December 2011 Archives


Nichols, John. The "S" Word: A Short History of an American Tradition ... Socialism (London: Verso, 2011)

John Nichols chronicles an impressive history in The "S" Word, showing clearly the intertwining of socialism with America from the very beginning. He proclaims that "this country, founded in radical opposition to monarchy, colonialism and empire, has from its beginning been home to socialists, social democrats, communists and radicals of every variation:"

Socialist ideas, now so frequently dismissed not just by the Tories of the present age but by political and media elites that diminish and deny our history, have shaped and strengthened America across the past two centuries. Those ideas were entertained and at times embraced by presidents who governed a century before Barack Obama was born. [...] know America, to understand and appreciate the whole of this country's past, its present and perhaps its future, we must recognize the socialist threads that have been woven into our national tapestry. (p. xii, Preface)

Despite his observation that "One need not be a Socialist, nor the follower of any tendency or party of the left, to recognize the positive influence of social democrats, socialists, communists and their fellow travelers," (p. 15) recognizing our socialist heritage will surely get any American branded as one shade or another of pinko. Nichols calls Socialism "the one word that still has the power to frighten, inform and inspire Americans," (p. 258) and places responsibility for this on the media:

Since reaching Washington, Obama has been clearly wary of getting too near individuals--or ideals--that might be brushed with the scarlet "S." That has made him a lesser president, with fewer ideas and fewer prospects. It has, as well, given ammunition to his critics, who capitalize on the caution of Obama and the Democrats to denigrate ideas which not so many years ago, were being peddled by moderate Republicans as tools for economic renewal--such as increased education spending and infrastructure investment--and present them as Marxist shibboleths. (p. 255)

From Thomas Paine to Emma Lazarus, from Lincoln and Walt Whitman, from Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas to FDR's New Deal and John Randolph, it's difficult to spot any significant omission from Nichols' chronicle. Socialists' support for free speech throughout the McCarthy era, and support for labor (specifically as it related to racial discrimination and the Civil Rights era) are well represented, and Nichols takes care to note that "One need not embrace socialism ideologically or practically to recognize that public-policy discussions ought to entertain a full range of ideas--from right to left, not from far right to center right." (p. 260)

Here is my Quote of the Day:

"There is always a charge that socialism does not fit human nature. We've encountered that for a long time," Frank [Zeidler] told me in one of our last conversations. "Maybe that's true. But can't people be educated? Can't people learn to cooperate with each other? Surely that must be our goal, because the alternative is redolent with war and poverty and all the ills of the world." (p. 139)

"How Socialists Built America" (The Nation) gives a nice taste of the book's flavor, and David Swanson of Smirking Chimp calls it "the best book yet by John Nichols -- and that's saying something!" He also exclaims that "Nichols' 300-page masterpiece...could, if widely read, lead to a different view of our country, our government, and our best course going forward."

"In the midst of the 2008 US Presidential Election," notes Pop Matters, "many voices on the right [alleged] the allegedly radical views of Barack Obama:"

It was a gambit as audacious as it was ridiculous, not only because it sought to cast Obama's brand of pragmatic, centrist liberalism as the stuff of bomb-throwing revolutionaries, but also because it attempted to promote the value of unregulated capitalism at the very moment capitalism's worst features were on display for all to see. Though the rhetorical attack on socialism ultimately had little effect on the outcome of the election, it persists as a meme among conservatives, who see socialist ideas as antithetical to American ideals and have made a hobby of trying to smear the legacies of figures like Franklin Roosevelt for having the temerity to rein in the rapacity of capitalism.

"His book," the piece continues, "is not merely a response to the anguished, ill-informed bleating of right-wing talking heads like Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck, it's a full-throated retort." After finishing the book, I dug into some of the historical socialist voices that Nichols mentioned--which functioned as additional retorts to right-wing ignorance. For example, Oscar Wilde's "The Soul of Man under Socialism" (1891) proclaims that "Socialism itself will be of value simply because it will lead to Individualism:"

Socialism, Communism, or whatever one chooses to call it, by converting private property into public wealth, and substituting co-operation for competition, will restore society to its proper condition of a thoroughly healthy organism, and insure the material well-being of each member of the community.

"Private property has crushed true Individualism," he writes, "and set up an Individualism that is false:"

It has debarred one part of the community from being individual by starving them. It has debarred the other part of the community from being individual by putting them on the wrong road, and encumbering them. [...] With the abolition of private property, then, we shall have true, beautiful, healthy Individualism. Nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. One will live. To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.

Abraham Lincoln's pro-labor speech should be widely read as well:

"Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."

Albert Einstein's "Why Socialism?" (Monthly Review, May 1949) explains the corrosive effects of capitalism by observing that "The economic anarchy of capitalist society as it exists today is, in my opinion, the real source of the evil:"

We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor--not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules.[...]

Moreover, under existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education). It is thus extremely difficult, and indeed in most cases quite impossible, for the individual citizen to come to objective conclusions and to make intelligent use of his political rights.

"Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor," he continues, and notes that "This crippling of individuals I consider the worst evil of capitalism:"

Our whole educational system suffers from this evil. An exaggerated competitive attitude is inculcated into the student, who is trained to worship acquisitive success as a preparation for his future career.

I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

The John Foster/Robert McChesney article "Capitalism, the Absurd System" points out that "libertarian fears of a totalitarian state imposing socialism by force, even to the point of annihilation, on an unwilling people, who are presumed to be capitalist by nature, are all too common:"

Perhaps nothing points so clearly to the alienated nature of politics in the present day United States as the fact that capitalism, the economic system that drives the society, is effectively off-limits to critical review or discussion. To the extent that capitalism is mentioned by politicians or pundits, it is regarded in hushed tones of reverence for the genius of the market, its unquestioned efficiency, and its providential authority. One might quibble with a corrupt and greedy CEO or a regrettable loss of jobs, but the superiority and necessity of capitalism--or, more likely, its euphemism, the so-called "free market system"--is simply beyond debate or even consideration. [...]

This prohibition on critically assessing capitalism begins in the economics departments and business schools of our universities where, with but a few exceptions, it is easier to find an advocate of the immediate colonization of Mars than it is to find a scholar engaged in genuine radical criticism of capitalism. This critical dearth extends to our news media, which have a documented track record of promoting the profit system, and a keen distaste for those that advocate radical change.

"Everything around us," they continue, "seems to function via Adam Smith's invisible hand," and "What we lose sight of is the reality of an alienated, commodified existence with its innumerable chains forged by class and property relations:"

Boiled down, U.S. politics under today's mature capitalism are not about the welfare of the demos (i.e., the people) as envisioned in classical notions of democracy, but rather about which party can best deliver profitability to investors and corporations. There are continuing debates between those who simply want to slash labor costs, taxes, and regulations for the rich, and those who want to do some of that but also use some regulation and government spending to encourage higher wages and demand-driven growth. Both sides, however, accept that making the economy profitable for the owning class is the sine qua non of successful administration.


Lebowitz, Michael. The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010)

Michael Lebowitz's previous book Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century led me to this volume, which proposes socialism as an alternative to contemporary capitalism. He handles the socialism-is-dead issue this way:

Drawing upon Marx, [István] Mészáros had argued the necessity to understand capitalism as an organic system, a specific combination of production-distribution-consumption, in which all the elements coexist simultaneously and support one another. The failure of the socialist experiments of the twentieth century, he proposed, occurred because of the failure to go beyond "the vicious circle of the capital relation"... (p. 24, citing Mészáros, Istvan. Beyond Capital)

This leads to his broader point:

The threat of capital is that we should pay for schools (and school supplies), health services (and medical supplies and medicines), and, indeed, everything else that it is possible to commodify. In short, nothing for people in their capacities as members of society, everything for them as the owners of money. In contrast, the socialist alternative is to de-commodify. Everything. (pp. 145-146)

The misidentification of the USSR with socialism is dealt with by observing that "Soviet workers did not have...power to make decisions within the workplace:"

And they had no independent and autonomous voice: in the trade unions, which protected their individual job rights, the leadership was selected from above and principally played the role of transmission belts to mobilize the workers in production. (p. 62)

Another problem is that "people hardly think of communism as an economic system:"

Rather, as the result of the understanding of the experiences of the last century, communism is now viewed as a political system--in particular, as a state that stands over and above society and oppresses working people. (pp. 109-110)

Lebowitz can't solve such problems in a book this brief, but at least he can point in the right direction. He concludes:

In the struggle against capitalism, a system that destroys human beings and nature, we need a vision of an alternative. And we need to understand the only way that that vision can be made real. The focus upon human development and practice, the key link, offers a vision of a good society oriented toward the development of rich human beings. And that, after all, is the socialist alternative. (p. 166)

In an Internet awash in Hitchens quotes, Ed Brayton picks an unheralded one. In this clip, Hitch is defending free speech against all manner of religious and political encroachments:

The whole speech is--of course--worth listening to, but the money quote is about 7 minutes in:

"My own opinion is enough for me and I claim the right to have it defended against any consensus, any majority, anywhere, any place, any time. And anyone who disagrees with this can pick a number, get on line, and kiss my ass."

The Dave-Gibbons-designed Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendatta is a powerful visual brand for Anonymous, observes Slate. "By all accounts [Anonymous] has no clear hierarchy or leadership, or even any internal agreement about what exactly it is. And yet:" may also have noticed its memorable logo: a suited figure with a question mark where his head should be, set against a U.N.-style globe. You've also likely seen the visual symbol that's made its way onto the streets: a Guy Fawkes mask borrowed by Anonymous from the V for Vendetta graphic novel and movie for use in real-world protests. So how did this chaotic, volunteer-driven, non-organization manage to create a visual identity stronger than many commercial brands?

If pop-culture symbols are good, they can become both memorable and powerful. The Fawkes mask has become so.

update (12/11):
Is the Guy Fawkes mask a metaphor for the closet? Forrest Wickman discusses LGBT characters in the graphic novel and film adaptation:

The mask represents the power of the people, and the power of uniting around an idea, whatever that idea may be. But in the film, at least, the mask also represents something else: being in the closet.

He continues:

It seems likely that the Wachowski siblings (who produced and wrote the adaptation) felt a personal connection to some of these themes in the graphic novel, and chose to expand on them in their adaptation. [...] The Wachowskis have spoken very little about the subject with the press, but if this is true then it's possible that Lana may have felt as V does when he comments that "there's a face beneath this mask, but it is not me."


Cohen, GA. Why Not Socialism? (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009)

GA Cohen uses the example of a camping trip to demonstrate the principles of socialism on a small scale:

You could base a camping trip on the principles of market exchange and strictly private ownership of the required facilities. Now most people would hate that. (p. 6)

Two principles are realized on the camping trip, and egalitarian principle, and a principle of community. The community principle constrains the operation of the egalitarian principle by forbidding certain inequalities that the egalitarian principle permits. (p. 12)

The sway of socialist equality of opportunity must therefore be tempered by a principle of community, if society is to display the socialist character that makes the camping trip attractive. (p. 34)

He mentions the 1994 book A Future for Socialism by Yale economist John Roemer:

Being an economist, Roemer is concerned to show that his system is not less efficient that capitalism. But suppose he is wrong. [...] ...inefficiency is, after all, only one value, and it would show a lack of balance to insist that even small deficits in that value should be eliminated at whatever cost to the values of equality and community. (p. 73)

Efficiency uber alles is not a very inspiring slogan, after all--and not one that the profit-making purpose of business demonstrates very well, either.

Bleeding Heart Libertarians looks at the question posed by Why Not Socialism? "Cohen's view," writes Jason Brennan, is that "capitalism promotes the common good by relying upon greed, fear, and people's limited knowledge:"

Cohen says there are two main questions about socialism. First, is it intrinsically desirable? He thinks it clearly is. Second, is it feasible? Here he is less certain. He thinks it might be feasible, but is unsure. He is not convinced that people are too immoral or too dumb to make socialism work.

Using the anti-Obama animus as a backdrop, SueZ explains to Michele Bachmann (speaking of immoral and dumb) this is what socialism is:

To claim that Obama's plan is Socialism is to be as ignorant as ignorant can be, in regard to understanding taxation. This is not spin, nor rhetoric. This is plain hard fact. Ignorance is no excuse, and you now have no excuse to be ignorant of the fundamentals of taxation. To continue to use the word Socialism as a pejorative term will result in the continuation of deliberate ignorance. The same thing goes for "Redistribution", "Spreading the wealth", or "Government giveaway". Don't be ignorant. [...]

Simply put, Socialism is the use of government to solve social problems. Conservatives usually consider them a worthless social safety net (unless it's privately funded), in favor of a "fend for yourself" mentality. But the truth is that these programs helped shape America, and it is why the allure of America is so great. All Americans share the ideal of a functioning society that can support the vision of the founding fathers.

Cohen, at least, sees socialism as part of that functioning society.


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Michael Kazin suggests that an Obama-vs-Gingrich matchup would be good for the country. "I sincerely hope Newt Gingrich wins the Republican nomination for president," he writes, because "It could bring a healthy candor to our politics and end up boosting the fortunes of liberalism as well." He prompts his readers to "imagine what a refreshing campaign he and Obama could wage:"

...this could set up the kind of campaign Americans have never witnessed before: a serious debate between articulate exponents of liberalism and conservatism--the ideological conflict that has shaped American politics since the emergence of a mass movement on the right in the 1950s.

He goes on to comment that the debates "would sharpen the terms of political discourse in a healthy rather than demagogic fashion:"

Standing just feet away from the president, Newt would probably refrain from ranting about the Democrat's "secular socialist agenda," and Obama would not be able to get away with empty talk about "winning the future."

(Especially since, as I mentioned back in January, that's one of Newt's book titles...)

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