WARNING: VERY LONG OP
One of the most important facts about political life in the United States is also one of the most rarely discussed: The United States is the only modern industrial state where no communist, socialist, democratic-socialist, social-democratic, or labor-based party has ever emerged as an important force in national politics. There have been many attempts, but none has ever succeeded in getting beyond marginal-third-party status. This sets us apart from all the world, even Canada, where the New Democratic Party was a major player not long ago; and Britain, where the Labour Party is socialistic by American standards, has Marxist wings, and historically has been institutionally linked with the labor unions.
Why is this? And is there any possibility it might change?
In their book It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States (W.W. Norton & Company, 2000), Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks study the question and conclude the failure of socialism here resulted from a combination of factors, including:
American poltical culture is uniquely antistatis, individualist and libertarian, even compared with other English-speaking countries.
Leaving out the systematic submergence of certain ethnic and racial groups, there has never been a rigid social (as distinct from economic) class system in the United States, such as characterized the societies of Marx’s Europe.
Unlike their counterparts in Western Europe and elsewhere, American socialists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries failed to build a power base in the labor unions, which were mostly concerned with bread-and-butter issues like wages, hours and working conditions.
Unlike their foreign counterparts, American socialists failed to build alliances with traditional religious believers, and in fact alienated them, to the point where the American Catholic clergy became openly hostile to socialism.
In the early 19th century, European socialists got their foot in the door, and established their political presence as defenders of the people, by campaigning for such things as press freedom and universal suffrage. Although these were radical ideas in Europe at the time, they were well established in the United States from earliest decades of the republic, which deprived American socialists of the opportunity to fight for them here and reap political benefits thereby.
The winner-take-all, first-past-the-post system marginalized American socialists, compared with other countries that had proportional-representation systems. This systemic barrier, however, has marginalized all American third parties of all ideologies.
The American federal system prevents Congress, if it ever had a socialist majority, from enacting any thoroughgoing program of socialism on a national scale. However, this cuts both ways: The federal system also provided socialists with more opportunities to contest and win elections at the state and local levels. (See below.)
Although American socialists won important offices at the state and local level in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and even controlled the governments of some cities, socialist leaders at the national level failed to build on these achievements. In fact, such non-revolutionary municipal reforms local socialist leaders were able to achieve were dismissed and derided as “sewer socialism” by national party leaders.
Compared with more practical and compromise-oriented socialists in other countries, American socialists were unfortunately given over to extremism, sectarianism, and splitting over minor points of doctrine.
The ethnically diverse character of the American working class led American workers to identify with their ethnic group before their class, inhibiting the development of “class consciousness” here. White American proles, for instance, have never wanted to think of themselves as being in the same social class as the blacks.
The Socialist Party made the crucial mistake of opposing U.S. entry into World War I. This made the party much more popular among German-Americans, but it also drove a lot of Anglo-Saxons out of the party, especially in the Midwest.
For some reason, Marks and Lipset end their analysis with the 1930s and '40s – the period when much of the Socialist Party’s agenda was co-opted by Roosevelt in the New Deal; the party became even more marginalized by sectarianism; many of the Communist Party members, on Stalin’s orders, hid their party affiliation while they sought positions of influence in government and the labor unions, and indeed went so far underground that those who escaped the McCarthy-era purges gradually stopped being Communists at all; and the Cold War taught Americans to identify the idea of socialism with treason. But the political upheavals of the '60s and ‘70s apparently do not even merit discussion as lost opportunities for socialism in America, in Marks’ and Lipset’s view.
Bringing things up to the more recent past, and the present:
The Nation, the principal magazine of the anticommunist, democratic-socialist left for most of the 20th century, published an article by Norman Rush in its January 24, 1994, issue: “What Was Socialism . . . And Why We Will All Miss It So Much.” This was in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist Bloc of Eastern Europe. Rush argued that socialism is now bankrupt even as an idea:
"On the left – and I do mean the chartered antitotalitarian left – a persistent impulse has been to show that the socialist project, deformed and betrayed though it was in the Russian model and its clones, is still somehow salvageable. This sentiment, doggedly appended to declarations of relief that the cold war is over, yields two main contentions. The first is that greater and timelier infusions of democracy might have saved Russian socialism. The second, a cloudier thing, is that because the continuing structural imperfections of capitalism are so alarming, a socialist option just has to be viable. . . .
“The truth is that wherever it has achieved practical expression, socialism is finished. While our attention has been fixed on the spectacular demolition derbies taking place in Russia, China, Cuba and Eastern Europe, in the background another long-running sequence of socialist defeats is winding up. To remain afloat, nominally socialist and social democratic parties in Europe and elsewhere jettison what used to be the basic objectives of socialism and offer programs ever more finely attuned to the imperatives of mature capitalism. Most now support the reprivatization of industries nationalized in more heroic times at their own urging. . . . Membership in trade unions, those flagship institutions of the former socialist political culture, is collapsing. Guerilla socialism in Latin America is aggressively de-Marxifying itself. As for the enclave microsocialisms like the kibbutzim in Israel, the ejido collectives in Mexico, the Yugoslav self-managed industrial sector – whose existence provided a fallback hope for left idealists that a redeemed form of nonstate socialism might someday arise – all are in serious, probably terminal, difficulty.”
Nevertheless, The Nation continues to publish, and there remain several self-identified communist or socialist organizations, with websites, now active in the U.S. They are all very small organizations and their unfortunate tendency to splitting and factionalism makes them even smaller. Spoiling for a Fight: Third-Party Politics in America, by Micah Sifry (Routledge, 2002), is a pretty good history of third-party movements just in the past ten years, and it was notable that the author managed to do the job without more than passing mention of any such activity by socialist parties, unless you count the New Party, or the Working Families Party of New York, parties which have left-progressive politics but never use the “s-word” in their literature.
The website www.politics1.com provides a pretty thorough list of third-party organizations currently active in America. Of those, the following are self-identified as socialist or communist, or can be considered socialist or leftist in some sense:
The Communist Party USA (www.cpusa.org): Founded here just after the Russian Revolution, out of a radical faction of the Socialist Party. These are the Orthodox Communists: Traditional Marxist-Leninist – and Stalinist, too, in Stalin’s day and for some time after. This party used to follow the lead of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and, yes, took their money and spied for them, though there was little spying they could effectively do.
The Democratic Socialists of America (www.dsausa.org): Descended from a faction which split from the Socialist Party USA in the 1960, led by the late Michael Harrington, who founded the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, which evolved into the DSA. The DSA fields no candidates for office, believing they can better serve the democratic-socialist cause as an educational organization. The DSA is America’s full member of the Socialist International, one of two (the other is the Social Democrats, USA, q.v.) The DSA boasts a lot of big-name members, such as Barbara Ehrenreich.
The Freedom Socialist Party (www.socialism.com): A dissident Trotskyist group that broke away from the Socialist Workers Party in 1966.
The Green Party of the United States (www.gp.org) and the Greens/Green Party USA (www.greenparty.org): The Greens are not exactly Reds, they’re something new and different. In particular, their emphasis on “decentralization” cuts clean against the tendency of most forms of socialism. But socialist thinking definitely plays a role in Green ideology. Note there are two organizations. The Greens/Green Party USA is the smaller and is much more Marxist in its orientation.
The Labor Party (www.thelaborparty.org): Founded just in the past few years by the late labor leader Tony Mazzochi. It has yet to field any candidates for public office, concentrating its efforts on winning the support of organized labor, with not much success to date. Its literature is not very socialist in tone, certainly not ideological in any way, but it is an attempt to build a labor-based political movement that will fight for the interests of working people as a class, against the interests of the rich as a class, and if that’s not socialism, what is?
The New Party (www.newparty.org): (I used to be an enthusiastic member of this one.) Founded in 1992 as an attempt to build a real political presence in America to the left of the Democrats. As noted above, it never called itself socialist but its politics were definitely left-progressive. I speak of the New Party in the past tense because it went inactive, more or less, on the national level after losing a Supreme Court case, Timmons v. Twin Cities New Party, which, had they won, would have guaranteed third parties the right to cross-endorse major-party candidates, a strategy known as “ballot fusion.” The New Party spawned state organizations which are still active and, on a local and state level, somewhat successful, including the Working Families Party in New York (www.workingfamiliesparty.org).
The New Union Party (www1.minn.net/nup): A radical but non-violent “DeLeonist” party, founded in 1980 by dissidents from the Socialist Labor Party.
The Peace and Freedom Party (www.peaceandfreedom.org): Centered in San Francisco with no apparent presence outside California. Founded in 1967 as an anti-war party. “[C]ommitted to socialism, democracy, ecology, feminism and radical equality.” This is where Abbie Hoffman probably would have ended up if he had been more of a joiner.
The Progressive Labor Party (www.plp.org): A militant, Stalinist-style communist party, based in New York. Dedicated to armed revolution.
The Revolutionary Communist Party USA (www.rwor.org/rcp-e.htm): A Maoist party, dedicated to armed revolution.
The Social Democrats, USA (www.socialdemocrats.org): Split from the Socialist Party in the 1960s, mainly over the Vietnam War: Michael Harrington’s faction (which eventually became the Democratic Socialists of America) was against it, while the more conservative Social Democrats were for it. The split still holds, apparently: According to its website, the SD-USA supports the Iraq war, which every other socialist organization in America is against.
The Socialist Party USA (www.sp-usa.org): Founded in 1900 by more moderate members of the older Socialist Labor Party (see below) This is the party that ran Eugene Debs for president so many times. A non-revolutionary, democratic-socialist party – but still plenty radical compared with, say, the New Party or the Labor Party.
Socialist Action (www.socialistaction.org): A Trotskyist organization founded by expelled members of the Socialist Workers Party.
The Socialist Equality Party (www.wsws.org/sections/category/icfi/sepuscat.shtml): A Trotskyist party, founded (yet again) by dissidents from the Socialist Workers Party after the SWP started to drift away from Trotskyism. It claims to be affiliated with something called the “International Committee of the Fourth International.”
The Socialist Labor Party (www.slp.org): Founded in 1877, which makes it the oldest existing socialist party in America. A militant democratic-socialist party, committed to “Marxism-DeLeonism”. Gave rise to the Socialist Party, q.v. Now mostly a local affair in New Jersey.
The Socialist Workers Party (www.themilitant.com): Originally a Trotskyist organization, founded in 1938 when the Communist Party USA, on orders from Stalin, expelled its Trotskyists. Since the 1980s the SWP has drifted away from Trotskyism and towards the authoritarian politics of Fidel Castro; as a result, several SWP members have bolted and formed their own more purely Trotskyist parties.
The Workers Party USA (www.workersparty.org): A hardcore Marxist-Leninist Party founded by Michael Thorburn in 1992.
The Workers World Party (www.workers.org): A Maoist party, formed in 1959 by a pro-Chinese faction of the Socialist Workers Party.
The World Socialist Party of the USA (www.worldsocialism.org/usa/): Non-violent utopian Marxists.
So what do you all think? Is there any chance a successful new American socialist or leftist movement could be stitched together out of these odds and ends? Does socialism have any future in America – not as a system, but as a political idea?
I might as well fill you in on my own background, here. I was no red-diaper baby. I was raised by white middle-class parents to be an ordinary love-me-I’m-a-liberal. In my late teens and early 20s I went through a libertarian phase, without ever joining the party. But the more I thought about libertarianism the more unsatisfactory it seemed to me, and I gradually lost interest. (In retrospect it was more an emotional attitude than anything else: No government tells ME what to do, dammit!) In 1989, at the age of 26, I started law school at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, which is located in downtown Baltimore, and for the first time in my life was confronted with the daily spectacle of the American urban poor – so many defeated, helpless, hopeless people! And I started seriously questioning the value of capitalism as a system. I studied socialism and became active in some local leftist groups. But I never became a Marxist in any sense of the word. I never saw any value in Marxist doctrines, as such. My vision of socialism was, in general terms, human economic life democratized and rationalized, with equality elevated above liberty as a guiding principle, but not to the exclusion of liberty. I never saw revolution, or even “class conflict,” as strictly necessary for this purpose. Certainly I never wanted to live in a society where the proletariat culturally absorbed all other classes. Much better we should have a society where the middle class absorbs all other classes. I’m not even completely inimical to the idea of a social-economic pyramid. We’ll probably always have something of the kind. All I want is for the top and the bottom of that pyramid to be a lot closer together than they are now – a society where there is no desperate poverty, and the size of personal fortunes and incomes is limited. The most persuasive utopian novel I’ve ever read is Pacific Edge by Kim Stanley Robinson, describing a Green-dominated future where every American is guaranteed a basic income of at least $10,000 a year and nobody is allowed to have more than $100,000 a year. This leaves plenty of room for personal ambition and striving. Economic activity is in the hands of private enterprises; all the state does is limit their size, breaking up any corporation that grows beyond a certain number of employees or a certain concentration of assets. It’s a good start. Does any doper out there have a workable vision of socialism for the future?