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

Next Nichols writes that what is needed is:

...a social democratic critique frequently combined with an active Socialist Party and more recently linked 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 nation been a part of our political life. This country would not be what it is today -- indeed it might not even be -- had it not been for the positive influence of revolutionaries, radicals, socialists, social democrats and their fellow travelers.

Look at the above sentence carefully. First, Nichols gives us the refrain of the litany of left causes -- not any kind of a critique, and indeed, nothing that is similar in any way to the old socialist left and the kind of programs it espoused. This is but a politically correct reassertion of the bromides of the current far Left.

Later, Nichols presents the late Michael Harrington, who adhered to a rather traditional Marxian politics of class, as an exemplar of the kind of American radical whom he respects. Harrington, he writes, “recognized that it was possible to reject Soviet totalitarianism while still learning from Marx and embracing democratic socialism.” This is highly misleading and disingenuous. As time passed, Harrington moved further to the ranks of the pro-Communist fellow-traveling left. He enthusiastically endorsed the Sandinistas and rejected his comrades making any criticism of them, and on foreign policy, he moved to supporting the peace movement of the 70s and 80s although in effect, it stood for unilateral Western disarmament and no action to force a similar result from the Soviets.

Harrington also, in fact, provided just the strategy for the American Left that Nichols starts out his article rejecting. Nichols criticizes the Obama administration for not being socialist, and in effect, argues that the president is a sell-out. Harrington espoused what I termed a strategy of “Browderism without Earl Browder and the CP’s Moscow tie.” In the 1940s, Browder dissolved the American CP and recreated it into a non-political so-called “association,” in which the comrades were ordered to enthusiastically support FDR, to run in campaigns as Democrats if they were vying for office, and to function as a left-wing of the liberal FDR coalition. In New York City, they took over the American Labor Party, originally founded by anti-Communist socialists as a separate line in which the NYC labor movement could cast their ballot for Roosevelt.

At an event run by Democratic Socialists of America in the 80s, Mike asked me to debate the leader of the Labour Party left-wing in Britain, the extremist MP Tony Benn, who at the time was seeking to become its top leader in a fight against Labour moderates, which Benn eventually lost. Benn argued that in the U.S., the democratic socialists should run on their own tickets and platform, espouse socialist transformation, and build a movement dedicated to that independently.

I took the Harrington position, arguing that Benn’s proclaimed strategy led straight to defeat. Rather, I argued, the democratic Left should enroll en masse in the Democratic Party, fight for advanced socialist positions within its ranks, and support and back all Democrats, in order to make it in effect the social-democratic party that it could become. I invoked the name of Earl Browder, and noted that his strategy was correct, even though it was purely motivated at the time by making American Communism non-threatening because Moscow demanded that, at a moment when it needed FDR to help the Soviets win the war against the Nazis.

I also provided the blurb for a pamphlet DSA published in defense of the moderate and very inconsequential so-called Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, which stated that it was the goal of government to create a full employment society in which all Americans had jobs. We knew that was chimerical, but as I said in the blurb (unfortunately, I now cannot find the actual pamphlet) this was a method to endorse a goal that was itself meaningless, but could lead to a hegemonic shift that would produce demands for policies actually socialist in content, and that would have real political meaning and lead to incremental steps towards socialism.

The strategy Harrington and I advocated was itself a model of the Gramscian strategy of stealth socialism that Stanley Kurtz lays out so well in his book Radical-in-Chief. That is why Nichols, who does not comprehend this, fails to understand that despite his many disclaimers, Obama is actually a socialist who does know that the way to “fundamentally transform America,” as he said he favored during the campaign, is accomplished by the tactics he now is using. But his socialism is not a libertarian socialism in which the individual rules, but one based on creating an American version of a state-command economy.

Nichols goes on at great length at the influence Harrington had both on John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, after he wrote the best-selling book The Other America that helped create the War on Poverty. If you read the book, you will find that as Harrington later acknowledged, there is not one single word in it about socialism or social-democracy, although Harrington was at the time a major leader of the socialist movement, the chosen successor of Norman Thomas. This was a conscious decision on Harrington’s part, made to help promote an essentially socialist policy, by not alienating those who opposed socialism and would not support him if he revealed his own political views. He knew that the kind of program he wanted, although later he would criticize it for not going far enough, was socialist in content, and if it worked, would push the nation further to the left.

Harrington did, as Nichols write, succeed “beyond his wildest dreams.” But he did that by doing what Obama is doing now, not what Nichols himself advocates. In Nichols’ terms, Harrington too was a sell-out. He does, somewhat unconsciously, know this. He writes that “Americans would not have gotten Medicare if Harington and the socialists who came before him…had not for decades been pushing the limits of the healthcare debate.” True enough -- but that is because they hid their socialism in advocating universal health care, claiming that it was anything but socialist, simply advancing upon what the New Deal already created. (On another matter, Nichols goes out of his way in listing the great socialists who fought valiantly not only Thomas and Debs, but Margaret Sanger and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn -- the later a hard-nosed Stalinist who as far as I know never did anything at all other than support the Soviet Union over and over.)

He ends appropriately quoting the words Ted Kennedy spoke at a testimonial evening to Harrington shortly before he died, held in New York City at The Village Gage, when Kennedy said: “Some say Mike is advocating socialism; I see him delivering The Sermon on the Mount.” The view that Christ was a socialist is, of course, a  long-standing claim of Communists, epitomized by Woody Guthrie’s balled “Jesus Christ,”  sung to the tune of “Jesse James.” Kennedy, at least, did understand how socialism could be brought to America.

At the conclusion of his article, Nichols writes that “programs ‘organized along socialist lines’ [he is quoting historian Patrick Allit] do not make a country socialist,” but he argues that America “should continue to be informed by socialist ideals and a socialist critique of public policy.”

Actually, there is a historian and socialist who has a different view of this, and that is Martin J. Sklar. Ironically, had Nichols looked in back issues of The Nation, particularly the issue of Sept. 4/11 2000, he would have found a very important article by an economist name Marc Chandler, who lays out a very different perspective, one that leads to quite different conclusions about socialism in America than that he has delivered in the current issue of his magazine.

That will be the subject of the second part of this essay, which should be up by Wednesday.