United in a weak state

November 3, 2000

As the US goes to the polls, political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset argues that it is Europe's destiny to become 'Americanised'. Mandy Garner reports.

It is hard to believe, in the current election climate, that not so long ago the United States was held up as the country most likely to undergo a socialist revolution. In Das Kapital, Karl Marx said: "The most developed country shows to the less developed the image of their future."

Before 1914, Marxists believed that the US - the most developed country - would have a strong socialist and labour movement and would become the first socialist country in the world. They spent years puzzling over why the revolution never happened, and even as late as 1939, Trotsky wrote that Marx's words should not have been taken too literally. "It was clearly worrying him," says Seymour Martin Lipset, a leading political scientist based at George Mason University, Virginia, and co-author of It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States . "He understood that if there was no socialism in the US, there was something wrong with Marxism."

Lipset has made it his life's work to investigate why socialism did not take root in his country. His latest book, written with former research student Gary Marks, focuses on a number of factors, the chief one being what the 19th-century French aristocrat and author of Democracy in America , Alexis de Tocqueville, called "American exceptionalism".

Lipset argues that the US differs from other nations because of its anti-statist foundations - the country's federal structure, adopted because of a historical distrust of a strong central state; its sense of egalitarianism - the underpinnings of a meritocratic system by which all should have equal opportunities though not necessarily equal status or wealth; and its "Protestant sectarianist" roots and accompanying heavy sense of morality, which goes some way to explain why the US took the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal so seriously.

Lipset says Europeans are often shocked by how religious Americans are, but this strong sense of religious faith is allied to the anti-centralist tendency. While religion in Europe has tended to be represented by the church and the church has been tied to the state, in the US religion has less of a hierarchical structure and is more a series of voluntary associations, which constantly have to seek new recruits.

Lipset also attributes the failure of socialism in the US to other historical and cultural features, such as the country's absence of a feudal past and subsequent lack of class awareness, and the division of workers along ethnic lines.

Meanwhile, US socialist groups missed opportunities to help themselves. They were often distanced from the trade unions, where they could have expected to gain mass support. Lipset says the 1930s was probably the main chance for socialism to take root in the US, but the left was split over whether to oppose or go along with the New Deal. Another barrier faced by US socialists was the country's political system, which made major change almost impossible.

In one of a series of lectures Lipset is giving around Europe - the most recent being at the London School of Economics last Monday - he says: "The revolution was a revolt against a strong state. The founding fathers laid out a doctrine in the Declaration of Independence, which implied that the state is to be distrusted. And of course they drew up a constitution designed to avoid a strong government.

"As we know, it was and is marked by checks and balances, two houses, the presidency, and the Supreme Court. All chosen in different ways for varying terms of office, all have to agree to get things done. This makes it very difficult to enact important legislation. The Newt Gingrich 'revolutionaries' of 1994 did not understand this. They thought they were going to make major reforms. They did not understand that the system had been explicitly designed to prevent a revolution, that it is necessary to win election to three different bodies, elected for varying terms of office. The system has frustrated both the right and the left."

According to Lipset, the US has always been a two-party system, even in the 19th century when the Republicans joined the Whigs and Democrats as the main parties.

"The Republicans were basically the northern Whigs," says Lipset.

Lipset says the most a third party can hope for in the US is to influence the direction of the major parties. For example, in the 1960s, the Republicans moved more to the right after George Wallace gained more than 12 per cent of the presidential vote on a racist, anti-civil rights ticket.

Another barrier to change is that, in the US, about half the electorate does not vote. "One of the most important reasons is that there are 150 million voters. The chances that your vote will make a difference are minimal," Lipset says.

Looking to the future, he does not believe that changing demographics in the US - particularly the growth of the Spanish-speaking population - will have much effect on the overall system.

"They are not as potentially important as people make them out to be. Many are not citizens," he says, adding: "Some on the left like to conceive of Hispanics as a race like the blacks, but Mexicans, for example, can be black, white, Indian or mestizo. They are more like the Italians than the blacks. They are an ethnic group that wants to succeed. Those who do make it become more conservative. It is only the blacks who are barred. Mexicans can be accepted."

Moreover, the political parties are good at playing to the ethnic vote, and the different ethnic groups often have different political tendencies for historic reasons. The Jews and Irish tend to be Democrats, while the Asians tend to be more conservative. "The Republicans say the Asians are our Jews," Lipset says.

Although ethnicity might have little effect on the political system, Lipset believes other factors, such as the growing number of elderly people - who have a tendency to conservatism - and technological advances such as the internet, will influence politics the world over. "The internet could make it impossible to have an integrated dictatorship if governments are unable to censor the information it gives," he says. "We are in a period of rapid social change brought about by medical and technological advances."

The implications are difficult to grasp. "Academics will have to specialise more, and there will be less of an idea of totality," Lipset says. These are issues that all countries face, but many look to the US, as the most developed nation, for inspiration on how to tackle them.

Harking back to Marx's view that the most developed country shows the image of the future, Lipset says that, if stripped of its socialist content, the vision explains why Europe is becoming "Americanised". "It is not that Europe is being more American, but because countries are facing the same underlying factors," he says.

"Class awareness is declining in Europe, socialism is seen not to have worked. Trade union membership and influence have declined. The market is seen to make decisions better than a planned economy. Many countries, including Britain, have given up the belief that a successful economy can be handled. So we have neo-liberalism, but there is still the left-right difference, with the left orienting the system more towards the poorer classes," he states.

But he still sees a greater sense of the central state at play in Europe, particularly where welfare is concerned, and says there is more room for leftwing alternatives. Witness the success of the Green Party in Europe. The traditional tensions are still at work, he concludes, and liberalism has not brought "the end of history".

"The seemingly universal shift to support for capitalism and the free market may be of short duration," Lipset concludes in It Didn't Happen Here . Capitalism falls short on the idealistic front; it does not even pretend to address problems such as social justice. It focuses on greed and suffers economic downswings that bring mass poverty and unemployment.

"The struggle between the left, the advocates of change, and the right, the defenders of the status quo, is not over yet."

It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States , by Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks, is published by Norton, £19.95.

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