“An Exceptional Nation”: Lipset and Marks’s Rundown on “American Exceptionalism” Hypotheses for Socialism’s Failure to Take Root in the US

It Didn't Happen hereAs part of the preparatory reading I am doing for thinking about the representations and rhetoric of socialism in turn of the 20th century American literature, I have been reading Seymour Lipset and Gary Marks’s It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States (Norton, 2000). It Didn’t Happen Here aims to provide a comparative study of socialism in the US that evaluates some of the many hypotheses on the question “why is there no socialism in America?” (9) (whereas in Europe, especially, socialism was and is extant), which they call “a classic question of American historiography” (10) that has yielded a tremendous literature.  Their approach they hope will yield “explanation as plausible to a person whose sympathies lie on the right of the political spectrum as to one whose sympathies lie on the left” (10).  The focus is not on a “‘thick description'” or on articulating a “history of American socialism” but on a comparative analysis (11).

I am reading from the standpoint of one not trained in historiography but one keenly interested in what historians, political scientists, and sociologists have to say on this matter.  As I have mentioned elsewhere in my blog, the literary expressions of and calls for socialism and reactions to it were widespread at the turn of the century, and I expect Lipset and Marks (L&M) to help me frame how I process the primary materials I will be reading. This entry will focus on the first chapter of Didn’t, “An Exceptional Nation,” which relays a set of general hypotheses about the failure of socialism in the US by contemporary and distant commentators and that revolve around the notion of American exceptionalism.  “American exceptionalism” comes into the lexicon via Tocqueville, whose analysis of American institutions and culture in the 183os pointed to their uniqueness as compared to European institutions and culture. For commentators who seek explanation for the weakness of socialism in America through this lens, the answers are variants of a basic idea: America is different.

And yet, Marx himself thought that America would be the first place that socialism would take hold.  In part, this idea, an idea that Marxian thinkers would adopt and disseminate through the early part of the 20th century, had its basis in Marx’s materialism and teleology: where capitalism develops to its highest degree is where socialism will also develop to its highest degree.  In such a place, and America was by all rights the place where capitalism had developed most rapidly and voraciously in the 19th century, the working class, so this line of thinking goes, would lead the nation, and ultimately the world, into a socialist order.  L&M point out that the “inevitability of socialism in America” was an article of faith for many socialist theorists within and outside of the US.

With that interesting context as a backdrop, here are some of the American exceptionalism-informed hypotheses for why socialism did not take hold, did not fulfill the expected teleology, in the US:

  • Early labor organizations, particularly the Workingman’s parties in the 1830s, proved to be “premature social Darwinists, not Marxists” (20), in that while they were anti-monopoly, they, like many in Jacksonian America focused their agitation on ensuring “equality of opportunity, rather than equality of result” (21). L&M argue that Marx misinterpreted the Workingman’s parties (through his chief source on them, Thomas Hamilton) as evincing a kind of class consciousness that could lay the groundwork for socialism, when instead “they sought meritocracy within capitalism.”
  • As Engels asserted in the late 19th century, having observed no uptake of socialism in the US by that time, bourgeois sentiment in the US is more recalcitrant than that in Europe because America lacks a feudal past.  Without the gravity of feudal institutions to restrain economic and social development on a class basis, America spawned a set of values that “encompassed both secular, liberal laissez-faire and America’s distinctive, individualistic religious tradition, based on the dominance of Protestant sects that, as [Max] Weber stressed, facilitated the rise of capitalism” (22).
  • The Constitution, “the ultimate source of American polity,” as an instrument for structuring a nation that itself formed around rebelling against a tyrant, grows out of a profoundly “antistatist, antiauthoritarian” impulse, which comprises a central component of American ideology, and which in turn resists “state collectivism” (22).
  • American labor has proven antistatist, too, and has, instead, shown a marked “sympathy” for libertarianism and syndicalism. Additionally, as David DeLeon has shown, “American radicalism has been permeated by suspicion, if not hostility toward centralized power” (22) of all sorts.
  • Relative to the European context, the history of labor and economic development in the US produced enough prosperity for even Engels to remark that it made it difficult to develop and sustain labor organizations.  HG Wells argued that while capital increasingly enriched a small segment of society, this “is masked…by the enormous increase of the total wealth.”
  • While America is not a “classless” society, the stratification is not without breaches or fluidity, unlike the hereditary class systems of Europe. In the European setting, class consciousness long preceded the 19th century and the rise of socialism, whereas in America there is a kind of historical thinness to class affiliation.   The deep class affiliations in the European context were more convincing to subjects than the rather more abstract identification with class in the American context, which also supported a strong belief in upward mobility.
  • The availability of land, for some commentators, suggested an escape hatch for industrial workers, who could become producers in their own right.
  • American ideology, “Americanism,” as L&M have it, already shares some important territory with socialism. K&M posit American ideology as having five elements: “antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism.”  Keyserling and Samson argue that socialism was, in the end, not very appealing to many Americans because “the social content of socialism, with the big exception of property relations, is similar to what Americans think they already have, namely, a democratic, socially classless, anti-elitist society” (30). Americanism is like socialism, to the extent that it is an allegiance to a set of ideas, to a set of abstractions.  “‘Americanism,'” according to Gramsci, “is not simply a way of life, [sic] it is an ‘ideology'” (31).
  • The sectarian, narrowly doctrinal orientation of American socialist organizations prevented the forming of large-scale organizations affiliated along the lines, such as Engels and Marx recommended, of the working class in general. In a Tocquevillian mode of interpretation, Marx and Engels both contended that the sectarian and narrowly dogmatic attitude toward politics in this instance owed to “American religiosity, to the strength of Protestant sectarianism” in America (34). Political faith is, thus, like religious faith.
  • In America, the rights that workers were fighting for alongside socialism in Europe, like suffrage, were already granted.  Consequently, the socialist effort in America lacked lacked the drive of European movements.
  • The dominance of Presidential politics and the two-party system tend to strangle out socialist politics.

Those are just some loose notes from T&M’s first chapter, and I have to say, I lost steam a bit at the end.  Still, these notes are suggestive of a number of ways of thinking about socialism in the context of the United States.

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