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5.0 out of 5 stars Cure for Decades of Cable News, April 17, 2011
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This review is from: The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition...Socialism (Paperback)
On Friday on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, congress members spoke in defense of Medicare, Social Security, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other programs that by almost anyone's definition are socialist, programs that were denounced as socialist by opponents of their passage in decades past, programs that would not have been created without the efforts of socialists and the Socialist Party.

The debate screeched to a halt, however, because an opponent of the Congressional Progressive Caucus's "People's Budget" then under discussion suggested that its supporters might be socialists. Congressman Keith Ellison, co-chair of that caucus, protested the vicious accusation and demanded that the words of his accuser be transcribed for the record (and possible legal action?). The Republican congress member guilty of the horrible slander announced that he was retracting it. Rep. Raul Grijalva, the other co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, thanked him sincerely for the retraction. Although polls show socialism to be far more popular than Congress, neither Ellison nor Grijalva insisted on being cleared of the label "congress member."

"Socialism," remarked Frank Zeidler, former socialist mayor of Milwaukee, "believes that people working together for a common good can produce a greater benefit, both for society and for the individual, than can a society in which everyone is shrewdly seeking their own self-interest." Missing from Washington, D.C., is not just a single individual who would hurl the term "capitalist" with the strength to have a retraction demanded. Missing also is any sense of working for a cooperative society based on the above truth -- a truth apparent to any child who has neither read Ayn Rand nor viewed cable news, but a truth that sounds insane in our nation's capital.

And one more thing is missing: awareness of the debt our nation owes to its rich socialist history. That's where the best book yet by John Nichols -- and that's saying something! -- comes in. The author of "The Genius of Impeachment," among other brilliant books, has just published "The 'S' Word: A Short History of an American Tradition . . . Socialism."

The book is marred by a militaristic cover depicting the flag-raising pose on Iwo Jima, and its focus on the U.S. national tradition is not without problems. Nichols' goal is to depict socialism as American, as rooted in the tradition of Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, the founding of the Republican Party, the rise of competent public planning in 20th century cities, the New Deal, the struggle for free speech and freedom of the press, and the civil rights movement. In this he is very successful. But a strain of thought related to much socialism and admirable in its own right holds that an idea need not be American to be the best for America. You'd think we'd learn that in KINDERGARTEN.

Nichols does not argue with such internationalism; it just fails to harmonize with the theme of his book. Yet, while other authors have sought to bring out the rich leftist tradition of the United States as something predating and independent of, and better off without, Marxism, Nichols goes out of his way to highlight Marx's employment by a New York newspaper and communications with President Lincoln. Doing so certainly cannot hurt and makes for fascinating reading. Of course, the fascination is in large part based on the reader's imagining of the explosive cognitive dissonance a contemporary Republican might face in discovering his or her party's founding father's appreciation of Marx. This imagination may give too much credit to contemporary Republicans for cognitive processes of whatever sort.
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Showing 1-10 of 19 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Apr 17, 2011 11:51:51 AM PDT
Paige Turner says:
"Doing so certainly cannot hurt and makes for fascinating reading. Of course, the fascination is in large part based on the reader's imagining of the explosive cognitive dissonance a contemporary Republican might face in discovering his or her party's founding father's appreciation of Marx. This imagination may give too much credit to contemporary Republicans for cognitive processes of whatever sort."

Your review is wonderful... and the last bit (above) made me chuckle... but since we all know that TODAY's Republican party was seeded by the Solid South and the Dixiecrats (states rights) and THOSE southerners eventually migrated to TODAY's Republican party, I must say that I cringe whenever I see anyone attributing today's states rights segregationist R-Party being mentioned as having anything to do at all with the Party of Lincoln. They do not share the same DNA. Today's Dems are rooted in the Party of Lincoln.

That's all. The book looks good, I'll probably download it to my kindle.

Posted on Apr 23, 2011 6:00:46 PM PDT
gotscience? says:
Goodness! I had forgotten that the book was already in my possession. Thanks for reminding me. I had heard about it from Robert McChesney, co-founder of who quoted a few juicy morsels. Hope to hear Nichols once he goes on tour to promote it.

Posted on May 28, 2011 2:29:03 PM PDT
AmarasMama says:
Thanks for such a comprehensive review. Appreciate the time you took to lay out the book! I will have to get this one on my Kindle as well.

Posted on Jun 6, 2011 4:27:09 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 6, 2011 6:21:00 AM PDT
Thanks for your good review. I liked your line: "And one more thing is missing: awareness of the debt our nation owes to its rich socialist history."
It made me think this:
"And when regressives demonize socialism, one thing is missing: awareness of the financially and morally bankrupting debt our nation owes to its history of plutocratic, imperialistic, predatory capitalism."

Our nation's current, crushing, monetary debt (and most of our political failures and social problems) are either caused by capitalism or are completely entangled with capitalism.
And yet capitalism is America's most widely-believed-in "religion" and socialism has been "demonized" and made into a "dirty word", with false accusations that socialism is somehow treasonous and un-American.
(It is not!) And capitalism is NOT the same as America or democracy! In fact, capitalism has nearly destroyed democracy and representative government in America -- due to corporate money, corporate selecting and funding of candidates, corporate-financed campaigns and ads, corporate lobbying-bribery, and corporate media-propoganda. Most voters base their votes on what corporate-media tell them and most elected officials do what their corporate donors demand. So America is dominated by corporate capitalism.

See "Unequal Democracy", "Winner-Take-All Politics", "Democracy Incorporated", "Death of the Liberal Class", and "Dismantling the Empire" to understand better how capitalism has nearly destroyed democracy and representative government in America.

And see the social democratic nations of Europe to understand better that socialism and democracy can go together very well to benefit a nation's entire population, whereas American capitalism has viciously concentrated nearly all of the wealth and power in the hands of the richest 1% to 10%, and is dismantling the middle-class and is neglecting and abusing 20 million longterm unemployed and millions of suffering poor.

The question is: will the 90% majority of common people in America be able to "take back" our beloved nation from the capitalistic and militaristic richest 10% who are destroying our democracy?
I hope so, but it seems like an impossible task. Then again, if tyrannies and totalitarian states can be changed, maybe America can eventually be changed into a truly fair and humane society for all its citizens.

Posted on Jun 8, 2011 1:57:15 PM PDT
Theo says:
This is an excellent review and extremely well written. You've inspired me to read this book - thanks!

Posted on Jun 17, 2011 2:16:25 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jun 17, 2011 2:19:37 PM PDT
Well, someone needs to come in and disrupt the leftist orgy going on...

Sorry, I had to.

First, let me say that as a libertarian-leaning individual (I mean that in a broad philosophical sense, not the party) that I found this review fascinating and have been encouraged to read the book. Let me say that I enjoy the way it is structured; as an amateur writer I greatly appreciate good penmanship and starting the review with a discussion of the behavior of members of the House was a brilliant lead-in.

Forgive my ignorance, but I do wonder if you were over-playing your hand in regards to the social policies those members of congress were defending, though. Were the development and implementation of all of these programs really influenced largely (or even in a measurable part) by the socialist party or by independent socialist politicians? This is a serious question, by the way; I don't know enough about the history of these programs (yet) to answer it myself.

I happen to be philosophically opposed to many tenets of socialism (and to certain socialist programs, though I am not here to argue about either) but despite my best efforts I've rarely ever found myself able to conjure up a knee-jerk response upon hearing a single term used. (Examples: Socialism - BAD!; Boston - BAD!; Chicken - GOOD!; Libertarianism - BAD!; Obama - SOCIALIST!...and therefore BAD! and so forth.) God forbid, when I'm told something is bad I actually expect to hear a reason why, even if I already know or suspect I know the problem with it. Somehow or another we've ended up with a country filled with leaders (on both sides) who don't bother to ask why they should have a knee-jerk reaction to certain words and concepts.

In any case, I'm digressing: The education (and I use that term loosely!) I've received on subject of socialism in America sprang from two sources; high school history courses which went on about the Red Scare, anarchists, union violence and so forth. (I am aware that Communism, Socialism, unions and Anarchism are not the same entity, despite some family ties, but my teachers either didn't know or refused to know the difference.) The second was from Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, which likely provided a more balanced view, however I haven't read it in years.

Interest in Woody Guthrie and other early folk singers has recently spurred my interest in the history of socialism in America so here I am. I'm glad to see that this book seems to try to provide a corrective to this lack of knowledge without being too preachy. Perhaps I'll post another comment after reading it.

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 2, 2011 3:24:49 PM PDT
There is no leftist orgy. I notice many libertarians (by which I mean right-libertarians) are some of the most misinformed people I've ever met. You seem like a more open-minded fellow which I must commend. So maybe my criticism of many libertarians doesn't apply to you.

Anyway, my criticisms do apply to the hatchet job done on this book by the reviewer Michael Lind:

Here is my response to that review:

There is no inherent conflict between libertarianism and socialism, between valuing both liberty and fairness, both negative and positive freedom, between valuing both individual and collective good, both private and public good. I can't stand this ideological mindset of either/or absolutism and win/lose scenarios.

Socialism can't co-exist with capitalism, but it can co-exist with a free market (a criticism even made by some libertarians such as John C. Medaille). And why is this reviewer so simpleminded as to think someone can't simultaneously support socialism, minimal government and gun rights. That is so far beyond misinformation as to not even be amusing. There are all kinds of socialists, including minarchists and even anarchists.

"The United States is sort of out of the world on this topic. Britain is to a limited extent, but the United States is like on Mars. So here, the term "libertarian" means the opposite of what it always meant in history. Libertarian throughout modern European history meant socialist anarchist. It meant the anti-state element of the Workers Movement and the Socialist Movement. It sort of broke into two branches, roughly, one statist, one anti-statist. The statist branch led to Bolshevism and Lenin and Trotsky, and so on. The anti-statist branch, which included Marxists, Left Marxists -- Rosa Luxemburg and others -- kind of merged, more or less, into an amalgam with a big strain of anarchism into what was called "libertarian socialism." So libertarian in Europe always meant socialist. Here it means ultra-conservative -- Ayn Rand or Cato Institute or something like that. But that's a special U.S. usage. There are a lot of things quite special about the way the United States developed, and this is part of it. There [in Europe] it meant, and always meant to me, socialist and anti-state, an anti-state branch of socialism, which meant a highly organized society, completely organized and nothing to do with chaos, but based on democracy all the way through. That means democratic control of communities, of workplaces, of federal structures, built on systems of voluntary association, spreading internationally. That's traditional anarchism. You know, anybody can have the word if they like, but that's the mainstream of traditional anarchism."

As for liberal reformers, social democrats and socialists are kissing cousins. Socialists seem far more supportive of social democracy than the average person. A government doesn't have to be socialist in order to implement socialist policies and socialist solutions don't require a state to implement them. Many if not most socialists I've come across aren't for statist socialism, especially not in terms of Maoism or Stalinism.

"In discussing the perennial failed candidates of the Socialist party, Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, Nichols edits aspects of their thought which are incompatible with modern leftism."

So? What does that have to do with anything? If you look at early proponents of capitalism, you'll find people who held views with modern fiscal conservatism or modern lots of things. People are complex and hold complex views of the world. Also, people's views are dependent on the times. Even radical thinkers have aren't always able to see entirely beyond the status quo worldview of the society they live in.

As a last point, it's a complete fabrication to say that, "Nichols ignores the principled anti-communism of much of the democratic socialist left." Nichols writes about this (pp. 181-182):

"There were certainly American Communists who romanticized the Soviet Union, made absurd apologies for its totalitarian excesses and aligned their positions in domestic debates to parallel "the Moscow line." But there were many other Communists and non-Communist lefties, like Longshore union head and west-coast CIO director Harry Bridges, who were less interested in what was happening in Leningrad than in the intensity of the commitment of CP activists to organize workers in Seattle and Pittsburgh and Birmingham. They tended to share the view expressed by the Australian-born Bridges when the government attempted to deport him on charges that he was a "secret Communist." Bridges denied the affiliation, expressed robust small-"d" democratic views and derided the notion that working with groups that supported strong unions and public ownership of utilities and major industries made him un-American. Radical trade unionists weren't taking orders from abroad, Bridges explained, they were responding to reality on the ground in a United States that had been ravaged by the Great Depression."

Was this supposed to be a book review or just a hit job?

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 2, 2011 5:08:15 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Jul 2, 2011 5:09:39 PM PDT
For the record, 'leftist orgy' was intended as a joke. It was a playful way to step into the fact that my philosophy and politics are different than the previous posters.

As I said earlier, I lean libertarian in a broad philosophical sense (and to a certain extent in a political sense, though I make a sharp left turn when it comes to environmental issues) but I have no ties to the party nor to the 'movement' barring a few interesting blogs. I agree that many on the right (including libertarians) are misinformed on a number of issues, sometimes willfully. I only brought up my own politics/philosophy as a way of properly framing the rest of my post; I feel that it's difficult to have a discussion on politics (or a book on the subject) without knowing where each participant stands. Tends to lead to a lot of speaking past each other, in my experience. I was trying to avoid that.

Now that I'm done being defensive, I would like to thank you for taking time to the dissect the book review. Thank you. :)

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 2, 2011 5:31:47 PM PDT
Defensiveness aside, I'm not ideologically aligned with any particular view.

I'm broadly a liberal, with immense emphasis on the 'broadly'. Broadly speaking, to be liberal-minded means to be broad-minded. So, I'm a liberal in attitude which often but not always corresponds to any given liberal policy. My liberalism includes insights from many other views: libertarianism (both left and right), anarchism (especially anarcho-syndicalism), minarchism, progressivism, socialism, etc.

Sorry to respond aggressively to your comment. I'm not always known for my patient and forgiving nature... which the internet doesn't encourage. There is so much misinformation. I would act polite, but 99.9999999% of people still won't change their minds no matter how polite one is. This seems particularly true on the right. Even research has shown that conservatives are more prone to be unpersuaded by facts (quite the opposite in fact): the backfire effect.

I wish I was a nicer person. I should try. Cheers! :)

In reply to an earlier post on Jul 2, 2011 5:52:26 PM PDT
Thank you for the information about your views. I'll keep this in mind as a (very general!) frame if I see you around in other book discussions.

In any case, I don't blame you for the knee-jerk response to my comment. I once heard it said that any country that figures out how to coat their jets in internet sarcasm will rule the world since they will be completely undetectable. Combine that with what I will openly admit is a strong tendency amongst the American right-wing for nasty, unnecessary rhetoric and I can see why you responded as you did.

I've enjoyed this discussion, I'll see you around elsewhere, I hope.
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