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:

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?