Why there is no socialism in America
Source Dave Anderson
Date 00/06/08/10:59

from the British business magazine The Economist....


Why there is no socialism in

Blame the steaks
By Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks.
W.W. Norton; 384 pages; $26.95 and 19.95

As American labour unions attract hundreds of thousands of new members, an
age-old question is being asked once more

IN 1906 a German sociologist, Werner Sombart, published a book entitled "Why
Is There No Socialism in the United States?", which was notable for its
splendid conclusion that "on rafts of beef and apple pie, socialist utopias
of every description go down to destruction."
This conclusion is too simple for Seymour Martin Lipset and his co-author,
Gary Marks. There has been, for one thing, as they show, quite a lot of
socialism in the United States, even if it never attained the influence
social democracy achieved at different times in Britain, Germany,
Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand. In New York city, in German-settled
Wisconsin, in Scandinavian-settled Minnesota, in the Pacific north-west
(especially among the Oregon Finns) and among Dutch
farmers-turned-industrial-workers in Reading, Pennsylvania, socialist
parties and socialist candidates could and did attract substantial support
over many decades.
Yet in the Great Depression, when the moment arrived, America's socialists
muffed it. Norman Thomas, a patrician socialist leader who saw the issue as
Socialism v Capitalism, insisted on standing against Franklin Roosevelt, and
won only 187,000 votes nationwide. The unions turned away from socialism and
followed FDR within the Democratic Party. Their refusal to endorse the
second world war completed their discomfiture. As for the American
communists, for all their success in infiltrating the intelligentsia and the
leadership of some industrial unions, their appeal was largely limited to
the foreign-born and to intellectuals: in the late 1930s, as much as 44% of
the membership were white-collar workers.
In "It Didn't Happen Here", Messrs Lipset and Marks show that this was
neither predictable nor inevitable. America had been expected to turn
socialist precisely because it was the most developed country industrially.
Foreign observers, stretching as far back as de Tocqueville, cited the high
levels of social egalitarianism and social mobility, together with the
absence of feudal legacies such as fixed social classes, as reasons for
making the same prediction. Yet, even if this is counter-intuitive, American
socialists were historically more Marxist, not less so, than their brothers
in Britain, Australia or anywhere else except Russia. They were also more
pugnacious. Victor Berger, a pragmatic early socialist leader in Milwaukee,
argued more than once that "every socialist should have a good rifle and 50
The authors painstakingly test many theories that have been put forward to
explain why America did not follow the social-democratic pattern. They
dismiss the idea that the failure of socialist parties was a special case of
the failure of third parties generally. The character of the American
political system-divided, checked and balanced as well as federal-may
explain the general weakness of third parties, they argue, but it does not
explain the specific failure of socialism.
A more plausible explanation is the division between socialist parties and
organised labour. Why were these two organisations, both theoretically
devoted to the welfare of the working people, "locked into intense mutual
hostility"? One reason, the authors suggest, was that because manhood
suffrage was established by the late 1820s, earlier than in any European
country, the main political parties had already staked out their claim to
represent the working man.
In addition, they say, an "anti-statist strain" in American culture led
labour to oppose precisely the practical reforms labour parties campaigned
for in Britain, Scandinavia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The authors
do not say so, but the roots of that anti-statism were to be found both in
the original colonial resentment against royal government and in various
ethnic traditions: Irish hostility to government by British Protestants;
German liberal, and Catholic, suspicion of the Prussian state; Russian and
especially Jewish fear of Tsarist militarism; Slav and Italian hatred of
foreign rulers. The experience of immigrants before they ever arrived in
America fed the primal suspicion of government.
Immigration was also a factor, though here Messrs Lipset and Marks miss the
point. "Only a minority of immigrants were socialists," they rightly point
out, "but for extended periods of time most socialists were immigrants."
True enough. But they do not fully explain why immigration made American
workers conservative. One reason was that immigrants and especially their
children were exposed to socialising influences far more powerful than any
socialist ones. From the moment they stepped off the boat they were exposed
to propaganda about the superiority of "the American way", an ideological
battering that left little room for communitarianism as opposed to
individualism, or for equality of condition as a value that might be
preferred to equality of opportunity.
Another was that immigrants were predisposed to accept this teaching. They
needed, after all, to justify the decision to leave their homeland and the
sacrifices that had to be made before and after the journey. The second
generation, especially, were determined to be as good Americans as those who
had arrived before them.
And finally the immigrants were divided, where the working classes of Europe
had been united within their own ethnic and language groups. The Irish were
divided from the British Protestants, the Germans from the Jews, each
European immigrant group from its neighbours; and Mr Lipset and Mr Marks
give many instances of how ethnicity defined both socialist parties and
their opponents. Above all, white immigrants were in competition with, and
desperate to distinguish themselves from, non-white fellow workers,
African-Americans-but also, on the west coast, Asians.
In general, of course, immigrants were better off than if they had stayed at
home. On the whole, that remains true today, though the comparison with
traditional emigrant countries, such as Italy and Ireland, has narrowed. It
is important to remember the circumstances in which international income
comparisons came to be made in "purchasing-power parities". This measure,
which dates back to before the first world war, became widely used at
precisely the moment when unadjusted northern-European incomes came closest
to catching up with or, in the case of Scandinavia, overtaking American
Mr Lipset and Mr Marks have the candour to admit (and it is this that
distinguishes their version of American exceptionalism from mere
flag-wagging) that America has paid a hard, quantifiable price for missing
out on the social-democratic experiment. They demonstrate that, if America
has remained the wealthiest country in the world, it is also, by many
incontrovertible measures, the most unequal of the rich countries. Though
far behind, the next most unequal countries are those that have recently
followed the American model-Britain and Australia.
American workers, they conclude, were not able to shape American culture "as
a counterweight to individualism and anti-statism". But, the authors say,
"the seemingly universal shift to support for capitalism and the free market
may be of short duration." New movements and new ideologies can be expected
to appear, either because capitalism will be seen to fail economically, or
because it cannot appeal to idealism. Will it be Ralph Nader's Greens? Or
will some future Sombart be asking, "Why is there no Green party in the
United States?"

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