The Cultures of Socialism in the United States

Article excerpt

The little-understood roots of the left offer us the chance to demonstrate a vital continuity. A bridge just now being rediscovered exists between the nineteenth century Euro-American traditions upon which the modem Marxist movements were founded, and the cultures (i.e., the collective, including artistic, expression) of minority populations old and new to the United States.

At the bottom of the social ladder and increasingly at the heart of blue-collar class life, the latter groups have only in recent decades begun to be studied as potential agents of transformation. Since the 1965 change in immigration law, a new working class, largely but by no means entirely from the Caribbean Basin region (including Mexico and Central America), has taken shape. That new class has served to remind keen observers that the black, Asian, and Latino working populations were never absent. Indeed, large numbers of "Mexicans" along with Indians predated Europeans, afterwards suffering the continuing shocks of colonization. These groups were merely outside the purview of organized labor at large, and--despite often ardent efforts--outside the reach of the political left as well. A grasp of continuity removes the subject from the realm of antiquarianism (or mere sentimental backward-looking) and makes it available for today's political priorities.

Fifty years ago, two large and prestigious volumes entitled Socialism and American Life treated working people of non-European origin as essentially irrelevant to the subject at hand. As Daniel Bell pronounced in the volumes' key historical essay, "The Origin and Development of Marxian Socialism in the United States," political socialism had turned out to be a mere idealistic, transitional movement previewing the modern welfare state. U.S. Communism, whose supporters urgently embraced black liberation, was viewed by Bell and his colleagues as a mere conspiracy with no true national roots. According to this view, capitalism had by mid-century essentially resolved the problems that inspired socialists; the mostly European immigrant working class milieu and the grassroots plains states socialist movement were gone, in any case, once and for all. Nothing would replace them.

In the real-life global context, likewise in the U.S. countryside and cities, nonwhite populations as well as millions of working-class whites faced "problems" that had not been solved and grew worse. But they were off the charts, while sociologists pinpointed the social dilemma of the future as excessive blue-collar leisure and potentially pervasive alienation. Dissident Marxist scholars, then few and mostly scattered (their favorite outiet was usually Monthly Review), sought to reconstruct a different history, an unknown or forgotten story of labor struggle but also of social, economic, and cultural life among racial minorities. The radical discussion of "alienation" and the fresh translation of early Marx meanwhile raised fruitful questions about the very purposes of socialism: Was it mainly about the control and division of property or did the social relations of labor and what had been considered issues of "culture" actually concern the first generation of Marxists as well as the latest one?

But only with the arrival of a generation of historians rooted in certain types of cultural and industrial histories--David Montgomery and the late Herbert Gutman come to mind, as well as E. P. Thompson from Britain-did the subjects of the U.S. past become "cultural" in the anthropological as well as more usual social history sense of "ethnic culture." All three of these scholars, significantly, were former participants in the Popular Front milieu (and, it might be added, all three were fond of MR). Gutman in particular persuaded a generation of young scholars, themselves awakened by the civil rights and antiwar movements, that "culture" could be understood best as the cultural tools that populations carried along with them, and used to advance themselves in new situations. …