Radicals down tools

It Didn't Happen Here
June 15, 2001

In 1906, the German sociologist Werner Sombart asked, "Why is there no socialism in America?" Marxism taught that capitalism's advance would necessarily engender socialist politics and victories. Yet in the United States, where capitalism advanced most confidently, socialism remained an apparently marginal political force.

In It Didn't Happen Here , Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks subject the major theories on the failure of American socialism to the test of history (made possible by the work of a generation of leftist historians). They examine the national and regional experiences of socialists and compare them with their more successful European counterparts. They contend that although socialism has retreated globally, the question of what makes America different is of more than historical interest.

Lipset and Marks start by reviewing the various arguments for socialist failure. They also restate their own consensus view of US history. Then, in chapters on political life and institutions, the split between socialism and unionism, the significance of immigration and ethnic diversity, the dogmatism and sectarianism of socialists, and state repression, they interrogate the respective explanations.

Although they acknowledge that America's political institutions presented significant hurdles to third-party initiatives, they insist that such variables are insufficient to explain socialists' flops. But they do grant that the flexibility of the US party system functioned to undermine radical alternatives such as the Workingmen's, People's, Socialist, and Progressive parties. That is, the major parties effectively warded off challenges by incorporating elements of third-party platforms.

More damaging to the American Socialist Party, they assert, was its failure to connect adequately with the labour movement. Reflecting US culture, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) long remained anti-statist and suspicious of pursuing socialist or even labourist politics.

Indeed, Lipset and Marks note that although the AFL unions were nowhere near as radical as the anarcho-syndicalist IWW (the Wobblies), the former, too, pursued an essentially syndicalist approach to working-class struggle. Both the AFL and the IWW "rejected socialism on anti-statist grounds".

Myth has it that immigrants represented an army of socialist enthusiasts and recruits; however, Lipset and Marks demonstrate that immigration actually complicated matters for the Socialist Party. While immigrant Germans, Finns and Jews did enlist in the ranks of the Socialist Party - creating local socialist traditions in cities such as Milwaukee and New York and providing fresh leadership for the party - the immigrants' prominence gave socialism a "foreign tinge".

Moreover, they observe that even though "many socialists were immigrants, relatively few immigrants were socialists". The diversity of the working class enriched American culture. Nevertheless, ethnic and religious diversity more often produced political divisiveness than working-class solidarity. At the same time, African-American workers - whom the Socialist Party failed to engage - suffered continuous racism and oppression (a major problem for socialists, which Lipset and Marks deal with only in passing).

American socialists helped dig their own political graves. Lipset and Marks show that in removing the "tempering" influence of labour unionists, socialist intellectuals too often professed a dogmatic and orthodox Marxism. Mirroring American religious life - specifically, the regular splintering of Protestant churches - socialist party politics was characterised by factionalism and sectarianism. Lipset and Marks consider the experience of the 1930s Great Depression the last real opportunity for socialist politics. They note the socialists' failure to align with the Democrats in favour of creating a truly social democratic party; the communist contribution in organising the Congress of Industrial Organizations; and Roosevelt's skills in wooing the left to his New Deal. The Socialist Party essentially disappeared. The Communists' Popular Front never represented a threat to the Democrats. And the Democrats became the party of labour, but not a labour party.

Lipset and Marks also review the record of repression against socialists, but they minimise the forces arrayed against radicals by limiting the discussion to official state repression against socialist political groups and ignoring business thuggery and violence against labour and the left. In short, they disregard "class war from above".

Nevertheless, this is an important book. The authors' analyses definitely exercised my "pessimism of the intellect". But they failed to exorcise my optimism and commitments. They acknowledge working-class struggles. However, being wedded to a consensus view of American history, they never really grapple with the history of American class conflict or, for that matter, with the diverse struggles to define the American creed: struggles to which socialists contributed mightily. They help us understand socialism's failure in America; yet, failing truly to appreciate the American radical-democratic tradition, they fail truly to understand American exceptionalism.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, United States.

It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States

Author - Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks
ISBN - 0 393 04098 4
Publisher - Norton
Price - £19.95
Pages - 379

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