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

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.