Socialists of America, Disunited
Why the Revolution never happened here
Aug 28, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 47 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
The American socialists compounded such problems by their own dogmatism. The Socialist party in America, Lipset and Marks point out, "was one of the most orthodox Marxist parties in the democratic world." Fatally, it allowed itself to be divided from the labor movement. But it can be difficult to distinguish cause and effect in such matters. Few things contributed more to the socialists' isolation from labor than the party's opposition to World War I after America entered the conflict. But the lack of workers in their ranks was, as Lipset and Marks acknowledge, one reason the socialists persisted in their antiwar stance: Pacifism ran stronger among middle-class socialists than among their proletarian comrades.
The marginality of the Left may explain why the Communist party grew stronger than the Socialist party. In other democratic countries, with the exceptions of France and Italy after World War II, socialists dominated the Left. In America, too, the socialists did better in appealing to the general public, winning many more municipal and legislative elections and garnering more votes for their presidential tickets. The Communists, however, built a far stronger organization. Their party had a hundred thousand members at its peak, many times more than the Socialist party. It had more money (thanks to regular contributions from Moscow), more cadres working within labor, liberal, civil rights, and ethnic organizations, and a greater presence in the worlds of arts, letters, and mass entertainment.
The Communist party finally collapsed in 1956 less from the pounding it took at the hands of McCarthyism than from Khrushchev's speech to the twentieth congress of the Soviet Communist party revealing Stalin's crimes. At last, communism's barbarity was confirmed by the only witness the American Communists regarded as authoritative: the dictator of the Soviet Union.
Still, the shattered party left a lingering shadow. Even as the Communists came to admit what other Americans had long known about the USSR, many somehow clung to the conceit that they were wiser and nobler. They constituted an enduring milieu or culture, defined by an eagerness to see the worst in America and the best in its enemies.
Traces of this attitude remained visible where the party had once made itself felt: cause groups, academe, Hollywood, intellectual magazines. And it was perpetuated through the "red-diaper babies" who made up a large part of the 1960s New Left. This generation eschewed pro-Sovietism, but it romantically embraced the "revolutionary" movements of China, Cuba, Vietnam, and other non-western countries. It anathematized anti-communism, and eventually it produced a new historiography of American communism that consisted of apologias and celebrations.
In recent years, as damning revelations about Rosenberg, Hiss, and other Soviet spies have poured forth from Russian and American archives, historians have yielded ground while formulating new defenses. Two prominent ones, Ellen Schrecker of Yeshiva University and Maurice Isserman of Hamilton College, recently took to the pages of the Nation to explain that even though it had now been proven that hundreds of American Communists spied for Moscow, "espionage is . . . something that ordinary people, not moral monsters, do." True, it might be necessary to concede in the face of overwhelming evidence that the party was "a rigid, secretive, and undemocratic sect whose leaders followed the Soviet line and recruited for the KGB," but such defects must be weighed against the fact that it was also "the most dynamic organization on the American left, . . . the vehicle through which hundreds of thousands of Americans sought to create a more democratic and egalitarian society."
Isserman has also now given us a highly readable biography of Michael Harrington, former leader of the Socialist party and author of the 1962 The Other America, which is credited with inspiring the "war on poverty." The interesting parts of Maurice Isserman's biography, The Other American, trace the religious roots of Harrington's politics, showing how socialism was a substitute for the Catholicism in which his affluent parents had reared him. To the end of his life his commitment to socialism -- putatively rational, agnostic, empirical -- retained the resonance of religious conviction. As he put it a few months before his death, socialism "is not simply an economic transition, or a political transition [but] the emergence of a new civilization, . . . new ways of life for all the people of the Earth." One could devote a life to it knowing one would never see its attainment, but nonetheless the faith in an ultimate triumph made socialism "a movement of joy."