Why is there no socialism in the United States?

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The Independent Culture

Socialism, so some purists would say, has never really happened anywhere - or else has failed everywhere. What the authors mean, though, is that the US, uniquely among major industrial states, never had a mass socialist, labour or social-democratic party that held or seriously contended for power.

Socialism, so some purists would say, has never really happened anywhere - or else has failed everywhere. What the authors mean, though, is that the US, uniquely among major industrial states, never had a mass socialist, labour or social-democratic party that held or seriously contended for power.

That anomaly has exercised sharp minds for decades. For orthodox Marxists, socialism's weakness in the US was a puzzle. The most advanced capitalist society, as it evidently was by the 1890s, should naturally lead the way to the socialist commonwealth. Yet American socialists remained a marginal force - and one that declined rapidly from its modest high-water mark of 6 per cent of the national vote just before the First World War.

In 1906, the German sociologist Werner Sombart published Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?, posing a question hundreds of other analysts have echoed. Part of the problem with Lipset and Marks's disappointing work is that most possible answers had already been thoroughly rehearsed so long ago.

In 2000, the contrast seems less striking. Europe, like America, almost entirely lacks mass parties seriously committed to challenging the market. Convergence, ideological as well as cultural, is the dominant transatlantic agenda. The similarities between Blair's New Labour and Clinton's New Democrats are especially evident. This has led some to ask whether US political history was really so very different from Western Europe's. The Democratic Party may not have called itself socialist, but since the New Deal its reforming policies, electoral base and even union links have had many similarities to Europe's centre-left parties.

Yet neither past nor present convergence should be exaggerated. Compared with every important European state, the US still has lower taxes and government spending, less welfarism, less regulation, weaker unions and - above all - more inequality and primary poverty. And the left, however defined, remains strikingly weak.

All this, the authors persuasively suggest, can be traced to the earlier want of a mass workers' party. One could say (though the painstakingly neutral Lipset and Marks don't) that America is a crueller, harsher place than it would have been had it ever had a viable labour movement. At a decisive political crossroads, the two shores of the north Atlantic world took different turnings.

Lipset and Marks rehearse all the main lines of explanation, from the lack of a feudal past through comparative affluence and ideologies of individualism, to the strength of the two-party system and American socialists' sectarian tendencies. They conclude that no one factor on its own will do, and only a combination explains the left's failure in the US.

They give close attention to the impact of ethnic diversity. American socialist organisations were for decades largely dominated by three immigrant groups: Germans, Russian Jews and, oddly enough, Finns. Others were perhaps turned off by this. By contrast, they almost entirely ignore a closely related issue: the role of racial division. That whole complex of questions, including the white-supremacist currents within American labour and the embattled history of African-American socialists, is dispatched in little more than a page. The neglect is not only feeble, but pretty disgraceful. The European side of their comparative framework is also surprisingly weak.

The story of socialist struggles and failures is a rather small part of American history, but a dramatic one, with more than its share of intrigue, bloodshed, and larger-than-life characters. Yet Lipset and Marks have somehow contrived to make a dull book of it. The style is flat and monochrome, the arguments repetitive. It Didn't Happen Here is - apart from its startling omissions - a reliable overview of its subject, but it has nothing much new to say about it.

The reviewer's book 'Ireland and Empire' is published by OUP

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