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.