John Nichols: The "S" Word

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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.

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This page contains a single entry by cognitivedissident published on December 31, 2011 11:43 PM.

Michael Lebowitz: The Socialist Alternative was the previous entry in this blog.

Alan Maass: The Case for Socialism is the next entry in this blog.

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