- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Why socialism has failed to play a significant role in the United States—the most developed capitalist industrial society and hence, ostensibly, fertile ground for socialism—has been a critical question of American history and political development. Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks "survey with subtlety and shrewd judgment the various explanations" (Wall Street Journal) for this phenomenon of American political exceptionalism. "Clearly written, intelligent, filled with new information" (Times Literary ...
Why socialism has failed to play a significant role in the United States—the most developed capitalist industrial society and hence, ostensibly, fertile ground for socialism—has been a critical question of American history and political development. Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks "survey with subtlety and shrewd judgment the various explanations" (Wall Street Journal) for this phenomenon of American political exceptionalism. "Clearly written, intelligent, filled with new information" (Times Literary Supplement), this "splendidly convincing" (Michael Kazin, Georgetown University) work eschews conventional arguments about socialism's demise to present a fuller understanding of how multiple factors—political structure, American values, immigration, and the split between the Socialist party and mainstream unions—combined to seal socialism's fate. "In peak form, two master political sociologists offer a must-read synthesis."—Theda Skocpol, Harvard University
The United States, as noted by Alexis de Tocqueville and Friedrich Engels, among many visitors to America, is an "exceptional" country, one uniquely different from the more traditional societies and status-bound nations of the Old World. The term "American exceptionalism," first formulated by Tocqueville in the 1830s, and since used in general comparative societal analyses, became widely applied after World War I in efforts to account for the weakness of working-class radicalism in the United States. The issue even gave rise to debates within the Communist movement in meetings of Comintern bodies in the 1920s, in particular between Jay Lovestone and Joseph Stalin, the secretaries of the American and Soviet parties.
For radicals, "American exceptionalism" meant a specific question: Why did the United States, alone among industrial societies, lack a significant socialist movement or labor party? This question bedeviled socialist theorists from the late nineteenth century on. Engels tried to answer it in the last decade of his life. The German socialist and sociologist Werner Sombart dealt with it in a major book published in his native language in 1906, Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? The question was addressed by the Fabian H. G. Wells in The Future in America, which came out the same year. Both Lenin and Trotsky were deeply concerned with American exceptionalism, for it questioned the inner logic of Marxism, expressed by Karl Marx in the preface to Capital: "The country that is moredeveloped industrially shows to the less developed the image of their future." And there is no questioning the fact that, from the last quarter of the nineteenth century on, the most developed country has been the United States.
In trying to explain the absence of a socialist movement, many socialist writers have described America in terms not dissimilar from those of Tocqueville. The great Frenchman had noted in 1831 that the United States is "exceptional," qualitatively different in its organizing principles and political and religious institutions from those of other western societies. Features of the United States that Tocqueville, and many others since, have focused on include its relatively high levels of social egalitarianism, economic productivity, and social mobility (particularly into elite strata), alongside the strength of religion, the weakness of the central state, the earlier timing of electoral democracy, ethnic and racial diversity, and the absence of feudal remnants, especially fixed social classes. In this introductory chapter, we examine the way socialist intellectuals have seen the country when trying to explain the weakness of their movement.
The Inevitability of Socialism in America
As one historian has written, "Optimism is most usually the effect of an intellectual error." The early socialist faith in the inevitability of socialism in America exemplifies this. In spite of the glaring weakness of socialist parties in the United States, leading Marxists have believed Marx's dictum that the most developed capitalist country would lead the world into socialism. As Werner Sombart argued:
If ... modern socialism follows as a necessary reaction to capitalism, the country with the most advanced capitalist development, namely the United States, would at the same time be the one providing the classic case of socialism, and its working class would be supporters of the most radical of socialist movements.
This position was entrenched in orthodox Marxism. Engels repeated it in 1893. Before he became the most influential revisionist of Marxist ideas, Eduard Bernstein acknowledged its implications for the United States: "We see modern socialism enter and take root in the United States in direct relation to the spreading of capitalism and the appearance of a modern proletariat." Karl Kautsky, considered the leading theoretician in the German Social Democratic party, enunciated in 1902 that "America shows us our future, in so far as one country can reveal it at all to another." He elaborated this view in 1910, anticipating the "overdue sharpening of class conflict" developing "more strongly" in the United States than anywhere else. The British Marxist H. M. Hyndman noted in 1904 that "just as North America is today the most advanced country economically and socially, so it will be the first in which Socialism will find open and legal expression." August Bebel, the political leader of the German Social Democrats, stated unequivocally in 1907: "Americans will be the first to usher in a Socialist republic." This belief, at a time when the German party was already a mass movement with many elected members of the Reichstag, and the American Socialist party had secured less than 2 percent of the vote, was based on the fact that the United States was "far ahead of Germany in industrial development." Bebel reiterated this opinion in 1912, when the discrepancy in the strength of the two movements was even greater, saying that America will "be the first nation to declare a Cooperative Commonwealth." The French socialist Paul Lefargue, Marx's son-in-law, paraphrased his father-in-law on the flyleaf of his book on America: "The most industrially advanced country shows to those who follow it on the industrial ladder the image of their own future."
American Marxists, though more aware of the problems facing their movement than their European comrades, also recognized that the assumptions of historical materialism required that the United States should be in the lead politically. Thus, at the Amsterdam Congress of the Socialist International held in 1904, the leader of the American Socialist Labor party, Daniel De Leon, whom Lenin considered a truly creative Marxist, stated, "Taking into consideration only certain cardinal principles [of Marxism], the conclusion cannot be escaped that America is the theatre where the crest of capitalism would first be shorn by the falchion of socialism." And shortly thereafter, De Leon proclaimed to the 1906 convention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Chicago, "If my reading of history is correct, the prophecy of Marx will be fulfilled and America will ring the downfall of capitalism the world over."
The continued inability of socialists to create a viable movement in the United States was a major embarrassment to Marxist theorists who assumed that the superstructure of a society, which encompasses political behavior, is a function of underlying economic and technological structures. Many Marxists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries understood their theory required them to believe that "the United States, of all the countries in the world, [was] most ripe for socialism." Max Beer, whose fifty-year career in international socialism included participation in the Austrian, German, and British parties, described the anxiety among European Marxists created by the weakness of socialism in America, which they voiced in private discussions with each other. The United States was a "living contradiction of ... Marxian theory," and raised fundamental questions about its validity.
Statements that the United States had to be and would be the first socialist country declined after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, but one of its two major leaders, Leon Trotsky, took cognizance of Marx's statement in a 1939 publication intended for a popular American audience. He reprinted the sentence and then simply dismissed it with the comment that "under no circumstances can this ... be taken literally." Trotsky, of course, knew his Marxism and was well aware that the United States should be the first on the path toward socialism. By citing the statement he revealed that it was much on his mind. That he sidestepped it suggests he had no answer to the conundrum it posed for Marxists.
The argument that American nonsocialist politics would prove to be the model for the European left was presented in full flower in 1940 by Lewis Corey, an early leader of the American Communist party. Corey wrote a series of articles on the topic in Workers Age, the organ of a neo-Communist sect, the Lovestoneites. As summarized by historian of American radicalism Harvey Klehr, Corey foresaw in prescient terms that
rather than being an exception, America was actually the model for capitalist countries. Only the positions in the race had been changed; European socialists could see in America the image of their own unhappy future. Far from being a unique or even only slightly different case, America was the prototype for capitalism. In a curious reversal of roles, it was now the European socialists who could look across the ocean to see the future of their own movement.
The conundrum remains. Although the United States is the most productive industrialized nation, it has never had a viable left-wing working-class party. Its trade unions, which have been weaker than those of most other industrial countries, have been steadily declining in membership since the mid-fifties. At the present time, less than one-sixth, under 14 percent, of the employed labor force belongs to unions. This is down from one-third in 1955 and is a level of organization lower than that of almost all other developed economies.
The comparison with the United States' northern neighbor is particularly striking. Canada has an economy structurally comparable to that of the United States, though, of course, much smaller. Its trade union movement currently encompasses over one-third of all employed people. The strength of its socialist movement, the New Democratic party (NDP), in opinion polls, has at times placed it in first place in a three-party race. Over the past two decades, the NDP has governed four provinces, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Manitoba, as well as the Yukon Territory, and remains in office, as of 2000, in the first two and the Yukon. It, however, declined in the 1990s, receiving twenty-one parliamentary seats and 11 percent of the vote in the 1997 federal election. The Patti Québécois (PQ), a statist and nationalist party, forms the government of Quebec. In the 1970s the PQ applied for membership in the Socialist International, but was rejected because the NDP already represented Canada. These differences within North America, between two wealthy industrialized countries, give renewed life to the issues of why socialism, trade unionism, and class consciousness are weak in the United States.
It is ironic that Karl Marx's belief that the working class was destined to organize revolutionary socialist parties in every capitalist society was based on a mistaken perception of events in America. He overestimated the radicalism of the Workingmen's parties which operated in a number of eastern cities in the late 1820s and early 1830s. His view of these parties was heavily influenced by Men and Manners in America, written by Thomas Hamilton, a British Tory who visited the United States in 1830. An examination of Marx's notebooks reveals that he had copied a number of Hamilton's statements describing the emergence of class consciousness as of 1830. This led him to anticipate the ultimate triumph of the American working class. Hamilton's description of what Marx termed "the first story of an organized political party of labor in the world's history" convinced him that American workers (and others) would create a class-conscious movement dedicated to the abolition of capitalism.
The Workingmen's Parties
Given their importance in shaping both Marx's general theory and his image of America, the Workingmen's parties of the 1830s deserve our attention. Most of the Workingmen's parties originated in the struggle for greater equality, particularly equality of opportunity. Concerned with fostering meritocracy, these parties demanded a state-supported mass educational system. The New York party went so far as to advocate a variant of Robert Owen's proposal that all children be required to attend public boarding schools from the age of six. This was to assure that they have a common environment for twenty-four hours a day, not simply during the school day. The Workingmen's parties attacked the major parties for their lack of interest in labor and proposed a variety of reforms to upgrade workers' social, economic, and legal position.
The strong egalitarian commitment of the Workingmen's parties did not lead them to advocate socialism, collective ownership, or equality of result. Rather, they wished to open up opportunity for all and to reduce the advantages of those born to privilege. In this sense, their leaders were premature social Darwinists, not Marxists. The parties secured sizable votes in state and municipal elections, as Marx was glad to note.
However, the Workingmen's parties declined quickly after their rapid ascent, a reversal that Marx never confronted or explained. One source of the movement's failure was "the taking up of some of its most popular demands by one of the old parties." The Jacksonian Democrats responded to the electoral successes of this third-party movement by showing "greater concern than ever before for the various reform provisions of the Workingmen's program." Although relatively strong in many local contests, the parties, like many subsequent efforts of minor left parties in America, proved unable to deal with the "presidential question"—the possibility that by nominating their own candidate, they would draw votes away from the more left-disposed major party nominee.
Although the Workingmen's parties disappeared in the early 1830s, Marx and Engels were to emphasize decades later that Americans "have had, since 1829, their own social democratic school." But, as noted, Marx and Engels misinterpreted this episode of American history. The parties' ideology reflected the strong belief of many Jacksonian Americans in equality of opportunity, rather than equality of result. Like subsequent generations of Progressives and liberals, the Workingmen's parties protested the growth of private and public monopolies and limits on competition. They did not try to curtail free enterprise or inequality of income; instead they sought meritocracy within capitalism.
America as a New Society
In analyzing the prospects for socialism in America, Marx and Engels evaluated how and in what respects the United States differed sociologically from European societies. America was a new nation and society. It was the most democratic country and lacked many of the institutions and traditions of previously feudal societies. As a result, the United States had a "modern and purely bourgeois culture."
Recognizing after Marx's death that socialist movements were not emerging on a mass scale in the United States, Engels attributed the political backwardness of American workers to the absence of a feudal past. Thus, he wrote in 1890 that Americans "are born conservatives—just because America is so purely bourgeois, so entirely without a feudal past and therefore proud of its purely bourgeois organization." Two years later, Engels noted, "It is ... quite natural, that in such a young country, which has never known feudalism and has grown up on a bourgeois basis from the first, bourgeois prejudices should also be so strongly rooted in the working class."
Along with many other commentators on the American scene, the famed German sociologist Max Weber also emphasized that the United States was the only pure bourgeois country; the only one that was not postfeudal, that was without "medieval antecedents or complicating institutional heritage." Similar arguments were made in the 1920s by the most profound Communist theoretician, Antonio Gramsci, who pointed out that America was able to avoid the remnants of mercantilism, statist regulations, church establishment, aristocracy, and sharp status cleavages that postfeudal countries inherited. Both Weber and Gramsci pointed to America's unique origins and consequent value system as a source of its economic and political development. These values encompassed both secular, liberal laissez-faire and America's distinctive, individualistic religious tradition, based on the dominance of the Protestant sects that, as Weber stressed, facilitated the rise of capitalism. Gramsci emphasized that the "difference between Americans and Europeans is determined by the absence of `tradition' in the United States, in so far as tradition also means passive residues of all the social forms eclipsed by past history."
The ultimate source of authority in the American polity can be found in the Preamble of the Constitution, which starts with the words "We, the people of the United States." Populism is constrained, however, in the American experience, by constitutionalism. The Revolutionary Americans, having defeated a tyrannical king, feared the power of a unified, central state. They sought to avoid tyranny by checks and balances, dividing power among different political bodies, all subject to a Bill of Rights limiting government authority. The antistatist, antiauthoritarian component of American ideology, derived from Jefferson's Declaration of Independence, remains an underlying source of the weakness of socialism in the United States.
American radicals have generally been more sympathetic to libertarianism and to syndicalism than to state collectivism. Analyzing this tradition, historian David DeLeon notes that unlike Scandinavian social democracy, Fabian bureaucratic socialism, and Soviet communism, American radicalism has been permeated by suspicion, if not hostility, toward centralized power. The essence of this heritage—which has been expressed in both individualistic and communal forms—may be described as "antistatism," "libertarianism," or, more provocatively, "anarchism."
This heritage may be seen in the behavior of the American labor movement. The ideology of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was syndicalist for much of its first half century. The AFL's radical competitor, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), was anarcho-syndicalist. Both the AFL and the IWW regarded the state as an enemy and felt that government-owned industry would be much more difficult for workers and unions to resist than private companies. Samuel Gompers, the leader of the AFL for four decades, emphasized that what the state can give, the state can take away, and concluded from this that workers must rely on themselves. Gompers and much of the old AFL were far from conservative. In 1920 Gompers described himself as "three-quarters anarchist." As Daniel Bell, the foremost student of American socialism, has noted, the AFL was more militant than European labor movements before and immediately after World War I, as reflected in its greater propensity to strike and engage in violence.
Richard Flacks, a founder and leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the sixties, writing as a left-wing academic in the mid-nineties, has emphasized the ties between the radical, but nonsocialist, New Left and the antistatist tradition:
The dominant spirit in the 60s was neither social-democratic nor statist/ stalinist/leninist, but owed more to anarchist/pacifist/radical democratic traditions: Students and workers should claim voice in the institutions they inhabit; communities and neighborhoods should have democratic control over their futures; co-ops, communes, and collectives should be the places to try alternative futures and practice authentic vocation.... Here in short was a thoroughgoing critique of statism, advanced not by the right, but by young Black and White activist/intellectuals devoted to a decentralizing, devolutionary, radical-democratic politics.
There is a striking similarity between the orientation of the IWW and that of the New Left, both of which emphasized individualism and antistatism. The New Left's confrontational tactics, involving civil disobedience, also followed in the footsteps of the Wobblies. One of the most influential academic stimulators of the early New Left, William Appleman Williams, expressed his antistatism in his strong preference for Herbert Hoover over Franklin Roosevelt. He noted that Hoover did not propose to strengthen the power of the central state but favored "voluntaristic but nevertheless organized cooperation within and between each major sector of the economy."
Another academic icon of the student New Left, the sociologist C. Wright Mills, admired the competitive, free-yeoman tradition of American free enterprise and decentralized politics. There is perhaps no more favorable portrait of the operation and consequences of the pre-Civil War American economy and polity than the one presented by Mills. In much-exaggerated terms, he pictures early-nineteenth-century America as a near utopia. Property was widely and equitably distributed and provided security and protection against tyranny. Rapid and continuing social mobility meant that few remained propertyless for long. The early United States, in Mills' view, was virtually a libertarian society: "Political authority, the traditional mode of social integration, became a loose framework of protection rather than a centralized engine of domination; it too was largely unseen and for long periods very slight."
These conceptions of the United States have been described by Irving Howe, the leading American socialist intellectual of the second half of the twentieth century, as the essence of "American exceptionalism," which, he writes,
has often taken the guise of a querulous anti-statism.... It can veer toward an American version of anarchism, suspicious of all laws, forms, and regulations.... Tilt toward the right and you have the worship of "the free market"; tilt toward the left and you have the moralism of American reformers, even the syndicalism of the IWW.
Pre-World War I socialists did not limit their analyses of the failure of socialism to cultural variables. The country's situation as an underpopulated overseas settler society also helped to produce an economy and class system far different from those in Europe. In the Old World, expropriation had driven peasants off the land and into the cities to become lowly paid workers. Marx believed that in the United States, the proletarians had the opportunity to become independent producers. He stated in Capital: "The wage-worker of today is tomorrow an independent peasant, or artisan, working for himself. He vanishes from the labour-market, but not into the workhouse."
Labor scarcity, which raised wages in America by comparison to Europe, was reduced by large-scale immigration. Marx noted, however, that at a time of great industrial expansion during and after the Civil War, the "lowering of wages and the dependence of the wage-worker are yet far from being brought down to the normal European level."
Given Marx's conclusion, it is not surprising that in the 1890s Engels also cited economic growth and the prosperity of the United States as among the "very great and peculiar difficulties for a continuous development of a workers' party." In contrasting the situation in the two great English-speaking nations, he noted, "The native American workingman's standard of living is considerably higher than even that of the British, and that alone suffices to place him in the rear [politically] for still some time to come." Two years later, he emphasized that in America, prosperity did not simply fill the coffers of the bourgeoisie but actually reached the workers.
Marx and Engels also focused on social mobility, stressing, in the words of the former, that "though classes, indeed, already exist, they have not yet become fixed, but continually change and interchange their elements in a constant state of flux." Similarly, Engels, like Tocqueville over a half century earlier, was struck by the American ideal of a nation "without a permanent and hereditary proletariat. Here everyone could become if not a capitalist, at all events an independent man, producing or trading, with his own means, for his own account."
It is interesting that in 1846 Marx wrote that the political efforts of Americans to extend the opportunities to settle on free land and to become farmers represented a leftist demand, an effort to gain equal opportunity. As Michael Harrington notes, he saw "the Free Land movement ... as the first form of the proletarian revolution ..., as a movement based upon the living conditions of a class which necessarily must become communist...."
Marx's conclusion is significant since, as Harrington argues, he implied that the desire of ordinary Americans for individual upward mobility, and for the ownership of their own plot of productive land, reflects the same motivation found in support for socialism. He concluded that the mass of Americans who felt that the American system assured them of such opportunity actually believed they were living in an egalitarian society. This exceptionalist argument, like many others of Marx, was destined to reappear again and again in observations on America by foreign commentators, and by American socialists like Leon Samson and Michael Harrington, down to the present.
A number of observers have explained the weakness of class consciousness in America relative to Europe in terms of contrasting experiences and perceptions of inequality. The foreign-born American socialist leaders Victor Berger and Morris Hillquit emphasized the enduring historical character of class awareness in Europe. It long predated the rise of socialism. As Berger put it in 1903, "The feeling of class distinction in America, at least among native workingmen, has not the same historic foundation that it has in Germany, France, or England. There the people were accustomed for over a thousand years to have distinct classes and castes fixed by law." From the time of Marx and Engels, socialists have agreed with Tocqueville that social class differences (as distinct from economic class differences) were much weaker in America than in Europe. In the Old World, people were placed in distinct classes by the society. Workers were led to support labor parties in response to deep postfeudal divisions in society. In the United States, by contrast, class was more of an abstraction and socialists were faced with the prospect of persuading workers to think in class terms.
Much of the European socialist discussion about social stratification in America in the decade preceding World War I was based on Werner Sombart's detailed 1906 study Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? And here again, we find a parallel to Tocqueville's account of American exceptionalism. Sombart, who was then a socialist, wrote:
America is a freer and more egalitarian society than Europe. In his relationship to other people and to social institutions, and in his position in and to society ... the American is also better-off than he would be in the contrasting European situation. For him "Liberty" and "Equality" ... are not empty ideas and vague dreams, as they are for the European working class.... [In America] there is not the stigma of being the class apart that almost all European workers have about them.... The bowing and scraping before the "upper classes," which produces such an unpleasant impression in Europe, is completely unknown.... [The workingman] feels differently from his counterpart in a country where a person only begins to be considered a person when he is, if not a baron, then a reserve officer, a doctor, or a person on probation for a profession....
George Plekhanov, the father of Russian Marxism, for whom Lenin had great respect, also saw American developments positively. He wrote approvingly of Sombart's explanation for the weakness of socialism in America, which focused on the "democratic character of North American political institutions; ... the extremely favorable economic position of the North American worker compared to that of the European, and ... a multitude of free lands which made it possible for the proletariat `to escape to freedom' from capitalism."
Like Sombart, many socialists recognized that although American capitalism resulted in the growth of inequality and the emergence of a highly privileged class, the income and life chances of the underprivileged also improved absolutely, given rising productivity and the widespread distribution of steadily cheaper items of mass consumption. Thus, H. G. Wells emphasized that while "a growing proportion of the wealth of the community is passing into the hands of a small minority of successful getters, [this] is masked ... by the enormous increase of the total wealth." Although the proportion of total income in the hands of workers did not increase, their standard of life improved. Wells concluded that "the great mass of the population is not consciously defeated in the economic game. It is only failing to get a large share in the increment of wealth." Wells noted that even in "the filthy back streets of the East Side" of New York, people were much better off than their peers in London. "Common people" were much better clothed in America than in Europe.
Leon Trotsky recognized this also. In his political autobiography, written at the beginning of his final exile in 1929, which otherwise contains few references to his personal life, Trotsky described, almost in awe, his experience of "an apartment in a workers' district" in New York, in the East Bronx, where he and his family lived for two months in 1917. "That apartment, at eighteen dollars a month, was equipped with all sorts of conveniences that we Europeans were quite unused to: electric lights, gas cooking-range, bath, telephone, automatic service elevator, and even a chute for the garbage. These things completely won the boys [his children] over to New York."
Comparative living standards are still debated. Analysis of data from Birmingham, England, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from 1890 to 1913, suggests that the aggregate transatlantic wage gap was smaller than has sometimes been assumed. But, as Michael Harrington recognized in reference to these data, native-born American workers were especially advantaged in a society of immigrants. Because immigrants took low-paying jobs, natives could move up, live well—and resist socialist blandishments.
Writing in 1988, Richard Flacks concluded that "the stability and legitimacy of established authority in the United States has rested on its capacity to `deliver the goods'—that is, to provide the material basis for viable daily life. And at the end of the twentieth century, this capacity, emphasized by Plekhanov, Sombart, Wells, and Trotsky, is still in evidence. Distribution of wealth has grown more unequal, but consumption and the overall standard of living have not. In absolute terms, the less privileged are better off than before.
Although social and political class consciousness were seemingly inhibited by egalitarian social relationships, a relatively high standard of living, and a belief in the existence of widespread opportunities for upward mobility, these did not produce a docile working class, as Daniel Bell has observed. Visitors to the United States around the turn of the century commented on the greater "frequency and bitterness of industrial conflict" in comparison to Europe, an observation that was statistically accurate. They explained such behavior as another consequence of the peculiar American social system, which emphasized meritocratic competition. One analyst of the foreign traveler literature has aptly summarized these conclusions:
Most of the European visitors explained industrial conflict as a result rather than a contradiction of the material and social democracy which typified the life of the American worker. The abundance of his life, they pointed out, added to the strength of his ambition for more. His self-reliance made him sensitive to his rights. Industrial conflict in America was a man-to-man fight, with no quarter asked or given, unmitigated by the tradition of subordination on the one hand, or of benevolence and responsibility on the other.
The exceptional character of the American class structure was analyzed in 1906 by H. G. Wells in a way which anticipated political theorist Louis Hartz, writing half a century later. Wells, then an English Fabian socialist, related the unique history and class structure of the United States to the absence of both a socialist party and a true conservative, Tory one. In Wells' view, two major European classes—subservient landbound peasants and the aristocracy—were missing from the American scene. The absence of the former meant that there was no "servile tradition," while the absence of the latter minimized "state responsibility, which in the old European theory of society was supposed to give significance to the whole." Wells stated:
The American community, one cannot too clearly insist, does not correspond to an entire European community at all, but only to the middle masses of it.... This community was, as it were, taken off its roots, clipped of its branches and brought hither.... Essentially America is a middle-class become a community and so its essential problems are the problems of a modern individualistic society, stark and clear, unhampered and unilluminated by any feudal traditions either at its crest or at its base.
Racial heterogeneity and large-scale immigration were two obvious related differences between the United States and Europe. The former was generally ignored as a source of socialist weakness by socialist writers; the latter received much more attention. However, Marx and Engels pointed to the role of ethnic diversity in undermining class consciousness by giving native-born white workers a privileged position, thus enabling the bourgeoisie to play workers of different racial and ethnic backgrounds against one another. In a letter written in 1870 to two friends in New York, Marx noted that in America the "working class is split into two hostile camps," native and foreign-born. He recommended to his correspondents that they should press for a "coalition among workers of different ethnic backgrounds."
Engels, commenting on the same problem two decades later in 1892, emphasized that "your great obstacle in America, it seems to me, lies in the exceptional position of the native workers.... [T]he ordinary badly paid occupations [are left] to the immigrants, of whom only a small section enter the aristocratic trade unions."
Americanism and Socialism
Richard Hofstadter has written that, "It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one." Apart from the former Soviet Union, other countries define themselves as birthright communities, based not in ideology but in a common history. This, as Michael Ignatieff emphasizes, is rooted in "the people's pre-existing ethnic characteristics, their language, religion, customs, and tradition." Americanism, however, is an "ism" or ideology in the same way that communism or fascism or liberalism are isms. The American ideology, stemming from the Revolution, can be subsumed in five words: antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism. The implications of the latter two for socialism were spelled out by Hermann Keyserling and Leon Samson, writing in the late 1920s and early 1930s. They argued that the movement had little appeal because the social content of socialism, with the big exception of property relations, is similar to what Americans think they already have, namely, a democratic, socially classless, anti-elitist society.
As Samson, a radical socialist, put it:
When we examine the meaning of Americanism, we discover that Americanism is to the American not a tradition or a territory, not what France is to a Frenchman or England to an Englishman, but a doctrine—what socialism is to a socialist. Like socialism, Americanism is looked upon ... as a highly attenuated, conceptualized, platonic, impersonal attraction toward a system of ideas, a solemn assent to a handful of final notions—democracy, liberty, opportunity, to all of which the American adheres rationalistically much as a socialist adheres to his socialism—because it does him good, because it gives him work, because, so he thinks, it guarantees him happiness. Americanism has thus served as a substitute for socialism.
Samson noted that conservatives, Republicans, and businessmen, whom he preferred to quote to illustrate his own observations, adopted language, concepts, and goals for American society which in Europe were voiced only by socialists. Writing in the early 1930s, he pointed out that Herbert Hoover took Europe as a negative model, saying that in America, "we resent class distinction because there can be no rise for the individual through the frozen strata of classes." Hoover and other conservatives emphasized meritocracy and equal opportunity as goals of the American system.
It is of interest to note that Gramsci also stressed that America's unique history resulted in a general value system, a conception of life, which he, too, dubbed "Americanism." The essence of Americanism is rationalism uninhibited by the existence of social classes and values derived from a feudal past. "Americanism" is not simply a way of life, it is an "ideology." Unlike other nations, America is characterized by the complete ideological "hegemony" of bourgeois values, unaffected by feudalism.
Americanism, in its most developed form, requires a preliminary condition ... that there do not exist numerous [postfeudal] classes with no essential function in the world of production. European "tradition," European "civilization," is, conversely, characterized precisely by the existence of such classes, created by the "richness" and "complexity" of past history. One could even say that the more historic a nation the more numerous and burdensome are those sedimentations of idle and useless masses living on "their ancestral patrimony," pensioners of economic history.... America does not have "great historical and cultural traditions"; but neither does it have this leaden burden to support....
The conception of America as a classically liberal, antistatist society was elaborated after World War II by political theorist Louis Hartz, in much the same terms as H. G. Wells:
[My] chief argument is that the Americans started almost clear of the medieval heritage, and developed in the utmost the modern type of productive social organization. They took the economic conventions that were modern and progressive at the end of the eighteenth century and stamped them into the Constitution as if they meant to stamp them there for all time. America is pure eighteenth century.
A similar argument about the American and European systems was presented by socialist leader Morris Hillquit. In 1909, he noted that in America there was "no room for a Conservative Party in the European sense," i.e., a statist or Tory Conservative party. Like Wells, he argued that the Republicans correspond "to the [antistatist] Liberal parties of Europe," while the Democrats bear "some resemblance to the Radical [left liberal] parties of European countries."
|1||An Exceptional Nation||15|
|2||The American Party System||43|
|3||The Split Between Unions and the Socialist Party||85|
|4||Immigrants and Socialism: Double-Edged Effects||125|
|5||Sectarians vs. Reformists: Were Socialists Undermined by Their Own Strategy?||167|
|6||Socialist Sectarianism and Communist Opportunism in the Thirties||203|
|7||Political Repression and Socialism||237|
|8||The end of Political Exceptionalism?||261|