"The S Word": John Nichols on Socialism

Nation magazine reporter John Nichols has written a whole book about socialism in the USA the S word it has a long and storied American history in fact he says last summer I had a chance to ask John about his book and more for more information about the S word you can go to our website I'm John Nichols I read about politics for the Nation magazine but one of the things I'm most interested in is social movements and political movements and one of the things that always strikes me is that we we have a very poor sense of history as regards our social movements in America the fact of the matter is that many ideologies have deep roots in this country you can find libertarian streams that go back to the founding of the Republic you can also find socialist streams that go back to the founding of the Republic Tom Payne's last great pamphlet was called agrarian justice and in it he outlined a theory of a social welfare state in the years that followed radical activists are often referred to by even the New York Times as read pay Knights ie that they were advocating for ideas outlined in agrarian justice a rather social democratic notion the Republican Party was clearly founded by many people who identified as Social Democrats including some friends of Karl Marx who had emigrated after the 1848 uprisings in Europe and this just goes on throughout our history the truth of the matter is America has a very rich radical socialist social democratic history and when we begin to look at it what we find is that it didn't always define this country but it often added ideas to the discourse and I think that's part of our crisis today our discourse has become very very narrow very defined by wealthy and powerful folks and we don't have the inputs that we used to have demanding Social Security Medicare Medicaid demanding civil rights demanding big changes now that's not to say we don't have movements today that are making demands and some of them are rising and we have a new era where we're seeing things happen but we ought to understand that it was not uncommon in the era of say a Franklin Roosevelt to have President Roosevelt sit down and meet with Norman Thomas who was the socialist candidate for president United States they're comfortably to have John Kennedy read the socialist Michael Harrington's book the other America and to have Lyndon Johnson invite Harrington as well as radicals like a philip Randolph to a White House to outline ideas for how to address poverty Lincoln Lincoln was a fascinating case Abraham Lincoln was a great reader of Horace Greeley's New York Herald Tribune earlier Herald Tribune and other publications that Greeley put out over the years and the important thing to understand is that Karl Marx was Greeley's European correspondent and so there's very little question that Abraham Lincoln read really radical ideas and read a lot of really radical ideas and what's interesting is that in a book I did on all this it's interesting that when you listen to Lincoln's speeches you will find that while I wouldn't even necessarily say he was a social democrat except on some land issues I think he may have been there but what I will say is that he often integrated language that was clearly radical ideas class analysis talking about the importance of labor as it relates to capital and you think well wow that's certainly sounding like like a foreign idea no that was something that Abraham Lincoln talked about in his first State of the Union address Meyer London was a immigrant from Lithuania who came to New York and his father had been an activist he'd grew up on the Lower East Side he became very active in needle trades you know the unions that made clothing in the early years of the 20th century that was a big deal Meyer London represented many of the rising unions he was an activist and in 1914 a hundred years ago Meyer London filed his paperwork to run for the United States Congress as a socialist he ran against the Democrat and Republican from the Lower East Side and he was elected now what's fascinating about this was when he was elected it wasn't that big a deal because in New York City there was a large social democratic socialist movement there and and it wasn't that shocking to people he went up to Congress and served in Congress as a very bold very radical player as did another socialist elected from Milwaukee two years earlier Viktor burger and and I think this is one of the things that people ought to understand that historically we have had socialists sit in our Congress we've had Social Democrats sit in our Congress we've had some very very radical people there and they have not hectored from the sidelines they have often framed out ideas and an important ideas and Meyer London as we note the hundredth anniversary of his election to Congress was someone who was a great leader on a host of economic issues health care issues social justice issues trade union issues framing out much of what would become the New Deal but also on issues like anti-semitism and civil rights and this is an important part of our history when we deny third parties and I will say third parties to the right and the left and groupings that are outside of our mainstream politics when we deny that history we we did we don't understand how things happen things happen when people on the Lower East Side of New York elect a guy like Meyer London to Congress

2 thoughts on “"The S Word": John Nichols on Socialism

  • I'm am only about half way through your book. Chapter 2 which featured both Abraham Lincoln and Karl Marx writings in Horace Greeley's in the defunct New York Tribune is the absolute best, and shows in the past presidents of the United States of America where not inflexible to different governing theories. But between your book and David McCullough's John Adams , two of the best books I have ever read in my life, and yes I could already put your book up there. I have some dissapointments of my readings too but I won't go into them.

  • Excellent speaker and educator..A sociology student's information nugget…Always appreciative of this show. Thank you so much…Keep up the great work..

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