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Major in Beer

Marx and Malt

by | Nov 6, 2022

Clifford Major’s NMU card and shipping papers. image/courtesy Tom Major

Contrary to what you might think about public school teachers and Mainer writers, I am not a Marxist. The idea that state capitalism will become obsolete and wither away requires the unwavering faith of Detroit Lions fans. For the record, I’m not one of those, either. 

But I can acknowledge that Marx and Engels were onto something when they wrote about commodity fetishism. They challenged the idea that the market is an independent, neutral arbiter of value (a concept so familiar to Portland-area renters and prospective home-buyers that I won’t belabor it here). But what they could not possibly have anticipated in 1867 was the creation of lifestyle brands. The joyous self-identification of consumers with the shoes they wear, the bags they carry, and the beers they drink would have seemed like satire to anyone living in the 19th century.  

Sam Calagione, founder of Dogfish Head, wrote that he decided to get a tattoo of his beer company’s logo after loyal customers showed him their Dogfish Head tattoos. If they were all walking around with his brand permanently inked into their flesh, he figured the least he could do was join them. These craft-beer drinkers took the term commodity fetishism as an aspiration, rather than a criticism.  

I’m not above this. I own a dozen or so brewery-branded garments. I have an Allagash water bottle, more koozies and pint glasses than I could ever use, and notes on beers I sampled a decade ago. I enjoy a lot of local beers, but my obsessive focus on branding has exhausted me. I still have favorite brews, of course, and I still respect the work of brewers. But for my own peace of mind, I need to throttle back the brewmania. 

My grandfather wasn’t a Marxist, but he had strong feelings about wage labor and capital. The strikebreakers and goons who stomped his face on the National Maritime Union picket lines might have influenced his views. His name doesn’t appear next to those of Joseph Curran, Ferdinand Smith and M. Hedley Stone as an NMU founder, but he, like thousands of his comrades, brawled and bled and organized the union into existence.  

I have a pair of cufflinks he owned, but they are not a matched set. One is shaped like a ship’s tiller, the symbol of the NMU. The other is a red enamel star with an inlaid hammer and sickle. And yet, my grandfather was not a Marxist. I know this because I asked him. 

“No, Tommy,” he told me. “They thought I was. They pulled my papers for a while in England, and wouldn’t let me go back to sea. They called me a communist agitator. But I just wanted fair wages for my work. 

“Then I got arrested in Russia once,” my grandfather continued. “They said I was a capitalist agitator. They marched me right up to a commissar, who questioned me. I told him, ‘No, I didn’t say your country is no fucking good. I said your beer is no fucking good.’” The commissar must have agreed, since he sent him back to the ship.  

During World War II, my grandfather sailed in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, delivering fuel, ammunition and supplies to U.S. troops. He was in uniform and under military law. His comrades were killed at a higher rate than either Army or Navy forces. President Roosevelt wanted the merchant mariners, whose service had been nationalized under the War Shipping Administration, to be granted veteran status, but that did not happen until 1988. My grandfather, who outlived many of his fellow wartime merchant mariners, lived long enough to receive the official acknowledgement of his combat experience.  

This month, the U.S.A. will celebrate both Veterans Day and Thanksgiving. I will also celebrate the 120th anniversary of my grandfather’s birth. As I mark all three, I will raise my beer to salute his service to our country, his contribution to the cause of workers everywhere, and to the love he showed me. It doesn’t really matter what kind of beer I raise — like I said, I’m trying to be less particular. Just not a Russian beer. I hear that’s no fucking good. 


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