had it published.

Americanism is a polemic, aimed at showing how the United States was a profound let-down to William and Amy, where the powerful aims of Paine and those that fashioned the American ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have been derailed. Perhaps a quote is the best measure of the book’s aims (page 158-59):

“Preceding chapters have given us the picture of a country in which democracy has become a synonym for machine politics; in which liberty, if not dead, is ant any rate hibernating; in which ‘law and order’ walk hand-in-hand with the foulest corruption; in which the working-class is deprived of what are elsewhere regarded as elementary human rights; in which the schools and colleges are definitely given over to the task of preparing the young to accept these conditions without complaint; in which religion avows itself a mere bulwark of invested capital; in which the prevailing ethical standards are dictated by the requirements of salesmanship, and cheap sentimentalism stands cheek by jowl with almost unbelievable grossness; in which the natives supposed themselves a chosen people and reject with contempt whatever of good is brought to their shores by aliens; and in which the capitalist class is now more powerful than anywhere else in the world.”

William proposed that Communism, as he saw the future under Lenin, would conquer such evils. In the same way that he and Amy were naive about the potential in the USA, they shared a naivety about Communism and, when Stalin replaced Lenin after the latter’s death in 1924, they left the Communists Party and rejoined the Labour Party in England. William stood as a candidate in general elections for it and the Independent Labour Party.

The book is well summarised in the quote above, showing a range of examples that enlarge on the proposition: that Americanism is as potentially destructive as Prussianism, the precursor to WWI, had been. It is a powerful proposition and many of the issues that William outlines (shown above) remain to this day. Yet, against those detriments, the America of the 1940’s that, eventually, came to Europe’s aid in WWII against the tyranny of Naziism and the Japanese, the America of human rights that William saw for himself in the 12 lawyers that helped him (for a time) to oppose deportation is not called up in his story. Amy and William had strong beliefs developed over many years that they had hoped to see fulfilled in America. Their dreams were dashed and this book portrays that sense of expectations destroyed.

Yet, its focus on the demons that, one hundred years after the Red Raids of 1919-20, have been rekindled under Donald Trump (the hatred of aliens, corrupt politics, democracy in chains) highlight problems that remain in the wealthiest country on the planet. That this is now amplified by a short-termism and business ethic that refuses to acknowledge the climate destruction that it is engendering, simply amplifies the issues that William T Colyer portrays in Americanism. It is a book that is almost 100 years’ old yet its story is surprisingly current.

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