Our Forgotten Tradition

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 US 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.

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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 Society.”

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 non-whites.

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.

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