Why Socialism Failed in the USA

Review: Eric Rauchway on Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks

Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks, It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2000. 379 pp. $26.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-393-04098-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Eric Rauchway, Modern History Faculty, Oxford University.
Published by EH.NET, April 2001.

Although Seymour Martin Lipset is now employed by George Mason University and enjoys fellowships at the Hoover Institution and the Woodrow Wilson International Center, his principal credential is as a New York Intellectual (City College division) and this book reflects the preoccupations of that vanishing circle. With Gary Marks, director of the Center for European Studies at the University of North Carolina, Lipset provides useful comparative international illustrations between the United States and other industrial nations in Europe and the Antipodes, but the real comparison in this book is the traditional one between the particulars of the American case and the predictions of Marxist theory.

This interpretive tack gives the book the tenor of a last word in a long conversation. The text refers explicitly to Daniel Bell, Louis Hartz, Richard Hofstadter, and Irving Howe, and apart from its evidentiary basis, the essential terms of the argument would have been familiar to them -- and indeed to Marx, Engels, Weber, and Kautsky. It is the best-supported and subtlest version of the traditional thesis we are ever likely to get -- but it looks over the heads of the present generation to the titans of the past without engaging current or recent scholarship to any great degree.

Lipset and Marks organize the book around assessments of the traditional arguments for socialism's failure in the US. They use separate chapters to evaluate the respective influence of political structure, the American Federation of Labor, immigration, Socialist Party purism, and political repression on the fate of labor politics.

They find in favor of a mixed theory of causation: a "not elegant, but ... sensible" eclecticism, believing that "neither political, nor sociological, nor cultural factors alone are sufficient to explain the weakness of socialism in America" (p. 83). Despite its liberal tone, this very eclecticism rules out some of the favorite explanations for socialism's American shortfalls. Once they find that the political system and culture tilted against socialist success, that immigration from diverse sources spoiled class consciousness, and that economic and political inclusion weakened the workers' will to oppose Americanism, then the strategic decisions of individual politicians within the socialist movement, the labor movement, the Communist Party, and the two major political parties seem insignificant: "The failure of socialism in America was overdetermined" (p. 200).

Lipset and Marks's attention to international comparison pays off most handsomely in eliminating lesser causes. They establish that the early enfranchisement of adult white males did not seduce them away from socialism in other nations, and so cannot be cited as a cause of their disinclination to vote Socialist in the US; that the Socialist Party of America hewed to a more radical line than its contemporary counterparts in other countries, and therefore cannot reasonably be impugned for being less Marxist than American workers would have liked; that political repression of socialism in the US was less thorough than in other nations, and so cannot reasonably be cited for the movement's downfall (indeed, Lipset and Marks imply that the US government might have been insufficiently repressive for socialism to succeed -- where repression was greater, so was allegiance to socialism).

What remains is less surprising: the cultural and economic power of Americanism (Hofstadter's quip about the US not having an ideology but being one reappears here) and the effects of immigration. Lipset and Marks remind us that however miserably the other half lived in turn-of-the-century America, they lived, in the main, better than they had in the old country, and had good enough reason to hope for even better to come. Immigration to the US was greater in both volume and diversity than to other receiving countries. With an "extraordinarily heterogeneous" (p. 127) working class, the US was unlikely to see class consciousness. And the political opportunities that immigrants did create by forming voting blocs proved of greater use to Democrats or Republicans, whose established patterns of ethno-religious allegiance put them in a better position to curry or oppose the immigrant vote than the dogmatically class-oriented Socialists.

Lipset and Marks make a good enough case on behalf of Americanism and immigration, but they also miss taking what to a historian seem their biggest tricks, precisely because they do not explicitly engage recent historical scholarship. They remark tantalizingly that the "dominant strain in American culture" -- which was, they say, "egalitarian, antistatist, individualistic" -- stood in sharp contrast to "ascriptive" European cultures (p. 97), but they do not discuss the recent work of Rogers Smith and Gary Gerstle, which insists otherwise. They do not engage the farmer-labor thesis of Elizabeth Sanders, nor the 'corporate liberal' thesis that continues to occupy Martin Sklar, James Livingston and Richard Schneirov. And most importantly, in making a book-length case for American exceptionalism -- and, in the last chapter, its recent demise or transformation -- they do not engage the substantial recent scholarship (including most notably Daniel Rodgers's work) attempting to refute it.

This is especially disappointing because the argument that remains implicit in the book, if drawn out, would make a significant contribution to current studies in the relation of American exceptionalism to international economic and political development. Lipset and Marks conclude by pointing to the partial diminishment of American exceptionalism as other nations' socialist parties have turned toward market capitalism. Almost in the same breath, they point to exceptionalism redivivus, as European and Antipodean nations develop significant Green Parties while the US does not. The future of this exception depends on which of two recent events better prophesies the American political future: Ralph Nader's presidential candidacy, or George W. Bush's junking of the Kyoto emissions-control accord.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, Nader will prove no more successful than Eugene Debs in building a third party on the ashes of electoral failure, we are left with a United States more devoted to unfettered industrialism than any of its peers. The US now is therefore in much the same situation as the US of 1900, on the eve of socialism's great failures. Despite its debts, despite the moral and intellectual opprobrium in which its politics and politicians are held, it is now as it was then a draw for immigrants and capital alike owing to its tremendous productivity -- and the lure of Americanism.

In the early 1900s, the US government proved less able than its peers to manage the inflation that afflicted gold-standard economies of the period. But so long as the private citizens of the world favored the US by sending their work and their money to America, the US economy as able to cushion the effects of inflation by increasing productivity. The US could avoid serious sustained governmental management of the economy without much consequence because the rest of the world paid for American excess.

Much the same appears to be happening now. The earlier phase of global indulgence ended with a world catastrophe that the Socialists predicted, but from which the US was largely exempt -- the Great War. If the Greens are the new Socialists, the next catastrophe will not make exceptions for America.

Eric Rauchway's new book, The Refuge of Affections: Family and American Reform Politics, 1900-1920 has recently been published by Columbia University Press. He is currently working on Making the Dollar Almighty: Inflation, Immigration, and American Political Culture, 1897-1937.

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Posted: 18 April 2001