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American As Apple Pie

Michael Hirsch Jan 21

The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism 
By John Nichols
Verso, 2011

Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA
Edited by Frances Goldin, Debbie
Smith, Michael Steven Smith
Harper Perennial, 2013


When Tom Paine died, no cemetery would take his remains. The great revolutionary whose ideas framed the Declaration of Independence was deemed unclean by the new nation’s emerging religious and political elites, so he was buried on an isolated plot. His bones were then dug up by a friend, brought to England and promptly lost. Nor was it the last grave robbing that Paine would suffer. Witness Glenn Beck’s grotesque book Common Sense, the talking-head author of which poses as an inheritor of Paine’s revolutionary democratic legacy. Why not? If Jesus can be sold as a friend of the rich, a trope common in the 1920s and again today, then why not Paine?

John Nichols, Washington correspondent for The Nation, masterfully uses Beck’s body-snatching as the lead-in to The “S” Word, A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism. Nichols demonstrates the thick red line connecting Paine to today’s real radicals, a legacy of freedom and equality often overlooked or denied, but whose revolutionary ardor is repeated in every generation. For Nichols, the United States, far from being dominated by an uncontested plutocracy, had a resistance movement, too. It wasn’t a foreign import, besotted with violence. It was a logical response to oppression and still is.

It’s a movement that included working people in Philadelphia and New York as early as 1832. The movement included Fanny Wright, the daughter of a Paine acolyte, who in the 1830s was already a dedicated abolitionist and feminist. Its numbers included veterans of the failed 1848 revolutions that rocked Europe before being put down. Among these were intimates of Karl Marx who served as high-ranking Union officers during the Civil War. It also featured Horace Greeley, publisher of The New York Tribune, the Times of its day, who was not only a fierce abolitionist and Lincoln advisor but also a publisher of Marx’s voluminous dispatches from Europe. 

Then there was Victor Berger, the Milwaukee socialist and congressman whose election was overturned twice by Congress and who was re-elected again and by bigger margins, even against a candidate backed by the two major parties. There’s also Eugene Debs, the Socialist leader imprisoned by a Democratic president for opposing World War I, only to be pardoned by a Republican, and Emma Goldman, expelled from the country also for opposing that war. 

Nichols writes with brio about A. Philip Randolph, the African-American socialist editor who organized the first national union of black workers at a time when unions were whites only. Randolph would go on to organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, whose concluding speaker, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., believed, as his wife Coretta Scott King attested, that he “knew that the basic problem in our society had to do with economic justice.” 

For Nichols, socialism is as American as maize. Or Wisconsin bratwurst. 

Just don’t look for direction from him. The closer he comes to today, the more comfortable he seems with conventional politics. Certainly, praise for our radical forbears is due in part to their work in expanding political rights. But socialism is about more; it’s about contesting power to cripple the profit regime and end the profit system. If you want to tell the story of the expansion of economic justice, of real class mobility and income equality, leaving it at rights is like living life at the level of food and water. They are necessary, but far from sufficient. As Irish union leader James Connolly put it, “For our demands most moderate are, we only want the earth.”

Nichols confuses outcomes with goals. So while he ably argues the legitimacy of socialism as rooted in the American experience and the practical necessity of opposing those corporate moguls once known as economic royalists, the contributors to Imagine: Living in a Socialist USA tackle what Nichols leaves out. Its 33 activists, scholars and writers chart capitalist mayhem and imagine in compelling ways what a genuinely democratic socialism could be. Some even think through how to get from here to there. The pieces are different but not discordant, and are, as the title suggests, richly thoughtful imaginings of what an alternative, cooperative society would render possible. 

While some of the contributors counsel building parties and organizing at the workplace, and others lean toward prefiguring a better future in the present through institutions such as workers cooperatives, all insist that socialism is the only alternative to a ghoulish system bent on its own destruction. When Paul Street weighs in on “Capitalism: The Real Enemy,” it’s with a precision and succinctness that alone is worth the price of the book. Added to that is Michael Zweig’s November 2011 address to the participants of Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, in which he goes deep into the metaphors of the 99% versus the 1% to sketch out “The Working Class Majority” and exactly who “us” and “them” are.

Among other invigorating contributions is one from Steven Wishnia, a frequent Indypendent contributor, who looks at how debilitating drug use or alcoholism could be handled from the standpoint of economic and social justice and harm reduction rather than today’s ham-fisted and racially-constructed social control mechanisms. Indypendent co-founder Arun Gupta is on target too, exploring ways to establish a socially sustainable food system.

Dianne Feeley connects Detroit’s decline not only to rampant racism but also to the lack of democratic planning on a local, national and global scale. Meanwhile, Harriet Fraad and Tess Fraad Wolfe opine on what the sphere of personal, emotional and sexual life could be like if private capital accumulation were not the dominant force binding relationships, while Leslie Cagan and Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz’s analysis of queer life illustrates that socialism by definition can’t be limited to altering the work regime and the profit system.

Socialist Paul LeBlanc makes clear that debates over reform and revolution are not counterpoised but are “part of the same process,” quoting Rosa Luxemburg that the movement to upend capital sees “the struggle for social reforms as its means, and the social revolution as its aim.” 

There’s more. My conclusion: read both these books. They’re better together.

The Indypendent is a New York City-based newspaper that publishes 13 times a year. To subscribe, click here. To make a contribution, click here.

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