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Is Socialism Part of the American Tradition?

Ronald Radosh

In my previous blog, I quoted some of the comments about social democracy made by Leszek Kolakowski. Let me begin this article about socialism in America by again citing, this time more completely, his closing remarks in his essay about Marx. Kolakowski was not among those who believed that socialists never played any positive role in the advance of Western civilization. Indeed, in his essay, he wrote the following:

Everything was clearer before the First World War. Socialists and the left in general wanted not only equal, universal, and obligatory schools, social health service, progressive taxation, and religious tolerance, but also secular education, the abolition of national and racial discrimination, the equality of women, the freedom of press and assembly, the legal regulation of labor conditions, and a social insurance system. They fought against militarism and chauvinism. European socialist leaders of the period of the Second International, such people as Jaurès, Babel, Turati, Vandervelle, and Martov, embodied what was best in European political life.

He understood that in the 20th century, as well as today, those who called themselves socialists had moved away from this tradition, and in the name of socialism, became ardent supporters of a state-command economy and a totalitarian system that was almost indistinguishable from fascism. While he eschewed any attempts to regulate equality and to build a new social system through revolution, he did not abandon what he thought was the social-democratic project. Thus he added:

Be that as it may, socialist movements strongly contributed to changing the political landscape for the better. They inspired a number of social reforms without which the contemporary welfare state — which most of us take for granted — would be unthinkable. It would thus be a pity if the collapse of Communist socialism resulted in the demise of the socialist tradition as a whole and the triumph of Social Darwinism as the dominant ideology.

In this regard, Kolakowski was very much in the same camp as the late Sidney Hook, who during the Cold War years through the Reagan presidency and beyond, allied with conservatives in the anti-Communist struggle, and wrote articles for virtually every conservative magazine, but who still called himself a social-democrat. (I attended the memorial service held for him at NYU, where Norman Podhoretz, William F. Buckley, Jr. and Herb London were speakers, as well as the then-president of the AFL-CIO, Lane Kirkland.)

So while Kolakowski rejected any attempt to build a new society, like Sidney Hook, he believed that social-democracy and socialism is an unrealizable dream:

as a statement of solidarity with the underdogs and the oppressed…as a light that keeps before our eyes something higher than competition and greed — for all of these reasons, socialism, the ideal not the system, still has its uses.

I begin with Kolakowski’s thoughts as a prelude to discussing the cover story appeared in last week’s issue of The Nation, a magazine that we well know is anything but in favor of the kind of socialist ideal of which Kolakowski and Hook still had sympathies for. Written by one of its editors, John Nichols, it is somewhat outrageously titled “How Socialists Built America,” and is excerpted from his new book, The ‘S’Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism.

My comments here are based on Nichols’ essay, and not on what he writes in his book, which I eventually hope to review. Nichols thesis is simple, and is stated at the beginning of his article. America, he argues, is subject to a false claim that America was “founded as a capitalist country and that socialism is a dangerous foreign import that, despite our unwarranted faith in free trade, must be barred at the border.” To those who believe this — and as you expect, he includes all conservatives and Republicans in his list — “everything public is inferior to everything private, that corporations are always good and unions always bad, that progressive taxation is inherently evil and that the best economic model is the one that allows the wealthy to gobble up as much of the Republic as they choose before anything trickles down to the great mass of Americans.”

What particularly annoys Nichols is the belief of so many people, especially conservatives, that Obama is some kind of a socialist, not to speak of being a Marxist. In Nichols’ eyes, our president is anything but a socialist. Indeed, that is the trouble. Nichols writes:

The president says he’s not a socialist, and the country’s most outspoken socialists heartily agree. Indeed, the only people who seem to think Obama displays even the slightest social democratic tendency are those who imagine that the very mention of the word “socialism” should inspire a reaction like that of a vampire confronted with the Host.

He then adds:

Unfortunately, Obama may be more frightened by the S-word than Palin. When a New York Times reporter asked the president in March 2009 whether his domestic policies suggested he was a socialist, a relaxed Obama replied, “The answer would be no.” … But after he talked with his hyper-cautious counselors, he began to worry. So he called the reporter back and said, “It was hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question.”

To Nichols, the problem of Obama is that he is not a socialist. (Nichols seems unaware of the sophisticated argument made by Stanley Kurtz that Obama’s record indicates that in fact, he is a clear example of one who has abided regularly to a stealth-socialist strategy.) Hence Nichols argues that:

Obama really is avoiding consideration of socialist, or even mildly social democratic, responses to the problems that confront him. He took the single-payer option off the table at the start of the healthcare debate, rejecting the approach that in other countries has provided quality care to all citizens at lower cost. His supposedly “socialist” response to the collapse of the auto industry was to give tens of billions in bailout funding to GM and Chrysler, which used the money to lay off thousands of workers and then relocate several dozen plants abroad—an approach about as far as a country can get from the social democratic model of using public investment and industrial policy to promote job creation and community renewal.

Yes, Obama took single-payer off the table, and got the insurance industry to sign on to ObamaCare by giving them a healthy profit. But as he has said, and is on tape saying at various times, the current program was but a stepping stone to eventual universal health care on the single-payer model, which he personally prefers. In other words, the path he took was that of tactics — not an abandonment of principle. There are, after all, different paths to Rome.

What Nichols wants Obama to realize is that he should not be scared of actual socialism or socialist policies, since in his reading, they are basic to the essential American tradition. Here, Nichols proceeds along familiar lines, in fact hardly going beyond the earlier works on socialism by leftist authors who were serious historians, such as the late James Weinstein, the publisher of the socialist weekly In These Times, in books such as The Decline of Socialism in America and The Long Detour, a history of the American Left.

But while a leftist historian like the late Weinstein understood how and why socialism collapsed in America — and laid out the various reasons — Nichols seeks to make all of American socialism as the precursor for all good that eventually happened in our nation, such as Social Security, public housing, public power, collective bargaining, “and other attributes of the welfare state.” (Why Nichols thinks that the disaster of public housing is a good is beyond my comprehension.)

Believing this, it is not surprising that Nichols was a major supporter of the Madison labor thugs who sought to prevent an end to collective bargaining in public sector unions. He is seemingly not aware of the position taken on that issue by the former Socialist Party leader who was mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, from 1948 to 1960, the late Frank P. Zeidler. As one columnist noted, “in 1969, the progressive icon wrote that rise of unions in government work put a competing power in charge of public business next to elected officials. Government unions ‘can mean considerable loss of control over the budget, and hence over tax rates,’ [Zeidler] warned.” He also opposed a right to strike for all public sector employees.

One author who wrote an academic article about the mayor noted that:

considered a labor supporter by the city’s private sector labor unions, was not regarded as an ally by the public sector labor unions. Zeidler believed that public sector unions should neither have the legal right to strike nor the right to settle interest disputes with arbitration… Under this philosophy, even though the Socialists depended on the working class and the labor unions for votes at election time, no sector of the labor movement, or even the working class as a whole, takes precedence over the effective administration of the city.

Nichols, however, says his intent is not to defend socialism — but only to defend good history. Our past, he writes, “with its rich and vibrant hues,” is filled with a past that shows “some of them red.” Here, he does not elaborate, because he knows that his audience already knows of all the heroes Howard Zinn has resurrected over the years, and he does not waste space introducing them again. His point is that people like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh are wrong when they argue that socialism “is antithetical to Americanism.”

Next, Nichols praises figures in our past that previously he, and the other editors of the magazine in which he writes, have castigated for years as reactionary. He praises Harry Truman, when of course, Nichols himself were he alive in 1948 would have been supporting the Communist backed candidate Henry A. Wallace, whom Truman effectively marginalized during the campaign by referring to “Henry Wallace and his Communists.”

Instead, Nichols concentrates on the Republican charge at the time that Truman himself was something of a socialist, and he argues that “Truman did not cower” at being accused of that. Of course, Nichols carefully ignores that Truman fought the Communists fiercely, instituting Loyalty and Security Boards to investigate potentially disloyal federal employees, whom he thought had no intrinsic “right” to a government job; and that because of that, Nichols’ own comrades at the time always called Truman a “fascist” and a president who was “bringing fascism to America.”

He notes that Truman was allies with labor leaders like David Dubinsky, Jacob Potofsky and Walter Reuther of the UAW, all of whom he says were “connected with socialist causes.” Of course, he does not note that all of these labor leaders deserted the Socialist Party in droves to hitch themselves to FDR’s bandwagon in the early days of the New Deal, and moreover, not only fought the Reds tooth and nail, but worked to expel them from the ranks of the then powerful American labor movement. Nichols regularly opposes the kind of things they did, and clearly uses them for the purposes of an argument, while he himself probably has nothing but scorn for them and for what he otherwise would call their Red-baiting.

To think that the far left radical John Nichols really has respect for the old time socialists he cites favorably like Norman Thomas and Eugene V. Debs is something of a sick joke, for anybody who regularly reads Nichols in the pages of The Nation.

So Nichols, who really reveals his motivation when he writes that there is a damage to democracy “when discourse degenerates, when the only real fights are between a party on the fringe and another that assumes that the way to win is to move to the center-right and then hope that fears of a totalitarian right will keep everyone to the left of it voting the Democratic line,” shows that what he wants is Obama and his team to move to the Left, to reassert an open socialist program and social-democratic position.

Next Nichols writes that what is needed is:

…a social democratic critique frequently combined with an active Socialist Party and more recently linked with independent socialist activism in labor and equal rights campaigns for women, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, gays and lesbians, and people with disabilities — has from the first years of the nation been a part of our political life. This country would not be what it is today — indeed it might not even be — had it not been for the positive influence of revolutionaries, radicals, socialists, social democrats and their fellow travelers.

Look at the above sentence carefully. First, Nichols gives us the refrain of the litany of left causes — not any kind of a critique, and indeed, nothing that is similar in any way to the old socialist left and the kind of programs it espoused. This is but a politically correct reassertion of the bromides of the current far Left.

Later, Nichols presents the late Michael Harrington, who adhered to a rather traditional Marxian politics of class, as an exemplar of the kind of American radical whom he respects. Harrington, he writes, “recognized that it was possible to reject Soviet totalitarianism while still learning from Marx and embracing democratic socialism.” This is highly misleading and disingenuous. As time passed, Harrington moved further to the ranks of the pro-Communist fellow-traveling left. He enthusiastically endorsed the Sandinistas and rejected his comrades making any criticism of them, and on foreign policy, he moved to supporting the peace movement of the 70s and 80s although in effect, it stood for unilateral Western disarmament and no action to force a similar result from the Soviets.

Harrington also, in fact, provided just the strategy for the American Left that Nichols starts out his article rejecting. Nichols criticizes the Obama administration for not being socialist, and in effect, argues that the president is a sell-out. Harrington espoused what I termed a strategy of “Browderism without Earl Browder and the CP’s Moscow tie.” In the 1940s, Browder dissolved the American CP and recreated it into a non-political so-called “association,” in which the comrades were ordered to enthusiastically support FDR, to run in campaigns as Democrats if they were vying for office, and to function as a left-wing of the liberal FDR coalition. In New York City, they took over the American Labor Party, originally founded by anti-Communist socialists as a separate line in which the NYC labor movement could cast their ballot for Roosevelt.

At an event run by Democratic Socialists of America in the 80s, Mike asked me to debate the leader of the Labour Party left-wing in Britain, the extremist MP Tony Benn, who at the time was seeking to become its top leader in a fight against Labour moderates, which Benn eventually lost. Benn argued that in the U.S., the democratic socialists should run on their own tickets and platform, espouse socialist transformation, and build a movement dedicated to that independently.

I took the Harrington position, arguing that Benn’s proclaimed strategy led straight to defeat. Rather, I argued, the democratic Left should enroll en masse in the Democratic Party, fight for advanced socialist positions within its ranks, and support and back all Democrats, in order to make it in effect the social-democratic party that it could become. I invoked the name of Earl Browder, and noted that his strategy was correct, even though it was purely motivated at the time by making American Communism non-threatening because Moscow demanded that, at a moment when it needed FDR to help the Soviets win the war against the Nazis.

I also provided the blurb for a pamphlet DSA published in defense of the moderate and very inconsequential so-called Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, which stated that it was the goal of government to create a full employment society in which all Americans had jobs. We knew that was chimerical, but as I said in the blurb (unfortunately, I now cannot find the actual pamphlet) this was a method to endorse a goal that was itself meaningless, but could lead to a hegemonic shift that would produce demands for policies actually socialist in content, and that would have real political meaning and lead to incremental steps towards socialism.

The strategy Harrington and I advocated was itself a model of the Gramscian strategy of stealth socialism that Stanley Kurtz lays out so well in his book Radical-in-Chief. That is why Nichols, who does not comprehend this, fails to understand that despite his many disclaimers, Obama is actually a socialist who does know that the way to “fundamentally transform America,” as he said he favored during the campaign, is accomplished by the tactics he now is using. But his socialism is not a libertarian socialism in which the individual rules, but one based on creating an American version of a state-command economy.

Nichols goes on at great length at the influence Harrington had both on John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, after he wrote the best-selling book The Other America that helped create the War on Poverty. If you read the book, you will find that as Harrington later acknowledged, there is not one single word in it about socialism or social-democracy, although Harrington was at the time a major leader of the socialist movement, the chosen successor of Norman Thomas. This was a conscious decision on Harrington’s part, made to help promote an essentially socialist policy, by not alienating those who opposed socialism and would not support him if he revealed his own political views. He knew that the kind of program he wanted, although later he would criticize it for not going far enough, was socialist in content, and if it worked, would push the nation further to the left.

Harrington did, as Nichols write, succeed “beyond his wildest dreams.” But he did that by doing what Obama is doing now, not what Nichols himself advocates. In Nichols’ terms, Harrington too was a sell-out. He does, somewhat unconsciously, know this. He writes that “Americans would not have gotten Medicare if Harington and the socialists who came before him…had not for decades been pushing the limits of the healthcare debate.” True enough — but that is because they hid their socialism in advocating universal health care, claiming that it was anything but socialist, simply advancing upon what the New Deal already created. (On another matter, Nichols goes out of his way in listing the great socialists who fought valiantly not only Thomas and Debs, but Margaret Sanger and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn — the later a hard-nosed Stalinist who as far as I know never did anything at all other than support the Soviet Union over and over.)

He ends appropriately quoting the words Ted Kennedy spoke at a testimonial evening to Harrington shortly before he died, held in New York City at The Village Gage, when Kennedy said: “Some say Mike is advocating socialism; I see him delivering The Sermon on the Mount.” The view that Christ was a socialist is, of course, a long-standing claim of Communists, epitomized by Woody Guthrie’s balled “Jesus Christ,” sung to the tune of “Jesse James.” Kennedy, at least, did understand how socialism could be brought to America.

At the conclusion of his article, Nichols writes that “programs ‘organized along socialist lines’ [he is quoting historian Patrick Allit] do not make a country socialist,” but he argues that America “should continue to be informed by socialist ideals and a socialist critique of public policy.”

Actually, there is a historian and socialist who has a different view of this, and that is Martin J. Sklar. Ironically, had Nichols looked in back issues of The Nation, particularly the issue of Sept. 4/11 2000, he would have found a very important article by an economist name Marc Chandler, who lays out a very different perspective, one that leads to quite different conclusions about socialism in America than that he has delivered in the current issue of his magazine.

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