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It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States

Author(s):Lipset, Seymour Martin
Marks, Gary
Reviewer(s):Rauchway, Eric

Published by EH.NET (April 2001)

Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks, It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism

Failed in the United States. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2000. 379

pp. $26.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-393-04098-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Eric Rauchway, Modern History Faculty, Oxford


Although Seymour Martin Lipset is now employed by George Mason University and

enjoys fellowships at the Hoover Institution and the Woodrow Wilson

International Center, his principal credential is as a New York Intellectual

(City College division) and this book reflects the preoccupations of that

vanishing circle. With Gary Marks, director of the Center for European Studies

at the University of North Carolina, Lipset provides useful comparative

international illustrations between the United States and other industrial

nations in Europe and the Antipodes, but the real comparison in this book is

the traditional one between the particulars of the American case and the

predictions of Marxist theory.

This interpretive tack gives the book the tenor of a last word in a long

conversation. The text refers explicitly to Daniel Bell, Louis Hartz, Richard

Hofstadter, and Irving Howe, and apart from its evidentiary basis, the

essential terms of the argument would have been familiar to them — and indeed

to Marx, Engels, Weber, and Kautsky. It is the best-supported and subtlest

version of the traditional thesis we are ever likely to get — but it looks

over the heads of the present generation to the titans of the past without

engaging current or recent scholarship to any great degree.

Lipset and Marks organize the book around assessments of the traditional

arguments for socialism’s failure in the US. They use separate chapters to

evaluate the respective influence of political structure, the American

Federation of Labor, immigration, Socialist Party purism, and political

repression on the fate of labor politics.

They find in favor of a mixed theory of causation: a “not elegant, but …

sensible” eclecticism, believing that “neither political, nor sociological,

nor cultural factors alone are sufficient to explain the weakness of socialism

in America” (p. 83). Despite its liberal tone, this very eclecticism rules out

some of the favorite explanations for socialism’s American shortfalls. Once

they find that the political system and culture tilted against socialist

success, that immigration from diverse sources spoiled class consciousness,

and that economic and political inclusion weakened the workers’ will to oppose

Americanism, then the strategic decisions of individual politicians within the

socialist movement, the labor movement, the Communist Party, and the two major

political parties seem insignificant: “The failure of socialism in America was

overdetermined” (p. 200).

Lipset and Marks’s attention to international comparison pays off most

handsomely in eliminating lesser causes. They establish that the early

enfranchisement of adult white males did not seduce them away from socialism

in other nations, and so cannot be cited as a cause of their disinclination to

vote Socialist in the US; that the Socialist Party of America hewed to a more

radical line than its contemporary counterparts in other countries, and

therefore cannot reasonably be impugned for being less Marxist than American

workers would have liked; that political repression of socialism in the US was

less thorough than in other nations, and so cannot reasonably be cited for

the movement’s downfall (indeed, Lipset and Marks imply that the US government

might have been insufficiently repressive for socialism to succeed — where

repression was greater, so was allegiance to socialism).

What remains is less surprising: the cultural and economic power of

Americanism (Hofstadter’s quip about the US not having an ideology but being

one reappears here) and the effects of immigration. Lipset and Marks remind us

that however miserably the other half lived in turn-of-the-century America,

they lived, in the main, better than they had in the old country, and had good

enough reason to hope for even better to come. Immigration to the US was

greater in both volume and diversity than to other receiving countries. With

an “extraordinarily heterogeneous” (p. 127) working class, the US was

unlikely to see class consciousness. And the political opportunities that

immigrants did create by forming voting blocs proved of greater use to

Democrats or Republicans, whose established patterns of ethno-religious

allegiance put them in a better position to curry or oppose the immigrant vote

than the dogmatically class-oriented Socialists.

Lipset and Marks make a good enough case on behalf of Americanism and

immigration, but they also miss taking what to a historian seem their biggest

tricks, precisely because they do not explicitly engage recent historical

scholarship. They remark tantalizingly that the “dominant strain in American

culture” — which was, they say, “egalitarian, antistatist, individualistic”

— stood in sharp contrast to “ascriptive” European cultures (p. 97), but they

do not discuss the recent work of Rogers Smith and Gary Gerstle, which

insists otherwise. They do not engage the farmer-labor thesis of Elizabeth

Sanders, nor the ‘corporate liberal’ thesis that continues to occupy Martin

Sklar, James Livingston and Richard Schneirov. And most importantly, in making

a book-length case for American exceptionalism — and, in the last chapter,

its recent demise or transformation — they do not engage the substantial

recent scholarship (including most notably Daniel Rodgers’s work) attempting

to refute it.

This is especially disappointing because the argument that remains implicit in

the book, if drawn out, would make a significant contribution to current

studies in the relation of American exceptionalism to international economic

and political development. Lipset and Marks conclude by pointing to the

partial diminishment of American exceptionalism as other nations’ socialist

parties have turned toward market capitalism. Almost in the same breath, they

point to exceptionalism redivivus, as European and Antipodean nations develop

significant Green Parties while the US does not. The future of this exception

depends on which of two recent events better prophesies the American political

future: Ralph Nader’s presidential candidacy, or George W. Bush’s junking of

the Kyoto emissions-control accord.

Assuming, for the sake of argument, Nader will prove no more successful than

Eugene Debs in building a third party on the ashes of electoral failure, we

are left with a United States more devoted to unfettered industrialism than

any of its peers. The US now is therefore in much the same situation as the US

of 1900, on the eve of socialism’s great failures. Despite its debts, despite

the moral and intellectual opprobrium in which its politics and politicians

are held, it is now as it was then a draw for immigrants and capital alike

owing to its tremendous productivity — and the lure of Americanism.

In the early 1900s, the US government proved less able than its peers to

manage the inflation that afflicted gold-standard economies of the period. But

so long as the private citizens of the world favored the US by sending their

work and their money to America, the US economy as able to cushion the effects

of inflation by increasing productivity. The US could avoid serious sustained

governmental management of the economy without much consequence because the

rest of the world paid for American excess.

Much the same appears to be happening now. The earlier phase of global

indulgence ended with a world catastrophe that the Socialists predicted, but

from which the US was largely exempt — the Great War. If the Greens are the

new Socialists, the next catastrophe will not make exceptions for America.

Eric Rauchway’s new book, The Refuge of Affections: Family and American

Reform Politics, 1900-1920 has recently been published by Columbia

University Press. He is currently working on Making the Dollar Almighty:

Inflation, Immigration, and American Political Culture, 1897-1937.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII