Before it became a favorite trope of Republican presidential candidates, “American exceptionalism” belonged to the left. The phrase referred to the United States’ puzzling divergence from the pattern of development proposed by Karl Marx. According to Marx, powerful socialist movements or labor parties should arise in advanced economies as workers recognized the opposition of interests between themselves and capital. Why did this fail to occur in America?
Jack Ross is the latest to raise this question, joining an honor roll of intellectuals including Friedrich Engels, Werner Sombart, H.G. Wells, Daniel Bell, and more recently Gary Marks and Seymour Martin Lipset. His book—ostensibly a history of the Socialist Party of America (SPA), which existed formally from 1901 to 1972—reconsiders the successes and, mostly, failures of socialist organizing from the end of the Civil War up to the present. Ross argues that the fundamental error of American socialism was its leaders’ refusal to build a political party on a foundation of unions and agricultural associations, as was done in Britain and Germany. The resulting split between labor and politics condemned the SPA to marginality.
Resisting the social and cultural approaches that dominate academic historiography, Ross argues that the main obstacle to American socialism was bad decisions taken by professional activists in conventions or meeting rooms. In Ross’s view, a terrible precedent was set in 1896 when the Populist Party endorsed the Democrat William Jennings Bryan rather than nominating Eugene Debs as its candidate for president. Debs then took his followers into the Social Democratic Party, a direct ancestor of the SPA, as a dissenting rump. Although it enjoyed electoral success in a few regional strongholds, the SPA would never really get established at the national level.
As the story proceeds into the 20th century, Ross blames sinister forces for pushing the socialist movement toward cooperation with the two-party system. Reversing the conventional interpretation, he associates this “conservative” tendency with the Communists. Usually remembered as the radical wing of American socialism, Ross presents them as its collaborationist “right.”
Because Ross pays little attention to ideas and proceeds chronologically rather than analytically, it is not easy to understand the basis for this characterization. Apparently it rests on the observation that leading figures in the SPA were less enthusiastic about the centralized state than we might expect socialists to be. Drawing on the Jeffersonian tradition, they envisioned a socialist America as an economic democracy embodied by cooperative enterprises and local government rather than a centralized bureaucracy.
These Jeffersonian socialists knew from the experience of the Civil War that military conflict has centralizing and bureaucratizing consequences. They also recognized that overseas expansion was a recipe for permanent militarism. So anti-imperialism, if not outright pacifism, was an important part of their socialist vision. In a phrase Ross repeats throughout the book, they wanted America to be a republic, not an empire.
This vision was appealing to the Northern European immigrants, theologically liberal Protestants, and skilled workers who were central to America’s socialist movements before the First World War. But it was anathema to those self-styled radicals who took their cues from The Communist Manifesto. For enthusiasts of the early Marx, war and imperialism were actually desirable because they hastened the final crisis of capitalism and promoted economic rationalization.
Leon Trotsky was the seminal theorist of this position. During his sojourn in the United States in early 1917, Trotsky mocked American socialists as petit bourgeois dreamers who thought socialism could be achieved by winning elections and who opposed American entry to the First World War. He believed the true road to socialism lay in temporary support for elected governments until a tiny cadre of militants could seize control of the vast powers already consolidated in the state apparatus.
Ross argues that this strategy of boring from within explains the failure of the Socialist Party after World War I. A strong showing in the 1920 presidential election demonstrated the SPA’s resilience in the face of unprecedented harassment by the Wilson administration. But the SPA was hobbled by the defection of Communists to their own party and by the internal influence of doctrinaire Marxists who saw the best opportunity for promoting socialism in cooperation with the Democrats.
Most historians present the Popular Front of the 1930s, which combined support for the New Deal with opposition to Nazi Germany, as the apogee of the American left. Ross, on the other hand, sees it as the moment when American socialists sold their Jeffersonian birthright for a mess of Bolshevik pottage.
The hero of this part of Ross’s enormous book is Norman Thomas, the former Presbyterian clergyman from Ohio whose political and cultural background made him more sympathetic to the isolationists than to FDR in the run-up to World War II, particularly after Roosevelt’s election to an unprecedented third term. Thomas was among the most prominent supporters of the America First movement, which drew part of its membership from the Socialist-led Keep America Out of War Committee.
Noting this almost forgotten overlap between the Old Left and the Old Right, Ross speculates that “a Labor or Farmer-Labor Party, had it emerged before the Second World War, would have profoundly differed from postwar liberalism. It would have in all likelihood been a progressive-isolationist major party, having much more in common with so-called rightwing populism than Cold War liberalism.” Ross contends that such a party would have been more consistent with the historic aspirations of American socialism, and perhaps more appealing to ordinary citizens, than the vision of a welfare-warfare state that Communists shared with Wilson and Roosevelt.
Perhaps. But Ross’s focus on party leaders to the exclusion of the wider political setting obscures the hurdles that such a party would have faced. To begin with, noninterventionism was popular between the world wars. This does not mean socialism was popular. Ross doesn’t see how marginal the SPA was because he emphasizes its positions on foreign policy to the exclusion of its domestic agenda. He forgets that antimilitarism was not a goal in itself for the Socialists but part of a larger ideological package.
Certainly this package included Jeffersonian elements. But it also called for public ownership of large portions of the economy. Despite their shared noninterventionism, then, the SPA was not as close to the Old Right as Ross suggests. It wasn’t as close to the mainstream of progressive politics either. For many Socialists, the New Deal was objectionable less because it was centralizing as such than because it addressed some of the side effects of capitalism without replacing the profit system. In this respect, Roosevelt’s policies really were closer to European corporatism than to Marxism.
But these distinctions held little interest to actual voters. The Socialists lost support to Communists and Democrats because these parties supported policies that appeared to be helping people in their everyday lives. This was particularly true for union members. In addition to FDR’s White House support for labor organization, unionists did well in the military buildup that preceded Pearl Harbor.
So there is little reason to think a party rooted in organized labor would have been consistently antimilitarist. It would also have been weak in the South, where unions were rare and farmers were not isolationists. Rather than a national party, the formation Ross imagines might not have been much bigger that than actual Farmer-Labor organization that the progressive Republican Robert La Follette and his family established in the upper Midwest. It would have been literally a middle-American radicalism.
Beyond counterfactuals, it is not obvious that the transformation of the SPA into a broad-based Labor-Farm party would have been a good thing. Norman Thomas’s noninterventionism and opposition to what Ross calls “state capitalism” were based on impeccable motives. But Thomas was wrong to think the United States could avoid war with Nazi Germany in the long run or that doing so was better than fighting. Ross quotes as a kind of prophecy the SPA’s 1940 platform, according to which:
Defeat of Hitler will be welcomed by all anti-fascists. But defeat of Hitler will mean the defeat of Hitlerism and a victory for democracy only if the roots of fascism and the war system are destroyed. The United States cannot contribute toward that end nor vindicate real democracy if it loses itself in the processes of war. If America enters the war, we shall be subjected to military dictatorship, the regimentation of labor and the ultimate economic collapse that must follow war. In an effort to ‘save democracy,’ we shall have destroyed its only remaining citadel.
Despite its many shortcomings, it is difficult to see Truman’s America in this grim forecast.
This book should probably end in 1952, when the SPA ran its last presidential campaign. It was a sad affair: Norman Thomas was unavailable to run because he was touring Asia at the expense of the CIA-funded American Committee for Cultural Freedom, having become a fellow traveler of Cold War liberalism. But Ross follows events up to 1972, when the party formally dissolved. This is because he wants to trace another genealogy: the emergence of neoconservatism from the sects that persisted after Thomas’s defection.
It is a kind of demonic-possession story. Having fatally weakened the SPA in the ’20s and ’30s, the Bolsheviks return to reanimate the corpse after the World War II. This time the villain is Max Shachtman, a Trotskyist who argued that the Soviet Union had become an obstacle to the very revolution that it had initiated. Shachtman and his followers urged socialists to work within the Democratic Party to promote a hard line against the USSR, as well as socialization of the domestic economy, rather than offering an electoral alternative. Their strategy of “realignment” attracted younger figures who became the public faces of socialism in the 1960s, most notably Michael Harrington and Bayard Rustin.
The key fact for Ross is that the Shachtmanites belied their socialist rhetoric and the SPA’s legacy of antimilitarism by offering political cover for the welfare-warfare policies of Democrats such as Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, and Scoop Jackson. By 1972, many of them supported Richard Nixon. Following the lead of former Communists who played prominent roles in the conservative movement of the 1950s, the strategic “right” of postwar socialism eventually found a new home on the political right in the 1970s.
This is a fascinating story, which Ross may be the first to treat as a continuation of the odyssey that begins with the Populists and the Knights of Labor. But it fits awkwardly with the four or five hundred pages that precede it. By the time Ross turns to the post-history of the SPA—a sequence of almost totally insignificant paper organizations—the number of names, groups, and journals in play has become overwhelming. Early socialists dreamed of a broad-based party that could attract support from millions of ordinary Americans. By the end, there were more factions than members.
So why wasn’t that dream realized? Strategic choices clearly played some part in the failure to establish a viable socialist party. So did official repression. Later on, socialists had to contend with the problem of co-optation, whether by Communists or Democrats. Ross documents all these factors. Yet an even more important consideration is almost entirely absent from his analysis: America’s ethnic and religious diversity. Socialism appeals to class as the defining fact of politics. It is most successful when people have few other major differences from each other.
This has never been the case in the United States. Even before the wave of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe that began in the 1870s, many Americans saw themselves as old stock or German or Irish, Catholic or Protestant, rather than as workers. There were some examples of pan-ethnic cooperation. But they were generally limited to specific industries or periods of economic depression.
Race was even more important. Blacks were America’s most exploited laborers, but they never embraced socialism to any significant extent. This was partly because their political activity was sharply restricted and partly because many early populists and socialists were white supremacists who limited black participation to racially segregated cells or discouraged it altogether. Due to the tragedy of America’s racial history, socialists lost a major source of potential support.
Finally, the leading representatives of American socialism may have been too American for their own good. The Jeffersonian elements Ross prizes were most appealing to middle-class Midwestern Protestants. As Lipset and Marks have pointed out, anti-statist themes were less exciting to a working class composed of new immigrants, particularly Catholics. They responded to Father Coughlin, not Norman Thomas.
It is possible that better luck and more skillful tactics could have overcome these obstacles. But it is not clear how much that would have mattered in the end. Despite their antimilitarist beginnings, socialist parties in most of Europe supported both World Wars and then embraced much the same blend of social welfare, economic corporatism, and militarized internationalism that has defined the Democratic Party at least since FDR.
Perhaps America is not exceptional after all.
Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.