Monday, October 24, 2016
The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition . . . Socialism by John Nichols
Restores pride to a much-maligned label
The term “socialism” has gotten a bad rap in recent years. In current American political discourse, we often hear it bandied about as if it were an insult, even by those who don’t seem to fully understand what the word means. With his 2011 book The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition . . . Socialism, journalist John Nichols hopes to free the term from this newfound pejorative connotation by reminding us that socialism has always held an important place in American political thought.
A few examples of the socialist influence on American politics are obvious—medicare, social security, and the New Deal are often cited as such—but Nichols goes well beyond the expected. He demonstrates, at several points in American history, how confirmed socialists played integral roles in politics and policymaking. He begins by discussing the poetry of Walt Whitman and then turns to the philosophy of Thomas Paine, a radical whose proto-socialistic thought had a profound impact on the formation of the early American republic. The most fascinating chapter discusses Abraham Lincoln, who corresponded with Karl Marx and whose politics were strongly influenced by socialist newspaper editor Horace Greeley.
Nichols also discusses socialism at the state and local levels, focusing particularly on Milwaukee’s long history of socialist politicians and the progressive tradition in Wisconsin. This leads to a chapter on Victor Berger’s battles against the Espionage Act, a draconian law aimed at stifling dissent. Moving into the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, Nichols devotes ample coverage to socialist A. Philip Randolph’s impact on the Civil Rights Movement and Michael Harrington’s contributions to the War on Poverty. The book closes with an afterword that sums up the state of socialism in America today.
Although I enjoyed this book and learned much from it, each chapter overstays its welcome a bit. Once Nichols makes his points he has a tendency to hammer them home repeatedly. The textual excerpts he chooses to support his arguments are unnecessarily extensive, often pages in length when a paragraph or two would have sufficed. I would have preferred more chapters on more topics, even if each were treated with less exhaustive depth. By starting with Whitman, Nichols gives the reader the idea that he will be addressing issues of cultural as well as political identity. However, the rest of the book sticks entirely to politics, and Nichols never covers, for example, the influence of socialism on American literature, and vice versa. Political/artistic figures like Upton Sinclair or Jack London are barely mentioned, if at all.
Nevertheless, this really is an inspiring and enlightening book for anyone who has entertained any sympathy toward the political perspective encompassed by the “S” word. In an era when the word “socialism” is hurled as an inflammatory accusation against Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama, our nation needs a book like this. (While he clearly admires Sanders, Nichols has little good to say about Obama, whom he sees, not surprisingly, as having let down the Left.) American discourse ought to be diverse and inclusive enough to allow input from the left end of the political spectrum. That’s what Nichols is aiming for with this book, and America would have a healthier political climate if more people would read it.
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