Magazine article The American Conservative

Why America Isn't Socialist

Magazine article The American Conservative

Why America Isn't Socialist

Article excerpt

The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History, Jack Ross, Potomac Books, 824 pages

Before it became a favorite trope of Republican presidential candidates, "American exceptionalism" belonged to the left. The phrase referred to the United States' puzzling divergence from the pattern of development proposed by Karl Marx. According to Marx, powerful socialist movements or labor parties should arise in advanced economies as workers recognized the opposition of interests between themselves and capital. Why did this fail to occur in America?

Jack Ross is the latest to raise this question, joining an honor roll of intellectuals including Friedrich Engels, Werner Sombart, H.G. Wells, Daniel Bell, and more recently Gary Marks and Seymour Martin Lipset. His book--ostensibly a history of the Socialist Party of America (SPA), which existed formally from 1901 to 1972--reconsiders the successes and, mostly, failures of socialist organizing from the end of the Civil War up to the present. Ross argues that the fundamental error of American socialism was its leaders' refusal to build a political party on a foundation of unions and agricultural associations, as was done in Britain and Germany. The resulting split between labor and politics condemned the SPA to marginality.

Resisting the social and cultural approaches that dominate academic historiography, Ross argues that the main obstacle to American socialism was bad decisions taken by professional activists in conventions or meeting rooms. In Ross's view, a terrible precedent was set in 1896 when the Populist Party endorsed the Democrat William Jennings Bryan rather than nominating Eugene Debs as its candidate for president. Debs then took his followers into the Social Democratic Party, a direct ancestor of the SPA, as a dissenting rump. Although it enjoyed electoral success in a few regional strongholds, the SPA would never really get established at the national level.

As the story proceeds into the 20th century, Ross blames sinister forces for pushing the socialist movement toward cooperation with the two-party system. Reversing the conventional interpretation, he associates this "conservative" tendency with the Communists. Usually remembered as the radical wing of American socialism, Ross presents them as its collaborationist "right."

Because Ross pays little attention to ideas and proceeds chronologically rather than analytically, it is not easy to understand the basis for this characterization.

Apparently it rests on the observation that leading figures in the SPA were less enthusiastic about the centralized state than we might expect socialists to be. Drawing on the Jeffersonian tradition, they envisioned a socialist America as an economic democracy embodied by cooperative enterprises and local government rather than a centralized bureaucracy.

These Jeffersonian socialists knew from the experience of the Civil War that military conflict has centralizing and bureaucratizing consequences. They also recognized that overseas expansion was a recipe for permanent militarism. So anti-imperialism, if not outright pacifism, was an important part of their socialist vision. In a phrase Ross repeats throughout the book, they wanted America to be a republic, not an empire.

This vision was appealing to the Northern European immigrants, theologically liberal Protestants, and skilled workers who were central to America's socialist movements before the First World War. But it was anathema to those self-styled radicals who took their cues from The Communist Manifesto. For enthusiasts of the early Marx, war and imperialism were actually desirable because they hastened the final crisis of capitalism and promoted economic rationalization.

Leon Trotsky was the seminal theorist of this position. During his sojourn in the United States in early 1917, Trotsky mocked American socialists as petit bourgeois dreamers who thought socialism could be achieved by winning elections and who opposed American entry to the First World War. …

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