The “S” Word

By Sharon Carson

Remember this scene from the 1962 movie The Manchurian Candidate?

It’s the 1950s, and right-wing Senator John Iselin is talking to his wife, a.k.a. his political handler and a secret Soviet agent (played with excellent ick by Angela Lansbury). Senator Iselin says to Evil Spouse:

“There’s just one thing, babe. I’d be a lot happier if we could just settle on the number of Communists I know there are in the Defense Department. I mean, the way you keep changing the figures on me all the time, it makes me look like some kind of nut, like…like an idiot.”

Well, we can be forgiven for checking the decade on our calendars lately, especially after Florida Representative Allen West waved around his own list of “Communists in Congress!”

Like the fictional Senator Iselin, Representative West keeps changing his number of alleged communists. When pressed to defend his fantasy, Mr. West lectured reporters about their need to “study ideologies,” but he apparently cannot distinguish between Angela Lansbury and the Progressive Congressional Caucus.

West’s ludicrous rhetoric would be funny except that his red-baiting is part of a nasty national campaign strategy. Calculated and cynical, the strategy aims to denigrate and demonize American citizens who advocate for things like universal access to health care, strong public schools, expanded civil rights, better regulation of Wall Street, stronger unions, public libraries, environmental protections, Public Broadcasting, the First Amendment, Social Security, functioning roads, bridges and infrastructure, and a democratic government that protects individual freedoms in balance with the social good.

Americans who advocate for social-ism, in other words.

Happily, there are potent antidotes for today’s red-baiting ick. An excellent first dose can be found in John Nichols’ recent book The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism. Here you will find Thomas Paine, Emma Lazarus, Walt Whitman, and chapters like “Reading Marx with Abraham Lincoln” or “’Simply a Stupid Piece of Despotism’: How Socialists Saved the First Amendment.”

A good regional dose can be found in Elwyn B. Robinson’s famous History of North Dakota (1966), which includes three refreshingly non-hysterical chapters entitled “The Progressive Movement,” “The Great Socialist Experiment” and “A Socialistic State in the First World War.” Robinson was a serious interpreter of North Dakota’s progressive and socialist history, and his book is still a good starting point for studying the Nonpartisan League, the Bank of North Dakota, the Socialist Party, labor history, and the emergence of various agrarian “cooperative commonwealths” in our state.

Speaking of cooperative commonwealths, it is fascinating in the current political climate to go exploring in a truly remarkable 1300+ page study called Socialism and American Life. This collaborative two-volume set, edited by Stow Persons and Donald Drew Egbert, was calmly published at Princeton University in 1952, during the height of the McCarthy red scare. It’s available in public university libraries at Minot State, Valley City State, Jamestown College, Bismarck State, Mayville State and UND.

Serious study of American socialist history offers hundreds of trails across several centuries. Just a tiny sampling of the many detail-rich sections in Socialism and American Life: The Interaction of Socialist and American Democratic Theories of History; Marxism and Music; Socialist Criticism of Communists; Literary Utopias and Utopian Socialism; The Religious Basis of Western Socialism; Socialism in American Art; The Theological Background of Christian Socialism.

In light of that last entry, it’s curious to notice that Rep. West invokes the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his own congressional website. As Nichols reminds us in The “S” Word, King worked closely for his entire public career with democratic socialists like A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. In fact, King was often accused of being a communist in his day, a tactic used frequently by those trying to discredit the civil rights movement.

Another tidbit in Volume 2 of Socialism and American Life is a section called “The Mormons.” It’s a fair guess that Mitt Romney will not soon be called a communist by members of his own party, but Socialism and American Life presents a very interesting bibliographic essay on the communitarian and cooperative nature of early Mormonism.

It is tempting to quickly dismiss demagogues who wave around lists of communists, but red-baiting theatrics are calculated to make Americans nervous about being associated with progressive politics and progressive history. “Red scare” tactics have a long and efficient history..

The best antidote for red-baiting is to put the “S” word (not to mention the beleaguered “L” word) squarely and unapologetically right up on the public table for study and democratic debate. In fact, it’s been 60 years since Socialism and American Life was published– maybe it’s time to write Volume Three.

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