I recently finished reading John Nichols’ enligtening short history of socialism in America, The S” Word, which takes the reader on a selective tour of socialists, and those inspired by them, starting from the days of the founding fathers to the present.
For those who think that socialist thinking is something alien to the U.S., Nichols’ book should come as quite a surprise, since communal and social ideas go back to the very start of the U.S. Nichols takes great pains to link people like Walt Whitman, Thomas Paine and Abraham Lincoln to leading socialist thinkers of their times, and overall he is convincing in making the case that there has always been a leftist strain in American politics, albeit under many names.
As an avowed libertarian, I take issue with most of the positions that socialists like Nichols espouse. I do not think the collective good should take precedence over the freedom of the individual, and I would happily have a social good lost in the preservation of personal liberties. That said, I am not one of those who lump anyone on the left in with the “socialists,” and I accept that there is a spectrum of opinions on the left, as there is on the right. Approaching the book with that frame of mind, Nichols’ survey is crucial to understanding not just that socialists have influenced many major American social changes, from land grants in the 19th century to civi rights in the 20th, but that so many ideas that once seemed “socialist” are now readily accepted in conservative politics. There was a time when the idea of the Federal government holding primary responsibility for the state of the U.S. economy would have been laughable, likewise that the Federal government had any role in saying who should and should not marry. It’s interesting to see how the idea that government should drive social change, once a decidedly “socialst” concept, is now part and parcel of standard-brand Republican thinking.
Reflecting on that evolution, I thought back to the old saying about how the Greeks (seen as “soft” and too worldly) eventually took over the intellectual life of their Roman conquerors. A similar thing could be said of the impact the thinkers Nichols writes about have had in the U.S. For while they undoubtedly lost the war for America’s mind, they, perhaps, in the end, won its heart. This is unfortunate, because on the whole this movement towards seeing government as the principal solution to social issues is, I think, antithetical to what the U.S. is supposed to be: a nation where people have the right to live as they chose, so long as they do no harm to others. As Nichols makes clear, those of us who regret the erosion of that basic identity need to understand that the opposing strain of thought is not something to be taken lightly, tossed around like an imaginary label, but a real force that must be respected, understood and defeated with intellectual rigor and not simplistic, mindless rhetoric.