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Is Socialism Part of the American Tradition? An Answer to The Nation magazine's John Nichols

Part I of a blog post on American socialism and the American tradition.

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 that 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.