An important reminder of the invaluable strains of socialist thought throughout American political history, from fighting despotism to creating universal health care.
Socialism has become a bad word, feared equally by the left and right, for different political reasons, but mostly because people haven’t read the work of Thomas Paine, Walt Whitman or Abraham Lincoln, or learned about the socialist experiments that really worked in America, such as in Milwaukee, Wisc., the author’s hometown. The Washington correspondent for the The Nation, Nichols (The Death and Life of American Journalism) doesn’t bother too much with definitions, but allows Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” on the Statue of Liberty to offer the basic contours of socialist thought: as a “voice against all injustice”—against the exploitation of the poor by the rich and privileged, and toward a just, egalitarian society. Nichols sifts through the work of Whitman, who, though not a “joiner,” adored radical journalist Fanny Wright, and possessed a deeply socialist vision, as evidenced in Leaves of Grass—e.g., “Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants.” Nichols brilliantly exposes Glenn Beck’s acute ignorance of Paine by actually reading and quoting from the impassioned advocate for engaged citizenship. Then the author examines how Congressman Lincoln was highly influenced by the work of Karl Marx, and Milwaukee maintained a proud socialist mayor even through the red scare of the 1950s, while socialist journalist Victor Berger of the Milwaukee Leader courageously challenged the constitutionality of the Espionage Act of 1917. Nichols also provides some terrific little-known evidence and excellent rebuttal of the current digs at Barack Obama and others.
A brief and selective but well-written and spirited study.