Hidden History and Latent Possibilities

Scott Remer, Spring 2016

By: Scott Remer, PC ’16, for the Spring 2016 Issue (PDF version)

Hidden History and Latent Possibilities

The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition
John Nichols
Verso, 2011
292 pp., $19.95
4.75 out of 5 stars

Imagine Living in a Socialist USA
Edited by Frances Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith
Harper Perennial, 2014
304 pp., $15.99
4.5 out of 5 stars

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate
Naomi Klein
Simon & Schuster, 2014
466 pp., $30.00
5 out of 5 stars

Imagine an America where a president declares in an inaugural address, “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Imagine an America where a radical philosopher is a correspondent for one of the most popular newspapers of the day and an idealistic young socialist’s book launches a series of programs intended to end poverty forever. Imagine a country where a presidential candidate pledges to “break the combined power of the private monopoly system over the political and economic life of the American people,” a president writes in an official letter that “The Government of the United States has a clear consciousness that its policy neither is nor could be reactionary,” and a major political figure proclaims that “there must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.”

A pipe dream? Not at all. Nothing in the paragraph above is fictional, although most details didn’t occur concurrently. In his First Inaugural, Abraham Lincoln attacked the capitalist myth of capital’s superiority to labor. In the 1840s and 1850s, Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune (a periodical that sold over 110,000 copies weekly) ran regular columns by Marx, publishing 350 articles under Marx’s byline, 125 under Engels’ byline, and 12 articles credited to Marx and Engels jointly. Michael Harrington’s 1962 book The Other America stung the conscience of the nation and Washington policymakers, catalyzing what would become the War on Poverty and the Great Society. In 1924, the progressive Republican (!) Robert LaFollette campaigned for president on promises to revolutionize American society and won 17% of the national vote. Lincoln proudly affirmed the federal government’s progressivism in a response penned to the (Communist) First International upon receiving a commendation from them for his Civil War policies. And the great social democrat Martin Luther King, Jr., championed democratic socialism and what he called a “radical redistribution” of economic power, especially in his later years.

We are the inheritors of this legacy. For many of us, our ancestors lived that history. In The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition, The Nation journalist John Nichols sets out to investigate the role that socialism has played in enriching American politics, and his narrative includes many interesting tidbits in addition to the pieces of information above. His thesis is basically as follows: “[A] social-democratic critique combined, frequently, with pressures from an active Socialist Party and Commu­nist Party, along 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 American journey been a part of our public debate and our political life.”

Nichols wants to remind us that we have socialists and socialist ideas to thank for so many of the things we take for granted as Americans. Social Security, public housing, protection for collective bargaining, and Medicare: all socialist-inspired. The Pledge of Allegiance? Written by Edward Bellamy, a socialist. Quintessential American poets Emma Lazarus and Walt Whitman were sympathetic to socialism. Thomas Paine, the great revolutionary and author of The Age of Reason, called for progressive taxation, old-age pensions, and child welfare programs (all radical at the time), but he advocated things that we haven’t achieved even today, in 2015: a guaranteed income, truly universal healthcare, comprehensive public works programs, taxes on luxuries and speculation, and a lump sum payment to every citizen once they turn 21.

American socialism has been victimized by revisionist histories that downplay its influence, but Nichols is determined to unearth the evidence for its existence and reclaim it the spot it deserves in our national self-understanding. He pays special attention to King, Lincoln, and Paine, devoting considerable space to Lincoln’s connection to radical Republicans and the European revolutions of 1848. Standard lefties like Eugene Debs, César Chávez, and Emma Goldman also feature prominently in Nichols’ narrative.

Nichols digs up some interesting statistics: Eugene Debs netted a solid 6% of the national presidential vote in 1912, and the Socialist Party won 34 mayoralties and had councilors or other city officials serving in 169 cities after that election. In 1932’s presidential election, Socialists and Communists received about one million votes combined. Milwaukee, a hub of so-called “sewer socialism” with cooperative housing, municipal stores and food subsidies, and municipal waterworks/ sewer systems, had a Socialist mayor from 1910 until the 1960s. Nichols also sheds new (red) light on people who are generally present in us history books: Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers, and A. Philip Randolph, head of the Pullman union and the man responsible for the desegregation of the railroads with FDR’s Executive Order 8802, were both strongly associated with socialist groups and thought.

Other colorful but less well-known figures are interspersed throughout. Readers will likely find the stories of Fanny Wright, an impassioned early feminist and utopian socialist activist; Victor Berger, an avowed socialist elected to Congress at the height of the first Red Scare and blocked by House vote from taking his seat; and Bayard Rustin, the ex-Communist organizer of the 1963 March on Washington, of interest. Nichols offers us a passionate, magisterial excavation of many important and intentionally buried chapters of American history, and he issues an eloquent cri de coeur for the revitalization of this country’s proud tradition of socialism.

The global climate crisis offers us an unprecedented
opportunity to bury capitalism permanently.

This is a call that is picked up by the writers of the essays collected in Imagine Living in a Socialist USA. The important compendium provides a comprehensive vision of a socialist society where human rights are paramount and everyone enjoys peace, prosperity, and harmony with the environment. Essays written by thirty-one American radical activists and thinkers touch upon socialist conceptions of economics, feminism, law, sexuality, anti-racism, food systems, healthcare, education, art, media, and technology. They also systematically dismantle propaganda about capitalism’s benefits, pointing out the environmental, moral, and economic crises that the system of private profit has wrought. The one quibble I have is that the book’s format is somewhat fragmented; essays can seem scattered at times. But as a guide for the American Left, especially in the wake of the Occupy movement, during a time when Bernie Sanders’ candidacy has reinjected democratic socialism into public discourse after a long hiatus, Imagine Living in a Socialist USA is quite useful.

And, as Naomi Klein’s bracing yet extraordinarily important new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate makes clear, the global climate crisis offers us an unprecedented opportunity to bury capitalism permanently. Global warming is an intersectional issue with links to every major issue the Left cares about today: immigrant justice, racism, poverty, domestic and global inequality, LGBTQ rights, and more. At the current rate of carbon dioxide emissions increase, without drastic action to slash emissions, we’re “on track for a 4°C [7.2°F] warmer world [by the end of the 21st  century] marked by extreme heat waves, declining global food stocks, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, and life-threatening sea level rise,” according to a 2012 World Bank report that Klein quotes. Such a world would be marked by unbearable heat waves, widespread coastal flooding, huge wildfires and droughts, and mass extinctions of animals and plants in the land and sea. The capitalist logic of infinite economic growth, hyper-consumerism, deferring decision-making to unthinking market mechanisms, and subjugating nature to the profit motive will be impossible to maintain. A quote often attributed to the critic Fredric Jameson — that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism” — takes on new and terrifying meaning.

If we don’t want the planet to lapse into barbarism, it seems that we have no choice but to inaugurate an eco-socialist world. Klein systematically destroys arguments that we will be rescued by environmentalist billionaires, the much-vaunted savior of “new technology,” or extraordinarily risky geoengineering schemes. Without systemic change, a few billionaires giving money to Greenpeace won’t be enough. We don’t have the time to waste waiting for “innovation” that would just produce questionable technologies with new unintended consequences for the biosphere. And geoengineering enthusiasts completely overlook the lessons we’ve learned about messing with intricate natural systems. As Klein puts it, “[O]nly mass social movements can save us now.”

The climate justice movement can unite all of the past’s incomplete movements for social and economic justice. Here is our chance to, as Klein declares, “right those festering wrongs at last” and accomplish “the unfinished business of liberation.” Only by writing a new chapter in America’s long, proud history of resistance to oligarchy and oppression will we secure a livable, equitable future. The time to act is now.

Image: The Center for Jewish History, NYC @ Flickr Commons