Hal Draper


The Two Souls of Socialism


8. The 100% American Scene

At the Wellsprings of American “native socialism,” the picture is the same, only more so. If we overlook the imported “German socialism” (Lassallean with Marxist trimmings) of the early Socialist Labor Party, then the leading figure here is, far and away, Edward Bellamy and his Looking Backward (1887). Just before him came the now forgotten Laurence Gronlund, whose Cooperative Commonwealth (1884) was extremely influential in its day, selling 100,000 copies.

Gronlund is so up-to-date that he does not say he rejects democracy – he merely “redefines” it; as “Administration by the Competent,” as against “government by majorities,” together with a modest proposal to wipe out representative government as such as well as all parties. All the “people” want, he teaches, is “administration – good administration.” They should find “the right leaders,” and then be “willing to thrust their whole collective power into their hands.” Representative government will be replaced by the plebiscite. He is sure that his scheme will work, he explains, because it works so well for the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. Naturally he rejects the horrible idea of class struggle. The workers are incapable of self-emancipation, and he specifically denounces Marx’s famous expression of this First Principle. The Yahoos will be emancipated by an elite of the “competent,” drawn from the intelligentsia; and at one point he set out to organize a secret conspiratorial American Socialist Fraternity for students.

Bellamy’s socialist utopia in Looking Backward is expressly modeled on the army as the ideal pattern of society – regimented, hierarchically ruled by an elite, organized from the top down, with the cozy communion of the beehive as the great end. The story itself pictures the transition as coming through the concentration of society into one big business corporation, a single capitalist: the state. Universal suffrage is abolished; all organizations from below eliminated; decisions are made by administrative technocrats from above. As one of his followers defined this “American socialism”: “Its social idea is a perfectly organized industrial system which, by reason of the close interlocking of its wheels, shall work at a minimum of friction with a maximum of wealth and leisure to all.”

As in the case of the anarchists, Bellamy’s fanciful solution to the basic problem of social organization – how to resolve differences of ideas and interests among men – is the assumption that the elite will be superhumanly wise and incapable of injustice (essentially the same as the Stalinist-totalitarian myth of the infallibility of the Party), the point of the assumption being that it makes unnecessary any concern about democratic control from below. The latter is unthinkable for Bellamy because the masses, the workers, are simply a dangerous monster, the barbarian horde. The Bellamyite movement – which called itself “Nationalism” and originally set out to be both anti-socialist and anti-capitalist – was systematically organized on a middle-class appeal, like the Fabians.

Here were the overwhelmingly popular educators of the “native” wing of American socialism, whose conceptions echoed through the non-Marxist and anti-Marxist sectors of the socialist movement well into the 20th century, with a resurgence of “Bellamy Clubs” even in the 1930s, when John Dewey eulogized Looking Backward as expounding the American ideal of democracy.” Technocracy, which already reveals fascist features openly, was a lineal descendant of this tradition on one side. If one wants to see how thin the line can be between something called socialism and something like fascism, it is instructive to read the monstrous exposition of “socialism” written by the once famous inventor-scientist and Socialist Party luminary Charles P. Steinmetz. His America and the New Epoch (1916) sets down in deadly seriousness exactly the anti-utopia once satirized in a science-fiction novel, in which Congress has been replaced by direct senators from DuPont, General Motors and the other great corporations. Steinmetz, presenting the giant monopolistic corporations (like his own employer, General Electric) as the ultimate in industrial efficiency, proposes to disband the political government in favor of direct rule by the associated corporate monopolists.

Bellamyism started many on the road to socialism, but the road forked. By the turn of the century, American socialism developed the world’s most vibrant antithesis to Socialism-from-Above in all its forms: Eugene Debs. In 1897 Debs was still at the point of asking none other than John D. Rockefeller to finance the establishment of a socialist utopian colony in a western state; but Debs, whose socialism was forged in the class struggle of a militant labor movement, soon found his true voice.

The heart of “Debsian socialism” was its appeal to, and faith in, the self-activity of the masses from below. Debs’ writings and speeches are impregnated with this theme. He often quoted or paraphrased Marx’s “First Principle” in his own words: “The great discovery the modern slaves have made is that they themselves their freedom must achieve. This is the secret of their solidarity; the heart of their hope...” His classic statement is this: “Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing you cannot do for yourselves.” He echoed Marx’s words of 1850:

“In the struggle of the working class to free itself from wage slavery it cannot be repeated too often that everything depends on the working class itself. The simple question is, Can the workers fit themselves, by education, organization, cooperation and self-imposed discipline, to take control of the productive forces and manage industry in the interest of the people and for the benefit of society? That is all there is to it.”

Can the workers fit themselves? ... He was under no starry-eyed illusions about the working class as it was (or is). But he proposed a different goal than the elitists whose sole wisdom consists in pointing a finger at the backwardness of the people now, and in teaching that this must always be so. As against the faith in elite rule from above, Debs counterpoised the directly contrary notion of the revolutionary vanguard (also a minority) whose faith impels them to advocate a harder road for the majority:

“It is the minorities who have made the history of this world [he said in the 1917 anti-war speech for which Wilson’s government jailed him]. It is the few who have had the courage to take their places at the front; who have been true enough to themselves to speak the truth that was in them; who have dared oppose the established order of things; who have espoused the cause of the suffering, struggling poor; who have upheld without regard to personal consequences the cause of freedom and righteousness.”

This “Debsian socialism” evoked a tremendous response from the heart of the people, but Debs had no successor as a tribune of revolutionary-democratic socialism. After the postwar period of radicalization, the Socialist Party became pinkly respectable on the one hand, and the Communist Party became Stalinized on the other. On its side, American liberalism itself had long been undergoing a process of “statification,” culminating in the great New Deal illusion of the ’30s. The elite vision of a dispensation-from-above under the aegis of the Savior-President attracted a whole strain of liberals to whom the country gentleman in the White House was as Bismarck to Lassalle.

The type had been heralded by Lincoln Steffens, the collectivist liberal who (like Shaw and Georges Sorel) was as attracted to Mussolini as to Moscow, and for the same reasons. Upton Sinclair, quitting the Socialist Party as too “sectarian,” launched his “broad” movement to “End Poverty in California,” with a manifesto appropriately called I, Governor of California, and How I Ended Poverty (probably the only radical manifesto with two I’s in the title) on the theme of “Socialism-from-Up-in-Sacramento. One of the typical figures of the time was Stuart Chase, who wove a zigzag course from the reformism of the League for Industrial Democracy to the semi-fascism of Technocracy. There were the Stalinoid intellectuals who managed to sublimate their joint admiration for Roosevelt and Russia by hailing both the NRA and the Moscow Trials. There were signs of the times like Paul Blanshard, who defected from the Socialist Party to Roosevelt on the ground that the New Deal program of “managed capitalism” had taken the initiative in economic change away from the socialists.

The New Deal, often rightly called America’s “social-democratic period,” was also the liberals’ and social-democrats’ big fling at Socialism-from-Above, the utopia of Roosevelt’s “people’s monarchy.” The illusion of the Rooseveltian “revolution from above” united creeping-socialism, bureaucratic liberalism, Stalinoid elitism, and illusions about both Russian collectivism and collectivized capitalism, in one package.


Last updated on 25.9.2004