J. Edgar Hoover Speaks Concerning Communism
The replacement of Allan Pinkerton, dealer in detectives for Wealth during the late nineteenth century, by J. Edgar Hoover, supervisor of detectives for Commonwealth, must be the only episode in our social history to realize Marx’s prescription for the transformation of capitalistic private property into socialized property. For, as Pinkerton was the only great acquisitor of the nineteenth century whose legacy has since been nationalized, Mr. Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation is unique among our public institutions as an example of the triumph of the socialist idea.
Its critics have often argued that socialism, once it takes power, lacks the creative impulse essential to technical development, and that, once the expropriation of private property is accomplished, the bureaucrat can conceive no device for managing it for the public good beyond those the displaced enterpriser had already invented for his personal profit. Such arguments gain unexpected force from the coincidental republication of most of Mr. Hoover’s thoughts and some of Allan Pinkerton’s.
Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives was Pinkerton’s account of the great strikes of 1877, whose course he resisted as a spymaster for the railroad managers and whose punishment he subsequently accomplished as a criminal investigator. We had already known that most of Mr. Hoover’s devices for protecting the public order had originally been discovered by Pinkerton, who created the Rogues Gallery—that progenitor of the FBI’s Public Enemy list—who first protected the confidential informant by assigning him a code name in his files, and who refined the undercover agent from a rudimentary workman into the skilled professional he is today.
Pinkerton would certainly have been first to use all the mechanical means at Mr. Hoover’s disposal if the engineers of his time had progressed far enough to provide him with a recognizable opportunity; as it was, the employment of wiretapping would wait until thirty years after his death. In The Masked War, William J. Burns, almost as legendary an operative as Pinkerton and Hoover, but otherwise a much more stolid fellow, tells us that in 1912 he used a dictograph to record the conversations of visitors to the cell of a kept, but shaky, witness. In his matter-of-fact account, persons afflicted with historical imagination can thrill at the debut of the “bug.”
But Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives suggests for the first time that Mr. Hoover’s debt to Pinkerton is not just for the techniques of production but for the more important ones of marketing. For, without the shadow of the Peril, who will appreciate the Protector? That remains a problem for the socialized detective almost as much as it used to be for the private one. Marketing is the mass distribution of fantasies, and it is crucial for the distributor to be caught by the fantasy he sells. To be sure of being contagious, it is safest to be infected.
Henry Ford, Lydia Pinkham, Allan Pinkerton—and who knows…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.