Thursday, December 8, 2011

Memo: The "S" Word

To: Joshua and all other interested parties
re: The "S" Word: A Short History of an American Tradition...Socialism (Verso, 2011)

Not so long ago-- before the #occupy movement, but still it was July-- you posted a short piece called "Every time the Left Sins God Sends Another Working-class American to the Tea Party." You argued that the American Left needed to appropriate the American history of radicalism and socialism without leaving it to the right:
Many Leftists articulate American working-class needs by using overly intellectual rhetoric. The Left does not need to dumb down information, just break it down. Many Leftists use other countries' revolutionaries and revolutions as symbols of liberation and outright ignore American equivalents. What about heroes of struggle such as Thomas Paine,John Brown, and Mary Harris "Mother" Jones? What about celebrating movements such as the BOSTON TEA PARTY?
Particular aspects of this kind of discussion always worry me, especially appeals to the War of Independence and the Tea Party. I wrote, in a comment:
We cannot, and should not, attempt to out-jingoize the Right (which isn't your point, but the issue could be lurking there). The radical left has a much stronger history with abolitionism, the IWW and union activism (Eugene V. Debs, anybody?), and the Harlem Renaissance, than the transfer of power from the British to American bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, the symbolic reference points take on gravity from organization rather than the reverse.
Like I said, things were different then. While I never took the Tea Party seriously (which is much easier to do when you're not surrounded by it), that astro-turf bus tour has been quickly forgotten behind the strength of the Occupy movement. But that doesn't mean that our discussion has  become academic. What of the American history of socialism and radicalism?

It turns out we're not the only people thinking about it. John Nichols' The "S" Word  is an important re-examination of American socialism. The book is structured chronologically, with Chapter 2 dealing with Tom Paine, Chapter 3 with the abolitionism of Abraham Lincoln, Chapter 4 with the successes of socialist governance in Milwaukee, Chapter 5 with the anti-war movement during World War I, and Chapter 6 on the contributions of socialist thought and practice on the civil rights movement.

But let's not make any mistake. Chronological or not, the book opens with two chapters that ought to shame Republicans for their (mis-) appropriations of Thomas Paine or Abe Lincoln, who were much more open minded than contemporary Fox News conservatives, who proposed and considered ideas that were much more socialist than most Democrats would mull over today.

From there Nichols turns to the local electoral successes of socialists, primarily in Milwaukee. But his larger point is that many of the ideals we on the left work with have a much longer history than is commonly assumed.
There is nothing new, nothing "modern," about this understanding of the need to cross lines of race, creed, ethnicity and gender in order to make a fundamental change. Joseph Weydemeyer, the follower of Marx and Engels who advocated "true socialism," organized the American Workers League in 1853 with the stated purpose of uniting workers "without respect to occupation, language, color or sex" (179).
You read the number correctly: 1853. Nichols argues that avowed socialists have worked for over a century and a half toward transforming the lives of Americans against some of the most fierce political opposition (see the chapter on the opposition to World War I).

I don't want to carry on too long, given that this was supposed to be a short memo. Let me say a few more things in shorthand. The primary weakness of Nichols's book can be summarized like this: too much love for Edward Bernstein's followers, and not enough for John Brown. Meaning that Nichols heavily favors electoral action, and does not discuss what the historical significance of revolutionary violence, or non-statist political organization, might mean (which is in part understandable given that the right currently holds a monopoly on extra-state violence). Also, he makes numerous appeals to American socialism as an  American tradition and not just a foreign imposition--but we really need to be careful with this kind of rhetoric, for it appeals to many of the shared assumptions of a country built on settler colonialism (though Nichols does not ignore this issue; see p. 70).

However, these criticisms should not overshadow the merits of The "S" Word. Given that the first chapter and the afterword situate the history of socialism within contemporary debates, the book might just be the general starting point for reconsidering the history of American radicalism. Given that the Democrats have largely abandoned many of the concerns that allied them with the working class and the civil rights movement, in favor of a politics of progressive verbiage, it may well be, as Nichols writes, "that the only word of the left that still has any meaning is 'socialism.'"


Joshua said...

Great blog! I need to get this book. I like that this dialog is taking place in many circles. Let's just get more Socialism...any way it takes. :)

Devin Z. Shaw said...

I finished the book also thinking that I might find it worthwhile to look at 19th century American intellectual history.

Joshua said...

It would be a nice touch of info when teaching US History.