May Day Reading

The 'S' WordOn 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:

One need not embrace socialism ideologically or practically to recognize that public-policy discussions ought to entertain a full range of ideas—from right to left, not from far right to center right. Historically, America welcomed the range of ideas, and benefited by the discourse. Where Michael Harrington once promised a country which still believed in the possibility that “under socialism there will be no end to history—but there may be a new history,” we have since been told that we have reached an “end to history” in which neoliberal economics and neoconservative foreign policies are our fate—no matter how frequently they fail. And we can’t even mention the “S” word.

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.

The Reactionary MindThe Reactionary Mind

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:

Today’s conservative may have made his peace with some emancipations past; others, like labor unions and reproductive freedom, he still contests. But that does not alter the fact that when those emancipations first arose as a question, whether in the context of revolution or reform, his predecessor was in all likelihood against them.

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:

Historically, the conservative has favored liberty for the higher orders and constraint for the lower orders. What the conservative sees and dislikes in equality, in other words, is not a threat to freedom but its extension.

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:

The chief conflict in Rand’s novels, then, is not between the individual and the masses. It is between the demigod-creator and all those unproductive elements of society—the intellectuals, bureaucrats, and middlemen—that stand between him and the masses. Aesthetically, this makes for kitsch; politically, it bends toward fascism. Admittedly, the argument that there is a connection between fascism and kitsch has taken a beating over the years. Yet surely the example of Rand is suggestive enough to put the question of that connection back on the table.

Then there is the question of what Rand really has to offer:

[Rand biographer Jennifer Berns] concludes that “what remains” of enduring value in Rand is her injunction to “be true to yourself.” Yet it hardly took Rand to teach us that; indeed, the very same notion figures in a play about a Danish prince written roughly [three] centuries before Rand’s birth.

And he brings it all together at the end:

But after all the Nietzsche is said and Aristotle is done, we’re still left with a puzzle about Rand: how could such a mediocrity, not just a second-hander but a second-rater, exert such a continuing influence on the culture at large?


[H]er success explains itself. Rand worked in that quintessential American proving ground—alongside the likes of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Glenn Beck—where garbage achieves gravitas and bullshit gets blessed. There she learned that dreams don’t come true. They are true. Turn your metaphysics into chewing gum, and your chewing gum is metaphysics. A is A.

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!

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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