The Secret Word

by Howard Zinn, 1976

from the Zinn Reader, Seven Stories Press


Do you remember the old Groucho Marx quiz program where, if a contestant happened to mention a certain secret word, the word dropped down and he or she won a big prize?
Well, there's a secret word I've been waiting many years for some one on TV to say-some news commentator, political figure, panelist, entertainer, anyone.

Lately, I've been especially careful in listening for it. On news programs, I've seen lines of unemployed people getting longer and longer. I've seen a movie made inside a welfare office, where old people were shunted around like cattle.

I've seen a program about citrus-fruit pickers in Florida, forced to take their little kids out of school to pick oranges with them so they could pay the rent. Meanwhile, the citrus owners were celebrating their prosperity with champagne and making speeches about how wonderful life was for everybody in the citrus industry.

I've watched the President at news conferences and his economic advisers at other news conferences, all pretending that things were going to be all right, but obviously bumbling and incapable of dealing with rising food prices, spreading unemployment, high rents, impossible medical costs and the shameful fact of a fabulously rich country unable to take care of the most basic needs of its people.

Not one of these people, on network programs watched by millions, mentioned the word which, with the obvious failure of our economic system, I thought someone was bound to blurt out. The word? Socialism.

Of course, it's not just saying the word that is important. It's the idea of it-an idea too threatening to those who profit from the present system to be allowed adequate exploration on TV, radio, the newspapers, the motion pictures.

Let's hasten to say: I don't mean the "socialism" of Soviet Russia or any other oppressive regime claiming to be socialist. Rather, a genuine socialism which not only distributes the wealth but maintains liberty.

That may not exist anywhere in its best form, but the idea has caught the imagination of many people in world history, famous and obscure, who were sensitive to poverty and injustice and wanted a truly democratic world society, without war, without hunger, without discrimination .

There were Karl Marx and Rosa Luxemburg. Also, George Bernard Shaw, Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, W.E.B. DuBois.

Socialism was once an important movement in the United States. There was Eugene Debs, who organized the railroad workers in the big strike of 1894, went to prison for that, and there, reading and thinking, became a socialist: "While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison I am not free."

There was Mother Jones, who at 82 fought alongside the coal miners against the Rockefeller interests in Colorado. There was Jack London, the adventure writer. And Heywood Broun, who organized newspapermen into a union and defended Sacco and Vanzetti against the cold authority of the governor of Massachusetts and the presidents of MIT and Harvard. And Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who as an Irish rebel girl, helped the women textile workers of Lawrence in their successful strike of 1912. Socialists all.

In 1776, the time was right for Tom Paine to speak "Common Sense" about Independence, and the idea spread through the country. (It has just reached Gerald Ford.) Isn't the time right, in 1976, for us to begin discussing the idea of socialism?

To break the hold of corporations over our food, our rent, our work, our lives-to produce things people need, and give everyone useful work to do and distribute the wealth of the country with approximate equality-whether you call it socialism or not, isn't it common sense?

Zinn Reader