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The S Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism

John Nichols

(Verso; US: Mar 2011)

In the midst of the 2008 US Presidential Election, with wars still raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the excesses of financial industry threatening to destroy the global economy, it seemed like there was plenty of debate fodder for the candidates and their proxies to argue over. Nevertheless, many voices on the right felt compelled to introduce another issue, one that most people probably had very little interest in or concern about: the rising threat of socialism, and in particular, 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.


This simplified, zero-sum view threatens to obscure the truth about socialism, which author John Nichols contends is a system of belief as American as apple pie. His book, The S Word, 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. This, rather unfortunately, means that Nichols, a writer for The Nation, is largely preaching to the choir. He won’t be converting anyone with his confrontational and, at times, self-satisfied style, but his real purpose is to provide readers with the rhetorical and intellectual ammunition to discuss the influence and involvement that American socialism had in shaping America.


The book’s subtitle is not being modest—this really is a short history, comprised of six essays that highlight how socialism had a positive effect on American development. Nichols is very selective in his scope; for example, Emil Seidel, the socialist mayor of Milwaukee, warrants a fully-rendered portrayal, while perennial presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, arguably the most prominent socialist of his era, is only touched on in passing. Even Sarah Palin features more prominently than Debs.


Seidel appears in the book’s best chapter, an examination of Nichols’ native Milwaukee and its penchant for electing socialist mayors in the early 20th century. These mayors practiced what Nichols refers to as “sewer socialism”, a nuts-and-bolts approach to municipal governance that sought to make local services work efficiently and eliminate the corruption and petty graft that shortchanged constituents. It was an incremental form of progress that wasn’t flashy or exciting the way a proletariat revolution might be, but voters responded to these real-world successes with enthusiasm. Milwaukee mayor Daniel Hoan was confident enough in the palatability of his views that he had no qualms about proclaiming in a 1936 Time Magazine cover story that he owed his success to Karl Marx. He served for 24 years, the longest continuous socialist administration in American politics.


Nichols points out that although the conventional wisdom says that American socialism was a failure and that the American people rejected the views of Marx and Debs, the reality is far different. The successes of the municipal, “sewer” socialists across the country demonstrated that socialist governance could work, and Debs, though he lost his presidential bids, captured nearly six percent of the electorate in 1912. This growing pressure could not be ignored and savvy politicians like FDR would incorporate elements of the socialist platform into their campaigns to attract valuable votes. With the pressure relieved in the years after the New Deal, and in some part thanks to the hysteria of the Cold War, socialism as a distinct force in American politics faded away. The ideas it promoted, however, were grafted into the mainstream. Socialism is not a foreign threat to American values, it is an integral part of our nation’s foundation, and Nichols hopes that by revealing the role it played in our past, he can help make it a part of America’s future, as well.


He can’t resist swatting at pests, though, particularly in his second chapter, “A Broader Patriotism”, which illuminates all the ways right-wing notables like Hannity, Beck, and Palin misunderstand the views of Thomas Paine. The revolutionary pamphleteer was, according to his own writings, a proponent of an advanced welfare state, progressive taxation, and the dismantling of religion. All of these aspects of his fiery personality are obscured today by his conservative fans as they prop Paine up and twist his intent to support their flimsy arguments. As fun as it may be to dwell on how wrong Sarah Palin is and how annoying Glenn Beck can be, “A Broader Patriotism” is a frustrating slog; as Marcus Aurelius said, “Don’t waste time bandying about with philistines and crackpots.” It is advice Nichols would be wise to follow. He does far better with the positive, informative tone in his other chapters.


Though it’s far from perfect, The S Word is perhaps only the beginning. All the controversy and negative attention being heaped upon socialism will surely lead some to wonder “What’s so bad about it?” And books like this will be waiting to show that it’s not the looming, existential threat that it’s been made out to be. Ironically, by launching a practically unprovoked attack on moribund American socialism, conservatives have revitalized it, and in the not-to-distant future, may come to regret making it a topic of conversation in American households once again.

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Michael Patrick Brady is a writer and editor from Boston. His work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, Forbes.com, and ALARM Magazine, among others. Like all those who have more opinions than places to put them, he maintains a blog and collects his various publications at his website.


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