It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States

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It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States by Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks W.W. Norton & Company - 2000 - 379 pages - $26.95

Readers of this magazine will automatically be inclined to look askance at the title of this book. The United States slid into socialism, sometimes at a rapid pace and sometimes slower, during most of the twentieth century. Things don't appear to be changing in the new century. To say that socialism has failed here is to overlook an enormous amount of socialistic law and regulation. But what political scientists Lipset and Marks mean by their title is that there never developed the kind of powerful political party overtly committed to nationalization of industry and redistribution of wealth that arose in most of the rest of the Western world.

It's true that we have not seen anything like the Labor Party in Britain or the Socialists in France. Lipset and Marks endeavor to explain why that is so. So long as they stick to the terrain of political and sociological explanation, their book succeeds. Unfortunately, when they leave that terrain for a discussion of the implications of socialism's "failure" here, It Didn't Happen Here runs into grave difficulties.

Lipset and Marks advance several answers to their "Why did socialism fail?" question and also reject some that others have put forth. In the latter category, for example, is the political repression argument. Some hardbitten socialists have contended that socialism was nipped in the bud by arrests, trials, and jailing of firebrands in the early twentieth century as well as judicial crackdowns on union activity. The authors reject that argument, observing that there were pockets of socialist success despite the repression-which was never widespread or systematic-and that judicial interference with union activity before the New Deal was rare.

The causes of "American exceptionalism" that Lipset and Marks posit are several. First, something in the American character created a barrier to the appeal of socialism. "Socialism," they write, "with its emphasis on statism, socialization of the means of production, and equality through taxation, was at odds with the dominant values of American culture." This point is certainly correct. Compared with Europe, where, owing to the rigidities of their economic structures, people had little opportunity to improve their lives, upward mobility was a well-known fact in America. Naturally, fewer people were ready for the socialists' appeal to envy and advocacy of coercion.

Another explanation the authors advance is the fact that suffrage, for men at least, was widespread before the beginning of the socialist movement. …