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Colin Barker

Ostrich Feathers

(Winter 1966/67)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.27, Winter 1966/67, p.36.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The First New Nation
Seymour Martin Lipset
Heinemann, 35s

Professor Lipset offers us The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective. He is, one feels, proud to be an American, but, as a prominent member of an international community of scholars, he mustn’t be too proud. He must be proud but responsibly worried. That way he has his cake and eats it.

Lipset reveals his wide reading, and also its partiality. At times he is very interesting: his emphasis on the role of ‘state capital’ and of foreign investment in the creation of the 19th century capitalist infrastructure is rewarding; and his analysis of the (relatively unchanging) support of Americans for ‘religion’ is full of interest. But on the society as a whole he is miles off target.

His missed aim is a function of his basic approach. Lipset takes over from Talcott Parsons and the whole ‘normative functionalist’ school of sociology the notion of ‘a social system in dynamic equilibrium’: ‘a complex society is under constant pressure to adjust its institutions to its central value system, in order to alleviate strains created by changes in social relations’ (p.7). And, although it is never so crudely stated, his basic thesis is that there is something called a ‘central value system,’ born at the time of the 18th century revolution, that has been a prime mover in America ever since. Somehow this is autonomous, a shaper of American lives in its own right. Values, in this analysis, are separated from men’s actions, and the movement of history becomes obfuscated by terms whose empirical reference changes all the time: Big Words like ‘freedom,’ ‘democracy,’ ‘other direction,’ adorn Lipset’s pages. In his American history men do not struggle with men as much as values – ‘equality’ vs. ‘achievement’ – threaten each other. Lipset rejects, as he is entitled to do, a crude materialism that, at its crudest, sees poems as the products of power stations. But what he puts in its place is an equally crude idealism, contemporary ‘functionalism,’ that claims (most unfairly to poor Max’s memory) to derive its inspiration from Weber.

The ‘sociological emphasis on key values in a social system’ obscures more than it reveals: values are treated as external to men, generalised ideas whose content and power have remained unchanged over 200 years, rather than being seen as men’s structured purposes, changing over time in both form and content, and differentially shared by different groups that attempt to deal with the problems presented to them by other men’s actions.

A further consequence of the model employed is that ‘the United States’ are somehow sealed off from the activities of Americans in the world – the limits of the ‘social system’ are the geographical boundaries of the nation-state. There is no room for the bombs that fall on Vietnam, or for Vauxhall Motors of Luton, within the ‘social system.’ The whole conceptual structure is essentially arbitrary, since it rests not upon the activities of men but upon incantatory phrases drawn from the stockbook of American liberalism.

Lipset’s book is a useful (but biased) mine of bibliographical references. But despite the many flashes of insight, and the occasional pieces of highly interesting analysis, it reveals more about a highly influential school of American sociological thought than it does about the society it seeks to portray.

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