On this May Day, it seems like a good time to talked about a great American tradition: socialism. I’ve never thought that much about socialism, because I learned in an introductory course in economics that pretty much every country on earth is a mixed economy: part socialist and part capitalist. And if you talk to people, you will find that what they like most about America is more the socialist side of things. They like Social Security, for example. And Medicare. But if you ask them about socialism, they’ll likely tell you it is evil. At least they will if they’re old.
The “S” Word
John Nichols’ The “S” Word: a Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism was a revelation. In one way, it is a history of the movement from Thomas Paine to Michael Harrington. But more than this, it puts socialism and socialist thinkers into the context of the American experiment. It shows that even though socialists have never gained power in the United States, their thinking pushed the country in directions that improved it. At least until recently.
In the last chapter of the book, Nichols discusses the last couple of decades of Democratic Party politics. During this time the party has fled from socialist thought only to turn into the anemic mess that it is. He writes, “It is no secret that battles of consequence are won with a politics of meaning, not mumbled apologies.” Sound like a political party you know?
Slightly later, he lays out this case more forcefully:
More than anything, The “S” Word woke me up to America’s early history. I had know, for example, that Benjamin Franklin had started a public school and that other founders were involved with things that today’s GOP would call “Socialist!” But I had little knowledge of just how healthy socialist thought was at that time and continuing on up through the 1960s. In particular, Thomas Paine’s Agrarian Justice is mind boggling in its modern and revolutionary content.
So much for the good news.
There is no book I so looked forward to reading as Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind. Robin is one of these “scary smart” guys who make me feel stupid just by breathing. In this book, he brings together all of his impressive erudition and intelligence to explain what has always been a very confusing question: what is a conservative. Here’s the thing: during my lifetime, political conservatives have not been what I would call “conservative.” What was it that they were conserving?
Robin’s answer is as profound as it is simple: they are conserving installed power structures. This explains so many things. First, it explains why conservatives never look back 50 years and say, “We were right about denying blacks the right to vote!” And why in 50 years they won’t look back and say, “We were right about denying gays the right to marry.” As Robin says in the introduction:
What is most striking in The Reactionary Mind is the illustration that the common paradigm of the right-left continuum as being between liberty and security is totally wrong. Conservatives are not interested in the liberty of the masses, just the elites:
All of this is just subtext, because Robin’s real argument is that conservatism is not about anything; it is in reaction to something: emancipation movements. This is a freeing concept. For no longer do I need to fret that conservatives don’t seem to make any sense. For example, Obama is a very conservative guy; why do conservatives claim he is a socialist? Simple: even though he may not be willing to fight for it, he believes the economy should be a little more equal. This can’t be accepted. The use of the “S” word doesn’t matter; they could call him a bugger-nose; it’s all the same.
The most disconcerting part of Robin’s thesis (which is much broader and deeper than I’m indicating here) is that it explains the “What’s the Matter With Kansas” issue. Why does a man vote for conservative policies when his best interests are served by liberal policies? The poor man is still master of his castle: his home, wife, children. To accept that women ought to have the right to vote (an issue not long settled and knowing the GOP maybe not fully settled yet) is to accept that his wife ought to have a say in the home. Better to hang on to all hierarchy rather than risk losing the little power he has.
Is it any wonder that women are more liberal than men?
Too Much to Talk About
There is one chapter of The Reactionary Mind that had a special appeal to me because I was once married to an Ayn Rand aficionado: “Garbage and Gravitas.” In this chapter, Robin argues that Rand’s work (fiction and non-fiction) is nothing more than Hollywood melodrama. Once again, Robin manages to see the obvious that we have all missed. His deconstruction of her and her movement is brilliant. Here he is discussing her novels:
Then there is the question of what Rand really has to offer:
And he brings it all together at the end:
I haven’t even touched on the second half of The Reactionary Mind which is about the conservative adoration of war—largely for its own sake. Both The Reactionary Mind and The “S” Word need to be read.
Happy May Day!