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"Our Forgotten Tradition"—Paul Buhle on John Nichols' The "S" Word

Chris Webb27 May 2011

I'm particularly fond of the following quote from Socialist Party of America leader Eugene Debs

I am not a Labor Leader; I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, some one else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.

It truly encapsulates the notion that socialism cannot be constructed from above but rather through actions and ideas of ordinary people. This idea, and Debs as a monumental figure in US history, informs John Nichol's attempt to revive interest in US socialism and rescue it from the red-baiting of the right in his new book The "S" Word: A Short History of An American Tradition...Socialism. In Paul Buhle's (a remarkable historian in his own right) review of the book he suggests that socialism is a historical undercurrent in progressive US politics:

In Nichols' version, socialists don't necessarily need to call their version "socialism," and frequently have not. Thus he begins with Emma Lazarus, not Emma Goldman, and proceeds to Walt Whitman, who in old age considered himself "more radical than the radicals" but left it to his protégé, the half-Jewish Horace Traubel, to become intimate friends with Eugene V. Debs and publish a socialist weekly for decades in Philadelphia. Nichols's point is that really egalitarian ideas borrow from the socialist framework and have enriched that framework, as those ideas have proved necessary across the generations. 

Buhle argues that US liberalism has reached an historic end point, with the Democratic Party unable to realize the progressive aspirations of those who would see shrinking income inequalities and social welfare provision. Both Buhle and Nichols realize that we are in dire need of alternatives.

Would we call those alternatives socialist? At a moment when the Right regards every measure of public safety, protection of the water supplies, even the presence of Social Security and public (oops, "government") schools, as manifestations of demonic socialism, perhaps the word and the larger idea can be reclaimed. Me, I like the nineteenth-century phrase (used as a title by an early and popular socialist tract) the "Cooperative Commonwealth." I want to live in one of these and so, I am sure, does the remarkable journalist and TV personality John Nichols. 

Visit Tikkun to read the review in full.

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