The following article was written by William I. Nichols, Editor of This Week Magazine. It appeared in the March 4, 1951 issue and is reprinted here for posterity.
The redefinition of just one word could help check the world spread of Communism.
The word is “Capitalism.”
It is the term used over and over by the Soviets as a smear word to discredit us. We Americans use it to describe our economic system. But on both sides of the Iron Curtain it is a misleading word because, when applied to America, it no longer fits the system it pretends to describe.
To many people the word Capitalism carries negative overtones of old errors and old abuses. In no way does it imply the dynamic, expanding system of today, constantly changing, but always moving toward one goal — to create more goods and greater well-being for more people.
The word Capitalism came into being in the early days of the industrial revolution, when the basis of wealth shifted from land to money (that is, capital) invested in industrial and commercial ventures. Admittedly, during those years there were many errors and abuses. If you have read the novels of Charles Dickens or the story of America’s “robber barons” of the 1890s, you know what they were. There is no denying that Capitalism’s early period contains many dark chapters of worker exploitation at home, and colonial expansion abroad. The Communists seize on the fact that all those memories are contained in the word Capitalism.
Why do we let them get away with it? In the face of their repressive, regressive slave system, we stand for a bold and imaginative society which has changed, developed and improved with the years.
Consider how conditions today differ from those of 50 or 100 years ago. Here, for example, are some important points of difference based on a listing prepared by Edward J. Meeman, Editor of the Memphis Press-Scimitar:
- Slavery, which antedates Capitalism, has been abolished in all Capitalist countries, but is now practiced in Communist countries, and on a wider scale than ever before in history.
- In its early days Capitalism exploited the labor of women and children. This has nearly been abolished.
- Capitalism once imposed over-long hours. These are now short, and growing shorter.
- The standard of living under Capitalism has steadily risen. This is exactly contrary to Marx’s prediction — and to the record in Communist countries.
- Unemployment has been reduced and controlled and is now a diminishing problem.
- Early Capitalist employers cared little about the health and safety of their workers. Today industrial safety has been carried to such a point that more accidents occur in homes than in factories, offices and stores.
- The slogan of Capitalism once was “The public be damned.” Today all progressive companies know the importance of public opinion, and public relations have become an essential part of management.
- Imperialist wars were once waged by Capitalists and colonial rule imposed on foreign peoples. Now country after country has given up its colonies.
That is an impressive list of differences between “then” and “now.” And the process is still going on. Up to the time of emergency controls (a result of Communist aggression) company after company was developing new plans for bonuses, pensions, “cost-of-living” wage raises, and other ways of sharing profits. All these are designed to give more and more people an increasing share of production, whether in the form of higher wages, lower prices or better goods.
Most of us in America know what our “New Capitalism” is producing for us and what it can produce anywhere if given a fair chance. But there are hundreds of millions of people throughout the world who do not know this. As was pointed out recently by Lewis Galantiere, the average European “judges our Capitalism in the light of what he knows about his own,” and we have allowed him to remain in ignorance of the differences between the two.
We must find some way to make clear the distinction between our system and the Capitalism of the past, and also between our system and Capitalism as it is practiced in some other parts of the world. For, unfortunately, there are still areas where Capitalism operates in the old, primitive way, and a Capitalist is regarded as a member of a privileged group who dodges taxes, exploits his workers and overcharges his customers.
We need a new word to describe our system — imperfect, but always improving — where men move forward freely together, working together, building together, producing always more and more, and sharing together the rewards of their increased production. If we find the right term, it could be a decisive factor in the global battle for the minds of men.