One of the hardy staples of American history is the question of what happened to American socialism. As the only industrialized nation in the world in which avowedly socialist or Communist parties have never held power or even seriously contended for power, the U.S. has been a persistent thorn in the grand Marxist scenario that had the whole world progressing inevitably towards a workers’ paradise. If capitalism was doomed, why were its gravediggers in the most successful capitalist nation on earth having so much trouble?
It was a question that worried even Marx and Engels, although they comforted themselves with the thought that, while slightly delayed, American socialism would imminently spring to life. But as the years went by and American socialism remained a pale shadow of its counterparts around the world, a minor academic industry sprang up to consider various explanations for “American exceptionalism.” All kinds of factors have been trotted out, from German sociologist Werner Sombart’s quip that “on the shoals of roast beef and apple pie, all socialistic utopias founder,” to implausible claims that a repressive American police state had blocked radicalism’s advance. Structural impediments to third parties, the nature of American immigration, the American frontier, and America’s lack of a feudal past have also been mentioned. Since the collapse of Communism and the conversion of many of Europe’s once proudly militant socialists to free markets and capitalism, a few people have had the temerity to wonder whether the absence of socialism in America marked, not its backwardness, but that of Europe.
A handful of American writers have even taken to proclaiming socialism’s victory in the U.S. Michael Harrington, the late founder of Democratic Socialists of America, proclaimed the AFL-CIO America’s disguised socialist vanguard. Michael Denning has claimed victory for the Left in the battle for American cultural hegemony. Now comes the latest celebratory salute, albeit a far more sophisticated and subtle one: Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers.
The book has a number of virtues. Kazin, a distinguished historian, provides an entertaining journey through some of the fascinating byways of American radicalism, filled with rogues, idealists, and quacks. (Many of the leading radical figures, he agrees, were personally eccentric or dogmatic or illiberal.) His writing is fluid, avoids professional jargon, and is often witty. Unlike many of his colleagues in history, with whom he shares a left-wing orientation, Kazin is fair to conservative critics of radicalism.
Most important, the book’s general thesis is largely accurate. Kazin admits that the Left has done far better at changing the moral culture than the political or economic system. When it has won political battles, it has done so by attaching itself to some wing of the American establishment. Where it has championed individual freedom, as in the abolitionist and feminist movements, it has succeeded in changing the country. But as individualism has triumphed, the Left’s collectivist vision of economic equality and solidarity has faded. Even as the culture celebrates the liberated individual, unions have been decimated and the political and economic system has been left largely intact.
Many of the stories Kazin tells are familiar ones, about crusaders against class inequality (Thomas Skidmore), slavery (David Walker), and women’s oppression (Fanny Wright). The two most successful 19th-century radicals were Edward Bellamy and Henry George. Bellamy’s utopian novel, Looking Backward, eschewed notions of class struggle and was permeated with notions of the Social Gospel. George, whose single-tax program put the blame for America’s problems on land speculators, appealed powerfully to Irish immigrants. Large-scale industrialization and increasingly violent labor confrontations in the 1880s set the stage for the growth of the first substantial radical parties. Radicals were weakened because of incessant fights between purists unwilling to compromise and “opportunists” willing to accept small, immediate gains. Oddly enough, Kazin never mentions Daniel De Leon, the leader of the Socialist Labor party, whose talents helped catapult the SLP into prominence and then ensured that it would wallow in sectarian isolation because of his ideological rigidity (he even expelled his own son from the party for disagreeing with his interpretation of Marx’s theory of value).