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Conflating, Misappropriating, Misleading, and Disappointing
on July 3, 2015
Is there a tradition of American socialism in American political history? Yes. Is the “socialist” tradition outlined in Mr. Nichols book that tradition of American socialism? No.
John Nichols should be commended for attempting to shed to public attention a fact of American history that is often neglected—the American socialist tradition. However, the prominent figures he drafts as being proto-socialists (like Thomas Paine) and the policies of the New Deal and Great Society: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as being “socialist” is flat out wrong and misleading. Nichols conflates modern social liberalism with the “socialism” that he seems to find, while overstepping the real tradition of American style utopian socialism.
Nichols should study basic political philosophy if he wants a concise and widely accepted academic definition of socialism. Socialism, in political philosophy, is understood as a socio-economic philosophy that advocates for “the public ownership of the means of economic production.” As someone with a B.A. in Economics (and history and philosophy), social welfare has no influence over the means of economic production. In fact, social welfare policies were first promoted by classical conservatives (real conservativism in philosophy is better called communitarianism, not what masquerades as “conservatism” in the United States, which is really a combination of un-modernized classical liberalism that promoted Social Darwinism with modern economic neoliberalism and an anti-communist Cold War foreign policy mentality). John Stuart Mill, William Gladstone, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt—all liberals, helped to modernize the primitive welfare state established by Benjamin Disraeli (in Britain) or the otherwise non-existent welfare state in America into the modern welfare state.
The greatest myth in American public consciousness is that social welfare = socialism. It is not, it does not even meet the definition of socialism accepted in the political academy. Social welfare has been a hallmark of social liberal political philosophy since the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The combination of Mill’s utilitarianism with classical liberalism is what paved the way for social liberalism to view the state, rather than the free-market only, as a vehicle for achieving liberal goals. As the great liberal philosopher Karl Popper stated in his magnum opus defense of liberal democracy against illiberal politics, "The Open Society and Its Enemies" (1945, 2013 one-volume reprint), “Liberalism and state interference are not opposed to each other. On the contrary, any kind of freedom is clearly impossible unless it is guaranteed by the state” (p. 106). Any reader of the great early liberal philosophers and economists: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith, and David Ricardo would know that they all endorsed a legitimized state that protected and promoted, through law, liberal ideas and principles. A real leftist intellectual, like Michel Foucault, properly understood liberalism not as a philosophy that sought to “limit the size of government” but a philosophy that wanted to legitimize the next evolution of political governance (the state) instead of the absolutist sovereign from the feudal order, while simultaneously seeking to LIMIT THE POWER of the new state so it would not become a new version of absolutist monarchy. A very awkward balancing act for liberalism to achieve, and has struggled to achieve throughout its history.
When Nichols states the FDR’s New Deal policies, namely social security, was essentially a stealing of socialist ideas (p. 120), he has it backwards. Liberals had already been endorsing a welfare state for the last 40 years—it was somewhat late to arrive in America. Socialists who began to endorse social welfare were trending liberal. The liberal accommodation of social democrats is what led to more orthodox Marxist-socialists to label social democrats as revisionists. As early as 1901, Vladimir Lenin had condemned Eduard Bernstein’s philosophy of gradualist socialism through economic reform as inevitably going to become a tool of the bourgeoisie.
Richard Hofstadter, a real anti-communist socialist, also a brief member of the US Communist Party, wrote in his magisterial 1948 book "The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It" that FDR was a “patrician” who used the Great Depression as political opportunism. During the same time, liberal historians Charles Wiltse ("The Jeffersonian Tradition in American Democracy," 1935) and Louis Hartz ("The Liberal Tradition in America," 1955) had highlighted how Enlightenment Liberalism, which is America’s true founding (Yes, America is a fundamentally liberal nation in the Enlightenment sense, which means: private property, private enterprise, market capitalism, and liberal democratic politics) directly led to the rise of social liberalism and the New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt. Nichols fails to understand, or deliberately conflates, social liberalism which is, to use Marxian language, an ideology of the bourgeoisie that supports market capitalism, free trade, and defends the superstructure of capitalism but accepts the necessity of state action to provide for social equity and liberty to prevent an underclass revolution, with "socialism." In fact, Nichols fails to know the real origins of socialist views on social welfare—Marxist-inspired socialists rejected social welfare policies as being detrimental to the fostering of the revolutionary class consciousness of the proletariat. Utopian-socialists (non-Marxist) also rejected social welfare because cooperative economics where everyone voluntarily shared with one another meant that social welfare was not necessary.
American socialism, as an American tradition, is much more utopian than Marxist. American socialism was extremely voluntaristic and utopian moreover than revolutionary socialist (socialism influenced by Marxism). Voluntary communal movements were the bedrock of American socialism during the nineteenth century. Nichols barely mentions, let alone gives any time, to this tradition of American socialism which led to mass movements, reforms, and communal experiments through the American Midwest (primarily) and also the agrarian and rural areas of New England. Any book that proclaims to be about socialism in America mentions Brook Farm only three times, all on one page, does a great disservice to providing an accessible work of socialism within American history.
In addition, a second major school of socialism in America was millenarian and religious in nature. Yes, until the 1970s with the formation of the Moral Majority and the Christian Right, American Evangelicalism and reform Christianity was generally socialist in its politics and economics. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saints (Mormonism) was a utopian socialist, and the Mormon Movement was utopian socialist in its orientation. At least Nichols gives time to mention that Baptist minister FRANCIS Bellamy (not Edward Bellamy as Nichols mistakenly names instead of his cousin), who authored the Pledge of Allegiance, was a socialist. But he simply name-drops him (p. 14) more as an “oh by the way” moment (but he confuses Francis's cousin Edward as the author, fact check much) rather than give time to discuss the millenarian, and utopian socialist thrust of American reform Protestantism in the nineteenth century: Mormonism (if we accept the LDS as, perhaps, a radical outgrowth of the Protestant Reformation in America), the Shakers (whom Nichols does not even decide to include in his book on American socialism even though the Shakers produced the most successful socialist community in American history that lasted well into the twentieth century and remain a major focus of all contemporary studies of American socialism), or the ecstatic Baptist and Presbyterian movements in the American Midwest that were politically and economically radical in their support for agrarian socialism.
John Nichols is a pretend radical, a social liberal who wants to be more radical than he is. Lance Selfa, a real socialist, has written a far superior book on how the Democratic Party, especially starting with the New Deal reforms of FDR, really took the sails out of the socialist movement (rather than bring it into the Democratic Party like what Mr. Nichols likes to pretend to think) and is a capitalist party that pays lips service to social reform to keep “the masses” content ("The Democrats: A Critical History," 2008). Michael Kazin has also written a book on the topic of American leftism and socialism that is far superior to Nichols sophomoric book that is riddled with errors, misappropriation, or misleading claims and assertions—"American Dreamers: How the Left Changed A Nation," 2011).
This concept that social welfare = socialism is one of the greatest myths perpetuating in the American public, fostered by the ignorance of journalists like Nichols and right-wing media outlets like Fox News, does more harm than good if people are seriously interested in the finitudes of political philosophy. For a book that proclaims itself to be about American socialism, Mr. Nichols’ book is so narrowly focused that it really is a book about the modernization of liberalism in the twentieth century and occasionally mentions how Socialist Party candidates, during a time of urbanization, industrialization, and the Great Depression, did manage to secure some notable political victories due to the desperation of American workers who took their desperation to the polling stations during election years.
If you’re looking for a book on authentic leftism in American history, start with Kazin, Selfa, or Alfred Fried’s "Socialism in America: From the Shakers to the Third International" (1993). For works on why social welfare and social reform is the natural outgrowth of modernizing liberalism that dates back to Thomas Jefferson and America’s founding, read the aforementioned works by Charles Wiltse, Louis Hartz, and Karl Popper (who more broadly writes a defense of liberalism as a political philosophy against the totalitarian impetus of the political movements inspired by Plato, Hegel, and Marx). Another good book on the topic of American socialism and radicalism is Jim Bissett’s "Agrarian Socalism in America: Jefferson, Marx, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904-1920" (2002). Mr. Nichols' book, despite the multitude of “glowing” reviews here on Amazon, is a book with very thin links about the American socialist tradition, misappropriates socialism for social liberalism, and highlights why Nichols would be viewed by Marx as a lumpenproletariat.
EDIT: I've also finished reading Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps' "Radicals in America: The U.S. Left Since the Second World War," which presents a vastly different, and academic, overview of leftwing working-class radicalism in the U.S. and highlights the uneasiness and, at times, hostility between liberals and socialists. Highly recommend that book too along with the others mentioned above for books dealing with the U.S. Left instead of this book.