Left and Right

Why America Isn’t Socialist

My friend Jack Ross has a magisterial new book out on the history of the socialist movement in the United States.

Samuel Goldman has an extensive review in The American Conservative.

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.”

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