It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States
by Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Wolfe Marks
Norton. 384 pp. $26.95
“The United States will be the first to usher in a socialist republic,” predicted August Bebel, the leader of the German Social Democratic party, in 1907. A contemporary, Karl Kautsky, the German party’s leading theoretician, was equally sanguine: class conflict, he believed, was “overdue” in America, and developing “more sharply” there than anywhere else in the world.
Bebel, Kautsky, and other European observers based their judgments in part on the growing power of the American Socialist party during the early years of the 20th century. In 1912, candidates on the party’s slate were elected to municipal offices across the country, and its leader, Eugene V Debs, running for the presidency, received fully 6 percent of the national vote.
But 1912 also proved to be a high-water mark. A brief eight years later, the party lay in ruins, its leader Debs serving a prison term for agitation against World War I, its ties to the trade-union movement and the electorate sundered. While, in the decades to come, social-democratic and labor parties were to emerge as powerful electoral forces throughout Europe and the English-speaking world, no radical left-wing party was ever to achieve such a foothold in the United States.
Why not? This particular aspect of American exceptionalism has long vexed social scientists, and It Didn’t Happen Here is only the latest, if also the most thorough and judicious, attempt to solve a classic historiographical puzzle. Eschewing abstract theorizing and grand pronouncements, Seymour Martin Lip-set, the distinguished sociologist, and Gary Marks, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina, proceed by carefully weighing the various explanations that have been advanced by others to account for the failure of a mass socialist movement to materialize. In the end, they settle on a modest conclusion that focuses on a combination of historical, political, and cultural factors.
One simple rationale for socialism’s lack of success, advanced by some on the Left, is, in a word, repression. Left-wing movements have never caught on in the U.S., it is said, because as soon as one has shown signs of growth, it has been immediately confronted with a wave of government persecution. Surveying the evidence behind this claim, Lipset and Marks pronounce it grossly insufficient. Though American history has been punctuated by a number of anti-socialist and anti-Communist crusades, most notably in the wake of both world wars, socialist parties in Europe have faced political and legal restraints much more intense than anything in the United States, and still managed to achieve far more.
If repression is not the answer, neither is another favored explanation, which has to do with the fundamental structure of the American political order and in particular the confines of the two-party framework. These, it is claimed, offer a decisive barrier to radical movements. Yet once again Lipset and Marks are skeptical. Third parties, they note, have not always fared poorly in presidential elections, as witness the impressive showings of Robert LaFollette on the Progressive line in 1924, George Wallace on the American Independent line in 1968, and Ross Perot on the Reform ticket in 1992. It is only socialist third parties that have made little headway at the polls.
This points to what, in the view of Lipset and Marks, have been the real underlying inhibitions on the progress of socialism in the United States: namely, the absence, on the one hand, of rigid class distinctions or of a popular resentment of capitalism and the presence, on the other hand, of a highly individualistic ethos. These signal attributes of American culture have created inhospitable soil for any movement founded on both class conflict and a collectivist vision.
This same infertile soil may indeed be responsible (dialectically, as it were) for a unique characteristic of American socialism that is stressed by Lipset and Marks: its rigidity and dogmatism. Whereas, for example, both the British Labor party and the German Social Democrats have repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to jettison unpopular positions and abandon Marxist principles to expand their political base, socialists in the United States have repeatedly held to a pattern of unbending ideological rigor. Thus, during and after World War I, the party not only trespassed on the patriotic sentiments of American workers by opposing U.S. intervention in Europe, but compounded its difficulties by adopting a stridently anticlerical line that held little attraction for the movement’s natural constituency.
A similar lack of pragmatism was on display with respect to immigration. Instead of appealing to the thousands upon thousands of newcomers making their way to this land in the early decades of the century, many socialist leaders embraced a nativist position. This posture was made all the more absurd by the fact that the Socialist party was itself thoroughly dominated by recent immigrants, a circumstance that repelled native workers already prone to regard socialism as an un-American creed.
Lipset and Marks are convincing enough in their analysis of socialism’s failure to “happen here.” But they are somewhat less persuasive when they turn in their final chapter to the effect of that failure on American society. In their view, the United States is in certain significant respects worse off for never having had a mass, social-democratic party. While this outcome has produced high living standards for many Americans, it has contributed to rates of poverty and inequality that are also considerably higher than in countries where the more typical European pattern has prevailed.
Such comparisons, however, fail to take into account a number of other distinctive aspects of the American scene, including the lasting legacy of slavery and longstanding immigration policies that have encouraged the entry of impoverished and uneducated workers from around the world. Whether one is measuring inequality, mortality and morbidity, or poverty rates, one cannot understand America’s less than stellar global ranking in social indicators without factoring in the substantial presence in our history of poor blacks and poor immigrants.
At the same time, it is also fairly clear that the absence of an overweening public sector or a full-blown social-democratic welfare system has been a positive factor in America’s ability to adapt to technological change and to the rise of a global trading system. While the U.S. has prospered in the new economic environment, the social democracies of Europe, precisely because of the burden of layer upon layer of socialist-style regulation and redistributionist welfare measures, have found adjustment far more painful, and suffer from low productivity and high unemployment. If one is going to give credit to socialist parties for their material “accomplishments,” one also has to acknowledge the material costs.
In the end, the conundrum explored by Lipset and Marks is full of lessons for the contemporary scene. America today is far more prosperous than could have been imagined in the days of Eugene Debs. And with the consignment of the USSR to history’s dustbin, the socialist idea has by and large collapsed. But the American Left remains in some sense unchanged. The mindlessness of the radicalism on display in Seattle during the World Trade Organization meetings and in Philadelphia and Los Angeles during the political conventions, complete with vandalism directed at companies where large numbers of lower-income workers are employed, was no mere accident. Having abandoned its chimerical objective of abolishing private control of the American economy in favor of an equally chimerical campaign against international trade and “globalism,” the radical Left has been deploying its characteristic formula for failure—ideological extremism—in an up-to-date guise. In skillfully illuminating the roots of this ineffectual tradition, It Didn’t Happen Here makes a valuable contribution to historical understanding.