Better red than brain-dead

Why did socialism fail in the United States -- and whose loss is it, anyway?


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John Leonard
August 17, 2000 12:22PM (UTC)

At a free concert in Battery Park in New York six weeks ago, British folk singer Billy Bragg observed, between Woody Guthrie riffs, that the only signs of socialism he had seen anywhere in these United States were the public library and the carpool lane.

If I were socialism, I'd have skipped this country entirely. Imagine an eye in the sky -- a phoenix, a dove, a stormy petrel or a sputnik -- on a scouting mission from the failed revolutions of 1848, or maybe the Paris Commune. Looking down, canting counterclockwise on its powerful left wing, what would it see? From sea to shining sea: long-distance loneliness ... Deer slayers, cowpunchers, whaling captains and raft river rats ... Greed-heads, gun nuts and religious crazies ... Carpetbaggers, claim jumpers, con men, dead redskins, despised coolies, fugitive slaves and No Irish Need Apply ... Land grabs, lynching bees and Love Canals ... Lone Rangers, private eyes, serial killers and cyberpunks ... Silicon Valley and the Big Casino ... IPOs and Regis.

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Not exactly the ideal social space for a radical Johnny Appleseed to plant his dream beans. Early on in "It Didn't Happen Here," Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks quote historian Richard Hofstadter: "It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one." And late in the game the authors speak for themselves: "A culture can be conceived as a series of loaded dice" in which "past throws" constrain the present. By then they've comparison-shopped the labor-left all over the world; consulted everybody from Trotsky and Gramsci to Irving Howe and Ira Katznelson; and outlined, rehearsed, staged, critiqued, summarized, reiterated, rewound, rerun and Mobius-looped every conceivable scenario. The odds, they conclude, were so steeply stacked against socialism in America that its defeat was "overdetermined."

Lipset professes public policy at George Mason University and is a fellow at the Hoover Institution. Marks professes political science at the University of North Carolina and directs its Center for European Studies. They are fair-minded, open-handed, flat-footed and lily-livered (that is, value neutral). They aren't saying that socialism deserved to flunk our litmus test because there's something wrong with it. Nor are they saying there's anything right about it, either, unless its washout would help explain why we happen to be the only Western democracy without a comprehensive healthcare system, the only one that doesn't provide child support to all of its families and the worst offender on economic inequality, with a greater gap between rich and poor than any other industrialized nation, double the differential of the next worst down the list. What they do say is that almost everything distinctive and exceptional about America made socialism a harder sell here than in, say, Australia. And that the pigheaded behavior of American Socialists only compounded the problem.

Be warned that Lipset and Marks say these things over and over again, after which they repeat them, in the approved reverse-gear style of academic monographs whose feet, like those of the legendary Mikea Pygmies of Madagascar, point backward to confuse their enemy trackers. And yet I can't think of any crime scene they haven't dusted, nor any suspect they haven't cuffed.

The big picture is that, from the get-go, our "core values" glowed in the dark like Three Mile Island: an ethos of individualism, a Weltanschauung of anti-statism and a blank check from God. We sprang full-blown from John Locke's higher brow, a natural-born hegemony of the bourgeois money-grubbers -- unscathed by medieval feudalism (with its fixed classes of aristocracy and forelock-tugging peasants); exempt from 19th century Europe's ideological power-sharing fratricides (by virtue of early white male suffrage, lots of land, waves of immigrants to assume the lousiest jobs while the native-born upwardly mobilized themselves and a ragtag diversity that undermined nascent class consciousness while permitting the merchant princelings to play workers of different racial and ethnic backgrounds against one another in a status scramble); and insulated from revolting developments -- insurgencies, mutinies, Jacqueries, even mugwumps and goo-goos -- by a political system so partial to the status quo that it's almost arteriosclerotic (a winner-take-all presidency, a fragmenting federalism, a bought judiciary and a two-party Incumbent Protection Society).

So everybody is measured by his or her ability to produce wealth, those who die with the most toys win, anyone who fails to prosper is morally condemned and a vote for Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, John Anderson, George Wallace, Henry Wallace or Robert La Follette -- not even to mention Norman Thomas and Eugene Debs -- is considered to be a waste of franchise.

To be sure, we have had more than our fair share of labor violence. Otherwise, we would never have needed Pinkertons. One recalls, at random, the Haymarket riot, the Homestead strike and the Ludlow massacre; Harlan County and Coeur d'Alene; steelworkers in Chicago and Detroit, textile workers in Lawrence and Paterson, dockworkers in San Francisco, rubber workers in Akron, Ohio, and gravediggers in New Jersey; Joe Hill, Big Bill Haywood, Tom Mooney, Mother Jones; Molly Maguires and Wobblies. But the most depressing chapters in "It Didn't Happen Here" are devoted to a labor movement that had already internalized the all-American ethos of anti-statist individualism before the first left-wing agitator explicated the first contradiction -- a working class needing to lose lots more than its chains. "I'm all right, Jack" and "Less Filling! Tastes Great!" don't add up to "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs."

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Thus the whole idea of a labor party here, anything like those that developed in European nations, Canada and Australia, seems chimerical when we read how radicals such as the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World -- more anarcho-syndicalist than socialist or Marxist -- disdained reform politics every bit as much as conservative craft unionists in the American Federation of Labor. The AFL in its turn worked just as hard to protect the skilled jobs of its white native-born membership from a lumpenproletariat of African-Americans and immigrants as it did to wring concessions from rapacious employers. (Until the Great Depression, the AFL actually opposed minimum-wage legislation, state provision of old-age pensions, compulsory health insurance and limitations on the manly workweek. Nor should we ever forget a 1902 pamphlet that Samuel Gompers wrote himself: "Meat vs. Rice: American Manhood vs. Asiatic Coolieism: Which Shall Survive?")

Or when we read how the Socialist Party, as fetishistic about doctrine as any Protestant sect, refused to join in coalitions with allies like the North Dakota Non-Partisan League, the Minneosta Farmer-Labor Party, the Commonwealth Federations of Washington and Oregon, the Working Class Union in Oklahoma or Upton Sinclair's Campaign to End Poverty in California -- and in many localities went so far as to expel, for "opportunism," members who joined a union or, even worse, ran for office on a coalition ticket and won a municipal election. (Inconstant Debs, a five-time candidate for president on the Socialist line, was quoted famously: "There was a time in my life, before I became a Socialist, when I permitted myself to be elected to a state legislature, and I have been trying to live it down ever since. I am as much ashamed of that as I am of having gone to jail.")

Or when we read how the Depression-born alternative to the AFL, the more-inclusive Congress of Industrial Organizations, alert to the possibilities of pro-labor legislation, nevertheless rushed into the co-opting embrace of Franklin Roosevelt so quickly and uncritically as to compromise its subsequent leverage on the Democratic Party, even after it was obedient enough to purge its own left wing in the late 1940s. (How prescient old Socialist Norman Thomas seems now, having warned back then that the New Deal was "an elaborate scheme for stabilizing capitalism through associations of industries that could regulate production in order to maintain profits.")

So much for solidarity. In fact, only once in this century did organized labor desert the Democratic Party -- after its nomination of anti-labor John Davis in 1924. Which is also the only national election year when the Socialists made common cause with another party, the Progressives. And so La Follette got 16.6 percent of the vote. And so the Democrats, learning their lesson, made sure to nominate a pro-labor Al Smith the next time around. And yet how soon the left forgot about the practical payoffs that can sometimes accrue from rejecting the "lesser evil" thesis.

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And so now organized labor and disorganized labor, too, are both on the wrong side of the candy store window, looking in from the Dumpster as megamerging downsizers, flyboy bond traders and multinational vulture capitalists eat the truffles and sodomize the clerks. The typical chief executive of a big company earns 170 times as much as the typical worker. One-third of the labor force earns less than $15,000 a year. The average hourly wage adjusted for inflation is lower today than it was in 1973. The very definition of inflation has been helpfully "adjusted" to exclude food and energy. And politicians of both bought parties are in thrall to a Clairvoyant Master of the Temple Karnak, a High Priest of the Hermetic Secrets of the Sacred Science of the Pharaohs, the Gnome of the Fed: Alan (Chuckles) Greenspan.

But socialism had other difficulties. For one, while we tend to think of immigration as a tide that brought us the socialist Germans of Milwaukee, the socialist Finns of Minneapolis and the socialist Jews of New York, never mind the socialist Dutch of Reading, Pa. -- and how one cheers their radical initiatives of rural cooperatives and credit banks; of state-owned terminal elevators, flour mills, packinghouses and cold-storage plants; of city-owned coal yards, ice plants, stone quarries and electric utilities; of cooperative housing, hot-lunch programs in elementary schools and direct election of school board members; of civil service standards for the police and fire departments, public works for the unemployed and free medical care -- that same tide brought in the far more numerous potato-famine Irish and southern Italians, most of them Roman Catholics inclined to obey the priests of a church whose anathematizing of godless socialism had been codified in two different papal encyclicals. And the militia of Christ had more money to spend than was ever discovered in a Wobbly strike fund.

For another, while Lipset and Marks consider our electoral system more or less a wash, neither inhibiting nor encouraging socialism or any other third-party alternative, they arrive at this conclusion by an apples-and-oranges analogy. The logic of a primary and party convention system, they inform us, "is fundamentally similar to [the] two-ballot system" in so many European countries: "Party factions, which in a two-ballot system would be separate parties, can contest primaries and then coalesce with other factions in the general election, or run independently as third candidates."

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This is so much static, obscuring the fact that what our primaries do is aggrandize the two-party system at the expense of outgunned, outmanned, out-soft-monied Greens, Trots, Flat Earthers and Right-to-Lifers. To vote at all in a primary, I must be registered in one or another party and choose only among its competing candidates. In France, on the other hand, any registered voter can vote for any party in the first round. All those parties receiving one-eighth of the vote advance to the second round, with time off between to form coalitions with like-minded partners. Even the smallest of parties has a chance to advance during both these rounds.

In France besides, on a local level, half of all elected officials must now be women. More wondrous still, the passionate particularities of a party vote for the European Parliament will be reflected in their exact proportion to the total count, whether that proportion constitutes a majority, a plurality, a handful or merely a single deputy. It's a mosaic instead of a duochrome; the grand theory accommodates and approximates its noisy fractals.

For a third, the American Socialist Party opposed the First World War. Many socialists, after all, had voted for Woodrow Wilson when he promised to keep us out of it. But he lied. And while socialists all over Europe rallied to the slaughter under their respective flags, the American party stuck to its principles, for which it was repressed -- and not only with the usual firings of teachers, shutting down of newspapers, breaking up of meetings and arrests on suspicion but with the infamous Palmer raids, the refusal to seat duly elected representatives in Congress and state legislatures and the jailing of Eugene Debs.

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Never mind that the American party was right (a point that seems not to have occurred to Lipset and Marks). So severely was it punished for opposing a criminally stupid bloodbath that the party never recovered. The authors insist that only the native-born component of the movement suffered unto extinction, mostly out west; that the big-city ethnic enclaves hunkered down and kept on trucking. But American socialism lost its shock troops, its assembly-line and Deep South labor organizers, its youth brigades and whatever ilan it might have mustered for the long struggle against not only metastasizing capitalism but also serial-killing Stalinism.

Because, of course, it was the Stalinists who took over the left-wing organizing during the Popular Front period, even as they lied about themselves and their ultimate loyalties. And when they, too, succumbed to Cold War paranoia and McCarthyite repression, there was nobody left to pick up the sticks and do any stitching. "We were, most of us, fleeing the reality that man is alone upon this earth," wrote Murray Kempton in his elegy for '30s radicalism. "We ran from a fact of solitude to a myth of community. That myth failed us because the moments of test come most often when we are alone and far from home and even the illusion of community is not there to sustain us."

I would like to feel the way Nadine Gordimer felt when Susan Sontag asked her, several years ago on public television, whether she didn't agree that the old categories of left and right were now outmoded. Gordimer smiled sweetly: "Well, Susan, I still believe with Jean-Paul Sartre -- that socialism is the horizon of the world." But I am persuaded otherwise. Obviously, the utopianism I concocted for myself in high school in the '50s -- equal parts of John Dos Passos, the fitful memories of an old Wobbly I met on the Pike in Long Beach, Calif., and the bad dreams of a United Auto Workers area rep who let me follow him around to local union halls while he popped Antabuse to keep from drinking himself to death because he felt guilty for surviving the CIO's left-wing purge -- was all a bagpipe dream.

How lonely the literature seems where I have made my makeshift home. How full of hopelessness are Melville in "Benito Sereno," Twain in "Pudd'nhead Wilson" and Richard Wright in "Native Son." How problematic our romance with money in the gangster novels of Bellow, Doctorow and William Kennedy. How improbably often the characters in our canonical fiction are on the run, like Ahab and Huck, or Neal Cassady and Rabbit Angstrom. How deeply weird, morbid and perverse is our fascination with the iconology of the filthy rich: the famous Steichen portrait of J.P. Morgan with a paring knife and an endangered apple; the Spruce Goose of Howard Hughes; the Rosebud sled of "Citizen Kane"; the death in the saddle of Nelson A. (for Attica) Rockefeller; the severed ear of a kidnapped Getty; John Jacob Astor, who slaughtered all the otters in Hawaii before deciding to build us a library; Daniel Guggenheim, who cut a silver deal with Porfirio Dmaz in Mexico and helped out King Leopold II of Belgium with a spot of trouble in his Congo before endowing us a museum; Andrew Carnegie, who, before he gave us a music hall, also brought us the Homestead strike ...

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In "Tell Me a Riddle," Tillie Olsen asked: "Oh why do I have to feel it happens to me?" And: "Why is it like this?" And: "Why do I have to care?" In Harvey Swados' novel "Standing Fast," a character explains: "One way or another, we tried to keep an idea alive. There weren't enough of us, there never are. We were ridiculously wrong about a lot of things but who wasn't? And what idea did they keep alive, the others?"

We have seen the future and it's selfish. Lottery! Globocop! It seems to me that Lipset and Marks should be sadder than they sound, but then they, too, are all right, Jack. I leave you with Hawthorne, whose poet in "The Blithesdale Romance" permits himself this wistfulness: "Whatever else I may repent of, therefore let it be reckoned neither among my sins nor follies that I once had faith and force enough to form generous hopes of the world's destiny."


John Leonard

John Leonard is the Culture Watch columnist for the Nation, media critic for "CBS Sunday Morning" and television critic for New York magazine.

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