Why Socialism failed in the United states

Marc Chandler

Leftists might wish to get an antidepressant prescription filled before sitting down to read It Didn’t Happen Here*, by Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks. The reader quickly learns that the failure of socialism was overdetermined in the United States. That the very fabric of America’s political culture is hostile to the socialist project. That the strategic choices and extremist ideology of the Socialist Party further aggravated its already disadvantageous position.

Even the slight hope raised by the title of the last chapter ‘‘The End of Political Exceptionalism?’’– is dashed. To the extent that there has been convergence between the political evolution of the United States and that of other advanced industrialized countries, it has been at the expense of the socialist project abroad rather than America warming to it. Indeed, the book concludes with the authors’ suggestion that part of the legacy of the failure of socialism in America is the near absence of a Green Party, which has taken root in the wealthier European nations as the Social Democratic parties have embraced programmes of the liberalization.

The ground covered by Lipset and Marks is well traveled. Combine Alexis de Tocqueville’s nineteenth-century observations of American exceptionalism with Werner Sombart’s 1906 classic Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? Add a good measure of Daniel bell’s Marxian Socialism in the United States (1967), and, although many more works are discussed, you have the essence of Lipset and Marks’s general argument. Their contribution, as far as I can tell, is to synthesize and fine-tune the traditional explanations of the failure of socialism in the United States.

They adroitly use the tools of their trade as political sociologists to draw on experiences of other countries facing similar circumstances, such as the predominance of craft unions rather than industrial unions, to home in on what is unique about the United States. They also draw on socialists’ challenges and successes in local and state governments to lend insight into developments on the national level. Throughout, Lipset and Marks make historical comparisons as well.

They have provided a thoroughly readable and, generally, uncontroversial book. Few readers on the right or left will have problems with the general argument that through sectarianism and pursuit of illadvised strategies at critical times, socialists failed to appeal to workers in a US culture that is fundamentally individualistic and antistatist. Lipset and Marks’ argument contributes to the defeatism that appears to have been prevalent on the US left even before the rise of Reaganism-Thatcherism or the end of the cold war.

Yet there is no need to abandon hope: Lipset and Marks are confused. Their methodology conflates socialism in America with the fortunes of the Socialist Party. This allows them to talk about the failure of socialism without ever having to define it, except to make allusions to statist solutions and union strength. What they essentially do is provided a detailed obituary of the Socialist Party; in so doing, they believe that they have explained why socialism failed in the United States. They have not-any more than the lack of a Capitalist Party indicates the lack of capitalism.

They seem to think that their most important argument is with those who have come up with different obituaries of the Socialist Party. That’s little better than splitting hairs. The real, significant argument, which goes unaddressed, is with those who have the tenacity to argue that, far from failing, socialism is very much alive in the United States.

One common-sense definition is that socialism is what socialists advocate. In reviewing the Socialist Party platform of 1928, when the party

was already past its peak of support, Milton and Rose Friedman found, much to their chagrin, that most of the economic planks had been at least partially enacted. The Socialist Party platform included calls for public unemployment insurance and employment agencies, health and accident insurance, old-age pensions, laws against child labour, and a shorter workday. It was sensitive to environmental issues too, calling for a national programme of flood control and relief, reforestation, irrigation and reclamation. That some of these advances have been rolled back over the past quarter-century is surely worth investigating, but rear-guard action does not- disprove on the contrary, it confirms that progress in a socialist direction is possible.

Where Lipset and Marks see failure, the Friedmans saw profound success. ‘‘In our opinion,’’ they wrote in Free to Choose (1980), ‘‘the Socialist Party was the most influential political party in the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century.’’ Even though the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate never received more than 6 percent of the popular vote (Eugene Debs, 1912), they concluded that the party programme had largely been embraced by both the Democratic and Republican parties.

But one need not take the Friedmans’ word for the existence of socialism in the United States. Consider the less ideological student of business and social theory Peter Drucker, whose prolific writings take Marx more seriously. Drucker’s recent work appears to presuppose the existence of socialism here.

In Post-Capitalist Society (1993), Drucker is explicit: if one accepts Marx’s definition of socialism as workers’ owning the means of production, then ‘‘the United States has become the most ‘socialist country around—while still remaining the most capitalist’ one as well.’’

Pension funds, of which employees are the beneficiary owners, have become the single largest owners of US businesses, or the means of production. Through pension funds and other savings and investment vehicles, workers share in the earnings stream generated by capital. Surely this is something profoundly different from the political economy described by Adam Smith or Karl Marx.

The idea that capitalism and socialism are not mutually exclusive anticipates and arguably more intellectually rigorous discourse. American historian Martin Sklar develops this line of argument in a collection of essays published under the title The United States as a Developing Country (1992) and in a number of subsequent essays, most recently in ‘‘Capitalism and Socialism in the Emergence of Modern America. The Formative Era,’’ to be found in Reconstructing History: The Emergence of a New Historical Society (1999), edited by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn. Capitalism and socialism co-evolved and co-developed in the United States after the turn of the twentieth century, Sklar argues, and did so in both complementary and competing roles.

For Skalr, socialism refers to a mode of production, or what he calls ‘‘property production relations.’’ Socialist relations are those that supplement or to some degree supplant the property stake as the bedrock of one’s role and status in society. Socialism comprises those tendencies, forces and institutions that blunt, mitigate or adapt market relations to social goals.

Socialism, according to Sklar, is the redefinition of property rights in ways that make the market socially accountable and responsible. It broadens the meaning of human rights and citizenship. He finds socialism in the ways in which we celebrate our identities as citizens and not simply as factors of production, like breathing appendages to machines. Socialism lies in those various political, associational and contractual relationship that mediate, restrain and redirect the rights of property and the cash nexus.