From International Socialism (1st series), No.6, Autumn 1961, pp.4-11.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
Julius Jacobson has long been active in the American socialist movement, starting with the Young People’s Socialist League (then part of the Fourth International), and graduating through and with the Workers’ Party to the Independent Socialist League. He is now a member of the Socialist Party. He was founding editor of Anvil, a student magazine, managing editor of The New International, a marxist review, from 1952 to 1958, and is a key figure in the forthcoming journal New Politics. He acted as assistant author to Irving Howe and Lewis Coser in The American Communist Party (1957).
America – The Classless Society! – that is an old tune with new lyrics written by a fashionable school of American sociologists intent on proving socialism an alien dogma with less of a future than it has of a past.
Socialism, the versifiers tell, may be relevant to Europe where there are rigid class lines. The United States, however, is happily freed from the malediction of class conflict. Here, we have only to contend with diverse ‘occupation groups’, ‘interest groups’, ‘income groups’ and similar euphemistically labelled categories. To prove that the blessing of classlessness really exists there are innumerable stanzas heavily weighted with statistics, charts, graphs and assorted sociological hieroglyphics based on questionnaires filled out by intoxicated young couples at marriage bureaus, public opinion polls taken in allegedly ‘average’ American communities, etc.
Now, if there are no real classes, i.e. no real proletariat and no real bourgeoisie, there can be no class conflict. It follows with no less implacable logic that if there are no real classes and no class conflicts there can be no class consciousness.
The logical sequence does not end here but is capped with the following crusher: There can be no room in America for any movement, which identifies with one or another of two non-existent classes engaged in a non-existent struggle; ergo, socialism, a movement based upon an identification with the working class (non-existent) is, in its very nature, utterly utopian and alien to American life.
As with folk songs in general, the ballad of American classlessness finds its inspiration in reality if one goes back to certain areas in the post-colonial America, say, backwoods Tennessee in the early 1800’s, where class divisions were indistinct and fluid. We will even admit that in the latter half of the nineteenth century there was a degree of social mobility unknown to Europe. But any resemblance between the ballad and reality ended at least fifty years ago. Instead, the United States, today, is divided into economic, and conflicting, classes as firm and as hereditary in character as any in Europe. One need only look to see a bourgeois class; one which operates with a degree of economic self-interest often too painfully crude for its European counterparts to abide.
On the other side, if one adds the millions of permanent wage-earners in transportation, commerce and service to the millions of a more strictly defined industrial proletariat, the total comes to an economic class of workers more numerous, absolutely and relatively, than any to be found in Europe. It is a real working class, unfortunately lacking a political consciousness, with a sufficient instinctual awareness of its special economic character and needs to lead 16 million workers into the trade union movement.
When 55 percent of the people own but 6 percent of the nation’s wealth and the average annual income of half of America’s taxpayers is a paltry 2,000 dollars; and when, on the other end of the social spectrum, 1.6 percent of the people own approximately one-third of the nation’s wealth; and, in addition, when the trend in the past ten years has been for fewer persons to own a larger portion of that famous ‘economic pie’ – we cannot help but lose patience with those who tell us that socialism failed in the past and will fare worse in the future because an economically egalitarian and mobile society has deemed it so. A man making 2,000 dollars a year may or may not be in the same ‘occupation group’ as the man making 20,000; we are certain he is not in the same class. 
To prove socialism irrelevant, there is a companion piece to the above reasoning, built largely on the same logical sequence. This time: since there are neither real economic classes, nor real class struggles nor real class consciousness, it follows that all talk of a class government in the United States is the figment of a radical imagination. Instead, as befits a welfare society, government is the great impersonal arbiter adjudicating differences among income and occupational groups and reflective of the pressures of political parties, labour unions, business interests, etc.
There is a kernel of truth to this – but it is a meagre kernel for the diet it is supposed to supply. Presumably, the sociologists suppose that socialists believe bourgeois governments to be groups of malevolent men, impervious to national needs and as immutably opposed to welfare legislation as they are deaf to all demands of the labour movement. What the sociologists are either ignorant of, or indifferent to, is the Marxist view that the social power of the bourgeoisie does not reside in its direct manipulation of governmental institutions but is established by its private ownership and control of the means of production in a given market economy. Government is bourgeois insofar as it defends this power. Within this boundary, an unlimited number of circumstances could prompt a bourgeois government to make concessions to workers, sacrifice bourgeois privileges, control abuses and even make inroads on the autonomy of bourgeois property rights. Indeed, the Roosevelt administration was a classic example. Its welfare legislation and attack on the excesses of the ‘economic royalists’ was part of a larger design executed by astute politicians adjusting the long range interests of the ruling class to the pressures and threats surrounding capitalism in the depression thirties.
That socialists understand the complexities involved in the interaction of economic and political power is all too rapidly overlooked by sociologists who prefer to attribute simple-minded views to authoritative socialist figures. It is a convenient oversight. By caricaturing socialist thought and then arming themselves with their own cartoons, they can best present their case that socialism, unprepared for the realities of an evolving welfare society, is sentenced by history to a superfluous, sectarian existence.
What socialists do deny is that government can be equally sensitive and receptive to the interests and needs of all classes – or all ‘occupational groups’ we should say. That was not true of the Roosevelt administration and is less true today. On the contrary, since the end of the war, collusion between capital and government has been increasingly blatant. For example, there is the collusion between the Eisenhower administration and the private Business Advisory Council (BAG), whose 160 members include America’s wealthiest and most influential capitalists. It meets only several times yearly, but to its sessions there come the President, the Vice-President and Cabinet members to discuss and sometimes decide government policy and personnel. Shortly after one meeting of President Eisenhower and the BAG – held near the president’s favorite golf course in Augusta, Georgia – three of America’s top industrialists were appointed to Cabinet posts: Charles Wilson, head of General Motors, became Secretary of Defense; banker George Humphrey was fittingly chosen Secretary of the Treasury; textile magnate Robert Stevens became Secretary of the Army. All three, need it be added, were active in the inner councils of the Business Advisory Council.
We have yet to hear of Eisenhower (or, now indeed, Kennedy – eds.) closeting himself with labor leaders followed by a mass appointment of cabinet members from their numbers. Nor, for that matter, do we remember that alleged paragon of the welfare society, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, staffing his cabinet with representatives of America’s largest ‘occupational category’ – the working class.
Presenting welfare legislation as the insuperable obstacle to socialist growth has its fatal flaw in the assumption that it is a uniquely American characteristic. European governments, however, also arbitrate, negotiate and respond to conflicting social pressures; and they have also legislated social welfare programs. England, for example, is far more the welfare state than is the United States. Yet, who would be so brash as to say that British socialism, which in the last elections commanded 40 percent of the vote, is irrelevant to political life in England? And if welfarism has not reduced British socialism to a sect, how do pension plans and minimum wage laws permanently exile American socialists to a life of curious political outcasts?
Perhaps the most distinguished sociologist-critic of American socialism is Professor Daniel Bell. In The Failure of American Socialism, he summarizes his case in this way:
It is my argument that the failure of the socialist movement in the United States was rooted in its inability to resolve a basic dilemma of ethics and politics: the socialist movement, by the way in which it stated its goals, and by the way in which it rejected the capitalist order as a whole, could not relate itself to the specific problems of social action in the here and now, give-and-take political world. In sum: it was trapped by the unhappy problem of living in but not of this world; it could only act, and then inadequately, as the moral, but not political man in immoral society. It could never resolve, but only straddle, the basic issue of either accepting capitalist society and seeking to transform it from within, as the labor movement did, or of becoming the sworn enemy of that society, like the Communists.
That this argument should have gained wide currency is a sorry commentary on the intellectual state of the nation.
In the first place there is the unhappy cliché – and Bell’s central thought – that American socialism was ‘trapped by the unhappy problem of living in but not of the world’. Trapped or not, unhappy or not, one thing is certain: Bell, in summarizing his case, presents us with as neat an example of a tautology as one can find in any textbook on elementary logic. Of course socialism lives in but is not of this world! Socialism, by definition, is a movement which lives in this (capitalist) world but is not and cannot be of this (capitalist) world. And it is this world, we assume, he is talking about. To say that this creates problems adds nothing, therefore, to our knowledge or understanding of the problems of the limits and possibilities of their resolution.
One way in which the problem of living in but not of this world (or, more pontifically, ‘the basic dilemma of ethics and politics’) can be resolved, is to abandon socialism, or, as Bell more delicately suggests, socialists could ‘start accepting capitalist society and seeking to transform it from within, as the labor movement did ...’ But it should take more than a tautology to persuade one to scuttle socialism. First it must be explained why socialism is not the same failure in Europe. And where it has failed in Europe it has been a quite different kind of failure. Did German socialism fail to stop Hitler because it lived in but not of the world of German capitalism? Did Russian socialists succeed in overthrowing autocracy because they were of the world of either Czar Nicholas or Professor Bell? etc. etc.
The frivolous treatment accorded American socialism is poor consolation for the paradox that in the land with the world’s largest class of proletarians, the political movement which most consciously identifies with the working class is looked upon by this class as a kind of alien oddity – when it is looked upon at all: announce to the average American workingman that you are a socialist and the response will likely run the narrow gamut from no response to bemusement to hostility.
Correspondingly, there is the painful truth that after a century of socialist organizations in the United States there is no real socialist movement here. There are, of course, socialist groups but they are not movements or parties as commonly understood, i.e., they are small in membership, without influence in the political life of the nation as a whole, operate only on the fringes of a few of the more progressive trade unions and are not as yet deeply involved in the recent and potentially explosive civil rights movement. All told, there are three socialist parties in the United States: the Socialist Labor Party, the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party (SP-SDF).
The Socialist Labor Party has removed itself from the real world – leading a sectarian life of apocalyptic faith that must make most monastic orders appear worldly by comparison. For the SLP, all political problems came to an end with Daniel De Leon’s answers written 40-70 years ago.
Then there is the Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party, which has few workers and is certainly not a party. It has also managed to relieve Trotskyism of the revolutionary passion and profound insight with which Trotsky examined and fought totalitarian Communism. Instead, it has held on to a few of Trotsky’s phrases and has drawn his unfortunate concept of Russia as a ‘degenerated workers’ state’ to brutal and somewhat perverse conclusions.
Finally, there is the Socialist Party. It would be pleasant in a review of American socialism to report to European comrades that at least the Socialist Party, a recognized affiliate of the Socialist International and the best known of socialist groups, is faced with the realistic possibility of becoming, in the next year or two, a party in the true sense – with members numbering in the thousands, with an important and widely circulating press, sufficiently strong to participate in elections as an independent force and healthy enough to make itself felt in the trade unions and in the civil rights movement.
Unfortunately, a large Socialist Party remains more a long range aspiration than an immediate realistic possibility. Recently, the Socialist Party merged with the Independent Socialist League  and it had been hoped that the force of the merger coming upon the wide disaffection of rank-and-file Communists for their party after the Hungarian events and coinciding with high points in the civil rights struggle in the South would permit a far more rapid expansion of the Socialist Party than has actually been the case. The fusion did have salutary effects but the party remains without a press (except for the sporadically appearing and inadequate quarterly) , a gap in its operations which it is now trying to close; its membership has increased only by a few hundred; and its general level of functioning, though improved, is far from what it should be even for a party of its small size.
But it was not always so. At one time, approximately midway in its hundred year history, American socialism was robust and seemed full of promise. Fifty years ago the Socialist Party had well over one hundred thousand members (some figures go as high as 125,000). In little more than a decade after the Party had been founded (1901) it had 13 daily newspapers in English and foreign languages. There were close to 300 weeklies, at least a dozen monthly journals. One paper, the Appeal to Reason, reached a circulation of 500,000, mainly in the Middle West. By 1912, there were 1,000 public officials who were members of the party, and in that year the party received 6 percent of the total vote in the national elections. That the two major bourgeois parties added progressive planks to their program was, in part, a tribute to the growing appeal of socialism; and a third middle-class party – the Progressive Party, which put up Teddy Roosevelt as its presidential candidate in 1912 – was partially generated by a desire to blunt the Socialist Party’s growing appeal among workers and farmers. Within the trade union movement, socialists were in the leadership of many of the largest unions and in strong positions in others. At the 1912 convention of the American Federation of Labor a socialist challenged Gompers for presidency of the Federation and received one-third of the delegates’ votes. In the 1912 presidential election, the party’s candidate, Eugene V. Debs, received a million votes.
What accounts for the precipitous decline of this once promising socialist movement? The question is a decisive one for American socialists and of great importance for European comrades.
It can be assumed that one reason has been the needless mistakes of the movement itself. But it is no less obvious that neither human fallibility nor incorrect programs by themselves could account for the damage. I believe that the weakness of American socialism can be traced to its inability to overcome the obstacles placed in its path by the unique circumstances of American history.
In general, the growth of the factory system and the creation of a large and homogeneous class of propertyless workers provide the essential framework for the emergence of the modern socialist movement. Here, it was not until the middle of the 19th century that there was any factory system to speak of, and it was not until 15 years after the Civil War – 100 years later than England – that the United States was caught up in the industrial revolution. Thus the physical basis for a modern socialist movement hardly existed until the 1850’s with the field of social and political reform before then largely pre-empted by Utopian sects and Fourierist, Icarian and Owenite colonies, as numerous as they were short-lived.
The possibilities, however, in the decades after 1850 remained theoretical. Too many natural obstacles remained. For one, the population from 1850 to the end of the century had increased from 25 to 75 million, primarily due to the influx of 17 million immigrants and in the first decade of the new century immigration reached its peak with more than one million new entrants in the year 1905 alone.
The early waves of European immigration came mainly from Germanic countries. From the 1880’s on, the bulk of immigrants was from Southern Europe. This meant a multi-lingual working class which made its economic organization difficult and its political radicalization more , so, since language barriers restricted communication and employers and politicians cynically exploited national prejudices to keep the working class internally divided.
Also, modern socialist ideas and organizations were introduced by immigrants. This, in itself, was no barrier to socialist development and certainly was not evidence, as some critics of American socialism claim, that socialism was a foreign importation, alien to American life. On the contrary, the high proportion of immigrants was a reflection of American society whose work force until the period of the first world war was largely foreign born. However, where it was necessary to focus on American conditions and problems the foreign born socialists seldom made an effort to learn English or otherwise compromise with their new environment. This self-isolation cannot be considered so much a ‘mistake’ as a product of American conditions: the predictable human failing of immigrant socialists, many of whom had gone through the heroic struggles of 1848-1850 in their native lands, finding it politically and psychologically impossible to adjust to the raw climate of American life.
Apart from its polyglot complexion there was the numerical weakness of the working class. Throughout the 19th century the major movements of social protest, from Jacksonianism to the Greenback and Populist movements, were dominated by agrarian elements. The working class was too small, dispersed, divided and inexperienced, to operate effectively as an independent national political entity, and where it was politically organized it frequently found itself in alliance with these agrarian movements, only to be overwhelmed by its allies, diverted from its own interests and fallen victim to the various panaceas proffered by small farmers.
Another natural obstacle was the famous American frontier. The vast expanse of easily accessible land to the West delimited the socialist potential. In the first place, it meant an impermanent working class: native or immigrant families dissatisfied with their lot in the cities could escape their depressing surroundings – unlike workers in Europe where land for the most part had been removed from the public domain or was beyond the economic reach of workers confined to the city slums. The comparative ease with which an American could shift from mechanic to farmer reduced both the effectiveness and area of socialist propaganda and proved an obstacle to trade unionism as well.
This social fluidity was not the only restraining influence of the frontier. There was also the drama of covered wagons crossing the American plains, of pioneers and cowboys living close to the soil, of sacrifices and nobility revealed in conflicts with natural and human adversaries, of the physical vastness and resources of the nation. All this was real enough, and when overladen with propagandistic fanfare, the frontier evolved into a romantic myth – and an emotional safety valve that helped win the people’s confidence in the American system.
The frontier inhibited the growth of class consciousness yet in a third way: it contributed to an occasional scarcity of labor in manufacturing centers and thereby served to keep the wages of urban workers relatively high.
It was, however, more than the frontier which permitted high living standards for American workers compared to Europeans. It was, most simply, that America was a land of enormous wealth, favored by geography, blessed with natural resources, immense in land area and enjoying all the economic advantages of late industrial development. Since all classes benefited – unequally to be sure – from her unique riches, the basic confidence the masses had in the system seemed confirmed.
As the 19th century drew to a close, much of what has been described above was in the process of change. The frontier was closing, with scarcity and speculation driving up the price of land. The working class, no longer able to look to cheap land in the West, was finding itself confined to cities which turned into teeming slums where workers competed for jobs in the mass production industries rapidly taking shape in the East. The brutality of rapid industrialization impinged on the consciousness of thousands of immigrants of the last decades of the 19th and the early years of the 20th century. America, to many, was now more a Gehenna than a New Jerusalem.
In the turbulence of the post Civil War era there arose the Knights of Labor, a peculiar combination of industrial unionism, social reform, militancy, conservatism and mystical rites in which socialists, anarchists, agrarian schemers, middle class reformers and crackpots fought one another for organizational supremacy. Opposed to strikes in theory, the Knights nevertheless led some of the most heroic struggles of the early American industrial working class. Though its membership neared the million mark, the Knights could not sustain itself. Factionalism, confusion and its multi-class character (workers, farmers and middle class) took their toll. But, in this writer’s estimate, even without these drawbacks and even if the Knights had been organized on a strictly working class basis, it could not have established itself as an industrial union in face of the massive opposition of American capitalism and the inexperience of a newly concentrating industrial working class.
If the changing relationship of forces still did not allow the emergence of mass industrial unionism, it at least permitted the growth of a more modest and narrow form of unionism – the craft unionism of the American Federation of Labor which was able to entrench itself more firmly among the less competitively threatened skilled workers.
Some of the factors which encouraged the growth of the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor helped provide the impetus for the impressive, if not spectacular, growth of the socialist movement described earlier.
The promise of the Socialist Party in this period was not fulfilled since it could not overcome the still operative restraints sketched above to which must be added still other basic causes if one is to understand the debilitation of American socialism:
Trade unionism was capable of overcoming the obstacles in its path because it was essentially a bread and butter movement appealing to the economic instincts of the working class and offered no fundamental challenge to the class organization of American life. The unions which took permanent hold did not require a membership with a keen political self-consciousness. Socialism is different. Revolutionary in objective, socialism requires the participation of large numbers of workers with a political grasp and sense of purpose more profound and selflessly motivated than the more narrowly oriented trade unionist. If socialism requires a working class membership whose sights go beyond the here and now, it also demands a leadership weighted with idealistic intellectuals who freely contribute their abilities toward building the intelligence of the movement. It is here that American socialism failed and this failure of intelligence has contributed as much as any other cause to the collapse of American socialism. This failure, however, is not accidental but is rooted in American history and tradition – or meagre history and lack of tradition.
In Europe, the social ancestry of farmer, industrial proletariat and capitalist can be traced back to serf, journeyman and medieval merchant. The transition from then to now represents a bridge in time that took centuries to cross in a passage that was not always clear or direct or consciously made.
The slowness and complexity accompanying the disintegration of feudal relations inflicted the penalty of centuries-long suffering on the masses but it also carried a reward for future generations in that the very subtlety and gradualness of European evolution contributed to the growth of a culture and tradition all but absent in American history. It is permissible, I believe, to make the generalization that all social classes in Europe, compared to the United States, have been aided in reaching a higher level of self-consciousness because they have emerged so slowly from antiquity through the middle ages to modern times. Thus, for a European equivalent of an Eisenhower to become
Prime. Minister or Premier of any major European power would be an anomaly, but for a man whose major talents are tied down to golf, fishing, cowboy stories and an infectious smile to become the Chief Executive of the world’s most powerful nation seems almost fitting and should surprise no one.
Similarly, the different histories and contrasting origins of the European and American working classes explain the continuance of socialism as a mass phenomenon in Europe and its marginal existence here. One need only recall that the French Jacquerie were battling the hated nobility at a time when primitive Indian tribes here inhabited a vast wilderness that no European would yet see for another 150 years; and European had barely set foot on these shores when Thomas Muenzer was leading the German peasants in a revolutionary war that was to prove so instructive and inspirational, more than 300 years later, to the communists and democrats of mid-19th century Germany.
Where similar movements did exist, the contrast between Europe and America is no less striking. There was a Puritan movement on both sides of the ocean. In England, Puritanism was a militant fusion of economics, politics and religion which tore away at the remaining fabric of the old feudal order. And within the movement there was the schism between Presbyterian and Independent: while Cromwell fought the Anglican Establishment, the Levellers, Anabaptists, Diggers and other left-wing Independents fought both Crown and Cromwell and for a brief moment their humane and egalitarian spirit triumphed. But if the premature communistic sects that grew within the Puritan movement could not triumph over their historic limitations, they were of tremendous force and moment and operated within a given context which permitted their ideas and experiences to survive their defeats.
In the United States, on the other hand, the Puritan movement did not affect the fate of a nation, it concerned the lives of a few thousand settlers. Here there was no feudal order to combat or omnipotent church to menace. Instead, transplanted from Europe, there was the Calvinist strain of Puritanism with all its narrow-minded prejudices and bigotry which were soon institutionalized in theoretically organized New England communities. Here, there was no Cromwell whose war against the Independents was balanced by his military campaign against a divine king. Instead, there was a John Cotton, leading Puritan intellectual, rationalizing physical torture as a justifiable punishment for those few Anabaptists, Seekers and Quakers who challenged the Calvinist theocracy. Here, there could be no John Lilburne challenging a Cromwell, only a Roger Williams – a man whose goodness of mind and spirit has left little visible impress on the American conscience today – fighting a losing battle against Puritan bigots.
Engels was convinced that the lack of a feudal past in America would bring socialism that much closer in the New World. That he was wrong is removed from debate by the all too evident facts. Not only did the absence of feudalism deprive the working class of traditions established by its precursors but it restricted the growth of political consciousness in yet another way.
In Europe – and in America too – the bourgeoisie did not establish its power on the basis of its victories. The European revolutionary wars of capitalism were fought and won over the bodies of serfs, yeomen, craftsmen and an already existing propertyless proletariat. But once the supremacy of the market had been established, the bourgeoisie cynically discarded the egalitarian slogans which it had reluctantly accepted in the wars against feudalism. The political freedom it sought to accompany the freedom of the market, it became clear, was intended for itself and not for the unruly and propertyless masses.
In Europe, then, to win the political liberties for which they had fought, the lower levels of society had to remain constantly alert and participate as an active political revolutionary force.
In the United States, on the other hand, there was no equivalent of the Parisian barricades of 1830 and nothing comparable to the revolutionary waves of 1848/50 if for no other reason than that many of the objectives of European revolutionaries had already become part of the American tradition by the middle of the 19th century. With relative ease the American people had won rights of free speech, press and above all, universal (or nearly so) white manhood suffrage.
That democracy was more easily come to in the United States is not a tribute to any democratic impulse of our Founding Fathers. On the contrary, many of them were ultra-conservative, some being monarchists and almost all of them contemptuous of the ‘mob’ and of democracy. Even many of the more liberal colonial leaders who remained loyal to the concept of a republican form of government made it clear that their republicanism was not to be confused with democratic institutions and government by popular consent. However, the overwhelming majority of the population consisted of yeomen and their families whose natural bent for democracy was intensified by the unique levelling psychology of the American frontier. This class found itself in alliance with urban workers on the one hand, and on the other, with the powerful class of southern plantation holders and Western large scale property holders in whose interest it was to extend voting rights to farmers and settlers. This pressure, from above and from below, for democracy, proved irresistible and reached its initial climax in the sweep of Andrew Jackson more than 125 years ago. In addition, the enormous potential wealth of the nation made it foolhardy for an economic aristocracy to endanger its future through an overly stubborn, violent resistance to the growth of democracy.
From the point of view of our discussion, the relatively easy advent of political democracy had its penalties as well as its obvious rewards: the manner and ease with which elementary democratic rights were achieved removed from the experience of the American working class their necessary participation as an independent, revolutionary political force.
The newness and success of the country, its geographic vastness, the bigness of its industry, the simplicity of early American life, the relative ease with which ruthlessness or ingenuity or a combination of both could win fortunes, all of these national characteristics produced a supra-class, national psychology according to which that mattered which produced immediate and tangible results. Theories were for visionaries or, to use the more current epithet, for eggheads.
For the American bourgeoisie there was something fitting about its narrow pragmatic spirit. A dog-eat-dog philosophy – called ‘Rugged Individualism’ – literally paid off as fortunes were made. But for the socialist movement, which could not escape its environment, the pragmatic spirit would serve to strip it of the gains made in the first decade and a half of the 20th century.
The crude pragmatism that infected the radical movement as it emerged at the turn of the century took two contrasting forms. On the one hand there was the dominant wing of the Socialist Party which made a fetish of immediate reforms, firmly convinced it was going to elect socialism into power. It was a kind of muckraking socialism given to superficial declarations about the evils of capitalism and the blessings of a reform here and another elected socialist official there. At the other extreme there was the revolutionary syndicalism that eschewed reform, elections and most other political action. It proposed to fight fire with fire and answer violence with violence, finding supporters mainly in the midwestern and mining regions of the country where life had few of the refinements of European metropolitan life and direct action seemed to have more meaning than the doctrinaire discussions of citified ideologues. It had more in common with the romantic strain of revolutionary syndicalism that existed outside the party, and eventually it expended itself in disastrous dual-union campaigns, above all in the exciting but nomadic, unreal and necessarily ill-fated adventure of the anti-political Industrial Workers of the World (more popularly known as the ‘Wobblies’).
By losing sight of its goal and focusing almost exclusively on the present – be it in a militant syndicalist or reformist way – and looking askance at ‘theorizing’, the movement lost perspective, could not cope with the realities of American life, with the end result that ‘practical’ politics often proved impractical and a growth deterrent.
Akin to its pragmatism, the socialist movement had insulated itself to both international events and the major questions confronting the European labour movement. In this, too, socialism reflected, in its own way, an American condition – a xenophobic society feeling mistakenly secure and superior in its isolation. Consequently, the socialist movement, with its intellectual primitiveness and insularity, was totally unprepared for two great events: World War I and the Russian Revolution.
It was the Russian Revolution which had the greater impact on American socialism. Into the Socialist Party there poured thousands of immigrants, swelling the membership rolls by 1919 to 120,000. These new recruits became the main – but not only – basis of a new left wing whose leadership proved to be as unscrupulous (with exceptions, of course) as it was blind to American conditions. It assumed the garb and manner of Russian Bolshevism in a land and among a working class that was ill prepared for it.
The tremendous post-war strike wave became, in its distorted vision, political demonstrations of workers striking out for state power. Slogans, ideas and forms of organization which made sense in Europe were recklessly adopted by American left wingers so that by the time it had organized itself in late 1919 as a Communist movement (actually two Communist parties were created by a faction-ridden left wing) its numbers were sharply reduced.
Handicapped by its own political inadequacies, by the opposition of a dedicated core of Communist Party activists, the Socialist Party could not take full advantage of the opportunities that did present themselves during the 30’s. The Communist Party could and did. It might not win as many votes as the Socialist Party on election day, but during the depression 30’s, the Communists built their party, they made significant inroads in the labor movement, they established their front organizations, their membership grew to around 100,000, they could fill Madison Square Garden for any number of special occasions. They could still win members away from the Socialist Party. And the Communists had something to offer that the socialists could not match: Russia. Russia was something huge and different and real. It was dynamic. It was anti-capitalist. It spoke in the name of all the humanitarian causes of the past. It had vast resources. What did the American socialists have to match this? They had arguments, of course, but they were not always clear or appealing and they were compromised by an ambivalence toward the same Russian that was as much its bane as was the American CP. In the late 40’s the appeal of the Communist Party grew, in spite of the Stalin-Hitler Pact, and American socialism was hardly a factor in its calculations.
Unless one realizes the extent to which Stalinism succeeded in the United States in carrying out its historic mission to destroy the organization and image of socialism, the present weakness of socialism cannot be understood. And, perhaps, what will not be understood is the special sensitivity and the wholly justifiable concern of many American socialists with Russian events.
It would be gross self-deception to deny that many of the historically imposed limitations upon American socialism remain with us and that new problems have been created:
- The economic resources of American capitalism are more stupendous than ever and there is no reason to believe that any economic catastrophe will overtake it in the immediate future.
- The living standards of the American workers are relatively high and their political level continues to be low.
- Thanks to its lack of sophistication and the disastrous influence of Stalinism in the 30’s and 40’s, the American people identify Russia with socialism and condemn both.
The trade union leadership is politically conservative and, in this, it is an accurate reflection of the rank-and-file mentality. There is no longer even the militant rhetoric of the 30’s and the spirited language of a man like Walter Reuther, during and after the war, has given way to the hackneyed idiom of the modern ‘labor statesman’. Reuther, too, has recently made explicitly clear his view that socialism is just an obsolescent dogma where America is concerned. Socialism still suffers from its pragmatic affliction. The intellectual state of the movement is abysmal and from most surprising sources comes the wail of despair: ‘We mant a movement that works’. Every socialist naturally aims at success but when Success becomes a slogan and a battle cry, perspective and principles often succumb to futile schemes to strike political riches quickly. Sadly enough, this is the case with some of the most talented American socialists who, understandably tired of their sectarian existence, seek the key to success in a flirtation – certain to be unreciprocated – with liberal and labor leaders tied to the Democratic Party. The key will only open a Pandora’s Box.
The more liberal atmosphere in the country together with the tempo and direction of the civil rights movement does offer the realistic possibility that in the next period the Socialist Party’s membership will double. This is an even more likely prospect for its youth section. However, before the Party can evolve into a mass movement, the working class, through its economic organizations, will first have to break its organizational and political allegiance to bourgeois politics. And that break, it must be recognized, cannot be predicted for this year or next.
This writer then, is under no illusion about the prospects for a socialist awakening in the next year or two. On the other hand, there are changes in American life which endow socialism with a fundamental reality and relevance that was not the case at the time of its more successful beginnings:
- Today, the working class is a comparatively homogeneous class: problems of ethnic and linguistic origin no longer plague it as they once did. It is also a permanent and stable class. There are no longer the population shifts from town to farm or town to town that once complicated the lives of union organizers and socialist agitators. The working class is no longer dispersed over a large number of small shops but heavily concentrated in massive industries. The social mobility that existed many years ago belongs now to history and the sociologists’ notebooks. The modern working class is a numerically imposing, perhaps majority, class. In any political alliance with farm organizations, its numerical and social weight would be so overwhelming as to preclude subordinating its own interests to agrarian panaceas.
- At one time, liberal bourgeois experts on American labor denied the viability of industrial unionism as a form of labor organization with arguments similar to those offered by contemporary sociologists with regard to socialism.
- Today, millions of workers, unskilled and semi-skilled, in basic and mass production industries, are organized in industrial unions that are here to stay. From the enfeebled organization of a few million embattled unionists a generation ago the welded strength of American unions has multiplied to a 16 million strong movement. Only the blind can fail to see that for all its faults, ranging from corruption to political conservatism, this tremendous, well organized class force has dramatic political possibilities.
- Although harmful illusions about Russia survive among radical intellectuals, the restrictive influence of the Communist Party has been eliminated as an obstacle to socialism.
For all the weaknesses of the working class, and of the socialist movement, there is the element of realism and sobriety to socialism that is absent in much that its critics have to say. Take the learned men of history and sociology who speak so disdainfully of socialism’s past and contemptuously of its future. Socialism is irrelevant! It is utopian! But politics is concerned with alternatives and if socialism is a quixotic cause, what do they have to propose instead? In nine out of ten cases, it boils down to what we now have: an administration run by the corrupt Democratic Party and a White House staffed by Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. What could be more utopian, absurd and irrelevant than this as even a beginning of a solution to America’s problems at home and her dilemma abroad?
By comparison, American socialists are eminently practical and realistic men.
1. We are not denying class by income. However, the vast gap in income distribution evidences the existence and inequities of class structure. Nor does this writer pretend that there are no problems concerned with the definition of class. They do exist, but that is a subject for another discussion.
2. The Independent Socialist League, first organized as the Workers’ Party in 1940, under the leadership of Max Shachtman, had its origins in the splitting away of approximately half the membership of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party. The Workers’ Party rejected the slogan of ‘unconditional support of the USSR’ and soon rejected the view of Russia as a ‘degenerated workers state’. During the forties and fifties, the Workers Party (later called the Independent Socialist League) deservedly earned the respect of many socialists and union militants for its contributions on the ‘Russian question’ as well as for its activity in, and evaluation of, the American labor movement. Its major publications were Labor Action and the New International.
3. Since this article was written the Socialist Party has founded a bi-weekly newspaper, New America. – Editors
Last updated: 21 February 2010