A Movement for “the People” but not for Persons

John Steinbeck was a classic American author who didn’t shy away from saying it like it was. His works are brutal, harsh, and often depressing. Most people know him for the notoriously controversial book, The Grapes of Wrath, which details the struggles of a family who moves to California in search of work during the Great Depression. However, it is an earlier, and frequently overlooked work—In Dubious Battle—where Steinbeck essentially tells the same story from a different angle that we want to delve into. In Dubious Battle is an utterly captivating book, exploring the inner dynamics of a set of communist party men fighting against injustice. In a world still clamoring for justice, it’s equally relevant nearly seventy-five years later.

Fighting for “the People”
In this story, two communists, Mac and Jim, travel to the Torgas Valley in California to help put on a labor strike for the migrant workers whose wages have been slashed. During the depression era in which this book is set, many workers sold nearly everything they had and moved west to find work in California, often after seeing pamphlets advertising good pay. However, when they finally completed the long trek, either there was no work or the wages were far less than advertised. Having spent everything they had to get to California, they had little choice but to stay on and work for a meager wage—barely enough to live on. The migrant workers lived in camps, which were poorly maintained and unsanitary. (Apparently, Steinbeck actually visited some of these camps and attested to the inhumane conditions.) To cap it off, the landowners would set up their own stores with inflated prices on essential items. In the end, the workers were trapped in the system—forced to work for almost nothing, then forced to spend their wages on overpriced food just to survive.

The situation was wide open for Marxist influence. Marxism is supposed to be a philosophy for working men—a revolutionary movement for “the people.” And it is in such unjust systems as described in the book that Marxism has its widest appeal. And why not? The vision of Marxism is of an earthly utopia, where workers own everything in common and can provide for themselves. No government, no religion, and above all—no capitalism. Many people joined up with the communists because the party claimed to look out for the poor, for Jews, for African-Americans, the average Joe, the working “stiff.”

Of course, being a communist in those days was no very popular thing in America. And in the book, it soon becomes clear that the landowners will do anything to hunt down and get rid of the “radical” communists. Throughout the book, Mac frequently complains that a man is considered a radical because he thinks that there ought to be enough food to go around or that a man should be able to make a decent living and not be treated like an animal.

As you read In Dubious Battle, you can’t help but feel that Mac and Jim are a little bit right. They’re right to be angry at the injustice, and they’re right to try to help the exploited workers. As a matter of fact, Mac and Jim actually bring a lot of positive benefits to the workers. They help them to work together. They give them a fighting spirit and teach them how to look out for each other.

Using Persons
However, the novel quickly takes a dark turn as we see the underbelly of the communist movement. Although Mac and Jim are for “the people,” they don’t seem to care much about individual persons. The first hint comes when Jim tries to incite an embittered old man to participate in a labor strike. Mac tells Jim not to waste his time with the old man. Later, when “Old Dan” severely injures himself after he falls off of an unsturdy ladder, the laborers react to the unsafe working conditions by going on strike. Satisfied with this turn of events, Mac remarks, “The old buzzard was worth something after all.”

Throughout the book, Mac frequently uses people to advance the cause. Men are beaten, tortured, and killed in the name of “the people.” This attitude quickly spreads among the laborers as they riot, brutally injuring and even killing police officers and other workers who won’t join the strike. How can a movement for “the people” end up so devaluing the individual person? Mac explains that it is necessary to keep the big picture in mind. Witness Mac’s exchange with the reluctant Doc Burton:

Mac said harshly, “We can’t help it, Doc. He happens to be the one that’s sacrificed for the men. Somebody has to break if the whole bunch is going to get out of the slaughter-house. We can’t think about the hurts of one man. It’s necessary, Doc.”

“I wasn’t questioning your motives, nor your ends. I was just sorry for the poor old man.” . . .

“I can’t take time to think about the feelings of one man,” Mac said sharply. “I’m too busy with big bunches of men.”

Or consider another exchange between Doc and Jim, when Doc realizes that the workers are going to react violently towards the landowners:

Jim: “The worse it is, the more effect it’ll have . . . It can only stop when the men rule themselves and get the profits of their labor.”

Burton: “Seems simple enough . . . I wish I thought it was so simple.”

Jim: “Y’ought to think only of the end, Doc. Out of all this struggle a good thing is going to grow. That makes it worthwhile.”

Burton: “Jim, I wish I knew it. But in my little experience the end is never very different in its nature from the means. Damn it, Jim, you can only build a violent thing with violence.”

Herein lies the problem. Mac and Jim can’t worry about one man getting hurt or a few men getting killed, because they’re too busy worrying about “all men,” too busy worrying about “the people.” The story is the same when we look at the real world. Whatever its claims to look out for the little guy, the sad fact remains that in pretty much every place where Marxism has been tried, it is exactly the little guy who gets trampled—by Stalin in Russia, Pol Pot in Cambodia, and government troops at Tiananmen Square in China.

Why does this happen? There are a few reasons that we could offer. For starters, Marxism gets off on the wrong foot by assuming that broken, sinful humans can actually bring a utopia to earth. Another reason is that the motive power behind Marxism is violent revolution. Indeed, Marxism’s most famous proponents believed violent revolution to be an essential component. A third reason is that Marxism leaves God out of the picture, so that what is morally right turns into anything and everything that supports the cause—no matter how violent, unethical, or downright evil that thing might be.

Hating Your Enemy
In all of this, however, one reason intrigues me more than the others. It is this: Marxism places the blame for all the injustice and problems in our world on the bourgeoisie, the capitalists, the rich, etc. What sometimes begins as a movement to free people from injustice, ultimately turns into a campaign of hatred and injustice towards other humans. Marxism found its enemy, and it hates that enemy with a passion.

But hatred is the kind of thing that only breeds more hatred. Where Marxism has been practiced, it has often been so intent on overthrowing capitalism and its supporters that it is willing to expend any human life in support of that aim—even the very lives it claims to fight for. This is ultimately irrational, but that’s what hatred does to us. The quest for utopia ultimately triumphs over love of neighbor in this scheme.

In a telling chapter of the book, Mac beats up a kid to make an example of him. Feeling uneasy about his actions, Jim reassures him, “Don’t worry about it. It wasn’t a scared kid, it was a danger to the cause. It had to be done, and you did it right. No hate, no feeling, just a job. Don’t worry.”

“A danger to the cause,” “just a job.” Such words should send shivers down our spines. Indeed, even Mac begins to question Jim’s mad passion for the cause. In his quest to save “the people,” he’s forgotten persons, and in turn, surrendered some of his own humanity. As Mac reflects later, “When you get mixed up with the animal, you never feel anything.” Hatred spills over into violence, which spills over into more hatred and ultimately does damage to everyone. This has been the tragic cycle within Marxist regimes.

Loving Your Neighbor
What is the antidote to injustice and hatred? To properly deal with these issues, we need a more realistic view than Marxism offers. We need a view that is thoroughly biblical. We need to be honest about the world in which we live. The Scriptures point to a good world that is broken by sin and to humans who are part of the problem and in no position to fix the world. Of course, as Christians, we believe that in Jesus, the Kingdom of God has broken in among us already. And yet, we still wait for Jesus to return to inaugurate that Kingdom in all its fullness. In the meantime, we do our best to work for healing and restoration wherever possible, to witness to the power of the Gospel to save and change lives, and to fight against injustice. But we cannot bring the Kingdom. Only God can do that.

Second, the Christian worldview acknowledges, along with Doc Burton, that you can only build a violent thing through violence. Ends are important, but so are means. It’s not enough to say that we have good goals if we are using unethical or violent means to get there. A biblical worldview admonishes us to love even our enemies, because each and every one of us is made in God’s image.¹

There is a reason why the second greatest commandment is not, “love the world,” but rather, “love your neighbor.” I submit that only God in his infinite goodness can truly love “the world.” We, being the broken, finite people that we are, can only love our neighbors, and that is hard enough. But, we are not left to figure it out on our own. As we are drawn deeper into a relationship of love with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, love for our neighbor overflows.

Of course, it’s all well and good to say “love your neighbor,” as if that will solve all of our problems. There are real problems in our world, and real wrongs to be righted. We need systems of justice that will help to remedy these problems; however, if in our pursuit of justice we lose sight of the wellbeing of our neighbor, we should beware, lest we end up like Jim in In Dubious Battle. Let us be clear, in the story, the landowners were definitely in the wrong. There was injustice that needed to be remedied then as there is today. But the point is this: Marxism was and is the wrong solution to the problem.

As Christians, we should be involved in helping to shape more just systems of government in our spheres of influence. But as we do, we must always be careful to remember our neighbor. We must never lose sight of them in pursuit of some dream of perfect justice. In fact, perhaps that is one way to measure the good of any economic system: Does it allow me to love my neighbor well? If not, the solution is not violent revolution, but faithfulness to work for a better system, and above all, love of neighbor. And lest we have any question about who our neighbor is, Jesus left no doubt (see Luke 10:25-37). Who is your neighbor? Well . . . your enemy.

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Ben Keiser

Ben Keiser is a writer, teacher, and student of theology, whose chief interests include biblical theology of heaven and earth, C. S. Lewis, and early Christianity in the first three centuries. Ben has a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Liberty University. He resides in Colorado where you can often find him hiking in the mountains.