Specters of Socialism

It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks. W.W. Norton and Company, 79 pages, $26.95.

Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks have written a cold and bloodless book that dissects the failure of socialism in America the way a forensic pathologist would slice into, pick apart, and examine the desiccated organs of an ancient cadaver. Indeed, the dead socialists, radicals, and labor leaders who inhabit this book--Big Bill Haywood and Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas and Upton Sinclair, William Z. Foster and John L. Lewis--flit through its pages like ghosts. Stripped of their passions, they are haunting specters marching through twentieth-century American history, through the Progressive Era, the post-World War I upheavals, the Great Depression, and the Red Scare. They appear to be unaware that the sardonic gods have ordained their defeat, and so they trudge on. And Lipset and Marks chronicle every step.

Standing Marxist historical determinism on its head, Lipset and Marks argue not so much that socialism didn't happen here but that it couldn't have happened here. Squinting into the past with 20/20 hindsight, they proclaim that socialism faced such an array of built-in obstacles that its failure in the United States was "overdetermined." As a result, they conclude that the United States is "the only Western democracy to have a party system dominated by two parties, both of which are sympathetic to liberal capitalism and neither of which has inherited a socialist or social democratic vision of society."

The authors trace cultural and political factors that combined to squash the American socialist impulse. In the cultural category, they posit an "Americanism" that is "subsumed in five words: antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism." Americanism worked to convince people that they didn't need socialism because they already had a "democratic, socially classless, anti-elitist society," according to Lipset and Marks. As well, the political system has been rigged against socialist parties: Winner-take-all plurality elections prevent challengers from gaining a foothold, while the two major parties control the levers of power, maintaining just enough porosity and ideological flexibility to adjust to shifting public opinion.

Still, in years past, in many parts of the country, a thriving socialist opposition flourished. Looking beyond the book's sociology and abstract political science, one finds that the strongest passages deal with the cyclical struggle by socialist and labor organizers to gain ground. One measure of their success is indicated by a 1942 Roper poll in which Americans were asked: "Do you think some form of Socialism would be a good thing or a bad thing for the country as a whole?" Fully one-fourth said it would be good, and another one-third said they didn't know--indicating that more than 50 percent of Americans viewed socialism either positively or neutrally.

So we read about the Knights of Labor and their attempts to unite farmers and several American Federation of Labor unions behind the People's Party in the 1890s. About the AFL's flirtation with a British-style, proto-Labour Party political action committee and about the AFL's adoption of a platform calling for the "collective ownership by the people of all means of production and distribution." About the Wobblies and their fire-breathing, anarchosyndicalist movement after the turn of the century. About the Socialist Party's growing influence in organized labor in the years before World War I, and about the December 1919 national meeting by 55 AFL affiliates, several state-based labor parties, and assorted socialists to form a Labor Party.

What might be surprising to some is that socialism in America was not headquartered on the Lower East Side of New York City. The early socialist strongholds included Oklahoma and the upper Midwest. In the years before World War I, Oklahoma boasted the nation's best-organized Socialist Party organization, which was complemented by allied radical groups and agrarian populists. Oklahoma gave the Socialist Party its highest percentage of votes in the 1912 presidential election and had the highest per-capita party membership in America. In North Dakota, Idaho, Minnesota, and elsewhere, the pro-socialist Nonpartisan League (NPL) recorded astonishing successes after 1915; in North Dakota, it produced a governor, controlled both houses of the legislature, and enacted a radical program that included the establishment of a state-owned bank, state-owned flour mills, a highly progressive tax structure, and a home building association that provided low-interest loans.

Yet at every turn, as Lipset and Marks chronicle, organized labor ultimately rejected socialism and abandoned each opportunity to throw its support behind a political party that would rival the Democrats and Republicans. Led by Samuel Gompers, and later persuaded by anti-socialists such as David Dubinksy of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and Sidney Hillman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, the AFL sabotaged political party organizing. Instead, it preferred syndicalism and business unionism to politics; in fact, until the Depression, the white-dominated, male-run, elitist AFL, controlled by its craft unions, "opposed state provision of old age pensions, compulsory health insurance, minimum wage legislation and unemployment compensation."

Given the inherent conservatism of the AFL, the most socialists alone could have achieved nationally was the 6 percent of the vote that Eugene Debs pulled in 1912. But because of the bad blood between the Socialist Party and the AFL, socialists had no opportunity to try a takeover of the federation from within. The authors provide a readable, compact account of the failure of early American socialist leaders to establish a working relationship with the AFL from the 1890s onward, despite advice to avoid sectarianism and ideological purity from none other than Friedrich Engels. Debs, the socialist leader of the American Railway Union, had clashed with Gompers over the Great Pullman Strike of 1894, and he once said that working with the AFL was "as wasteful of time as to spray a cesspool with attar of roses." By the time the Socialist Party was established in 1901, Debs was bitterly opposed to Gompers and the AFL leaders, and he called for the dissolution of the AFL and backed the revolutionary Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

Only here and there, on the local level, did socialists and labor collaborate. In Schenectady, New York, socialists elected a mayor in 1910 who supported municipal ownership of utilities and a public food market, and got city government into the business of selling ice, coal, and groceries. He provided free medical and dental care in working-class neighborhoods and backed trade unions and IWW strikes. (In 1913 the mayor was defeated by a "Democratic-Republican fusion ticket.") Nationally, however, a united front failed to develop.

But It Didn't Happen Here makes too much of the sectarian rivalry and political infighting among socialists, radicals, and labor. Notwithstanding the formidable systemic obstacles Lipset and Marks describe, American socialists and organized labor might have overcome their differences and built a lasting political force except for one thing: There are two sides to the class struggle. By concentrating on the socialist and working-class movement, Lipset and Marks gloss over, and even discount, the violent fury with which business leaders and the U.S. government responded to the threat that, in Karl Marx's terms, the class-in-itself was beginning to develop the consciousness of a class-for-itself.

In the aftermath of World War I, in which American participation was opposed, courageously, by the Socialist Party, a crackdown broke the back of the socialist movement. It was conducted by police and National Guard units, the Justice Department, the courts, and militia and private police financed by corporate executives. Yet Lipset and Marks are unimpressed: "Our conclusion is that the causal weight of repression in explaining the failure of socialism is low compared to that of factors discussed earlier."

While sanitizing much of the onslaught against the left, the book does tell part of the story. Lipset and Marks describe, for example, the "'veritable white terror' which swept through Oklahoma." Thousands of Socialists and Wobblies were arrested on false accusations of violence. "By 1919, suppression of Socialist newspapers and local meetings and the imprisonment of many of the party's leaders left the Oklahoma Socialist party and the Socialist movement throughout the southwest in tatters." In Minnesota, the entire leadership of the Nonpartisan League was wiped out. NPL meetings were banned in several states and, the authors note in passing, "the league suffered mob brutalities in hundreds of small towns." Of course, that and worse was occurring everywhere, but little of it shows up in this account. Strikes were crushed by force, with tens of thousands of strikers arrested and hundreds killed in massacres and pitched battles. In 1917 a lightning Justice Department strike force wiped out the IWW in one stroke, raiding 48 offices simultaneously, arresting its entire leadership, and forcing Bill Haywood into exile in the Soviet Union. Socialist leaders (including Debs) were arrested and jailed on absurd charges, and thousands of immigrant socialists were unceremoniously deported.

Had America's socialist movement not been crushed between 1917 and 1920, what might have happened when the Depression galvanized the working class in the 1930s? We'll never know. But Lipset and Marks are content to analyze the 1930s by stressing, correctly, the brilliant emasculation of the left by Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. Seducing labor leaders--including many of the more militant leaders of the brand-new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)--and scrambling to co-opt socialists by propounding left-sounding programs, FDR prevented organized labor from linking up with the Socialist and Communist parties in the early 1930s. By 1936 the Socialist Party was all but dead, and the Communist Party was one of Roosevelt's loudest supporters. (The authors quote CIO President John L. Lewis complaining that FDR was "carefully selecting my key lieutenants and appointing them to honorary posts... . He has his lackeys fawning upon and wining and dining many of my people. At proper intervals he has unveiled to them the glory of admission to the White House and permitted them to bask in his presence.") Roosevelt, they write, used "conscious efforts to undercut left-wing radicals, to preserve capitalism."

In the end, one wonders: What exactly do the authors mean by the "it" in It Didn't Happen Here? The ominous title of the book makes clear that the "it" that "didn't happen" is not merely democratic socialism, public ownership of key industries, and a redistributive economic system. By consciously alluding to Sinclair Lewis's 1935 novel It Can't Happen Here--a satirical but apocalyptic book about the danger of fascism--Lipset and Marks apparently want us to think that what we happily escaped was a menacing socialist state, or even totalitarianism. Yet there is little or no evidence in the history they cite that the socialist movement would have propelled America toward an undemocratic form of government. Instead, it looks as if the actors in this drama were merely fighting for social democracy, equality, and justice--and lost. Would it be such a bad thing if a new generation of progressive activists took inspiration from our resilient American-style socialists? We can learn from their failures, but, seeing them as more than ghosts from a distant past, we can learn also from their passion, their willingness to confront power, and their soaring hopes for a better society. ?

You may also like