Socialism in American History, an Interview with John Nichols

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Editor's note: John Nichols is the author of The "S" Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism. He is Washington correspondent for The Nation and an editor of The Capital Times, based in Madison, Wisconsin.

PA:  What inspired you to write The "S" Word?

JOHN NICHOLS:  That’s a very good question. I think that most readers of Political Affairs would know the answer to that. We live in a remarkable moment where there is an immense amount of discussion of socialism and socialist-democratic and communist and anarchist views, but most of that discussion appears to come from folks on the right who are demonizing left-wing ideas, the traditional notions advocated by progressives and people on the left. And that demonization is so intense that there is an assumption growing, I think, on the part of a lot of folks, that socialism is some foreign idea, that it has never been talked about in America before, that it’s never existed here, that it’s being imported at this moment by Barack Obama of all people.

What I wanted to do was to delve back into the history of the country and look at some critical junctures, not to provide a full history of socialism in America, which is so rich and so diverse – I’m not sure that any one book could do it, but to give some sense that this country has generated socialist ideas, it has embraced socialist ideas, and that those ideas are very closely linked to an awful lot of our history, including, I note, to parts of our history that we cherish very deeply.  

PA:  Speaking of demonization, are Glenn Beck and people like him really afraid of socialism happening in the United States or are they simply using it as a demagogic tool?  

JOHN NICHOLS:  That’s a great question, and I wish that you, Joel, and other reporters would have the chance to ask Glenn Beck that question directly, because it goes to the heart of the matter. I do believe that it is possible that many of the critics of socialism, many of the people who rant and rave about it, really are afraid of it, and they have reason to be afraid of it, because socialist ideas in so many ways expand the debate, open things up, really do create opportunities for low-income and working-class folks to be on a more equal footing with the wealthy and the powerful. And so, yes, I can imagine that Glenn Beck might genuinely be frightened by socialist ideas. However, the fact of the matter is that, at this point, the way that he uses them is entirely demagogic. 

The notion that Barack Obama is somehow the face of contemporary socialism, or that the people around him, who are actually in most cases very centrist and even sometimes relatively conservative Democrats, are somehow advancing a socialist agenda is absurd. It’s clearly used to demonize people with whom Beck disagrees on often very minor political points. To give you an example, just a sense of this. It isn’t Glenn Beck in this case, it’s another figure who comes up in the book, Sean Hannity. I actually in preparing the book spent an immense amount of time listening to tapes of the Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Rush Limbaugh shows, and the most fascinating thing I found in the whole process was an exchange between Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin, in which at some length they discussed weatherization programs. This is when the government helps people put better windows on their house so they can stay warmer in winter. And they were both ranting about how this was socialism, this was creeping dangerous socialism that was a threat to the Republic. 

So you see this isn’t about big ideas, it is often about very minor objections which they then inflate, using the word socialism as some sort of ultimate demonization, some sort of ultimate threat – and yes it’s demagogic; it’s also unhistorical, or anti-historic, and very crude. I think that’s the most interesting part about it. It’s so crude that there is some good evidence that it has caused an awful lot of people to open up to socialism and consider socialism in a way they haven’t in the past.  

PA:  There are some prominent figures in American history you associate with the socialist tradition, if not socialist parties, people like Tom Paine and Abraham Lincoln, which counters everything we learned about them in school. How does that work, in your mind?

JOHN NICHOLS:  Well, history is a fascinating thing. It’s always something that we can dig deeper into and learn a little more about. Now in our history classes in school, we are obviously given a sort of first level introduction. It tells you some dates and some prominent figures. By the nature of it, we don’t go as deep into that always as we should or as we might. One of the things I did with this book was to spend a lot of time looking at the original documents going back to the real history, the deeper history, which is one, I might add, that was known through much of our American experience, but has sort of been swept away in recent decades. 

To give you an example, Eugene Victor Debs frequently referenced Paine and Lincoln as folks who had inspired him toward socialism. So it’s not that this is something that we have just discovered, but it is something that has been sort of lost in recent decades. With Paine the fascinating thing is that so much of the teaching about Paine focuses on a couple of pamphlets he wrote very early in his career, “Common Sense,” which of course was an inspiration to the American Revolution and “The Crisis,” which was an inspiration to the soldiers once the Revolution began. Those are both terrific pieces of writing, very inspirational and very inspired works. But what people don’t note is that Paine kept writing. He wrote for another 30 years, and as the years went on his writing focused more and more on economic inequality and economic injustice, such that his final essays outlined a social welfare state, and there’s no question of that, that’s not a debatable point. In fact, amazingly enough, if you go to the Social Security Administration’s web site today, they have quotes on there from Tom Paine back in the 1790s describing a social security system, a system of pensions and social welfare supports for the elderly, the infirm, children and others who might otherwise suffer in extreme poverty.

So again this is not hidden history – it’s there, it’s findable, but it’s not a history that has been emphasized. More significantly you bring up Lincoln, and the history on Lincoln is absolutely fascinating, because when you go back to the founding of the Republican Party, there is simply no question that that party was founded by a broad array of folks from many different ideological perspectives and backgrounds, but some of the founders of the Republican Party, in fact key founders, people who called the initial meetings, were socialists and communists. A friend of Karl Marx was one of the key players in the founding of the Republican Party. That is not a debatable point – the history is there – but it is something that has not been emphasized, it’s almost been pushed aside.  

PA:  What do you think the appropriate socialist response to the current economic and financial crisis should have been?


JOHN NICHOLS:  Well, I write about that in some of the initial chapters, because I think it’s important, especially because so many folks claim that Obama is a socialist, to consider what he might have done, what a socialist response or a social democratic response might have been.

Now, I don’t presume to be the definer of what the appropriate response is. We have a wonderful array of tendencies and ideologies, and people have different ideas, but I can tell you that if Obama was operating on the model of mainstream international social democratic and socialist responses and ideas, he would not have allowed “too big to fail” banks to continue to exist. You break them up! And if it’s necessary for the government to take over a bank because it has either managed itself into a crisis or managed the whole of the economy into a crisis, you don’t give it money, you don’t just flood bailout money into it, and then, after it has stabilized itself, allow it to pay back some minor amount of that money and then operate as a bigger bank.

In general the response to the financial crisis, I think, has been horrific. It’s been absurd. It shores up institutions which we know have engaged in wrongdoing, and it actually uses our taxpayer dollars, our public wealth, to institutionalize and strengthen entities that pose threats to the economic stability of Americans.  

Now what would an alternative response be? Well, first off we should be taxing speculation. We live in an era where so much of our economic life, whether we like it or not, exists in this netherworld of transfers of stock ownership, bond ownership, currencies, and the interest on different revenue-generating instruments, and yet we tax so little of that and that’s an absurdity. If a small business owner is operating on Main Street, they are taxed, but a speculator gets away with very very little responsibility – so we should be getting tax revenue from that for the public.

But there’s more than that – that’s just a baseline, very simplistic reformist approach. We also ought to be using our public wealth, our great, immense public wealth, to get the banks out of all sorts of areas where they shouldn’t be. Why, for instance, when we have a mortgage crisis in the United States, when we have as many 3 million families that are teetering on the brink of losing their homes, why do we trust the banks to sort that out? Why do we give them money and say, “Why don’t you guys take care of it?” We have the capacity to stabilize home ownership and rental agreements in a way that would make it possible for virtually everyone to stay in their home and create much more stability in our neighborhoods. That is something, as has been proven by many other countries around the world, that can be done much better in the public sphere, rather than trusting private entities that have it in their interest to frankly just throw people out of their homes.  

PA:  I have a couple of more questions, if you’re okay on time.


JOHN NICHOLS:  Oh yeah, yeah, you’re fine - I’m delighted.  You know I have to tell you, I’m very pleased to talk to you, because I’ve read Political Affairs for a very long time.

PA:  Thank you. On an abstract level, is there a difference between socialism and democracy?

JOHN NICHOLS:  I don’t think so. In my view, socialism and democracy co-exist. A true socialist state would be democratic and would allow certainly for elections and processes by which the people would make clear their ideals, their goals, their desires, so no, I don’t think socialism is antithetical to democracy in any sense. In light of the Citizens United ruling, which has allowed corporations to flood money into our political life, there’s an awful lot of evidence that suggests that capitalism without restraint, without some regulation and control, is far more damaging to democratic processes.  

PA:  In the book you note that in progressive politics there is a constant kind of contradiction between the need to appeal to the center to win elections and the need to appeal to the left to maintain energy. How does that get resolved eventually?   

JOHN NICHOLS:  That’s a very good question. You know, one of the great challenges that we have is a sense on the part of a lot of people on the left, and you hear this so often, who say, well if there’s just a crisis, a bad enough depression, people will wake up to the reality that we need a much more equitable social order and we need a much more “small-d” democratic life.

The problem there is that waiting for a crisis to come is a fool’s mission ultimately, because the crisis comes in fits and starts.  It wraps around us. We have a crisis now that we are neglecting. The fact of the matter is that when you look at the real unemployment figures in the US, not the official ones, but the ones that include those folks who are underemployed or have given up looking for work, you are getting up to a 17-18% unemployment/underemployment rate in the United States. That’s a crisis. It’s beyond comprehension how you can neglect that. So the idea of waiting for a crisis doesn’t seem to work, and if that is the case then there will always be this tremendous pressure to say, okay, no matter what happens, we’re going to have to somehow reach into the center, somehow try to compromise. 

But my sense is, and I’ve covered politics for a very long time, this tendency toward compromise, this tendency toward saying, oh well, let’s try and find something in the center that we can work with, ultimately dumbs down the politics to such an extent that we end up in a situation where basic ideas, central ideas to what progressive politics should be about, are tossed to the side or frankly are imagined as somehow too radical.  What Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and also, I would suggest, some Democrats dismiss as radical, socialist or extreme ideas, used to be ideas that were presented by moderate Republicans, and so when we talk too much or too long about erring toward the center, I think we run a real risk of kind of losing any dynamism whatsoever.

I would argue that it’s much wiser to stand on principle, on a host of principles – and different people, different groupings will have different ones that they emphasize – but to stand on some core principles, and those are a belief in an equitable distribution of the wealth in our society, a radically different approach to foreign policy that really does celebrate human rights and justice, and a host of other environmental, educational and housing initiatives, which again are not radical.

Again and again in the book, I come back to the point that one does not need to be a socialist to recognize the value of socialist ideas in a debate in the United States. I think a wise conservative could recognize that there is value to having these ideas in the mix, because even if you don’t accept them all, some of them have tremendous value and a tremendous potential to contribute to solving problems. When we take a whole range of ideas off the table and say, well we’re not going to ever consider them, we don’t solve basic problems.

On that point I would suggest that it’s not just conservatives, not just the Sean Hannitys and the Glenn Becks that are guilty. I think an awful lot of Democrats and an awful lot of self-identified progressives are guilty as well, because they ask for so little and present so little in the way of a radical alternative to the crisis that exists. My sense is, again from covering politics for a very long time, that when one presents a radical alternative, when one presents a bold alternative, it may take an election cycle or two for that alternative to really embed, if you will, to really come into the debate and be accepted but over time it gets there. I have seen it happen on so many issues, particularly social issues, but also some economic ones, that I just don’t believe at this point that the Democratic Party or an awful lot of Democratic politicians are doing a very good job of presenting their ideas.  

PA:  You write at one point that the anti-socialist rhetoric coming from the right has actually boosted general interest in socialism and social democratic ideas. How do you think everyday people think about these questions?

JOHN NICHOLS:  Well, I’m afraid they may not think that much about it. We live in a very de-politicized society, where our media tends to give us an exceptionally narrow range of options and does not encourage us to think about all the things we might do to respond to the crises and challenges of our time. I’m not trying to suggest that every American walks around really trying to distinguish between a socialist and an anarchist idea, or Marxism versus Christian Socialism. I’m not going to begin to suggest that.

However, there’s simply no question that when the right raises the issue of socialism so frequently, especially among people who have tended to be pushed to the edges of our political discourse, young people, people of color, working class folks, they are hearing this constant attack on socialism, this constant use of the word socialism as a demonization, as a kind of awful alternative. But the fact is that they are hearing it from people they don’t like or they find to be unsettling folks who actually might attack them. I’m talking about folks who might attack working families, people of color, young people, there is a tendency to say, well, okay look, I know that I don’t agree with Glenn Beck, I know that I don’t agree with Sean Hannity, I know that I don’t agree with Sarah Palin, and they keep talking about this thing socialism – maybe it’s not so bad – I wonder what’s there that might be worthy of attention.

And the reason I believe this very strongly is not merely anecdotal, although I have certainly seen it going out and traveling and covering politics across the country, it’s also based on polling. If you look at the polling data, there has been a substantial rise in the number of people who have positive attitudes toward the word socialism. That doesn’t mean, and I think we have to be very careful about this, that they are all embracing socialism, that they are definitely, you know, ready to sign on for the cause. What it means is that they are open to the ideas, that they recognize that socialism, far from being evil, might actually present some positive ideas and some positive proposals. This is one of the real, core reasons why I wrote the book, that is, to suggest that at such a point historically we have had political groupings and individuals who have been very willing to step up and say, “Wow, okay, you’re interested in socialism? Here’s what it’s about. Here are these ideas, let’s talk it about more.”

I know there are terrific groups, I write about a lot of them in the book, who are doing that now. But the challenge is that I’m not sure the left is rising to this moment as fully as it could or should. Because I really do believe that if Glenn Beck wants to have an argument about his vision of what America ought to be and socialism, you ought to give it to him, have that debate, and don’t do it from a defensive standpoint, do it from the standpoint of American history. Recognize that Tom Paine outlined, at the very least, social democratic ideas and a vision of a social welfare state. Do it with an understanding that socialists and Marxists were among the founders of the Republican Party. Do it with an understanding that Abraham Lincoln read Marx. Do it with an understanding that many times throughout this country’s history the voters of our cities and our congressional districts have elected socialists and communists and social democrats to positions of responsibility, and those individuals have held those positions in able and highly creative ways. They’ve done a lot of good and this is part of our history.

If we wipe it away, if we make socialism and social democracy, these ideas and also this politics, something foreign, we neuter the debate, we make it an unnatural debate, and that’s unhealthy.  It’s unhealthy for solving problems. It’s also unhealthy for the left, because a cautious left, a left that always pulls its punches, is not a sufficient counter to an aggressive right. I think that in this great battle of ideas, which we can and should have, it’s time to reconnect with our history, and our history tells us that at the best points throughout the American journey, at those points where we have really leapt forward, socialists and their allies have been central to the discourse, accepted not merely by folks on the left but also listened to by Presidents and Senators.

I write in the book on the chapter on civil rights about when the great labor leader, A. Philip Randolph, was being honored in 1960 on his 70th birthday, in the audience was the head of the Socialist Party, Norman Thomas, but also Hubert Humphrey and Eleanor Roosevelt were there, and Nehru had sent greetings, and so did Dwight Eisenhower. You see what I mean? Randolph wasn’t marginalized; he wasn’t pushed to the edges of the discourse, he was central to it. And I think that we as a society have moved forward when we have allowed, in fact, when people on the left have made sure that radical ideas are part of the debate and are entertained, because it is a radical idea – democracy itself is a radical idea, civil rights is a radical idea, economic justice is a radical idea at some point, but it becomes mainstream and as it becomes mainstream, that’s where we really move this country forward. 

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  • Socialism in the U.S.,not to mention the Americas,has never been monolithic.
    Much of the "socialism" has been anti-communist and anti-Marxist/Leninist.
    Specifically it has been anti-CPUSA and simultaneous against the on going contributions of Foster,Debs,Flynn,Robeson,& co.
    This kind of "socialism"divorced from breathing,real life socialism,is a moribund,renegade socialism,many times supporting wars,anti-communism and repression of the left in general.
    Read Norman Markowitz's Review on the "S" Word,by Nichols,if clarifies.

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 03/16/2011 11:15am (7 years ago)

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