Since WWII, nearly every country that has gotten rich enough to afford a social democracy has created one, what many Americans call “socialism.” Why not us? In Part I, I gave a few definitions of “socialism” and explained that different countries have tried different versions of it. Chris, our PhD candidate in political science, will give Thursday’s presentation. But, to get you started, here’s a little background on the “why not here?” question.
Who are the American socialists? Socialist agitation (simplified history alert!) came in three waves in America.
- 1920s-1930s: Heavily influenced by Marxism and events in the USSR, these socialists nonetheless were split over whether change here should be revolutionary and violent or incremental. Nevertheless, they all wanted an end to the kind of political and economic system that had mired us in the Great Depression, and thought state-centered socialism was the right solution. They also fought for basic labor rights and a broad commitment from the government to take responsibility for citizens’ welfare.
- 1960s: A new generation that rejected Soviet-style socialism but often transferred their loyalties to third world revolutionaries. They demanded an end to Vietnam and U.S. imperialism. More importantly, they demanded a cultural revolution: Civil rights, and later women’s and environmental rights. Still, they were socialists, not liberals.
- 1980s+: The post-modern Left. Having lost the battle to transform American economic relationships, these socialists retreated to the academy and fought to change the way we think about the relationships between culture and political/economic power. Third wave feminism. Deconstructionism. Etc.
- [UPDATE:] Closer to Ron’s philosophy I think is Syndicalism, an earlier form of Socialism that preceded all the abobe three. It involves workers/producers all sharing ownership of individual firms. Wiki has a pretty good explanation..
Why Did Socialism “Fail?” Some Common Explanations.
- It didn’t fail: Compared to what they wanted – a radical reordering of capitalism — each wave fell flat. But, one helped to usher in the New Deal and another ended Vietnam and helped launch a cultural revolution that made America much more inclusive. In other words, American socialists achieved just enough to make radical change unthinkable to most Americans, thus ensuring socialism’s own demise here.
- Land Of Opportunity: Then U.S. working class just had much more opportunity than in other countries. Workers (well, White ones) didn’t want to overthrow the bourgeoisie; they wanted to join it, because they knew they could, through hard work, starting a business, going West, education, etc.
- A Divided Working Class: Alternatively, American workers and farmers were too sharply divided by race and ethnicity (all those immigrants) to have any sense of class solidarity. At key moments, the South refused to expand the social welfare state because it might disrupt their racial caste system.
- Anti-Government American Character: We were born in anti-statism, and we remain suspicious of big government. American (ideological) Exceptionalism.
- Elites Not Worried Enough: Regardless of the reasons, the lack of public demand for socialism made U.S. elites disinclined to support it out of sheer self-interest. The European social welfare state was not an act of charity! It was a response by frightened elites to the popularity that fascism and communism had enjoyed among the working class before WWII. After the war, elites led the charge to social democracy out of fear that if they didn’t the masses would be tempted again by something much worse.
- Communism: [Update post-mtg: Jim Z. at our mtg mentioned a huge reason I didn’t list. Socialism in the USA became hopelessly-associated in the public’s mind with Communism, an ideology anathema to our highly-religious, Western alliance-leading land of capitalist opportunity.]
Anyway, that’s just a few thoughts. I look forward to Chris’ take on it.