No, Stossel. The Pilgrims Were Starved by a Corporation, Not by Communism.


Paul's picture

A distinction without a difference. It hardly matters how they ended up with communism (whether their choice, or their contractual agreement, or some form of imposition); what matters is that they HAD communism and it matters what the outcome of that was - particularly important for the overturning of the statist myths about Thanksgiving.

mhstahl's picture

The distinction makes the difference. Not only is Stossel's fairy tale in no way based in fact(and he knows that, because he mentions that the pilgrims were "told" how they had to divide the product of thier farming, but he never says by who and then goes forth with the factually incorrect assertion that the colonists were 17th century hippies of some sort), but if he had been honest the whole thesis falls apart. So he lied.
The fact is the Plymouth colony was never "communistic" at all-it was wholly owned by the Merchant Adventurers, a corporation chartered by the crown with the intent of making a profit-in England, not Plymouth. The arrangement, rather than being "Marxist" as Stossel fantasizes, is in fact the utter and total antithesis of Marxism. It is that very sort of "exploitation" that Marx railed against. Rightly.
Plymouth was a poorly concieved business plan that relied upon the desperation of a persecuted sect, who knew full well that it would be a disaster. Think of how horrible England must have been for them to agree to this!
Yes, the episode does illustrate some problems of enforced collectivism-but even that is a contradiction in terms. The colony was no less "centrally planned" after the colonists reverted to the traditionional peasant field system(which was NOT "private" property as we know it, by the way), it was still the sole venture of the Merchant Adventurers. Sorry, that is what the record shows.
History is what it is, in this case it is really rather well documented, and the attempt to make it into something that it was not is nothing but a crock. It presumes(probably rightly) ignorance of documented history and plays into modern knee-jerk notions about communism that simply do not apply to the period.
There is much to be learned from that era, but insight into communism just is not there.

Jim Davies's picture

Sorry, Mike, but that the Plymouth Pilgrims lived and worked in "the utter and total antithesis of Marxism" is itself the utter and total antithesis of good sense and plain fact. They were supposed to produce according to ability and consume according to need, and that ridiculous fairy tale is the foundation of Marxism and all other varieties of Socialism.
Echoing Carson, however, you raise a good question by enquiring who set up this unworkable arrangement; the English aristocracy, in the form of "Merchant Adventurers." That group of members of the ruling class knew nothing about economics and less about motivation; they held workers in close to serfdom and presumed, irrationally, that the Pilgrims would do as they were told - 3,000 miles away just as they had to on the English farm.  How wrong they were.
Two hundred years before Marx was born, the colonists demonstrated that Marxism cannot work. They also demonstrated that the ruling class in England did not understand which way was up. Eventually, both paid a heavy price.

mhstahl's picture

I cannot agree with you about the "foundation" of Marxism-I do agree that such a notion is a fairy tale-so did Marx; unless true communism had been achieved, and with it the massive over-production he envisioned. I think that is also a fairy tale, but it is irrelevant. That is not at issue here, instead what is at issue is a rigid class structure rife with persecution, and the state granting of priviledge-those are evident in abundance. When I think of Marxism, I think first of class-struggle, and with it a rejection of the notion of hierarchy based upon wealth and "connection"(read force of government)-I happen to agree with him on that, and such ugly exploitation is the very core of the Pilgrim story.
Marx even wrote about the effect of colonization upon the development of the modern priviledged class in chapt. 1 of the Communist Manifesto:
So, yeah, Plymouth really is the antithesis of Marxism-it is an exact example of what he was citing as a problem in the very first chapter of his seminal work. I'm not sure what more to say about that.
Remember, the claim is that "The Pilgrims started out with communal property rules."
They did not. At no time was property communally held. "Communism" would have been a step up in terms of property "ownership" for the colonists-since then at least they would have had some claim to the property.
The reason for the denial of individual plots and work time(as was customary for even the lowliest of peasants) was not idealism, but greed. The company was to dissolve and the stock to be divided after seven years-the more inventory in the company stores, the greater the profit. It was foolish, but not ideological. There was no fairy tale, remember: the more dead Pilgrims-the more stock stayed where it belonged in England. But at least somebody had to survive the seven years. Manorial lords needed thier peasants, corporate investors did not. The understood economics better than you think.
Furthermore, when the Merchant Adventurers finally allowed the wretches to restructure their arrangement, it did not result in "private property", rather they adopted what they were used to-the old manorial system whereby individual plots were indeed worked and the produce taken individually, but the plots were not "owned"(how could they be...they already were), could not be traded, inherited, and were not even always the same particular section of land. This made sense because crop rotation of the time required leaving large tracts fallow, and after all the whole mix was owned by the corporation anyway. A free market that is not.
 Indeed, no peasant would have accepted the initial terms...they worked, and had for centuries, under a similar scheme as what later came to be in Plymouth. The Pilgrims had, essentially, no choice-they were not welcome at home. They had to go. More force.
It also needs to be kept in mind that the entire venture was poorly conceived-they arrived in winter, in a harsh climate that required different agricultural techniques than they were familiar with. Also, the local tribes from whom the colonists learned to effectively farm, and who were not starving, didn't hold private property in land-at least not in the sense we understand it-yet they were remarkable agriculturalists.
Rather than being communists, a better analogy would be that the colonists were employees(who were not free to quit...) of the Merchant Adventurers-who had a Royal charter and monopoly to settle the area, and ultimately reap profits-and who were also authorized to administer "justice", such as it was at the time, if I recall correctly.
 I think the best modern analogy for this-both during the famine and during the later plenty-is fascism. And it proved itself to be brutal, horrible, and monstrous. It also proved to be effective.
The best lesson, I think is that force is both unpredictable and exceedingly dangerous in a market. It is a misuse, and misunderstanding, of history to attempt to find definite answers to modern socio-economic questions in the far past. History doesn't just not repeat, it can't repeat. The circumstances will never be the same.