June 2011, Week 1


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Wed, 1 Jun 2011 23:19:07 -0400
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Our Forgotten Tradition 

By Paul Buhle 
May 27, 2011

SOCIALISM by John Nichols Verso, 2011

Just when the confused and often deeply
troubled relation of those two global subjects, "United
States" and "socialism," seemed to disappear - and not
for the first time - the New Right warned against the
dark threat of Obamist socialism, whatever that meant
to the likes of Glenn Beck. John Nichols, Nation
magazine editorial board member, columnist, and
political savant on MSNBC's Ed Show, cleverly seizes
the advantage. Socialism, contrary to generations of
conservative (often also, liberal) propagandizing, may
not be un-American after all.

Way back in the 1880s, when the socialist movement in
Germany was gathering new members by the thousands,
German immigrants in the United States, among many
other observers, wondered why the most industrially
advanced country in the world had so few enrolled
socialists. Vulgar answers were offered immediately and
have been recycled ever since: what would Americans -
prosperous, fat, happy, and individualistic - want with
cooperative, fund-sharing doctrines when any one of
them might become a millionaire?

Of course, that might not be the whole story. The
United States long held the dubious distinction of
having the largest difference between the best-paid and
the worst-paid sections of the working class, to which
we can intelligently add the lower-middle class. Waves
of new immigrants working the worst jobs found
themselves alongside or only just higher than the large
population of nonwhites. Railroad magnate Jay Gould
swore (or was it a barbarous jest?) that he could hire
half the working class to kill the other half if he
wanted. Socialist movements demanded a sense of
solidarity that has been rare enough, even among the
various ethnic Catholic blue-collar groups - the
classic European socialist recruits - let alone
industrial workers in general.

And that's not the whole story of socialism in America,
anyway, by a long shot. Socialist ideas first rooted on
this side of the ocean among utopians, in their mostly
short-lived communities (the religious-based ones
lasted longer), and then among free-thinking German
escapees from the failed 1848 Revolution, who had in
mind ethics as much as economics. John Nichols's
version seeks to revive this aspect for anyone who sees
U.S. society heading toward a crash of social services,
ecological stability, and all else that makes American
life decent and livable.

In his version, socialists don't necessarily need to
call their version "socialism," and frequently have
not. Thus he begins with Emma Lazarus, not Emma
Goldman, and proceeds to Walt Whitman, who in old age
considered himself "more radical than the radicals" but
left it to his protégé, the half-Jewish Horace Traubel,
to become intimate friends with Eugene V. Debs and
publish a socialist weekly for decades in Philadelphia.
Nichols's point is that really egalitarian ideas borrow
from the socialist framework and have enriched that
framework, as those ideas have proved necessary across
the generations. Naomi Klein, Laura Flanders, Gore
Vidal, and Bill Moyers - their praise for the book
spread across the back cover - second Nichols's
nomination of this provocative view.

Nichols declines any straightforward chronological
argument. We find ourselves jumping from Tom Paine and
Abraham Lincoln to Norman Thomas ("Mr. Socialism"
during the 1930s-40s, with almost a million votes for
his presidency in 1932), and for contrast, Glenn Beck,
whose ignorance about Paine and Lincoln is as
staggering as his chutzpah. Lovers of nineteenth-
century history will find a further catalogue of
favorite great hearts, Frances "Fanny" Wright to George
Henry Evans, Horace Greeley to Frederick Douglass.

Then, as befits a seventh-generation Wisconsinite,
Nichols turns to the former social-democratic republic
of Milwaukee, where even the giant beer-brewers were
sure to advertise in the socialistic daily paper and
open their factories to Socialist Party lunchtime
speakers. At the high point of the Socialist Party,
Indiana native Debs ran with Milwaukee machinist Emil
Seidel, and together they garnered 6 percent of the
vote, quite an accomplishment against the financial as
well as patronage power of the two parties and the
hatred of socialism preached from churches (less often
from synagogues). Socialists brought good, honest
government to Milwaukee, fine planning, clean water,
efficient hospitals, healthy beaches, and excellent
public education. The experiment spread to more cities
and towns (mostly places where the middle class was
small, certain ethnic groups prominent) than most
Americans would think. Then it was cut short by the
impending bloodbath that socialists opposed with
bravery and perhaps a touch of foolhardiness: the First
World War. The federal government, under noted liberal
(and brutally racist native Southerner) Woodrow Wilson
rigorously repressed them, and the socialists never
really recovered.

But as Nichols goes to great pains to point out, they
still had really good ideas. Norman Thomas, once a
household name, is now largely forgotten, and the
effort to bring him back here is admirable. More
difficult but more important to Nichols is the saga of
Michael Harrington, whose best-selling exposé, The
Other America, inspired the Kennedy administration's
War On Poverty, and more indirectly, LBJ's "Good

Here, a real problem disguised up to the 1950s sneaks
into the argument unbidden. After the Second World War,
influential advocates for social change felt compelled
to couch their arguments in the language of an
Americanism against outside threats, almost a natural
extension of New Deal arguments during the Second World
War, but with a dangerous twist. The military-
industrial-complex, as Eisenhower named the phenomenon,
added union jobs, a kind of racial integration took
place through an unprecedented expansion of the
standing military force, and Michael Harrington's
political companion (as well as drinking buddy) was
ferocious Cold Warrior Daniel Patrick Moynihan,
intellectually best known for attributing the poverty
of African-Americans to the absence of strong father
figures. In other words, prominent socialists (most
often, influential liberals of a socialistic bent)
seemed to premise the idea of a better America on Pax
Americana, with few apologies for past wrongs against

Michael Harrington, the real hero of this book in at
least its final chapters, valiantly tried to move
beyond these limitations, and by the mid-term elections
of 1976, seemed to win a large bloc of the Democratic
party to the "Swedish Alternative," an egalitarian
world policy combined with stronger social benefits at
home. The erstwhile supporters of George McGovern were
beaten back by Demo-hawks, even before Ronald Reagan
assumed the historic task of rolling back the New Deal
gains. And "economic reform" came to mean the opposite
of its original intent: hereafter, it meant elevating
the wealthy and comfortable at the expense of the poor,
with the considerable support of Democrats, and
naturally raising the Pentagon budget to hitherto
unimagined heights.

Nichols makes a strong and effective argument that we
are nearing the end of this particular road. The East
Bloc fell in 1990 and despite China, and despite Iran,
no Monsters Abroad, armed with what theologian Reinhold
Niebuhr in one of his nuttier Cold War moments
described as a "demonic faith" (no, Islam is not the
Devil Religion that Glenn Beck suggests), will take its
place. Democrats, reduced to a money-machine
organization with an ideology to match, have brought
historic liberalism to something like its end point.
Now we need alternatives.

Would we call those alternatives socialist? At a moment
when the Right regards every measure of public safety,
protection of the water supplies, even the presence of
Social Security and public (oops, "government")
schools, as manifestations of demonic socialism,
perhaps the word and the larger idea can be reclaimed.
Me, I like the nineteenth-century phrase (used as a
title by an early and popular socialist tract) the
"Cooperative Commonwealth." I want to live in one of
these and so, I am sure, does the remarkable journalist
and TV personality John Nichols. Paul Buhle, from
Madison, Wisconsin, is retired from Brown University
and produces nonfiction comics.


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