This was originally published in New Ground 74, January — February, 2000.
“Lord, Lord, It’s a Bourgeois Town”
by Bob Roman
It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States by Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks. New York, W.W. Norton & Co, 2000. 379 pp Hardcover, $26.95
Lefties may be glad to know that some reviewers greeted the central question of the book with some skepticism. What failure? The American Spectator harrumphed. See, comrades? Our enemies need us.
But in fact, the general consensus has been that the lack of a mass labor, socialist or communist movement in the United States is exceptional. Certainly us lefties have worried the subject enough. And this conundrum has been a recurring theme in Seymour Martin Lipset’s entire career; it is perhaps the original motivation for his interest in political sociology. In this book, he’s teamed up with a former student, Gary Marks, who is now a professor of political science and the founding director of the Center for European Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, to visit the subject once again.
I recommend this book, but it should be used with caution.
First of all, while the book makes extensive use of historical data and, sometimes, narrative, it is not a history, not like James Weinstein’s classic The Decline of Socialism in America, for instance. Even people familiar with the history of the radical left in the States will discover new details from this book but anyone imagining they’re learning left history here is instead receiving a fragmentary, sometimes distorted albeit always interesting picture of our past. The book was not intended as a history.
Further, Lipset and Marks disavow any ambition to actually answer their question; it “may never be ultimately resolved”. Which is not to say that they don’t claim any answers. But the authors’ immediate goal was “to explore the explanatory power of comparison within the United States, across (and within) different national contexts, and over time for a classic question of American historiography.” (p. 10) It is, they concede, a big task. The problem is not that there are too few plausible explanations but there are so many as to suggest little new may be said on the issue.
Lipset and Marks begin the book rather like a concerto, with an overture, with a survey of the arguments, mostly those of leftists, about American exceptionalism: Why did the United States, alone among industrial societies, lack a significant socialist movement or a labor party? Each of the following chapters then examines a particular set of assertions using basically an historical, cross-cultural compare and contrast technique. These chapters are worth reading as much for what has worked for U.S. socialists as for an explanation of failure.
The final chapter asks: “The End of Political Exceptionalism?” It actually deals with two issues. Given American exceptionalism, where has that left us? Lipset and Marks draw upon comparative data from a variety of sources (including Chicago DSA expatriates to North Carolina, Evelyn Huber and John Stevens) to demonstrate that most of us are worse off as a result. The other is a sort of reprise of the “End of Ideology”: the observation that socialist, social democratic and labor parties world wide are becoming more like the U.S. Democratic Party: an end to exceptionalism?
So what happened? In summary, Lipset and Marks seem to favor these factors. First of all, the American political system is a tough nut to crack: a plurality electoral system, winner-take-all presidency, consensus legislative process:
“The fact that the two major parties have sustained a duopoly of 95 percent of the congressional and presidential vote since the Civil War in a society that has spawned literally thousands of political parties indicates just how stifling the American political system has been for challenging new parties.” (p. 264)
Then too, strategic and tactical decisions are relevant:
“one of the key features of modern American politics that makes life so difficult for minor parties, the primary system, made a strategy of contesting primaries within the major parties more feasible.” (p. 265)
Culture also made socialism a tough sell; Lipset and Marks argue that American political culture has been overwhelmingly anti-state, if not libertarian. Then there was the split between the socialist movement and the labor movement, which was not entirely the fault of the socialist movement. Socialism’s failure, then, was “over determined”.
Lipset and Marks find some of the arguments advanced for the failure of the socialist movement do not withstand comparative scrutiny. Historically early manhood suffrage was not a barrier to socialist parties elsewhere. Federalism both hurts and helps socialist movements. The influence of the courts on the willingness of the American Federation of Labor and its constituent unions to pursue a political rather than an economic strategy has been overblown. State repression cannot explain the failure of socialists in America.
Some reviewers have hailed It Didn’t Happen Here as the definitive work on the topic. It is not, or if it is, it will be because people will have finally given up on the subject. Nor have the authors built “a plausible explanation of our own”. They do succeed in evaluating the diverse explanations for American exceptionalism. Though I have some misgivings about some of their evaluations, anyone interested in an explanation now has some basis for weighing the various factors that have been advanced in the past.
A bigger problem, though, is that the book, for all its use of history, is basically ahistorical. Socialisms, including various the various labor, farmer – labor, socialist and communist parties, didn’t just fail. They succeeded and failed, succeeded and failed, each successive trial carrying the burden and the benefit of the preceding, in the context of a political system that was constantly evolving. Factors that were influential at one point in history were absent or subsidiary at others. Factors that by themselves might not be particularly decisive might be, in combination and in sequence, deadly. This seems to me to be particularly apt when considering World War I and the Bolshevik revolution.
The authors’ own comparisons can be used to argue that the Socialist Party in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century, while far weaker than what would be predicted by a marxist paradigm, was not extraordinarily exceptional. The party was: radical, yes; unstable, yes; ideological if not principled, yes; exceptional, no. It was a plausible political vehicle even if it was ultimately an unsuccessful one. The question then becomes, once the left was smashed by repression and by sectarian hysteria, why wasn’t it reformed as happened in many other countries?
Lipset and Marks indirectly deal with this question when they compare and contrast strategies and tactics of the Socialist Party and the Communist Party during the Great Depression. Their analysis greatly parallels Michael Harrington’s argument in his book Socialism. In this context, it’s interesting that the authors, while referring to Michael Harrington frequently in the first chapter and to that particular book, do not choose to examine Harrington’s thesis that the U.S. labor movement represents a sort of crypto social democracy, which of course would be an argument that the U.S. is not all that exceptional after all. And once again, because Lipset and Marks are attempting to isolate and test particular factors, the treatment of the 1930s is largely ahistorical and therefore less helpful than it could be.
Finally, there are arguments that Lipset and Marks do not consider, at least directly, possibly because they may not be part of the literature that the authors set out to test. It seems to me that there are three major omissions.
First, it’s difficult for me to see how any discussion of U.S. politics can be complete without a discussion of slavery, the failure of Reconstruction and its consequences for electoral politics and government, especially in the context of the tidal wave of immigration that dominated the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries. The result being that the dominant theme of U.S. politics has been not so much class war as culture war. The authors deal extensively with immigration and with federalism, of course, and deal somewhat with racism, but not in this context and that makes a major difference in how these factors are to be judged.
Second, the very practice of electoral politics has evolved radically over the Twentieth Century. To some extent Lipset and Marks do indeed deal with this by discussing the agrarian Nonpartisan League and the 1930s Communist Party and the direct primary and this is valuable. But this evolution has had consequences for the party system and thus for minor parties and thus for the ways in which social movements find expression in electoral politics.
Even when political parties give voice to the interests of their members and constituencies, they exist first to serve the immediate interests of politicians. The primary election frees politicians from direct accountability to partisan organization. The regular schedule of elections in the U.S. (in contrast to the uncertain scheduling of elections in parliamentary systems) means that politicians can, by starting early, develop their own personal organizations and coalitions of non-party organizations in time for the elections without needing to maintain them between elections. When you add the ability and the efficiency of mass communication to appeal directly to the voter with a precisely tailored message without going through any organization, why would any rational politician choose to be subject to the burden of organizational accountability? How, then, can you talk of having a party system in any meaningful sense of the word? How would a left movement, how would any movement, find expression in that kind of electoral system? These particular questions may be beyond the scope of the book except that they reflect Harrington’s thesis that the U.S. has not been exceptional in the traditional sense of the question for a long time.
To the extent that this change is spreading (consider how U.S. political consultants have started earning a living overseas), this fully supports the authors’ view of the U.S. as the world’s future, except that the convergence of policies is a symptom not a cause.
Finally, Lipset and Marks do not discuss the changing efficacy of ideology to mobilize political movements. The ability of ideology, all ideologies not just the varieties of socialisms, to mobilize people has declined over the Twentieth Century, not continuously, not without upswings (and it appears we’re in such a period now), but generally it’s been a “bear market” for ideology for most of the past century.
After having said all that, I would urge DSA members and democratic leftists in general to read this book. There are lessons we can use, not so much from the failures of socialism in America but from its successes.
Photo by Roman.