The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism – review of a review

I was checking out a new book I came across: The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism by John Nichols. I noticed a book review of it by Michael Lind in the Guardian. Mr. Linds is very misinformed or else is intentionally spreading disinformation. Either way, I thought I should respond:

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“Yet Nichols distorts history by dragooning reformist liberals into his socialist tradition. For example, Tom Paine is posthumously drafted as a socialist hero because he favoured a version of a welfare state and progressive taxation, even though these are compatible with an economy based primarily on private property. Nichols does not mention Paine’s belief in minimal government or his support of an armed citizenry, which are cited today by American libertarians and opponents of gun control.”

There is no inherent conflict between libertarianism and socialism, between valuing both liberty and fairness, both negative and positive freedom, between valuing both individual and collective good, both private and public good. I can’t stand this ideological mindset of either/or absolutism and win/lose scenarios.

Socialism can’t co-exist with capitalism, but it can co-exist with a free market (a criticism even made by some libertarians such as John C. Medaille). And why is this reviewer so simpleminded as to think someone can’t simultaneously support socialism, minimal government and gun rights. The reviewer asks why Nichols doesn’t mention Paine’s belief in minimal government. If the reviewer is demanding fairness, then why didn’t he mention Paine’s belief in a government that is strong enough and central enough to enforce regulation of ownership rights and to constrain the problems caused by private ownership?

This book review is so far beyond misinformation as to not even be amusing. There are all kinds of socialists, including minarchists and even anarchists. As for libertarianism, it’s history is intertwined with that of socialism:

http://globetrotter.berkeley.edu/people2/Chomsky/chomsky-con2.html

The United States is sort of out of the world on this topic. Britain is to a limited extent, but the United States is like on Mars. So here, the term “libertarian” means the opposite of what it always meant in history. Libertarian throughout modern European history meant socialist anarchist. It meant the anti-state element of the Workers Movement and the Socialist Movement. It sort of broke into two branches, roughly, one statist, one anti-statist. The statist branch led to Bolshevism and Lenin and Trotsky, and so on. The anti-statist branch, which included Marxists, Left Marxists — Rosa Luxemburg and others — kind of merged, more or less, into an amalgam with a big strain of anarchism into what was called “libertarian socialism.” So libertarian in Europe always meant socialist. Here it means ultra-conservative — Ayn Rand or Cato Institute or something like that. But that’s a special U.S. usage. There are a lot of things quite special about the way the United States developed, and this is part of it. There [in Europe] it meant, and always meant to me, socialist and anti-state, an anti-state branch of socialism, which meant a highly organized society, completely organized and nothing to do with chaos, but based on democracy all the way through. That means democratic control of communities, of workplaces, of federal structures, built on systems of voluntary association, spreading internationally. That’s traditional anarchism. You know, anybody can have the word if they like, but that’s the mainstream of traditional anarchism.

And, as for liberal reformers, social democrats and socialists are kissing cousins. Socialists seem far more supportive of social democracy than the average person. A government doesn’t have to be socialist in order to implement socialist policies and socialist solutions don’t require a state to implement them. Many if not most socialists I’ve come across aren’t for statist socialism, especially not in terms of Maoism or Stalinism.

“In discussing the perennial failed candidates of the Socialist party, Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas, Nichols edits aspects of their thought which are incompatible with modern leftism.”

So? What does that have to do with anything? If you look at early proponents of capitalism, you’ll find people who held views which are incompatible with modern fiscal conservatism or modern lots of things. People are complex and hold complex views of the world. Also, people’s views are dependent on the times. Even radical thinkers aren’t always able to see entirely beyond the status quo worldview of the society they live in.

As a last point, it’s a complete fabrication to say that:

“Nichols ignores the principled anti-communism of much of the democratic socialist left.”

Nichols writes about this (pp. 181-182):

There were certainly American Communists who romanticized the Soviet Union, made absurd apologies for its totalitarian excesses and aligned their positions in domestic debates to parallel “the Moscow line.” But there were many other Communists and non-Communist lefties, like Longshore union head and west-coast CIO director Harry Bridges, who were less interested in what was happening in Leningrad than in the intensity of the commitment of CP activists to organize workers in Seattle and Pittsburgh and Birmingham. They tended to share the view expressed by the Australian-born Bridges when the government attempted to deport him on charges that he was a “secret Communist.” Bridges denied the affiliation, expressed robust small-“d” democratic views and derided the notion that working with groups that supported strong unions and public ownership of utilities and major industries made him un-American. Radical trade unionists weren’t taking orders from abroad, Bridges explained, they were responding to reality on the ground in a United States that had been ravaged by the Great Depression.

Was this supposed to be a book review or just a hit job?

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4 Responses

  1. We were talking about labels, and, above, you (and those you’ve quoted) made a beautiful case for how confusing they can be. Definitions are far more useful, IMO, LOL!!!! Definitions, comparisons, distinctions, similarities, on particulars. On politics, that’s about the only useful way to communicate, I think. So this blog did a great job on that!!!

    I guess underneath all the labels, I see one stark reality which serves as my dividing line in making political labels and categories: In X’s view, how much — and what — of a person’s behavior should be subject to enforcement by a gun wielded by the “government”? [Life/death, imprisonment, fines, etc.]

    Doesn’t matter to me, whether the gun is democratically controlled or by whatever. Control is control. Freedom is freedom.

    That’s why some particulars which you might see as compatible, I might not, depending on what context they are in: how much control. I might disagree, for example if you were asserting that the label “socialism” can be interpreted to mean MERELY valuing the collective good, and fairness.To me, it comes as a package, probably, depending on the definition. And that package can, as I see it, actually DESTROY collective good, and fairness. (In the name of course, of promoting them.)

    Naturally, there are complexities. There are downsides to everything.

    Naturally, I don’t necessarily (except in certain moods) see freedom/control as desirably being all or nothing. Naturally, in society, there will usually be some things I might like to see subject to some kind of control rather than total freedom. Murder, for one…..And murder in the name of freedom, is not something I want, either. (I’m thinking of folks who poison people via pollution.)

    But I find that stark question quite useful, as I view the chaotic alphabet soup of political labels.

    What do you think? Do you have a question or distinction which forms the bottom line for you, politically?

    Sorry to start a new conversation before finishing the old. I do have time to check back in the next few days on our previous conversation….
    Thanks for this very clarifying discussion, and for calling this guy on misrepresentations! Someone has to say the Emperor has no clothes!

    • What Paine and many others realized is that civilization is built on and dependent on violence. All the good of our modern lives is inseparable form horrible violence. It’s a conundrum, but one that must be faced. The worst violence doesn’t come from a gun or not in a direct sense. There is no choice between violence or no violence in this world. A completely peaceful world is a nice utopia, but for right now we have to deal with the reality in front of us.

      As for guns democratically controlled, this happened because they were controlled undemocratically in the past. The world is violent. That is just the way reality is, like it or not (which isn’t to say we shouldn’t aspire toward peace). It’s just that a gun controlled democratically is better than a gun controlled by a tyrant or a gang or a corporation. I’m not a fan of choosing between the lesser of two evils, but in this case there is no other choice… except by either fundamentally altering human nature or fundamentally altering all of human civilization (both being very long term projects that certainly won’t see fruition in our lifetimes, if ever).

      Freedom from violence is an abstract ideal. The land you live on is made of the corpses of Native Americans who unwillingly sacrificed their freedom for yours. The products you buy are made through an oppressively violent global economy. If you own property, you are participating in the continuation of a history of colonial genocide and oppression. The land you own is theft from the indigenous and theft from the commons. The landless peasants, many who are homeless, still suffer because of an ownership class that defends it’s stolen land by use of violence, both public and private. How many more people have to die and how much longer does oppression have to last for the sake of these abstract ideals?

      “I might disagree, for example if you were asserting that the label “socialism” can be interpreted to mean MERELY valuing the collective good, and fairness.”

      I’m not asserting anything in describing what socialism is. I didn’t invent socialism. What I was doing is pointing out the fact that many people are misinformed about socialism. Many of the criticisms of socialism are against views that many socialists don’t advocate. ‘Socialism’ is a favorite straw man of American society, In response to this sad state of affairs, I was offering accurate definitions of socialism.

      It’s just a fact that socialists care more about the common good than any other group. It’s the very heart of socialism: social good, social concerns, social-ism. Socialists merely point out that in an interconnected world as we live in it’s literally impossible to separate individual good from collective good, private good from public good. The distinctions between these things only exist in the human mind and in human language, but they don’t exist in the actual lived reality of the world we all share. I know many Americans don’t want to accept these facts. Still, the facts remain.

      The distinction I put forth is that anyone who cares will always put people before ideology, including the ideology of ‘freedom’. The question is: Freedom from what and towards what? Whose freedom at whose cost? Too many people want to defend their own freedom while trampling on the freedom of others and then rationalizing that it isn’t their fault that their freedom is built on violence and oppression. People suffer, there are winners and losers, some are just inferior and deserve the horrible fate an oppressive society forced on them. In my heart of hearts, I hope such people one day experience the suffering of those they look down upon or simply ignore. The distinction I put forth is between those who know suffering in the marrow of their bones and those who live comfortable, contented lives.

      I’m tired of ideology. I really don’t know how to communicate what I feel other than to say I feel frustrated. The freedom to be poor and oppressed isn’t a freedom I want. The freedom to live in a dog eat dog world is a freedom that makes me want to commit suicide, not joking. If that is freedom, then I’m with Derrick Jensen and I want to see civilization be demolished.

      I’m tired of people who, while seemingly meaning well, promote an ugly view of society and of human nature. I’m tired of people who act patriotic about ‘America’ when it’s obvious they have little faith in what America stands for. To them, America just means an attitude of ‘me and my own’ (“Real Americans”).

      And I’m tired of people who righteously defend freedom while not acknowledging that most people still live without basic rights and opportunities, that the freedom they defend is in reality just the denial of the freedom of others. Freedom can’t be taken away when it has yet to exist in our society (yes there is some freedom for some people, but even that limited freedom is mostly held by a minority… when freedom means wealth and power, then freedom no longer has any valid meaning).

      I’m just plain tired. The worldview that America has come to stand for is something I feel compelled to stand against. Freedom has become a choice between Coke or Pepsi, between Republican or Democrat, between America or the Commies. It’s a simpleminded, black/white conception of freedom. It’s an empty, superficial freedom… just propaganda for mass control.

      What inspires me is very simple: people caring about people. Not people caring about people because they think it will boost their own self-interest. Just people caring about people because it’s the right thing to do. We can worry about abstract ideals later… after the starving are fed, the freezing are housed, the sick and dying are cared for. Jesus didn’t ask for money before healing someone, didn’t wonder if such actions conformed to some abstract ideal of liberty. Jesus just helped people.

      Basically, what I’m proposing is Midwestern liberalism which partly originates from the early settlers who brought along with them a pragmatic socialism (from Northern Europe). Midwestern liberalism/socialism is just basic Heartland values. The Milwaukee socialists were known as the Sewer Socialists because they were concerned about very practical issues of community life such as making sure there was clean air and water so that people didn’t get sick (which was a major problem with the rise of industrialization). The Sewer Socialists were proud of having a sewer system that actually worked (quite an achievement at the time), to have public services that actually served the public. They didn’t give a damn about ideology. They just wanted people in their community to be healthy and cared for.

      Such simple pride in having a healthy community seems almost odd today, but such Midwestern liberalism/socialism still exists… at least in some parts of the Midwest. I was just reminded of this tonight while reading Garrison Keillor’s ‘Homegrown Democrat’:

      “The state was settled by no-nonsense socialists from Germany and Sweden and Norway who unpacked their trunks and planted corn and set about organizing schools; churches; libraries; lodges; societies and benevolent associations; brotherhoods and sisterhoods, and raised their children to Mind Your Manners, Be Useful, Pay Attention, Make Something of Yourself, Turn Down the Thermostat (If You’re Cold, Go Put on a Sweater), Share and Share Alike, Be Satisfied with What You Have—a green Jell-O salad with mandarin oranges, miniature marshmallows, walnuts, and Miracle Whip is by God good enough for anybody. I grew up in the pure democracy of a public grade school where everybody brought a valentine for everybody on Valentine’s Day so we should feel equally loved though of course some valentines are more equal than others, some have lace and little flaps under which special endearments are written, and others are generic, printed six to a page with bumpy edges where they were torn on the dotted line. But you should be happy with what you get and Don’t Think You’re Special Because You’re Not. (Those people on daytime TV talking about how their parents never gave them the positive feedback they needed and that’s why they shot them—those are not Minnesotans. Nor are the people who go to court to win their children the right to not say the Pledge of Allegiance or not be in the room when other children are saying it.) We take pains to not be Special. If there is one meatball left on the platter, you do not take it, you take half of it, and someone else takes half of that and so it is endlessly divided down to the last crumb. Not a state of showboats or motor-mouths.
      “[ . . . ] there is a high value placed on public services. If you call 911 in St. Paul, the cops or the EMTs will arrive within four minutes. In the Republican suburbs, where No New Taxes is the beginning and end of politics and emergency services depend on volunteers, the response time can be anywhere between ten or fifteen and thirty minutes.”

      Keillor is the first person I’ve come across in a long while who captures that down-to-earth sense of the common good. It’s very Midwestern thing and so I’m not sure people from other parts of the country can fully understand it. In the Midwest, community has more centrality than individuality. There are a couple of reasons for this.

      First, it’s farming country. When it was first settled, farmers were fairly isolated and were dependent on their neighbors. They shared their resources to have schools, roads, bridges, hospitals, etc. They truly had a government for and by the people.

      Second, it’s partly the religion of the first settlers. They were largely Catholics and Quakers who are very community-oriented. Catholics and Quakers built public schools, orphanages and hospitals where ever they settled. They put collective action and collective benefit above individual freedom and self-interest. It’s why the Catholic Church has often had an uneasy relationship to unbridled capitalism and it’s why the areas of the US with the highest rates of Catholic membership are also the same areas with the highest rates of union membership.

      About the other conversation, you don’t need to finish it… unless you want to.

    • Here is my view on the US:

      I utterly despise the ‘freedom’ of the rich and powerful to profit off of the suffering and death of others. Some people call this view socialism. Maybe it is socialism or maybe it isn’t, but either way it’s the only moral response that I can see. Anything else is just lies and rationalization, just sociopathy and indifference.

      I had a few further points I wanted to add to my first response.

      1) Socialism isn’t communism. Theoretically, communism is state socialism. But not all socialism is statist. And in practice the so-called communist countries don’t even seem all that socialist. I’m not concerned about rhetoric and labels. Any country can call itself socialist or communist, but I only care about how the country acts. There is nothing socialist about a totalitarian government, no matter how much nice sounding propaganda they use. Totalitarianism is totalitarianism, communist or fascist, a government or a corporation.

      2) As such, there is no inherent connection between socialism in practice and communism in practice. It’s something like conflating capitalism with fascism. Yes, a fascist country may use capitalist rhetoric, but it certainly isn’t a free market. Socialism, as advocated by most American socialists, is more similar to the ideal of a free market. Both free markets and socialism, in the best sense, are seeking to promote freedom and fairness, seeking to empower people and protect communities.

      3) You seem to be advocating negative freedom while being wary of positive freedom. At least in this respect, you are advocating a view common on the right, especially among right-libertarians (whereas left-libertarians tend to argue for both negative and positive freedom). I’ve always seen a problem in disconnecting negative and positive freedom. Part of the reason for this is that the people who tend to advocate such a disconnected view seem to be themselves disconnected from the experience of most people. (Right-)Libertarians are mostly upper class white males, i.e., the most privileged demographic in the entire world. They don’t have to worry about positive freedoms because they already have them, but they don’t understand that most people don’t have them. Their privilege blinds them to the suffering and oppression of others.

      http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/libertarianism-rich-white-males-of-the-republican-party/

      http://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/libertarians-privilege-partisanship/

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