The Reading Room
Lewis’s Anti-Capitalist Dogma
We have seen that Sandefer’s case for the Rand-Sandefur thesis that Lewis broadly condemns all modern statist regimes is weak. I turn here to the textual case for a different reading of the political message of It Can’t Happen Here. My assumption in extracting Lewis’s political opinions from the text of the novel is that the political pronouncements of the characters he presents most favorably at least approximate Lewis’s own opinions. In the case of this novel, there is no reason to question this commonsense interpretive assumption.
While Doremus Jessup is imprisoned for printing and circulating anti-regime pamphlets, he faults himself and others like him for not more ardently resisting the rise of Berzelius Windrip.
The tyranny of this dictatorship isn’t primarily the fault of Big Business, nor the demagogues who do their dirty work. It’s the fault of Doremus Jessup! Of the Jessups who have let the demagogues wriggle in, without fierce enough protest. (ICHH 186)
Put aside the questionable claim that through their inaction the Jessups were ultimately to blame for this dictatorship and consider whose actions according to Jessup brings about that dictatorship. Jessup’s remarkable claim is that the dictatorship is the result of the actions of “Big Business” and “the demagogues who do [its] dirty work.” It is a remarkable claim because few if any of the events of the novel provide evidence that Windrip and his ideological, clerical, and strong-armed allies were all really just the puppets of “Big Business.” There are no scenes that reveal Fat Cat bankers or industrialists pulling the strings attached to Windrip and his cronies. Yet, when Jessup needs to name the real villain if he and his fellow “conscientious” and “respectable” citizens are not really to blame, “Big Business” simply pops into his head.
When Lewis describes Jessup’s maturing political thought, he tells us that Jessup thinks that,
. . . in America the struggle [between Fascism and Communism] was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word “Fascism” and preached enslavement to Capitalism under the style of Constitutional and Traditional Native American Liberty. For they were thieves not only of wages but of honor. To their purpose they could quote not only Scripture but Jefferson. (ICHH 358)
The same perspective leads Jessup’s daughter, Sissy, to become a “deft agitator” for the resistance who launches “assaults against all Capitalism.” (ICHH 376) Moreover, Jessup comes to believe that small shopkeepers or mill owners or publishers like himself should not think of themselves as capitalists because the agents of “Corpoism” (i.e., the American fascist state) who are the representatives of “Big Business” (ICHH 310) can at will deprive them of their holdings.
Toward the end of the novel, Jessup is rescued from prison and transported to Canada where he works for the leader of the resistance movement, who turns out to be the former Republican presidential candidate, Walt Trowbridge. Among the high officials at Trowbridge’s headquarters is Joe Elphrey who was a “prize agent” of the Communist Party until he was expelled for favoring a united front against Windrip and his more brutal successors. Elphrey’s favored “solution” for fascism is “dictatorship by the livelier representatives of the toiling masses, strict and if need be violent.” Jessup thought that this stance was nonsensical. Yet he was content to know that “whatever happened, Trowbridge and the authentic leaders would never go back to satisfaction in government of the profits, by the profits, and for the profits.” (ICHH 366) Any acceptable regime must eliminate profits.
While Elphrey is admitted to a leadership position in the resistance, “Wilson J. Shale, the ducal oil man, who had come, apparently with sincerity, to offer his fortune and his executive experience to Trowbridge and his cause” (ICHH 366) is summarily rejected. To him Trowbridge says,
Sorry, Will. But we can’t use you. Whatever happens – even if Haik [a more murderous successor to Windrip] marches over and slaughters us along with all our Canadian hosts – you and your clever pirates are finished. Whatever happens [once the resistance prevails], whatever the details of a new system of government may be decided on, whether we call it a “Cooperative Commonwealth” or “State Socialism” or “Communism” or “Revived Traditional Democracy,” there has got to be a new feeling – that government is not a game for the few smart, resolute athletes like you, Will, but a universal partnership, in which the State must own all resources large enough that they affect all members of the State, and in which the worst crime won’t be murder or kidnapping but taking advantage of the State . . . (ICHH 366)
Lewis tells us that when Jessup hears about this dismissal of Shale he is “well content.” (ICHH 366) He is not merely content with the presence within the resistance movement of the whole range of socialist views including the endorsement of the violent seizure of power for the establishment of State Socialism. He was also well content with Trowbridge’s blanket and dogmatic rejection of private ownership, markets, and profits and with the idea that fascists were in fact merely the useful tools of piratical capitalism.
We can infer that Lewis does indeed expand his list of unacceptable regimes beyond fascism and Moscow-directed communism. However, on the basis of an unthinking animosity toward private ownership, markets, and profits which we can assume Lewis shared with Jessup, Sissy, and Trowbridge, the centerpiece of that expanded list is capitalism. His expansion is, therefore, very much the opposite of that envisioned by Rand and Sandefur.