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American Socialism: a review of The S Word

This episode Justin and I talked about the book The S Word by John Nichols. It’s supposed to be a book about the history of American socialism but rather it seems to be a book about democratic socialism of the more reformist type. In this video Justin is very comfortable discussing American history and some of the figures discussed in the book. I think most of the names and information was new to me. I certainly didn’t know that there were radical socialists on the side of the union and that Lincoln had some affinity with Marx.

It often seems that America has had a kind of hidden history where the radical elements are kept under wraps so that the citizens don’t really understand that challenging the status quo is part of the American tradition. With the ways that politics have been watered down to a choice between fascism and useless moderates. When you hear about the history of radical politics in the US it makes change seem more possible.

The S Word takes the reader through some of that history by focussing on a few individuals that pushed to change the country and the society they were a part of. Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, and others who espoused something close to socialism but were before what we now consider to be the socialist, anarchist, or Marxist traditions. There’s also some discussion of what was called municipal socialism or sewer socialism(by those denigrating it) which was a product of various city officials embracing a socialism they could apply to the cities they ran.

It’s unfortunate that with such a rich history of socialist thought and ideas permeating the culture of America that it became such a rabid capitalist hellscape. In The S Word, Nichols speaks of a type of reformism or use of electoralism to achieve socialist goals incrementally and it’s possible that this is one method that will eventually make some gains towards socialism and it sounds like at the time the book was written it made much more sense. The current political climate in America (and by extension many other countries with similar roots) leaves me more than a bit cynical in that those who seem to enter politics with a good heart and noble goals are often beaten into submission by an establishment that is perfectly content to leave citizens with no rights and destroy the environment rather than actually enact any true change.

All in all it sounds like Justin quite liked this book and recommends everyone read it even though the conclusion of the book seems like it doesn’t quite make sense in the 2020s.

You can get a copy of The S Word from Verso Books -

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