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Emanuel Garrett

Men and Women of Labor

Out of the Past

Bruno Johnson

Thorstein Veblen
(July 30, 1857–August 3, 1929)

(8 August 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 57, 8 August 1939, p. 3. [1]
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

Thorstein Veblen, a radical intellectual who stood aloof from the class struggle, was yet the sarcastic author of some of the most effective attacks on the profit system and perhaps America’s most original thinker in his generation.

Born on a Wisconsin farm, of Norwegian immigrant parents, Veblen spent most of his life, except when unemployed and living off the old folks, in colleges, studying, teaching, writing. The college authorities never liked to have him around, because they thought his ideas as well as his life not respectable, though he brought a certain fame to the college. Most of his students didn’t like him because they didn’t understand him. The “public” never knew whether his books were serious or not.

Veblen’s books, however, were his real contribution to the labor movement. In a pedantic tone, using six long Latinized words instead of one short one, he solemnly ridiculed the stuffed shirts of America, the business men, so skillfully that they never got the point. The implications of every one of his books were revolutionary, but they remained only sarcastic implications.

A careful student of Marx, Veblen did much to explode the criticisms of bourgeois economists. He showed that the labor theory of value, so mightily belabored by the critics, was self-evident as expressed by Marx. His The Socialist Economics of Karl Marx, is a brilliant outline of Capital. But Veblen rejected the law of capitalist accumulation because, writing in 1906, he could not see what follows from that law, the constant growth of the “reserve army of labor” (the unemployed) and the increasing misery of the workers. Had he written in 1939, so honest an observer could not have failed to see the predictions borne out. Veblen made mincemeat of the “Marxist” revisionists like Bernstein, but he seemed at this time not to have read the work of Lenin or Luxemburg.

Veblen’s System Fragmentary

Veblen wrote no book that contains his whole system of thought. The reader has to pick it up from side remarks and sly comments. But from these remarks, in such books as The Instinct of Workmanship, The Theory of Business Enterprise, and Imperial Germany and the Industrial Revolution, one can see the outline: the common man, the worker, works for perfection. But the business man, who is interested not in industrial production but in profits, practises a “conscientious withdrawal of productive efficiency” (Veblenese for sabotage) which kills the “instinct of workmanship”.

The higher learning in America is managed for the exclusive benefit of the business men; law and politics are mere cloaks for the “predatory” interests; patriotism and business, useless to the whole community, are the chief barriers to peace; and the vested interests (“a marketable right to get something for nothing”) control our lives. Germany became a great power by imitating England’s industrial technique but not her “democratic” ideas and politics: the feudal-military absolutism of Germany fitted far better with the realities of capitalism; here Veblen gives an interesting premonition, if not a prediction, of the necessity of a Hitler to maintain capitalism. Almost parallel with Lenin, Veblen pointed out the relentless growth of monopoly capital toward a world of war and the strangling of the common man, or else —.

Defended Bolshevik Revolution

Veblen made only tentative stabs at the class struggle: as editor of The Dial he defended the Bolshevik Revolution, signed protests against the trial of the 101 Wobblies in Chicago, and denounced the Palmer Red Raids as the dementia praecox of rotting capitalism. And in one of his last books, The Engineers and the Price System, he sketched a new plan for revolution, the formation of Soviets of engineers and technicians who are the real bottle-neck of production and who are irked by the sabotage of big business. He even helped to form the nucleus of such a soviet, the Technical Alliance; but lacking organizing ability and misunderstanding the nature of the class struggle, he failed.

In his earliest and greatest book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen dissects capitalist culture and finds it rotten. The literary lights who loved and quoted the book for its satire on a money-culture missed the revolutionary implications: the only way to create a true culture is to wipe out capitalism. Veblen’s irony shows the roots of art and the social graces under capitalism as merely the desire for “conspicuous waste” and “conspicuous leisure” (i.e., showing off money). The rich man’s “pecuniary reputability” demands that styles change before clothes wear out, that useless servants clutter up a useless estate, that only costly things can be considered beautiful, that education be classical, useless, and good only to prove that the rich man did not have to work for a living while acquiring the “ceremonial futility” of his manners.

It is typical of this detached, ironic, scholarly genius that his last work was the translation of an old Norse saga. Yet the revolutionary movement in America must always acknowledge its debt to Thorstein Veblen for his savage analysis of the rottenness of our society.


1. This column on Thorstein Veblen was contributed by Bruno Johnson.

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