Home > Uncategorized > Book Review: The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism” by John Nichols 5/31/11

Book Review: The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism” by John Nichols 5/31/11

This book is long overdue. It places the American socialist tradition inside American history. It explores chapters that are missing from most conventional history books while connecting some interesting dots. The book promotes a sense of the continuity of a long-standing tradition that has not been sufficiently appreciated.

Ignorance, distortion for political purpose, and misunderstanding are rife when it comes to American socialist history. The decibel level is so high and there are so many axes to grind that clarity has been a casualty.

As a member of the 60’s generation of leftists, I think that we have lacked a sense of history about the generations of leftists who have preceded us. It does seem like every generation of American leftists has to start over without a shared base of knowledge and experience. The absence of even a vibrant American labor movement contributes to the national void. The history of American socialism is and has been invisible for a long time.

Nichols’ book helps, in a small way, to fill that emptiness. He shows the long history of socialist tradition in America which is largely unknown. Unless you are a devoted student of history, there is no way you will know about the history Nichols unearths. As I think Gore Vidal said, we live in the United States of Amnesia. It strikes me as quite the contradiction that a country founded in revolution could have so impoverished and weak a radical tradition after its founding. Which does lead to the story…

Nichols begins with Emma Lazarus of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” fame. Although I knew Lazarus’s poem graces the Statue of Liberty, i did not know she was a secular Jewish radical. Nichols writes:

“The story of Emma Lazarus, the whole story, is an important one for contemporary Americans. It reminds us that the authors of “the American credo” were not free market capitalists preaching laissez faire mantras of “eat or be eaten”, “survival of the fittest”, “close the borders” or “government is the problem”. In fact, the country founded in radical opposition to monarchy, colonialism and empire, has from its beginnings been home to socialists, social democrats, communists and radicals of every variation. Criticisms of capitalism were not “imports”  brought to our shores by the tired, the poor, the huddled masses of ancient lands. They were conceived of, written about and spoken by Americans long before Karl Marx or Fidel Castro or Nelson Mandela or Hugo Chavez put pen to paper or grasped the sides of a lectern. Emma Lazarus was not, as is often thought, an immigrant; she was a fourth-generation American whose family roots planted in the soil of America before the signing of the Declaration of Independence.”

Nichols shows that Lazarus was inspired by Henry George, a utopian political economist and social philosopher. She openly acknowledged the influence of socialist ideas in her writing. I think it is worth it to go back and take a look at Lazarus’s most famous poem:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Nichols then goes back to early American history. He particularly focuses on Tom Paine, the bad boy international revolutionary. The Paine that Nichols presents was a secular cosmopolitan intellectual. In his writings, Paine demonstrated a principled concern for egalitarianism and social justice. Paine proposed schemes akin to Social Security, child welfare laws, and public housing  – all programs typically bemoaned by conservatives.

As has been true with other great radicals after they die, the legacy of Paine is something of a political kaleidoscope. People of whatever ideological stripe see what they want to see and claim him as a kindred spirit. Witness Glenn Beck’s book invoking Paine. There is black humor in watching Beck urge his followers to read Paine when Beck appears to have no grasp of Paine’s writings. The Becks of his day hated Tom Paine.

Paine was particularly an inspiration to Abraham Lincoln, Eugene V. Debs, and later FDR. To quote Debs: ” The revolutionary history of the United States and France stirred me deeply and its heroes and martyrs became my idols. Thomas Paine towered above them all.”

Nichols covers much ground in his overview of the 19th and early 20th century. I learned about Fanny Wright, the “great red harlot” of American radicalism in the late 1820’s and early 1830’s. In her day, Wright was a famous abolitionist, a socialist and a feminist. Walt Whitman adored her. In reminiscing about her to his friend Horace Traubel, Whitman said:

“In those days, I frequented the anti-slavery halls in New York – heard many of their speakers – people of all qualities, styles – always interesting, always suggestive. It was there I heard Fanny Wright…a woman of the noblest make-up whose orbit was a great deal larger than theirs – too large to be tolerated for long by them: a most maligned, lied-about character – one of the best in history though also one of the least understood…Her views were very broad – she touched the widest range of themes – spoke informally, colloquially. She published while there The Free Inquirer, which my daddy took and I often read. She has always been to me one of the sweetest of sweet memories: we all loved her: fell down before her: her very appearance seemed to enthrall us.”

Later Nichols covers the influence of the 1848 European revolutionaries on Lincoln; Horace Greeley and the national influence of the progressive paper, the New York Tribune; and the founding of the Republican Party which initially was anti-slavery and was not economically conservative.

Probably most interesting was the era when American socialists did have genuine political clout. Nichols highlights the successes of the Socialist Party in winning elections and in administering major cities. By 1912, the Socialist Party had elected 34 mayors, along with city councils, school board members and officials in 169 cities from Butte Montana to New York City.

Nichols describes “sewer socialism”, the brand of socialism that was focused on clean and local government. He notes the first Socialist elected to Congress was Victor Berger of Milwaukee. Berger held his seat in Congress from 1911 to 1929. Socialists of that era hoped to make a reputation for absolute honesty and clean government.

At the national level, Nichols recounts the presidential campaigns of Debs and Norman Thomas. Debs made 5 runs between 1900-1920 and Thomas made 6 attempts between 1928-1948. Debs pulled close to a million votes in 1912, 6% of the total cast.

While it would be easy to dismiss the Socialists as a failed movement (particularly in light of present irrelevance), Nichols appreciates the role of Socialists as authors and promoters of new reform ideas. Many of the ideas pioneered by socialists like unemployment compensation, old-age pensions, union rights, jobs programs, minimum wage etc were eventually taken up and adopted by Democrats during the New Deal and after. Any calculation of movement failure should be balanced against the success of the movement as progenitor of reform ideas.

It is ironic, almost ridiculous, that President Obama would draw fire from the Right for being a socialist. Words lose meaning when a mild reformer like Obama can be misidentified as a socialist. By any rational standard, Obama is not even close to being a social democrat. Unlike FDR, who was concerned about appealing to his left flank which had some power, Obama has not shown that concern. Thus you get Rahm Emanuel and his famous comments about liberals and progressives criticizing Obama as “f-ing retards”.

Because we live in an era when the ideology of “government is the problem” is so strong, Nichols wants to refute that perspective and show how narrow and ahistorical it is. Nichols writes:

“This country, which was founded on a radical interpretation of enlightenment ideals, which advanced toward the realization of those ideals with an even more radical assault on the southern aristocracy, which was made more humane and responsible by the progressive reform; the New and Fair Deals and the war on poverty and inequality of the first three quarters of the twentieth century is now tinkering around the edges of the challenges posed by the twenty-first century.”

Nichols is concerned that public policy entertain a full range of ideas, including reform ideas from the left.

I do think it is fitting that Nichols gives so much play to Eugene Debs. He was and remains the outstanding figure of American socialism. Out of hard experience, Debs came to see the need for a workers’ political party. But Debs also defended liberal democracy, the Constitution, and the rule of law.

It is a tragedy of our time that America lacks even a credible social democratic party, let alone a socialist party. Without those perspectives, economic circumstances worsen and no one stands up strongly for working people. Whether the issue is economic inequality, jobs for our unemployed millions or climate change, I think it is fair to say the policy responses by both major parties are weak at best and grossly inadequate.

Since Nichols invokes Walt Whitman as a rebel sympathetic to socialism and since Whitman is a favorite of mine, I will end with a Whitman poem  that is a favorite of mine. It seems apropos.

To A Foil’d European Revolutionaire

Courage yet, my brother or my sister!
Keep on – Liberty is to be subserv’d whatever occurs;
That is nothing that is quell’d by one or two failures, or any
  number of failures,
Or by the indifference or ingratitude of the people, or by any
  unfaithfulness,
or the show of the tushes of power, soldiers, cannon, penal
  statutes.

What we believe in waits latent forever through all the
  continents,
invites no one, promises nothing, sits in calmness and light,
  is positive, and composed, knows no discouragement,
Waiting patiently, waiting its time.

(Not songs of loyalty alone are these,
But songs of insurrection also,
For I am the sworn poet of every dauntless rebel the world
  over,
And he going with me leaves peace and routine behind him,
And stakes his life to be lost at any moment.)

The battle rages with many a loud alarm and frequent
  advance and retreat,
The infidel triumphs, or supposes he triumphs,
The prison, scaffold, garrote, handcuffs, iron necklace and
 lead-balls do their work,
The named and unnamed heroes pass on to other spheres,
The great speakers and writers are exiled, they lie sick in
  distant lands,
The cause is asleep, the strongest throats are choked with
  their own blood,

The young men droop their eyelashes toward the ground
  when they meet;
But for all this Liberty has not gone out of the place, nor
  the infidel enter’d into full possession.

When liberty goes out of a place it is not the first to go, nor
  the second or third to go,
It waits for all the rest to go, it is the last.

When there are no more memories of heroes and martyrs,
And when all life and all the souls of men and women are
  discharged from any part of the earth,
Then only shall liberty or the idea of liberty be
  discharged from that part of the earth,
And the infidel come into full possession.

Then courage European revolter, revoltress!
For till all ceases neither must you cease.

I do not know what you are for, (I do not know what I am
  for myself, nor what any thing is for,)
But I will search carefully for it even in being foil’d,
In defeat, poverty, misconception, imprisonment – for they
  too are great.

Did we think victory great?
So it is – but now it seems to me, when it cannot be help’d,
  that defeat is great,
And that death and dismay are great.

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