Hal Draper

Come to Think of It

An “Ism” Is a Set of Ideas

(2 September 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 35, 2 September 1946, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Let’s talk about “isms” – as they say when they make speeches about being against all “isms” except Americanism.

For example, the commander of the Military Order of the Purple Heart dusted that one off a couple of weeks ago in an oration to his group, and he even made the papers with it. It’s kind of old-fashioned but I guess the poor fellow couldn’t think of anything else to say that might be of interest to disabled veterans.

Now being against all “isms” takes in quite a lot of territory and I wouldn’t swear that the commander, for one, went over the whole field before coming out flatfooted on the subject. Did he, for instance, look into the problem of antidisestablishmentarianism, to take one end of the alphabet, and did he make an exhaustive study of Zoroastrianism at the other end?

And I wonder whether he’s 100 per cent against botulism, cretinism, dadaism, embolism, Fenianism, gymnosophism, hyperthyroidism, and so on, and especially xanthochroidism which the late Adolf Hitler went for in a big way.

“Ism” Is Set of Ideas

If you tell me what the commander really had in mind was just things like socialism, communism, trade unionism and radicalism, then all I can say is: Why didn’t he SAY so? Somebody’s liable to think he’s agin’ CAPITALISM too and then how long would he last?

Which brings me to a point.

That wheeze about being against all “isms” maybe doesn’t make sense but it has a powerful appeal in some sections. Lots of people are suspicious of any “ism.” No use telling them they don’t know anything about it because THAT is just the reason they’re suspicious, sight unseen. There’s something else involved.

An “ism” is a set of ideas. In fact, it’s a theory.

There’s where you rub some people the wrong way. They like to think they’re against “theorizing.”

Paperhead Pete tells me, for example: “The trouble with you socialists is that you’re always spouting theories. Why don’t you come down to earth and stick to practical facts?”

Paperhead Pete thinks he’s such a practical fellow. If you’ve got to lick the foreman’s boots to get a raise, then that’s a practical fact, so why theorize about class organization and class struggle and nonsense like that? He also says: “Maybe Socialism is all right in theory but it just won’t work.”

Now there are theories and theories and also facts and facts. What book, Mr. Throckmorton, has more raw facts in it than any volume its size? That’s easy, Professor I.Q., it’s the telephone book. Very practical stuff too.

But it gets you only a certain distance. You pick out your party, call him and get a wrong number. So you smash the receiver and say, “That operator must be dreaming about her boyfriend.”

THAT, friend, is a theory. If you want to check it you can make a scientific investigation, gather the facts and maybe come out with the conclusion that most wrong numbers are due to physical exhaustion. That would still be a theory but it would be one that is based on facts.

You can take this theory and put it to work. You say: Give the girls a six-hour day, regular rest periods, adequate vacations and pleasant homes – and see what happens to the ratio of wrong numbers. If it works the theory was all right. If it doesn’t your theory was wrong.

Ideas Based on Facts

There’s no such thing as an idea that’s “all right in theory but it won’t work.”

Any theory that’s worth its salt is NOT just dreamed up out of thin air. It’s a general truth which has been gained from many practical experiences and facts. That’s where the theories of Socialism come from.

Even Pete would like to know sometimes why industry can’t seem to go full blast in peacetime just as it did when mass murder was still going on. But he isn’t going to lick the answer out of the foreman’s boot, in his hard-headed practical way.

Maybe its got something to do with a theory about what’s wrong with our profit system ... But it’s dangerous to start thinking like that, because the commander who’s against all “isms” except capitalism is not going to like you.

Last updated on 3 April 2020