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The "S" Word: A Short History of an American Tradition...Socialism

4.01  ·  Rating details ·  418 ratings  ·  79 reviews
A few months before the 2010 midterms, Newt Gingrich described the socialist infiltration of American government and media as “even more disturbing than the threats from foreign terrorists.” John Nichols offers an unapologetic retort to the return of red-baiting in American political life—arguing that socialism has a long, proud, American history. Tom Paine was enamored of ...more
Paperback, 336 pages
Published March 21st 2011 by Verso (first published January 1st 2011)
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Start your review of The "S" Word: A Short History of an American Tradition...Socialism
Nichols, a journalist who has written for The Nation and The Wisconsin State Journal as well as for other progressive publications, has several goals in writing The "S" Word. One is to blow off some steam regarding his frustration with the state of public discourse in the US (which he describes as being at its lowest point ever), with right-wing commentators who have used their bully pulpit to drag the term "socialist" through the mud and with the left-wing politicians and media who have let the ...more
Alisa Harris
Jun 04, 2018 added it
Shelves: 2018
If you (like me) joined the Democratic Socialists of America in a fit of rage and confusion after November 9, 2016 and then quickly realized you were slightly in over your head, this book is for you. It gives a good, brief (if incomplete) overview of the American tradition of socialism and the moments in history where it had the ear of presidents and those in power.

It’s about Thomas Paine, denounced by his fellow founders but embraced by generations of socialists who gravitated to his vision of
Stuart Elliott
Feb 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: socialism
Nichols has written a persuasive case that socialism is as American as apple pie. From the forgotten radical economics of founding father Thomas Paine and the utopian socialists who founded the Republican Party to Victor Berger, the socialist Congressman from Milwaukee, who opposed WWI, to Michael Harrington it is a great read.

The subtitle is a little misleading. Nichols leaves out some important topics that even a short history should contain: the Populist movement of the 1890s and the most su
Oct 08, 2018 rated it really liked it
This past six weeks or so in Clare Making Good Decisions, we have the following: Decide to do a DSA presentation on American history right when I get back from Vegas. Wait three weeks before putting in a request at the library for Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. Pick it up from the library and panic that it's like 700 pages long. Remember that you picked up a shorter book on American socialist history from Verso at one of their ebook sales last year. Then, even though it ...more
Sean Estelle
Jan 05, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: readwithshred
This book is an important revisionist history of the United States that isn't as broad and sweeping as Zinn's People's History, but rather chooses specific characters and episodes to make the point in its subtitle - that socialism is a homegrown American tradition, despite the contradictions presented by genocide, slavery, and everything else terrible that is in our rear-view mirror. The chapter on A. Philip Randolph is particularly good, and worth reading for that alone - but the rest of the bo ...more
Jacob Sugarman
Jul 23, 2019 rated it really liked it
Yeah yeah yeah, I know what you're thinking. Another white dude studying political economy who loves socialism. Just what our country needs. ACTUALLY, if you took the goddamn time to read this stupid book you would REALIZE that the American socialist tradition goes WELL BEYOND this Warby Parker wearing, Bernie Sanders supporting, Laundry ignoring 21 year old leftist. Ya ever heard of the ARMY????? What about MEDICAID you fucking IDIOT! Anyway, good book. Read it if you want to be inspired and ho ...more
Jul 17, 2015 rated it really liked it
I won't venture to say this is the best book that I've ever read, but it served a dutiful purpose. If you can get through the detailed writing (which is important) you must read this book. Many Americans rail against Big Brother and the excess of government. They cry fowl against Socialism while they scream for politicians to keep their hands off their Medicare.
For too long, the far-right has dominated the political discourse in this county. They have turned the "S" word into something scary an
Aug 10, 2015 rated it it was amazing
"'Ignorance alone stands in the way of socialist success. The capitalist parties understand this and use their resources to prevent the workers from seeing the light. Intellectual darkness is essential to industrial slavery. The very moment a workingman beings to do his own thinking he understands the paramount issue, parts company with the capitalist politician and falls in line with his own class on the political battlefield.'" - Eugene V. Debs ...more
John  Mihelic
Dec 10, 2017 rated it it was amazing
When I was in college, a friend let me borrow a copy of Zinn’s people’s history. In those pages I learned about Columbus treating the Arawak Indians worse than his dogs, but I also learned hope in the words of Eugene Debs and the millions that voted for him over several years.

It was part of history that just wasn’t part of the history they teach, the gloss over where in high school I wrote dates of things in my notebooks from sheets on the wall, or projections on the overhead. There was less ab
Zach Koenig
May 09, 2020 rated it really liked it
Four years ago (2016), I fell hard for the Senator Bernie Sanders political campaign, touting its brand of democratic socialism. I'm relatively new/late to the "socialist party" though, if you will, so I really wanted to learn more about its history within the United States. Despite being a tough read in many respects, "The 'S" Word" accomplished that goal for me.

Basically, author John Nichols takes a look at how certain tenets of socialism have been woven into the fabric of American democracy.
Sam Whitehill
Nichols argues that some of the greatest figures throughout American history have grappled with socialist ideas and we are better off for it. From Tom Paine to Walt Whitman, from Abe Lincoln to MLK, with a lot of Michael Harrington worship towards the end. (Apparently the way forward for socialists, if they can’t get elected themselves, is to have the ear of someone in power.) A better book might have focused on the actions of working people themselves to fight for civil rights and justice on th ...more
Alexander Reed Kelly
Jul 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I am embarrassed and ashamed to admit that I just read this book, which I first obtained and began reading when it was published in 2011. Nichols is an efficient guide. The “S” Word is a clear, accessible, abridged survey of significant socialist figures and developments in the history of the United States, full of facts and details that would have made me a far more powerful advocate for socialism during the past 10 years if I had possessed them. After reading this book, I am more confident in ...more
Aaron Sharp
May 31, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book deepened my understanding of the influence of socialist thought on American history. Through accounts of academics, politicians, religious leaders, labor organizers, & civil rights icons instrumental in the advancement of socialist policies and ideas, my former concept of socialism gave-way to the reality and the history of the movement. I highly recommend this enlightening and inspiring book.
Dawson Hughes
Jun 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A must read for any folks interested in American history
Jason Scoggins
Jul 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Superb, necessary literature to read. Establishes what the socialist platform in America has pursued for centuries. Equality
Jul 28, 2019 marked it as to-read
And yet,
"Lincoln never took up the mantle of socialism."
Sep 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An excellent and quick read. DSA members should read this book!
James Govednik
“One need not embrace socialism ideologically or practically to recognize that public-policy discussions ought to entertain a full range of ideas.”

Add this book to those that seek to deliver “what they didn’t tell us in school.” Or at home. Or anywhere, except maybe good old Socialist hideouts like…Milwaukee? This book is a great accounting of the history of socialist thought in America, even when it might not have been called “the ‘S’ word.” John Nichols recounts the story of “A Very American –
Paul Froehlich
Oct 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Who said this? “These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people.” a) Marx b) Debs c) Lenin d) Lincoln e) FDR
The correct answer is Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican president. Lincoln also said, “Labor is prior to, and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Those are sentiments no longer shared by the
Dec 31, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Effective polemical history aimed at combating the amnesia surrounding America's radical and socialist traditions. Particularly interesting on the relationship between Marx and the radicals who created the Republican Party as well as on "sewer socialism" in Nichols's Milwaukee. But reading the afterword, published in 2015, it occurred to me that it's a bit odd for Nichols's to have written a book about socialism that focuses mainly on prominent individuals -- a "great man" history of American so ...more
Lukas Evan
Feb 18, 2019 rated it really liked it
I think I might be a socialist.
Matthew Van Allen
Mar 22, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: my-home-library
This book should be required reading for everyone in our country. If more people understood the true meaning of Socialism and it's long and dramatic effects in the USA, then we could move away from the state of fear associated with the word and have a more constructive conversation about our options now and in the future. ...more
Sep 18, 2011 rated it really liked it
Americans who consider themselves to be progressive are foolish to continually cast their lot with the very entrenched Democratic party. This book details a period of time when the Socialist party was very influential in US politics and makes a case for going there again. Highly readable too.
May 18, 2020 rated it liked it
Docked two stars because my interest kept waning. There were sections where he told the history of socialism like he really enjoyed the topic and gave it to us as a fascinating narrative, but then there were sections where he just listed factoids and numbers and I wanted to stop reading.
Feb 01, 2012 rated it it was amazing
An excellent book. It covers a lot of the successes of socialism and how many of the good things about America we take for granted have their roots in various socialist movements.
During the 2016 election cycle, Sen. Bernie Sanders made waves in the Democratic Party by being unapologetically socialist. Considering the past few decades of vitriol spewed at socialists, real and imagined, by conservative media, it was a breath of fresh air for many. However, as this book reminds people, the United States of America has a long a proud tradition of socialists and socialist thoughts that have influenced policy since its founding.

Starting with Thomas Paine and Walt Whitman, Mr.
Oct 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
Definitely a history book you could also title, "More Stuff You Never Learned in School." Although a little dry at times; a very interesting read full of American History relating to the how prevalent Socialism (or at least Socialist policies) have been part of our nations development.

Thomas Paine, an intellectual hero to many advocated for the creation of a welfare state where the sick and the poor were taken care of through public tax dollars. Although there was no term, "Socialism," then he
Simon M.
Nov 03, 2020 added it
Shelves: left-lit
This book is summed up simply in Naomi Klein’s quote picked out onto the cover: “A crucial book”.

I have a few gripes with this book (confusing run-on sentences, which divulge onto too many tangents; the lack thereof oxford commas; and class reductionism in dealing with African-American and labor, as seen in sentences of “not merely [race problem] but [insert class problem]) but it is essential. The author sets out specifically to paint American history with some strokes of red, which he succeed
Scott Johnson
Aug 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
The message of this book and most of its content are fantastic. It's just held back a bit by some style issues, particularly massive run-on sentences and gigantic, unfocused paragraphs. Some sentences had just way too many nested subordinate clauses and were a puzzle to untangle and turn into coherent thoughts.

The first few chapters felt a little more unfocused than the rest and were a bit of a slog to get through, but your patience is rewarded. It's interesting reading this in the context of wh
Thomas May
Jan 05, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I really love the chapter divisions in this book. Each feels like a unique and cohesive moment in US history in which one manifestation of socialism led to the next.

Most of the particulars of this book were new information to me, and because of the sheer number of insights alone, I rate it highly. The author also has a solid conversational style sometimes lacking in nonfiction and demonstrates an EXTENSIVE knowledge of our country’s history with the fairer political school.

In the end, theory is
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