The Magazine

Socialists of America, Disunited

Why the Revolution never happened here

Aug 28, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 47 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
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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, 384 pp., $ 26.95

 

The Other American

 

The Life of Michael Harrington

 

by Maurice Isserman

 

PublicAffairs, 449 pp., $ 28.50


During both political conventions this summer, local police arrested scores of demonstrators demanding . . . well, they couldn't say exactly what it was they were demanding, much like the protesters who gathered during the meeting of the IMF this spring in Washington to let the world know that they were fed up -- not with anything in particular; just fed up.


It was as though these costumed, painted marchers were reenacting a drama for which they had the stage directions but not the lines -- despite the fact that the story they were reprising was only a generation or two old. As one of the IMF protesters told the Washington Post, he was carrying on in the footsteps of "his ex-hippie mother and his anti-fascist grandfather."


As a 1960s radical, I knew that despite all the talk of "youth rebellion" and the "generation gap," the revolutionaries of the 1960s were doing exactly what their parents most approved, since many of the parents themselves had been revolutionaries (or "anti-fascists") in the 1930s. It was, therefore, inevitable that the next generation of children -- reared on wistful retellings of the sit-ins, teach-ins, be-ins, and love-ins of the Age of Aquarius -- would want their turn when they reached protesting age.


The reason their efforts have been so feeble is that they lack a czar, or Great Depression, or Jim Crow, or Vietnam War to provide a compelling target. Then, too, they lack a vision of the happy future that will unfold after their chosen dragon is slain. For their parents and grandparents, the name of that vision was "socialism," an ideal that lay at the center of much of the turmoil of the twentieth century.


All over the world, socialism was the banner of rebellion, and for the most part it triumphed. By the end of the 1970s, advocates of socialism of one kind or another -- communism, African socialism, Arab socialism, social democracy -- held sway over most of mankind. America, however, caught only a glancing blow from this movement. For all their passionate intensity, the American radicals, whether of the 1930s or the 1960s, never amounted to more than a small minority, and neither the Socialist nor Communist parties ever gained a foothold in U.S. electoral politics.


In their valuable new book, It Didn't Happen Here, Seymour Martin Lipset, the doyen of political sociology, and Gary Marks attempt to explain this "American exceptionalism." They are scarcely the first. As they note in their preface, "the academic literature on this topic numbers in the hundreds of books and thousands of articles." But theirs is likely to remain the authoritative text.


The problem, they say, is "not that there are too few plausible explanations, but that there are too many." Lipset and Marks sort them into comprehensible categories and then assess each, mostly by means of comparisons with other countries or parties. For example, many writers have pointed to the obstacles that the U.S. electoral system places in the paths of third parties, but Lipset and Marks remind us that numerous third party candidates -- Ross Perot, John Anderson, George Wallace, Robert LaFollette -- were able to draw many more votes than the socialists.


Broadly speaking, the explanations are of two kinds: those that point to objective aspects of America's constitution, history, or sociology, and those that point to self-defeating actions by the socialists. Lipset and Marks believe both factors contributed. For example, the outbreak of World War I taught the international socialist movement the falsity of Marx and Engels's dictum that "the working man has no country." After learning to pay deference to nationalist sentiment, most socialist parties in Europe recovered their strength -- but in America, the unique demographics of the working class (composed of waves of diverse immigrants) discouraged class solidarity. Among America's polyglot proletariat, the tug of ethnicity was harder to overcome because it pulled in multiple directions.