James Govednik's Reviews > The "S" Word: A Short History of an American Tradition... Socialism

The "S" Word by John Nichols
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Aug 25, 2011

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bookshelves: history-biography
Read from March 30 to June 03, 2012

“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 –Ism,” from Tom Paine to Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman to Frank Zeidler.

Frank Zeidler? He was one of America’s most successful mayors, running Milwaukee for three terms in 1950s & ‘60s. Although the word “socialism” has been turned into an epithet by some, the U.S. has a rich history of debating socialism’s merits and borrowing its ideas (with the exception of our time). In fact, the author points out that we owe WWI-era socialists a great debt for standing up for and strengthening our nation’s recognition of the right to free speech, even in wartime. Many Socialists of the time were against the war, and their anti-war speeches led to many of them being wrongly imprisoned. Court cases successfully challenging their convictions helped provide successive generations with less to fear from speaking our mind.

It is often pointed out that many Americans dislike government in the abstract, but love it in the practical, close-to-home applications (roads, bridges, schools, libraries etc.). Nichols does a great job of illustrating that same dichotomy with regard to socialism (like many of those “social” institutions I just mentioned, based on democratic-socialist philosophies). He also gives an encyclopedia-like accounting of the people and events that help the reader better appreciate what socialism really is. “There are, after all, many socialisms.”

The author’s first hand experience with the Wisconsin political world is priceless. His personal acquaintance with Frank Zeidler and others leads to a lot of rich detail. How wonderful to hear this successful Midwestern practitioner of Socialist politics in his own words:

“Socialism as we attempted to practice it here believes that people working together for a common good can produce a greater benefit, both for society and for the individual, than can a society in which everyone is shrewdly seeking their own self-interest…. And I think our record remains one of many more successes than failures.”--Frank Zeidler

If there was one negative to the book, it was that it was a demanding read—like taking a class and studying every time I read, just to keep track of all the info. I would rate it a “4” for content and a “2” for readability. Densely packed with information. A must-read resource, however, for anyone wanting a better understanding of just what is meant by “the ‘S’ Word.”
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