What is the weakness of socialism?
Why Socialism Failed in the USA
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.
Problems with socialism
The socialist experiments of the 20th century were motivated by a genuine interest in improving life for the masses, but the results instead delivered untold suffering in terms of economic deprivation and political tyranny. Nonetheless, the egalitarian values that inspired the socialist experiments continue to possess great intellectual and moral appeal. And while socialism has proved less attractive than democratic capitalism, many of the most normatively attractive elements of socialism have been incorporated into democratic systems, as evidenced by public support for spending on social programs.
The chief economic problem of socialism has been the efficient performance of the very task for which its planning apparatus exists—namely, the effective coordination of production and distribution. Modern critics have declared that a planned economy is impossible—i.e., will inevitably become unmanageably chaotic—by virtue of the need for a planning agency to make the millions of dovetailing decisions necessary to produce the gigantic catalog of goods and services of a modern society. Moreover, classical economists would criticize the perverse incentives caused by the absence of private property rights. Precisely such problems became manifest in the late 1980s in the Soviet Union.
The proposed remedy to the problems of socialism involves the use of market arrangements under which managers are free to conduct the affairs of their enterprises according to the dictates of supply and demand (rather than those of a central authority). The difficulty with this solution lies in its political rather than economic requirements, because the acceptance of a market system entrusted with the coordination of the bulk of economic activity requires the tolerance of a sphere of private authority apart from that of public authority. A market mechanism may be compatible with a society of socialist principles, but it requires that the forms of socialist societies be radically reorganized. The political difficulties of such a reorganization are twofold. One difficulty arises from the tensions that can be expected to exist between the private interests, and no doubt the public visions, of the managerial echelons and those of the political regime. The creation of a market is tantamount to the creation of a realm within society into which the political arm of government is not allowed to reach fully.
Another political difficulty encountered in the move from socialism to the market is the impact on the working class. The establishment of a market system as the major coordinator of economic activity, including labour services, necessarily introduces the use of unemployment as a disciplining force into a social order. Under socialist planning, government commands were used to allocate employment and thereby did not permit the hiring or firing of workers for strictly economic reasons. The problem with this was inefficient production, underemployment, and misallocations of labour. The introduction of a market mechanism for labour is, however, likely to exacerbate class tensions between workers and management. Some socialist reformers tried to overcome these tensions by increasing worker participation in the management of the enterprises in which they worked, but no great successes have been reported. Finally, socialist governments will tend to encounter problems when they come to rely on market coordinative mechanisms, because economic decentralization and political centralization have inherent incompatibilities.
Economic systems may lose some of the decisive differences that have marked them in the past and come to suggest, instead, a continuum on which elements of both market and planning coexist in different proportions. Societies along such a continuum may continue to designate themselves as either capitalist or socialist, but they are likely to reveal as many similarities as differences in their solutions to economic problems.
37e. Eugene V. Debs and American Socialism
The Socialist Party aimed to become a major party; in the years prior to World War I it elected two members of Congress, over 70 mayors, innumerable state legislators and city councilors.
Despite the success of the American Federation of Labor, American radicalism was not dead. The number of those who felt the American capitalist system was fundamentally flawed was in fact growing fast.
American socialists based their beliefs on the writings of Karl Marx , the German philosopher. Many asked why so many working Americans should have so little while a few owners grew incredibly wealthy. No wealth could exist without the sweat and blood of its workforce. They suggested that the government should own all industries and divide the profits among those who actually created the products. While the current management class would stand to lose, many more people would gain. These radicals grew in number as industries spread. But their enemies were legion.
The Father of American Socialism
Eugene V. Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1855 to a family of French Alsatian immigrants. Making his way in the railroad industry, Debs formed the American Railway Union in 1892.
Two years later he found himself leading one of the largest strikes in American history — the great Pullman strike . When its workers refused to accept a pay cut, The Pullman Car Company fired 5000 employees. To show support, Debs called for the members of the American Railway Union to refrain from operating any trains that used Pullman cars. When the strike was declared illegal by a court injunction, chaos erupted. President Cleveland ordered federal troops to quell the strikers and Debs was arrested. Soon order was restored and the strike failed.
Debs was not originally a socialist, but his experience with the Pullman Strike and his subsequent six-month jail term led him to believe that drastic action was necessary. Debs chose to confine his activity to the political arena. In 1900 he ran for President as a socialist and garnered some 87,000 votes.
Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living things, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on the earth. I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
– Eugene V. Debs, Statement to the Court, while being convicted of violating the Sedition Act (Sept. 18, 1918)
The following year, leading sympathizers joined with him to form the Socialist Party . At its height, the party numbered over 100,000 active members. Debs ran for President four more times. In the election of 1912 he received over 900,000 votes. After being arrested for antiwar activities during World War I, he ran for President from his jail cell and polled 919,000 votes. Debs died in 1926 having never won an election, but over one thousand Socialist Party members were elected to state and city governments.
Even more radical than the Socialists were the members of the Industrial Workers of the World . This union believed that compromise with owners was no solution. Founded in 1905 and led by William «Big Bill» Haywood , the » Wobblies ,» as they were called, encouraged their members to fight for justice directly against their employers. Although small in number, they led hundreds of strikes across America, calling for the overthrow of the capitalist system. The I.W.W. won few battles, but their efforts sent a strong message across America that workers were being mistreated.
When the United States entered World War I, the «Wobblies» launched an active antiwar movement . Many were arrested or beaten. One unlucky member in Oregon was tied to the front end of an automobile with his knees touching the ground and driven until his flesh was torn to the bone. Membership declined after the war, but for two decades the I.W.W. was the anchor of radical American activism.
Emma Goldman Meets Eugene V. Debs
Anarchist Emma Goldman recorded her meeting with Eugene Debs in her autobiography. This webpage from the Socialist Party of Orlando offers an excerpt of that personal recollection.
Documents by Eugene V. Debs
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) offers this collection of speeches and essays by Eugene Debs.
Gene Debs and the American Railway Union
This brief look at Eugene Debs and the American Railway Union he founded was prepared by the Illinois Labor History Society.
Pluralism and Unity
Excerpts of a speech by Debs on his vision of socialism is presented here in text form and on RealAudio.
Eugene V. Deb’s Canton Speech, 1918
«It is extremely dangerous to exercise the constitutional right of free speech in a country fighting to make democracy safe in the world.»
-Eugene Debs, June 16, 1918
Goldman on Debs
«Debs was so genial and charming as a human being that one did not mind the lack of political clarity which made him reach out at one and the same time for opposite poles. «