This started as an entry in the "Crumb on Others" interviews, but when I called Robert, he really just wanted to talk about The Industrial Revolution. So, the new interview became Crumb on The Industrial Revolution. We hope you will find it interesting. -- Alex Wood, Publisher
Crumb: I’ve been reading and studying about the Industrial Revolution. I’m very interested in it, because, you know, we’re all products of it. Everything in our world has been drastically changed by it. We live in this thing, it’s hard to imagine the world previous to it and it’s only been around for what, 250 years?
It really exploded and started to take off in the late 18th century. It began in England, mostly, and then spread rapidly to America, Germany, France, and then spread out from there. The funny thing is, when you think about it, those are still the most advanced industrial countries. But of course now China’s made the great industrial leap forward in recent times. China and Japan. Have you ever read Ayn Rand?
Crumb: What do you think about her?
Alex: Well, we’ve already spoken about her in one of these interviews.
Crumb: Did we already talk about her?
Alex: Yep, we spoke about Ayn Rand.
Crumb: Oh. What I can’t fathom is, what is it that appeals to people about Ayn Rand? What is it that they find attractive about her?
Alex: I think it’s the individualism. And America values individualism, doesn't it? America kind of glorifies the cowboy, the individual going off and staking their own claim.
Crumb: Yeah, it goes back to the brave days of the self-reliant pioneers.
Alex: I think that's the chord she strikes that people relate to.
Crumb: She goes beyond that though. Her thing is almost a cult of the superman. I’ve never read her stuff, I’ve just picked it up secondhand, her idea that you have to allow these exceptionally creative, energetic people the freedom to explore their creativity, even if it might be destructive in some ways, you can’t impose on it too much.
Alex: And most importantly, you must allow them to lead.
Crumb: Yeah, that’s right. And they will, whether you try and stop them or not. There are some people who find that idea attractive, that the mediocrities, the small-minded people are a drag on these creative energetic types. You know, the petty bureaucratic mindset can be a deadly drag on this creative, enterprising individual, which is all a reaction to Soviet communism. I think Rand was reacting against the brand of communism she grew up with. And communism, as a political philosophy, is pretty much the result of the Industrial Revolution. It becomes a popular movement quite soon after industrialization is well established in England. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Marx and Engels. They worked out a very sharp analysis of the whole capitalist economic system that was behind the Industrial Revolution. They had it figured out by the 1840s, I believe, you know, quite early on. When you read Engels -- I haven’t actually read “Das Kapital” or anything by Marx -- but reading Engels, he’s got it all sorted out by the late 1840’s and he was quite young, he was only in his twenties. Recently, I was reading an old book from the 1880’s, an economic history of England that I found somewhere–very dry and academic, but very revealing. The author goes back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and tells how it was all a matter of capital. Mostly what historians like to focus on at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution is all the great new machines and brilliant geniuses of invention, you know? Arkwright and the Spinning Jenny and the looms, and --
Alex: James Watt and the teapot.
Crumb: And the steam engine, yeah, that’s right. All that stuff, it’s like the fairytale of the Industrial Revolution that we all learned as kids. But the Industrial Revolution is mostly about the organization of capital. In this dry, 1880’s book that I was reading, I was surprised to learn that this push toward big capital investment in large-scale industry was already happening in the 1600’s in England. I was really surprised to learn that. But they -- the government under the king and the parliament -- wouldn’t allow it to happen. They wouldn’t allow big capital investment in large-scale industry, because of the craft guilds. The craft guilds were very strong, and the government which was controlled before the Industrial Revolution by the landed aristocracy supported the old pre-industrial system. The old aristocracy’s wealth was mostly land-based. There was a merchant class, of course, and the Jews were very much involved in financing, with capital and investment, because in the middle ages, there were many countries where lending money at interest or holding money was discouraged for Christians, so most of the financiers were Jewish. That’s why people are paranoid about Jews nowadays, because they perceive them as controlling things financially and all that. Because the Jews have always been good at this since that was their only means to power and wealth. They didn’t have their own country, they didn’t have their own armies; they weren’t allowed the use of organized violence like other people. Princes and dukes and kings, they all had armies and were always, continuously, fighting over territories and borders, killing and raping and pillaging. But the Jews didn’t have any of that, so they became very good at the money game and in many countries they were actively given that role by the kings and princes, acting as bankers, basically.
But anyway, in 17th Century England, the craft guilds stood strongly in the way of the large-scale building of machinery to do work that they controlled. You know, it was very tightly regulated, surprisingly so in England, France, Germany, places like that, the manufacture of goods. Clothing, artifacts that people needed to live, you know. “Manufacture” in the original sense of made by hand!
Alex: I just found out that during Shakespeare’s time, wool was very controlled, and because of that, a black market for it developed. Shakespeare's father was in the black market wool trade, which surprised me. It seemed to be much more complicated and controlled than I thought. This is in the late 1500's.
Crumb: Yeah, that’s right. People don’t realize how tightly regulated it was. But in this economic history from the 1880s, the author describes how this change happened in the late 18th century and it has a lot to do with actually, ironically, with the rise of democratic political ideals and the American Revolution and the French Revolution, the rise of the bourgeoisie. It was the bourgeoisie that brought about the Industrial Revolution.
Alex: But wasn’t it not only that the political climate was changing by becoming more democratic, but also these technological inventions were happening at the same time? Didn't that happen simultaneously?
Crumb: Yes, absolutely, at the same moment in history. I mean, people were fooling around with mechanical inventions and chemistry and science for centuries. But look at China for instance. Why wasn’t there an industrial revolution in China? They weren’t any stupider than us. All that sort of tinkering with machines and science and chemicals and electricity had been going on for a long time, but there was no practical application economically or industrially for it until the rise of big capital investment that was finally allowed to happen in the 18th Century. The bourgeois democratic ideal, but also the landed aristocracy started to see that they had to invest in the international market economy, in England especially. The whole thing first gets off the ground in England.
Alex: But because of the American Revolution and the French Revolution, didn't England seem to be more steadfastly opposed to this kind of change? They saw it as disorder and anarchy, and the Crown and moneyed interests were very conservative, and they didn't want to lose power, or for the power to go to the people.
Crumb: Yes, of course, but the new power released by these changes went to the bourgeois. It didn’t go to the “people.” What happened with industrialization is that thousands and thousands of ordinary people were pushed off the land and into cities. Lately I’ve been trying to sort out why this started in England. Part of it was the limitations based on the geography, the fact that this was an island. And they were scared the nation was going to run out of food, the Malthusian idea. So they had an urgent sense of needing to produce goods to market to the world. And for a long time, maybe a generation or more after industrialism started there, England presumed it was going to be the provider of mass produced goods to the world and assumed that no other country could do it, for a period of about 20 or 25 years in the early 1800’s. “We are the only industrialized society, there is no other.” But then America and Germany started catching up to them quite fast, and all of a sudden there was competition for markets.
Alex: Can you give me any examples of their industries, like they had looms and they were weaving fabric?
Crumb: That’s just the first part, the textile thing. Yeah.
Alex: They were the first nation to have railroads, but America got on that pretty fast.
Crumb: Yeah, railroads, steam power and all that spread pretty rapidly. But England was the first one to really get going with the factory system, producing textiles and I think also iron and other stuff, I forget what all. Germany jumped in with chemicals. Germany was the most advanced country with chemicals for a long time. It started with the dye industry and then spread to other industrial chemicals, and then pharmaceuticals. The pharmaceutical industry is an outgrowth of the chemical industry, and is still closely related to it, in fact.
Alex: So it was really the interest in applying capital as much as it was having these inventions.
Crumb: Yeah, I believe so. And to do that, the same myth of the free market existed precisely at the beginning as it is now. The exact same philosophy, but it’s a myth because they always needed the government. Capitalism can’t function without government regulation; if the government didn’t regulate it, capitalism would just destroy itself with its own greed. You would end up with, like we had here in 2008, this bubble bursting thing -- this constant cycle of expansion, contraction, which is so violent and radical that it is very destructive. The money guys, they can’t control themselves. So some kind of order, rules and laws, have to be set up. You need a strong government to do this. And the money guys, they know this. So the government in England, the Parliament and all that, they began to cooperate with this capitalist investment and marketing to the world. It was very much involved with wars and military adventures. Colonization and all that stuff. It’s very complicated; it’s kind of hard to sort it all out. Scholars and historians have written endless tomes and thousands of treatises attempting to explain how we got ourselves into this situation, how calamities like World War I and World War II could happen with such large-scale destruction. How could intelligent, advanced societies let that happen? How on earth did these things happen? It’s complicated but it has everything to do with this rise of industrial societies and markets. Fighting over markets for goods, markets for raw materials, ugh, it goes on and on. Yeah. Very interested in that thing now.
I’m also reading a book right now -- actually it’s two giant tomes, each of them two inches thick, volumes one and two -- The History of Epidemics in Britain by Dr. Charles Creighton. It was published in the 1890’s and it’s so revealing. Creighton was a medical doctor, but he’s actually a more brilliant sociologist than doctor. When he starts talking biomedical science, it’s mostly nonsense, but his sociological perceptions are great. He starts as far back as he can possibly trace, going through old, ancient records and chronicles, looking for evidence of epidemics and disease, and famines and the association of famine with epidemics. He takes it all the way up to his own time, and a lot of what he describes, the truths he discovered, were so offensive to the establishment at the time that he was ostracized by the Royal Medical Society after his work was published.
Crumb: For one thing, he questions the usefulness of vaccination. He doesn’t completely condemn it; he says the evidence points to the possibility that the small pox vaccination might not be the real reason for the decline of small pox. He looked at city death records going back to the 17th century, traced the arc of the rise and decline of small pox, which was already in decline before the introduction of the vaccine. And then the disease rises again after the widespread use of vaccination, in England, France, Germany and other places. He traced it very closely. He doesn’t come to any conclusion, but because he reveals this plain truth and questions it, and other things, too, he was ostracized. And he himself was a victim of medical beliefs that we now realize were mostly incorrect. But his sociological perceptions, I mean, from what I’ve read so far, are excellent. In the early days of famines and disease epidemics, so much of it had to do with the violence and greed of the ruling elites. They subjected the common people to horrendous exploitation. They didn’t give a shit about the well-being of the peasants or what happened to them to the extent that their reckless actions brought about periodic mass starvation and disease and the crippling of the population’s general health. And then these diseases would spread and kill off members of the ruling elite, too, because that’s how stupid and crazy people are, selfish and greedy. I read about an incident in the 1200’s or 1300’s where the king’s brother, the Earl of something or other, decided that he was the rightful claimant to the throne of the emperor of Germany, then known as The Holy Roman Empire. So he set out to take the throne with an army, and it was such an expensive campaign that he drained the country of England of a huge amount of its money, of its coinage. Back in those times, money was all in coin. There was no paper money. And this drastic shortage of money caused widespread famine and then a disease epidemic, because of the campaign of this Earl to take the throne of Germany. That sort of nonsense went on continuously for hundreds of years. You know? And it still goes on, in a different way, in a perhaps more subtle and complex way.
Alex: Going back to the industrial revolution, you say you put the beginning of the industrial revolution at the late 1700s?
Crumb: Yeah, the last half of the 1700s is when it really starts to take off.
Alex: And you say it takes off in textiles and maybe with iron forging and maybe transporting coal and getting larger and larger furnaces and melting down iron ore. Do you have any other examples of the industrial revolution, starting with farm equipment and then changing the landscape of how they did farming?
Crumb: Farming may have lagged behind a bit. In, fact they didn’t actually alter farming techniques until they introduced steam-powered farm machinery in the later part of the 19th Century, to my knowledge. I may be wrong. Not sure. Steam-powered transportation of farm goods probably altered farming to some degree, and allowed them to push more people into cities. But there’s another interesting phenomenon that I’m trying to find information about which is the gradual enclosure of land in England. The enclosures start in the 1500’s and proceed and then pick up momentum in the 17 and 1800s where the wealthy class basically laid claim to all the land, and expanded their pasturage for sheep for the production of wool. England became very important in that trade. It’s very hard to find objective histories about the enclosure phenomenon; most of what I’ve found is written from the point of view of defending taking the land away from the common people. They always claim that it made the land more productive, used the land more efficiently, fed more people and improved the whole economy, but wait a minute, by pushing people off the land and into the cities, didn’t the people become less self-sufficient, helpless, and need to be fed through this industrial system rather than feeding themselves? That just seems like common sense to me, I dunno.
But what England was like before the enclosure thing happened is what I’m curious to know. The general picture I get is that before that, the land was dotted with tiny villages or hamlets that were generally poor and kind of squalid, and people farmed very small patches of land. You can go back to feudal times where you had the manor and the peasants, and they divided the land up into little patches. But the peasants didn’t actually own the land; everything belonged to the lord. And even the lord didn’t actually own it, it was all owned by “the Crown.” And the king would parcel out land, give lands to the lords, as they were vassals of the king. Everyone was a subject of the king or the queen, whoever the monarch was. There were no deeds of ownership; the exchange of land for money was a thing that gradually started happening. But for the enclosures, if a wealthy person wanted to enclose a piece of land they had to get an act of Parliament to give them ownership of it. They had to go through Parliament. And the court and the Crown always needed money for their various adventures, for building their palaces or whatever, so they encouraged the sales of the “Crown” lands. And often these were places where peasants had lived for generations and generations going back farther than anyone could remember. As enclosure gradually took over more and more of the land and pushed the peasants into towns and cities, the last people left on these open or unclaimed places were just the losers, the poorest class, so then the wealthy people could say, ‘Well look at these ne’er-do-wells who are living and squatting in these places. They are lazy, unproductive, they just sit around the taverns getting drunk. So, you know, we can take this land and make it productive.’ This is what you read in most histories, that it was a positive thing, this enclosure, even though it created a new kind of poverty, or loss of independence among the peasantry. The land had become too valuable to leave to these ignorant, unambitious clod hoppers.
But before that, before this enclosure, you imagine a landscape in which there were thousands of these tiny hamlets, and people had pens with their few animals, goats or sheep or whatever. A couple of cows, maybe, and little patches where they grew stuff. They lived a very meagre life, but it was a rural, self-sufficient life. They grew their own food, made their own clothes and built their own houses. And I think the Industrial Revolution was the final nail in the coffin for this way of life, of people living on their own in tiny villages, and perhaps living in what would be considered squalor from our point of view. But you know, most people, they are not that ambitious. Leave them alone and they will live on a pretty basic and simple level. Most of them don’t want to bust their ass that much. They don’t care enough. There are always a few ambitious people, but the problem is, the way the world works, the unambitious majority are not left alone. They end up being herded and made slaves in factories, or nowadays, slaves to the computer. Sitting in offices in front of computers. And now they are doing this in China, they are forcing the peasants off the land and packing them into huge cities.
The cities just get bigger and bigger and more nightmarish, but it’s in the cities where all the action is, all the hustle and bustle of modern industrial civilization. Rural peasant culture has gone into a slow, relentless decline. The intimate, mystical relationship to the earth, to animals, to the changing seasons, is slowly broken, lost, forgotten. It’s a process that has been going on for hundreds of years all over the world. People in the modern urban world have no idea that such a relationship ever even existed. Our ancestors were superstitious, ignorant, illiterate, coarse, crude… This is all we know about them.
Crumb: And with this Industrial Revolution, now we’ve got science. And science has become the religion of our time. And a lot of people who like to pride themselves on being smart and intelligent go around proudly proclaiming, ‘I believe in science. I’m not one of those ignorant people who still subscribes to religion or magic or mysticism or anything like that.’ And this has created a minor backlash, an anti-science movement that, you know, started in the hippie times, along with a fascination for mysticism and Eastern religion. They might not completely dismiss science, but they mistrust it and I kind of fall into this category myself to some extent. I am deeply mistrustful of science, especially of big institutionalized science, where there is a lot of money poured into all kinds of research and development. I see this as an extremely dangerous situation that we’ve gotten ourselves into. It is already causing the human race some very serious problems, as is obvious to anyone who cares to look. Yes, we’ve always been selfish, greedy animals, but now we’ve got this advanced level of technology. It’s very scary what we’re capable of doing. This destructive capacity that we’re now capable of, it has to be looked at in an extremely sober manner. And it’s hard to get an accurate or truthful picture of the whole thing because we're swimming in a sea of propaganda and public relations and perception management put out by the dominant industrial culture that is constantly telling us how much better off we are because of its existence. Because of science and industry, we are so much better off than the people of previous times, of the pre-industrial times, right? And it’s true, the Middle Ages were rough. But it was not because of lack of technology or lack of all the modern conveniences and advanced medical knowledge, as they would have us believe. It’s hard to explain this thing in twenty-five words or less. I mean if left to their own devices, if you go back to Neolithic times, people lived in very small clan-groups, and they survived by their own wits and hunting and gathering, and crude forms of agriculture. And aside from the savage murderous aspect of human nature, the aggressive, violent part of us, people lived, you know, they got by. They could take care of themselves in a rough and ready manner. I mean it’s a story told over and over again, like the American Indians, how the white people came and imposed what they considered to be a more advanced culture on the Indians. They took their way of life away from them, a way of life that was very local, self-sufficient, and that didn’t impose itself on nature that much, partly because there were smaller numbers of people. But also, unlike us, they just weren’t capable of having a huge, destructive effect on the natural world. They didn’t kill off that many animals or drastically alter the land. They didn’t cut down the forest. They just didn’t do things like that. They couldn’t do such things, or even conceive of doing such things.
So, with science it’s very important to question everything. Because there’s so much propaganda that is put out about how perfectly goddamn terrific it all is. A subject that particularly intrigues me is biomedical science, because of the commercial imperative of the pharmaceutical industrial complex. We are subject to a constant stream of propaganda about biomedical science and what it’s done for us and how much it’s helped us to live healthier and longer lives and all that, and a lot of it is just trumped up bullshit. A lot of what you read, what they say and what they claim they know is essentially a sales pitch. The pitch is very, very impressive and convincing, and we’ve been hearing it for so long now, it is deeply ingrained in us.
Alex: Well, there’s a lot of pressure and motivation to make money.
Crumb: Absolutely! On a large scale, on a HUGE scale. The pharmaceutical industry now is as big as the military industrial complex. They have more lobbyists in Washington than anybody. It’s scary because you can find yourself caught in the medical trap. You get sick, something goes wrong with you, you get diabetes, you get cancer or something, and you’re in big trouble. And all the claims about how they save people and all that, it’s just not to be trusted. But it’s very, very hard to get an accurate perspective about what’s really going on. How many people are they really saving? Are they really doing any good? It’s very hard to know, to even have a clue!
Crumb: Another result of the Industrial Revolution is pop culture. Popular culture has destroyed, or almost destroyed, indigenous cultures in the countries where it is most advanced. Local, regional and ethnic self-made cultures of the common people have been almost completely wiped out by modern popular culture, which is largely a result of advancing technology. Popular culture really starts to explode with the advent of electronic media -- film, radio, television, and now the Internet. Indigenous cultures don’t stand a chance against high-powered, all pervasive electronic media. There’s too much money to be made. Everything is turned into a commodity with a market value.
Alex: Do you include the phonograph also?
Crumb: Yeah, the phonograph was part of it when it first started in the 1890s and up through the early 1920s, but then the phonograph is eclipsed by radio. In later decades when electronic media really takes hold throughout the world, radio actually helped pull phonograph records out of the doldrums and made them once again a significant mass media enterprise. Before that, before radio, records were expensive and had a limited influence on the music of the common people, back in the early 1900s. Phonographs and records were around for twenty-five years before electronic media technologies came along in the 1920’s. Early phonograph technology was entirely mechanical, with no electricity used either in the recording process or in the playback machines sold to consumers.
Alex: You mentioned in a previous interview that before radio, records were in competition with piano rolls.
Crumb: That’s right. Piano rolls were an old mechanical form of sound reproduction dating back to music boxes and barrel organs, which go back, I believe, at least to the 18th Century, maybe even to the 17th. Not sure. There’s a great thing that I read somewhere by Mark Twain cursing player pianos. He complained that they were a plague on the environment, everywhere you went. Saloons and restaurants and ice cream parlors all had these goddamned player pianos cranking out loud mechanical music. [laughs] He was really down on that. But still, all these early forms of musical reproduction didn’t really encroach on indigenous music that much. It didn't affect square dance music or other local, regional music activities like that. The older traditional forms of music remained a part of common everyday life pretty much up until radio became pervasive, in the 1920s and ‘30s, in the U.S. and other industrialized countries. In less industrialized places, old time traditions hung on longer, of course. Various fusions of different kinds of traditional music took place as people shifted around, but as the process was organic and spontaneous, it produced music that was interesting and authentic, not artificial. It didn’t involve businessmen. Wherever you get the bourgeois businessmen involved in culture it’s the kiss of death. This happened big in music, with the advent of electronic media, radio and movies. Then you start having the gradual, corrosive – actually not so gradual – degradation of music by the business people. This had a disastrous effect on music all the way up to our own time. You have the phenomenon of celebrity/business geniuses like Madonna. She’s way more gifted in business than in music. So now we just live in a mass media environment. People don’t realize how vastly changed it is. They have a vague idea but they don’t really know that their music and entertainment is almost entirely a product of this electronic, industrial culture and aggressive money-driven, profit-making imperatives.
Alex: Why don’t you say electronic business? Electronic industrial business.
Crumb: Yeah, that’s good. Yeah. Well, industrial culture is a business culture. It’s all about capital and investments, money, finance. It’s all about money. The only reason it grew so huge and so fast is because of the fabulous wealth it immediately began to generate for the people who were actively pushing it. And they preached the exact same laissez-faire, free market bullshit gospel that is still crammed down our throats today. Right from the beginning, in the early 1800’s, it was the same rationale, the exact same pitch. And the wealth it produced was something that mere “tradesmen” had never seen before. Then you had business go-getters like Sir Richard Arkwright (1732 – ’92) who became as wealthy as the wealthiest of the nobility in a 10 or 15 year period after he got going with his new industrial-scale weaving equipment. And he didn’t even invent that stuff that they claimed he had invented. Other people devised the Spinning Jenny, but he was the business genius who was able to put it all together and organize it into a large-scale factory operation. A ruthless, widely despised man, as were many of these early capitalist geniuses. John D. Rockefeller was a cold-blooded man. People described him as “all business.” He spent all his time with his nose in the accounting books. J.P. Morgan, also much despised. This situation exists intact to this day with widely hated billionaires like the Koch Brothers, and cold-blooded number crunchers like hedge fund billionaire Steve Cohen. What’s to like about such men? Some may admire them or want to emulate them because they’re filthy rich, but does anybody actually like them? Of course, they would just retort, “I’m not in business to be liked.” Men like these don’t care if anyone likes them or not. That’s the least of their concerns.
But it's interesting how mass media has changed the whole context of how we listen to music. How we are entertained musically has changed so drastically.
The thing is, we live in a world where we’re constantly told over and over again, constantly, how much better off we are living in this advanced industrial society. They are relentlessly telling us that we live better, we eat better, we’re healthier, that there’s no more infant mortality, and, you know, advanced societies are materially affluent. Affluence is better; of course, it goes without saying. We have more leisure time, we have more varieties of food and career possibilities and the potential to realize one’s own talents and so on and so on. We’re constantly fed this line but I’ve really come to question the truth of it. Are we really any better off? And if we are, why? Is it because of the Industrial Revolution? Is that why we’re better off, if in fact we are? Maybe we’re better off because we are a tad more socially advanced than we were five hundred or a thousand years ago. Maybe we are understanding a little more clearly that we can’t just go around stomping on each other. Maybe we are gradually figuring that out, slowly, bit by bit. Maybe if we’re more advanced it’s because of that. It’s equally possible that this material advancement in many ways has been bad for us. It’s probably been as bad as it has been good. And it’s been a constant struggle from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, a constant battle to keep the capitalists and bureaucrats who are running the show from just working people to death and totally destroying the environment. Almost all social advancements were made in opposition to the “captains of industry,” and in spite of them. And movements like communism, socialism, labor unions, all that, were in a constant battle, an inch at a time, to keep the capitalists from just running the whole thing into the ground and working people to death by starvation wages. You read about the early days of the Industrial Revolution in England and it was just awful. Terrible. The way the common people were living. I’ve read some detailed descriptions of how the working classes were pushed into the big cities like Manchester and London and how they were forced to live in such abject filth and disease that they just died like flies. Now they are doing the exact same thing in places like Bangladesh and Africa, Southeast Asia, and China, where they just have horrendous working conditions for people in factory jobs. So the largest corporations that have their headquarters in America or Western Europe are still behaving the same way they did in the 1840’s in England. They're just doing it away from the homeland, it’s just somewhere else, hidden so that people in these Western countries don’t see it. It’s ongoing and continues to operate pretty much the way it always did from the beginning. It’s amazing that way. A very tenacious, enduring system.
In spite of how badly almost all the communist movements have behaved after they took over – in the Soviet Union, China and in smaller places like Cambodia or wherever they actually succeeded – they fucked things up in so many countries – I still believe in that ideal.
Alex: In communism?
Crumb: Yeah, I still kind of believe it’s a worthy ideal. Sadly, we haven’t been able to pull it off because guess what? We’re still behaving like savage barbarians, we don’t really cooperate that well. We can’t really share the wealth. We’re just not good at that. It’s the human realities that always interfere with high ideals.
Alex: But just recently, you’ve said that you’re a socialist. This is the first time I’ve heard you say that you’re a communist.
Crumb: Socialist, communist, whatever. I don’t know. Basically it’s communism, that’s what it was called in the beginning. You know, Carl Marx. Even before him. The term was used in the 18th Century. Public control of the means of production ‘n’ shit.
Alex: I always thought that the difference between a socialist and a communist was that a communist adhered to the idea of equality, and equality in all things. Whereas socialism gave latitude to how hard someone wanted to work, it’s just that those who did well had to give up more of the portions of what they earned to those who didn’t make as much money. Less control in what you wanted to pursue with your life. So if you wanted to be an industrialist, you could as a socialist. But if you made money you just had to give up more of your wealth to take care of people who didn’t have money. But in communism, there were more restrictions in what you could actually pursue and what you could actually do. I guess that's been my own definition.
Crumb: That’s kinda your own interpretation. This difference between communism and socialism is perceived as being that communism was a more hard line political ideal than socialism -- socialism being softer somehow than the idea of communism. I think that goes back to the old idea of communism as being “the dictatorship of the proletariat” where you actually have to violently overthrow, the only way to get the power away from the ruling elite -- you have to just bust their asses, and take over that way. Violent overthrow, whereas socialism is more, you try to do it through the existing political channels and bring about the nationalization of large scale industries through peaceful means. Something like that. I’m not all that well-educated in the fine points of these leftist political theories.
Alex: And also just equalization through taxation.
Crumb: Well that’s certainly a big part of it. You’ve got to take these large industries out of private hands. That’s socialism basically. You could have a moderate form of socialism in which there is small scale private enterprise, but the large-scale industries where basically everybody needs electricity, everybody needs plumbing, everybody needs telephones, everybody needs cars, or public transportation, those things should be somehow run by the government. Socialism also includes an elected representative government where you have some kind of parliament or congress, whereas communism is just kind of you know…. The Communist Party runs the whole show, a one-party system. The Party is the single most powerful political institution.
Alex: Kind of dangerous, and it’s just been a nightmare. All those countries have just been a nightmare. And no place I want to live.
Crumb: Yeah, well, that might be true, but then again it’s hard for us to really know because we’ve been so propagandized against communism from the very beginning. It’s hard to get a really accurate picture of life in, say, the Soviet Union.
Alex: Robert- all you have to do is… c’mon, you’re in Europe, go over to Hungary and talk to the people who used to live behind the “Iron Curtain.”
Crumb: They all despise the Russians. All those people, they hated the Russians. The Russians were brutal. They behaved very badly.
Alex: Brutal, brutal people.
Crumb: They imposed communism in a very harsh way. They did. They gave it a very bad name, yeah. But it's still really hard to know. It’s really hard for us to know because we’ve had nothing but bad news about the Soviet Union since the day the Russian Revolution broke out in October, 1917. From the minute the Bolsheviks overthrew the Tsar in 1917, they started bad mouthing the communists in the Western press. Immediately! I mean they never gave them a break. Ever! So, you know, it’s very hard for us to know objectively what really went on there. When I went to Bulgaria in ’64, I spent a week just wandering around in Sofia, the capitol, just walking around. In ’64 Bulgaria was under the heel of Soviet Russia, It was one of the dominated “satellite” countries. And, it was poor. It was a sorry-ass, loser place. But there was something about it that I found appealing. [laughs] I remember just as I was about to leave to go back to the West, I went to the tourism office, and I talked to this lady bureaucrat there who spoke English, and I said, “I really like it here. I like this country.” And she said, “Well, if you want to move here we would really help you.” They liked the idea of a defecting American coming to live there. They loved that idea. But it’s certainly true, when I had to meet with any officials there, they just spouted the party line. One day I went to the art school and some professor I ran into in the hallway there said, “Wait here, don’t move!” He came back with a man who started bombarding me with propaganda about socialist art and how wonderful and terrific it was, and how superior it was to the capitalist decadent art. It was rather obnoxious. But, I guess what appealed to me was the lack of that constant, relentless commercial hype that you live with in the West. The oppressive aspect of the communist government was somewhat invisible to me, but they were clearly free of the commercial sales pitch that we are constantly subjected to in the West. The absence of that was refreshing. It was just not happening there. There was a plainness, a drabness, a funkiness that somehow felt to me as an American to be a kind of, dare I say it, freedom! The only sales pitch was for the system itself. You know, everything was shabby. It looked like the 1930s depression, and obviously the people were poor and you know, were still like driving around in big old ox-drawn wagons and stuff. I found that whole thing kind of appealing in some way. People didn’t look particularly happy but they didn’t look any more miserable than the average run of proletarians in New York or Philadelphia, or any other place. So even though all those experiments have gone so badly, fuck it, I’m still a communist. [laughs]