Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 28, 2011

John Nichols’s socialism and ours

Filed under: socialism — louisproyect @ 7:01 pm

While thumbing through the Left Forum 2011 program last month in search of some worthwhile panel discussions, I did a bit of a double-take when I saw that Nation Magazine regular John Nichols was speaking at one titled “Actually Existing Socialism–in U.S. History”. Actually, I did a quadruple-take since I had no idea what actually existing socialism could possibly mean in capitalist America to start with. Beyond that, how did Nichols get himself on such a panel since The Nation has carved out such a niche for itself as the voice of capitalist reform? Of course, the answer is simply that for some capitalist reform and socialism are identical.

Nichols’s talk was most likely drawn from his new book titled “The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism”. It was published by our good friends at Verso who surely could do better than this.

You can read a Nichols article titled “How Socialists Built America” in The Nation that like his talk is drawn from the book.  His use of the term socialism has little to do with Marxism as should be obvious, even though it pays lip-service to the idea that “Marxist tracts” can be a guide to political action:

Borrowing ideas and approaches from socialists would not make Obama any more of a socialist than Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt or Dwight Eisenhower. All these presidential predecessors sampled ideas from Marxist tracts or borrowed from Socialist Party platforms so frequently that the New York Times noted in a 1954 profile the faith of an aging Norman Thomas that he “had made a great contribution in pioneering ideas that have now won the support of both major parties”—ideas like “Social Security, public housing, public power developments, legal protection for collective bargaining and other attributes of the welfare state.” The fact is that many of the men who occupied the Oval Office before Obama knew that implementation of sound socialist or social democratic ideas did not put them at odds with the American experiment or the Constitution.

Socialism should not be confused with the welfare state, especially since many of its innovations were associated with powerful despots who sought to preempt socialism through measures like social security. Reading Wikipedia, we learn it was not FDR who invented the welfare state but Otto Von Bismarck:

Bismarck implemented the world’s first welfare state in the 1880s. He worked closely with big industry and aimed to stimulate German economic growth by giving workers greater security.[56] A secondary concern was trumping the Socialists, who had no welfare proposals of their own and opposed Bismark’s. Bismarck especially listened to Hermann Wagener and Theodor Lohmann, advisers who persuaded Bismarck to give workers a corporate status in the legal and political structures of the new German state.[57] On 20 March 1884, Bismarck declared:

The real grievance of the worker is the insecurity of his existence; he is not sure that he will always have work, he is not sure that he will always be healthy, and he foresees that he will one day be old and unfit to work. If he falls into poverty, even if only through a prolonged illness, he is then completely helpless, left to his own devices, and society does not currently recognize any real obligation towards him beyond the usual help for the poor, even if he has been working all the time ever so faithfully and diligently. The usual help for the poor, however, leaves a lot to be desired, especially in large cities, where it is very much worse than in the country.[58]

Under Bismarck, the following pieces of legislation were enacted:

  • Health Insurance Bill of 1883
  • Accident Insurance Bill of 1884
  • Old Age and Disability Insurance Bill of 1889

It should be added that FDR created the New Deal for exactly the same reasons that Bismarck pushed through such bills. They were aimed to undermine the possibility of a proletarian revolution that could create the basis for genuine socialism and not crumbs from the bosses’ table.

Nichols also has a rather disturbing soft spot for Harry S. Truman who—unlike Barack Obama—did not run away from the “socialism” label:

Truman did not cower at the mention of the word “socialism,” which in those days was distinguished in the minds of most Americans from Soviet Stalinism, with which the president—a mean cold warrior—was wrangling. Nor did Truman, who counted among his essential allies trade unionists like David Dubinsky, Jacob Potofsky and Walter Reuther, all of whom had been connected with socialist causes and in many cases the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs and Norman Thomas, rave about the evils of social democracy. Rather, he joked that “Out of the great progress of this country, out of our great advances in achieving a better life for all, out of our rise to world leadership, the Republican leaders have learned nothing. Confronted by the great record of this country, and the tremendous promise of its future, all they do is croak, ‘socialism.’”

With all due respect to John Nichols, who strikes me as someone rather innocent of the realities of the Cold War, Truman initiated a program that deeply damaged socialism even if it was carried out in the name of defeating the wicked Stalinists and preserving the New Deal after a fashion.

It was Truman after all who pushed through Executive Order 9835 that laid the basis for McCarthyism. This diktat was an attempt to define parameters for what constituted a “loyal” American with firings and jail terms for those who fell outside them. In fact it was just this order that set into motion a fear of the Other that is still manifested today in ultra-right obsessions over Obama’s birth certificate and his supposedly “socialist” goals.

In the final analysis, Nichols is expressing nostalgia for a social democratic movement that pretty much disappeared after the trade unions stopped being an effective foundation for activists who labeled themselves socialists but who were really liberals. He writes:

A young writer who had recognized that it was possible to reject Soviet totalitarianism while still learning from Marx and embracing democratic socialism left the fold of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement to join the Young People’s Socialist League. Michael Harrington wanted to change the debate about poverty in America, and perhaps remarkably or perhaps presciently, he presumed that attaching himself to what was left of the once muscular but at that point ailing Socialist Party was the way to do so. In a 1959 article for the then-liberal Commentary magazine, Harrington sought, in the words of his biographer, Maurice Isserman, “to overturn the conventional wisdom that the United States had become an overwhelmingly middle-class society. Using the poverty-line benchmark of a $3,000 annual income for a family of four, he demonstrated that nearly a third of the population lived ‘below those standards which we have been taught to regard as the decent minimums for food, housing, clothing and health.’”

Unfortunately for John Nichols (and the entire crew at the Nation Magazine for that matter), the economic basis for a New Deal and a War on Poverty does not exist. Hoping that a section of the bourgeoisie will respond to the dulcet tones of Katrina Vanden Heuvel on MSNBC is utopianism of the highest order. Right now the Democrats are playing soft cop to the Republican Party’s hard cop. The Republicans demand that the social legislation that came out of the New Deal be 100 percent repealed. Meanwhile, the Democrats provide a spineless opposition. Vote for us and only 50 percent will be dismantled and all the while The Nation will be providing arguments about why it is necessary to vote Democrat.

The real need today happens to be for a genuine socialist movement. The left took an unfortunate detour in the 1920s after the inspiring victory of the Russian Revolution. Stalinism became synonymous with socialism and the possibility for a Debs type Socialist Party weakened. Ironically when it began to revivify in the late 30s, the Trotskyists helped to sabotage it through their “entryist” tactic that left leader James P. Cannon crowing over the virtual elimination of the SP.

Something like the SP is sorely needed today and might even come into being as the ruling class becomes more and more aggressive in its attacks on the trade unions and basic social legislation like Medicare. Like sharks that have tasted blood in the water, they will continue to attack. When workers finally understand that their class interests are being threatened, they will finally begin to act. As someone in the Trotskyist movement once said, the student radicalization of the 1960s was like leaves shaking on a branch under the impact of a strong wind. But when the wind reaches tornado-like intensity, the trunk of the tree—the working class—will finally begin to move. When that happens, all you rich bastards better watch your god-damned asses.


  1. Part of the problem is his leaving out the CPUSA, as was pointed out in a review at Political Affairs.  I’m not sure that he deserves to be so criticized for failing to do something that he did not set out to do, however, which is to say that he’s likely more interested in broadening the mainstream appeal of some vague concept of democratic socialism, and much less interested in laying out a history of revolutionary communist tendencies in the United States in order to address its implications for a more militant audience.  On balance, I think what he is doing is more beneficial than not (even if such sentiments risk painting his work as a sort of “gateway drug.”)

    Comment by Robert — April 28, 2011 @ 10:04 pm

  2. How does the IWW fit into the Nichols mosaic? Or does it make an appearance at all? Just curious.

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 28, 2011 @ 10:27 pm

  3. Yes, it does seem that Nichols’s concept of socialism is a bit naive. In fact, it is really no different than what the right sees as “socialism” which is really just reformism and the welfare state. But I do agree with Robert that maybe this project of his may be beneficial in relieving the word itself from the stigma that has become attached to it.

    Comment by Rob — April 28, 2011 @ 10:28 pm

  4. The IWW is mentioned four times in the book. First, in reference to the “sewer socialism” of the Milwaukee Socialists (Nichols claims that there were some in the IWW who, against the criticisms of Lenin and other Communists, thought that there was a place for municipal socialism). He quotes Joe Hill’s “pie in the sky” line about waiting for the right revolutionary moment as being equivalent to waiting for the preacher’s promise. He does add that not all in the IWW supported what they saw as conciliatory “incrementalism.” The second mention is brief, and points out that the reactionary federal judge who convicted and sentenced Victor Berger had only a few months prior imposed severe sentences on 83 IWW members for violations of the Espionage Act. The third and fourth appearance comes during Nichols’ chapter on organized labor and the drawing of race and color lines. He quotes A. Philip Randolph, who stated that not only was the IWW the only labor organization in the United States that drew no racial lines, membership meant full recourse to direct industrial action, which would be the only genuine source of political power. Of course, after the post-WWI red scare, Randolph had to look elsewhere, and Sam Gompers was no help.

    Comment by Robert — April 29, 2011 @ 3:30 am

  5. Nichols has his tenure, yet feels teacher’s unions need to ‘reform’.(per Henwood interview)

    Comment by purple — April 29, 2011 @ 5:35 am

  6. Purple, you’re mixing up Joel Rogers with Nichols. I dunno Nichols’ position on public school “reform,” but I do know that he is a goo-goo, a goody-goody, and a dweeb — as well as a cringingly bad writer. But forget my substantive assaults, why don’t I get into some ad hominems? 🙂

    Comment by ld — April 29, 2011 @ 6:40 am

  7. Upon consideration, “cringingly bad” may have been an overstatement. “Dishwater dull” and “offensive to style” is probably more like it. Milquetoast writing and milquetoast politics, hand in glove (or glove in hand).

    Comment by ld — April 29, 2011 @ 6:44 am

  8. And what an oddball match Nichols and Verso are! For all of Verso’s Mandarin Marxist faults, its imprint has always been a badge of writerly style. Perry fucking Anderson, for God’s sakes! Who let the mayonnaise casserole eater in the door?

    Comment by ld — April 29, 2011 @ 6:54 am

  9. And what is the goddamn point of this dorky book anyway? Right-wing nutballs impugn Obama as a “socialist.” Our hero Nichols is offended that the good name of “socialism” — which he associates with welfare state meliorism — is been dragged into the mud. Along the way, he forgets that Obama is not even a welfare state meliorist. Shitty politics aside, all we’re left with is a pedestrian account of the social democratic roots of the New Deal and the Great Society — a chore that 100 others have performed 100 times before, each one of them more compellingly. The only unique attribute of this book is its roots in anti-Glenn Beck cry-babyism that the Nation has come to specialize in. Oh, and the puerile writing that is distinctively Nichols’. Verso has really abased itself. They must be really hard up.

    Comment by ld — April 29, 2011 @ 7:19 am


    “is been” = “is being”

    Comment by ld — April 29, 2011 @ 7:20 am

  11. to Robert: thanks

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 29, 2011 @ 4:29 pm

  12. Except for the last two paragraphs, mis-characterization of Debs, the SP, the SP entrism… this piece is why I check in on Louis’ blog. Good stuff, mostly. Why bother as one commenter seems to say? All you have to do is spend a few weeks working in the trenches… say, in Wisconsin or in a union or in a fight to stop school privatization… spend some time working with a Nichols’/DSA/Freedom Road/CPUSA type (sound radical, vote Democrat… say you’re pro-union but then suck up to the union bureaucrats who are killing off the labor movement) and you can see, up close and personal, why it’s necessary to differentiate between liberalism and socialism.

    Comment by Jeff — April 29, 2011 @ 6:57 pm

  13. Truman was the first president to use Taft-Hartley and Democratic governors broke many strikes in the 30s and 40s. When socialist Upton Sinclair won the Democratic Party nomination for the California Governorship in 1934, the Democratic machine got behind the Commonwealth-Progressive Party to split the vote, enabling a Republican to win with 48% of the vote. If Nichols thinks these folks are socialists, maybe he’d describe Jack Kevorkian as pro-life?

    Comment by Binh — April 29, 2011 @ 7:31 pm

  14. John Nichols has drank too much coffee on King St. in Madison and thinks that Paul Wellstone was a socialist.In fact he supported every Democratic hack coming down the street.

    He knows little to nothing about socialism even though he has met a few like Clarence Kailin ex Lincoln Bridage/CPUSA archtype who broke with Gus Hall over Stalin ( Kailin was more Stalinist than Gus) or myself.

    He writes more often for the Capitalist Times than the Nation.

    Comment by Cort Greene — April 29, 2011 @ 11:32 pm

  15. One thing that I think is very interesting is the rise of MSNBC’s liberal commentators. No, I’m not in love with them, and yes, their politics leave MUCH to be desired. However, it’s interesting to see Lawrence O’donnell argue in his 30 second spot that health care is “a right,” to see Ed Schulz talk about “the rich getting richer” while the “middle class” is getting screwed, and Rachel Maddow saying “not every good idea will be profitable for a corporation.”

    Honestly, I never thought I’d hear these ideas on a corporate network. In some ways, I think the rhetoric of liberals and the Democratic party is becoming progressively more left-wing (reflecting the anger from below) while policy continues to become more and more right-wing (reflecting the balance of class forces in the U.S.).

    I don’t want to make any bold predictions, but I think this situation is in the long run untenable. The Egpytian revolution was the culmination of at least a decade of difficult underground organizing, and I suspect Wisconsin is a taste of what’s to come given the unrelenting assault coming from the ruling class.

    Comment by Binh — May 11, 2011 @ 1:43 am

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