The “S” Word: a short history of an american tradition… socialism by John Nichols

The “S” Word offers a lucid account of how socialist ideas and the labour movement helped shape many of the institutions and policies that current day Americans take for granted. Nichols draws out the connection between the abolitionist movement to end slavery and the First International (or The International Workingmen’s Association) in europe; and how Abraham Lincoln not only worked closely with one of Marx’s longtime editors but maintained open correspondence with Marx and the first international. While Lincoln was by no means a Marxist he valued a pro labour analysis and actively campaigned on a pro labour position.

The book goes on to cover the entangled relationship between the labour movement and the civil rights movement by highlighting figures like Philip Randolph, a black american civil rights and labour activist, and how Randolph inspired civil rights and labour activists to author the american Freedom Budget. The 84 page document written in the 1960s during the hight of the civil rights movement made its objectives clear with eleven goals.

1) the abolition of poverty
2) guaranteed full employment
3) full production and high economic growth
4) adequate minimum wages
5) farm income parity
6) guaranteed incomes for all unable to work
7) a decent home for every American family
8) modern health services for all
9) full educational opportunity for all
10) updated social security and welfare programs
11) and equitable tax and money policies.

Many of the connections and stories The “S” Word lays out are quite straight forward and obvious when presented. It makes sense that the first international of workers would be invested in doing away with slavery, and that dissident leftist publications have been at the threshold of protecting free speech. But it’s the details and stories that Nichols brings together that helps illustrate how so-called “radical” politics have always been present in the American political landscape, and that many of the standards and policies that even the most conservative of american take for granted as being corner stones of a modern democratic society ( such as women’s suffrage, abolition slavery, minimum wage, public education etc etc) were at one point the terrain of serious conflict fought for by what were then considered  radically minded individuals and groups.

From a rhetorical perspective you don’t have to look any further than the present day labels of US politics – Conservative vs Liberal. In the US ‘liberal’ is used as a blanket term to refer to a rather large spectrum of perspectives some of which are quite left leaning. While formally speaking, and still commonly understood in europe and else where, the term refers to a rather moderate pro free market position. While this may seem like a rather esoteric distinction I think it’s quite helpful in uncovering in some abstract way how the American political discorse has become dominated by free market fundamentalists. Currently enacting this rhetorical mastery, is the emerging “no label” coalition, which want to “get things done.” This no label business is just another way of masking the agenda of free market fundamentalists as some how populist in nature. At any rate I don’t want to dive into a long discussion of that right now, I recommend picking up The “S” Word at your local library, or purchase a copy and then drop it off at the library once you’re finished.


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