Book Review: The "S" Word

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The "S" Word: A Short History of An American Tradition...Socialism
by John Nichols
New York, Verso, 2011

 
In The "S" Word, John Nichols has written an imaginative history of socialism as an idea and a movement in and throughout U.S. history. Nichols, a political correspondent for The Nation (a journal initially founded by pro-abolitionist Radical Republicans at the end of the Civil War), writes from  a perspective that favors and (privileges) the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas and the Democratic Socialists of America of Michael Harrington.

In often clever ways Nichols connects the radical and 20th century American liberal traditions and movements with the Socialist movement, portraying such figures as American Revolutionary hero Tom Paine and Emma Lazurus, whose poem graces the Statue of Liberty, as part of the larger socialist tradition. He also, and this is in my opinion a weakness of the book, spends way too much time suffering fools, in the early chapters of the work quoting Glenn Beck and other partisans of what came to be called "McCarthyism" in the U.S. in the 1950s (or the anti-socialist anti-Communist rhetoric based on screaming, name calling, guilt by assertion and association which verged on hysteria) to give readers more and more evidence of a political climate which they are too well aware of us.
 
While one might take issue with some of Nichols' characterizations of Tom Paine and Abraham Lincoln in regard to their relationship to socialist traditions, Nichols nevertheless presents important sides of them which are usually omitted in traditional accounts – in the case of Paine, an almost total omission, except for a few quotes from Common Sense and sometimes from the American Prospect.
 
Readers can learn much from Nichols' work. The contributions of A. Philip Randolph, post World War II Milwaukee Mayor Frank Zeidler and DSA leader Michael Harrington are highlighted, as are the post World War II struggles for social justice and against poverty when Cold War conventional wisdom preached the doctrine of the "end of ideology" and the complete disappearance of all movements for socialism in U.S. society and life.
 
But there is one crucial flaw in Nichols' study, beyond differences in interpretation and the occasional factual error. The Communist Party is portrayed as peripheral, even during the period in which the CPUSA, as I see it, became the most effective and significant political movement to advance practically socialist policies in U.S.  history. Nichols is no red-baiter and speaks positively about Harry Bridges, Jack O'Dell and other CPUSA members and supporters when he does deal with them. But he doesn't really address the anti-communist outlook of a number of the socialists whom he portrays positively, e.g., Norman Thomas, A. Philip Randolph Randolph, and Michael Harrington. The anti-communist views of these leading figures limited what they did and could do. For example, Thomas' involvement in the CIA funded Cultural Freedom Committee, Randolph's and former communist Bayard Rustin's support for the Vietnam War, or Michael Harrington's support in the early 1960s for the maintenance of the anti-communist clause in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) constitution.

But more importantly, William Z. Foster, who was to the Communist Party what Eugene Debs was to the Socialist Party, is not here. I would say that without Foster you really can't understand Debs and vice versa. Both men were radical labor leaders who came to the socialist movement through their experiences; both represented center-left positions in their parties, and both faced state repression – Debs for his opposition to U.S. entry into World War I, Foster for his opposition to the Cold War.

The leading role of CPUSA activists in the building of the CIO is not here, without which you cannot understand labor's victories and the New Deal social legislation of the 1930s. The socialists as a party had advocated industrial unions also and individual Socialist Party members played a significant role in these struggles, but it was the CPUSA, its activists and its theory of organization and political coordination which made the victories possible, giving the Communist Party an influence far beyond its numbers, as both friends and foes realized
 
James W. Ford, William Patterson, and many other African American communists who played a central role in planting the seeds for the postwar civil rights movement are not here. They deserve to be, along with E.D. Nixon, the Durrs, and others who came from socialist backgrounds who are here. In the civil rights movement especially, socialists and communists at the grassroots often worked together in spite of the rivalry between their two parties to advance common goals. In the segregationist South, where Blacks had no civil rights, this took place at a higher level. The overwhelming majority of African Americans who came to support socialism did so through the communist movement in this period.

Also, while Nichols rejects anti-communism, he doesn't deal with the anti-communist attitudes of socialists like Thomas, Randolph, Rustin and Harrington. For Thomas, this meant working with the CIA supported World Congress for Cultural Freedom (even asking CIA director Allen Dulles for direct aid in the 1950s) and joining with Sidney Hook and others to oust Elizabeth Gurley Flynn from the leadership of the ACLU in 1940. For Randolph and Rustin especially (an active member of the War Resisters League) it meant supporting the Johnson administration's war in Vietnam, a war that sought to extend the U.S.'s imperial reach and negated much of Lyndon Johnson's domestic Great Society program.

There is much that is very valuable in John Nichols work. He writes with intelligence and often eloquence about the broad American left, where socialism cannot be simply separated from what was called progressivism in the late 19th and early 20th century and later came to be called liberalism in the New Deal period.

The socialist movement is like a river which diverges throughout the world with the socialist revolution in Russia into a social democratic tributary and a communist tributary, winding their respective ways, sometimes crashing into one another to create disasters, sometimes merging cooperatively to advance social progress. You cannot really understand one without the other, since each are the products of both the development of Marxist theory and the effects of working peoples' economic and political struggles.

There are some minor factual errors – for example, Francis Bellamy, Edward Bellamy's Christian socialist brother wrote the original pledge of allegiance – but they are largely unimportant. Even with its limitations, John Nichols' The "S" Word deserves to be widely read.

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  • GOOGLE

    Respected friend!!!

    COMMUNISM AND CAPITALISM, TWO WORLD OF EVIL, which will disappear from the political scene!

    Allow me to greet you firstly, and to ask you for your health, family and love. If they are good, it might mean that also business, profit, success or anything will be very god.
    -Changes are constantly occurring, but before they go worse than better. I do not believe that it will soon be so radical to perform an important shift from the current situation. We see, for example, from the fact that after last year's bank-stock world political earthquake tops U.S. and Europe failed to impose new rules financial barbarians.
    We see it from the failure of attempts to stop global climate disruption, the conference in Kyoto to Copenhagen. We see it from a hard refusal of Israel and the U.S. to just solve the Palestinian question-what is the main source of Muslim fundamentalism and Al-Qaeda-insane attack on Iraq, wrong war in Afghanistan and the current tensions with Iran .- The ideals of communism in living in the minds of millions of people and it is not true that they failed, how many superficially say, a bad practice of party-state communism. In order to better understand, we should remind ourselves that the ideals and other major worldviews persist through the history of permanent, despite their poor political and economic performance.Take three large blocks of worldviews: Antiquity, Christianity and civic liberalism.
    Antique permanently left us his philosophy, art, architecture and the concept of direct democracy, although the work of all these values are created on the horrors of servitude of the people, slavery, racism and the negation of the subjectivity of the vast majority of the population. Christianity has always given us new values of humanity, love and longing for eternity, but all that for centuries was accompanied by a totalitarianism of the Church, blending with the authority of the Church, persecution of believers, the Inquisition, religious wars and other betrayals evanđeljskih poruka.-civic liberalism gave us a permanent ideals of legal freedom, economic efficiency, representative democracy, critical knowledge and progress, but despite all that has left the desolation of exploitation, colonialism, nationalism and incessant wars. Is not the first modern democracy United States was nearly a century slave-holding structured?
    Is not the current nesmiljenost supranational capital and financial rampage supposed application of these ideals? So it is with the ideals of communism: they mean for permanent passion for egalitarianism, for de-alienation of man as master of his work for social justice and to overcome the state and every other authority, but in practice, so far all attempts to achieve violence by the state bureaucracy and police terror , which are basically the opposite of itself, of which allegedly attended. Thus, the fundamental ideals survive, while the institutions compromise. And no matter what institution issued ideals, these powerful principles of life and hope will remain in effect .- But the failure of communist institutions in the 20 century, it was faster than the failure of ancient, Christian and liberal institutions?
    -This is because the communist ideals, which are much older than Marx's teachings, perhaps the farthest from the social opportunities for their realization, even magnificent 20th technical civilization century. And that, among other things, in two senses.
    First, Marx's analysis of the crisis of capitalism could not count on technology advances that followed the coal energy, which he only knew, and thus it is inevitably underestimated the possibility of capitalist development; correctly detect the mechanism of crisis in which capitalism will fall, but did not know about future stages of this mechanism, all the way to today's automation and information technology revolution.

    And second, the communist revolution broke out not only premature, but even in Russia and China, so there are forcefully exported to other countries, the conditions for which neither Marx nor the earlier and later socialists not occur to me that they could deliver working revolution. - Thinkers of communism were properly calculated to be anti-capitalist revolution can happen only in the most progressive societies, technology, culture and democracy - and so he studied Marx, and, above all, the conditions of English capitalism. But that is not provided strong development of the capitalist economy in new technologies and how "revolutionary situation" was the most mature in Russia and China - countries polufeudalnih structure uzdrmanih war defeats - the labor upheavals had not happened in the West, but the "weakest" link of the capitalist system .- Of course, this is not a communist revolution in terms of economic and political theoretical predictions, and then Lenin, and Mao's revolution became a specific form of state-capitalist and, moreover, excessive violent destruction of the most undeveloped eastern societies, the objective function of acceleration (socialism = electrification) economic development as well as compensation before missing the original accumulation of capital. So it is no wonder that in this non-communist Bolshevik upheaval, which has produced a strange cross-breed-dictatorial socialist-state capitalism, most killed themselves critical Marxists, filling as victims of crime Stalinist camps.

    So, of course, no collapse of state capitalism realsocijalističkog 90-ies, after he had actually accomplished a good part of economic development with the initial accumulation of bureaucratic, does not ruin the idea of communism, but rather, as they say Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek and others, "resulting and proof of his lack of ". Today, post-socialist Russia, China and South Slavic countries, somewhat optimistically speaking, only somehow captured the level of our epoch of capitalism, that their revolution cannula skip. Because it did not really skip, but just reaching. That social forces could be carriers of the radical suppression of the current neoliberal world system?
    - Prošlostoljetni proletariat - the factory, mining, transport and the like, the horrible working conditions - but almost disappears in the West, so his problems are no longer the basis of contemporary social and political demands. Subject of change might be just the totality of the working population at risk of the ruling system and whose physiognomy today we can not predict - if the conglomerate fails to construct all dejected from the ocean and shopping malls potkupljenih citizens, for who more we guarantee that history must have happy endings?
    Ambiguity of this revolutionary new block can be seen from a high level of current weakness of union organization, of which for some more and did not know whom they represent - not to mention the weakness of ways to do this - and the physiognomy of the political parties, among which there are fewer differences, and more uniformity and, consequently, more formal and personal distinction .- Shock due to collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall is currently released from Marx's theory of consciousness Uninformed majority, as, indeed, similar in some crucial moments of social going to forget the truth and enlightenment diderotovskog darwinovskog evolutionism.Incidentally, the general criticism of Enlightenment and secularism, Darwin's interpretation of Marx's interpretation of life and economic society are the three base my worldview.
    Thank you very much indeed, Please I will like you to accept this token with good faith as this is from the bottom of my heart. Thanks and God bless you and your family.
    Hope to hear from you soon.
    Your' s Faithfully,
    tokic.stjepan2@gmail.com


    Posted by STJEPAN, 02/01/2011 12:23pm (3 years ago)

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