Failure of socialism in United States?
lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Thu Aug 17 14:30:45 MDT 2000
Better red than brain-dead Why did socialism fail in the United States --
and whose loss is it, anyway?
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By John Leonard
Aug. 17, 2000 | At a free concert in Battery Park in New York six weeks
ago, British folk singer Billy Bragg observed, between Woody Guthrie riffs,
that the only signs of socialism he had seen anywhere in these United
States were the public library and the carpool lane.
If I were socialism, I'd have skipped this country entirely. Imagine an eye
in the sky -- a phoenix, a dove, a stormy petrel or a sputnik -- on a
scouting mission from the failed revolutions of 1848, or maybe the Paris
Commune. Looking down, canting counterclockwise on its powerful left wing,
what would it see? From sea to shining sea: long-distance loneliness ...
Deer slayers, cowpunchers, whaling captains and raft river rats ...
Greed-heads, gun nuts and religious crazies ... Carpetbaggers, claim
jumpers, con men, dead redskins, despised coolies, fugitive slaves and No
Irish Need Apply ... Land grabs, lynching bees and Love Canals ... Lone
Rangers, private eyes, serial killers and cyberpunks ... Silicon Valley and
the Big Casino ... IPOs and Regis.
Not exactly the ideal social space for a radical Johnny Appleseed to plant
his dream beans. Early on in "It Didn't Happen Here," Seymour Martin Lipset
and Gary Marks quote historian Richard Hofstadter: "It has been our fate as
a nation not to have ideologies but to be one." And late in the game the
authors speak for themselves: "A culture can be conceived as a series of
loaded dice" in which "past throws" constrain the present. By then they've
comparison-shopped the labor-left all over the world; consulted everybody
from Trotsky and Gramsci to Irving Howe and Ira Katznelson; and outlined,
rehearsed, staged, critiqued, summarized, reiterated, rewound, rerun and
Mobius-looped every conceivable scenario. The odds, they conclude, were so
steeply stacked against socialism in America that its defeat was
Lipset professes public policy at George Mason University and is a fellow
at the Hoover Institution. Marks professes political science at the
University of North Carolina and directs its Center for European Studies.
They are fair-minded, open-handed, flat-footed and lily-livered (that is,
value neutral). They aren't saying that socialism deserved to flunk our
litmus test because there's something wrong with it. Nor are they saying
there's anything right about it, either, unless its washout would help
explain why we happen to be the only Western democracy without a
comprehensive healthcare system, the only one that doesn't provide child
support to all of its families and the worst offender on economic
inequality, with a greater gap between rich and poor than any other
industrialized nation, double the differential of the next worst down the
list. What they do say is that almost everything distinctive and
exceptional about America made socialism a harder sell here than in, say,
Australia. And that the pigheaded behavior of American Socialists only
compounded the problem.
Be warned that Lipset and Marks say these things over and over again, after
which they repeat them, in the approved reverse-gear style of academic
monographs whose feet, like those of the legendary Mikea Pygmies of
Madagascar, point backward to confuse their enemy trackers. And yet I can't
think of any crime scene they haven't dusted, nor any suspect they haven't
The big picture is that, from the get-go, our "core values" glowed in the
dark like Three Mile Island: an ethos of individualism, a Weltanschauung of
anti-statism and a blank check from God. We sprang full-blown from John
Locke's higher brow, a natural-born hegemony of the bourgeois
money-grubbers -- unscathed by medieval feudalism (with its fixed classes
of aristocracy and forelock-tugging peasants); exempt from 19th century
Europe's ideological power-sharing fratricides (by virtue of early white
male suffrage, lots of land, waves of immigrants to assume the lousiest
jobs while the native-born upwardly mobilized themselves and a ragtag
diversity that undermined nascent class consciousness while permitting the
merchant princelings to play workers of different racial and ethnic
backgrounds against one another in a status scramble); and insulated from
revolting developments -- insurgencies, mutinies, Jacqueries, even mugwumps
and goo-goos -- by a political system so partial to the status quo that
it's almost arteriosclerotic (a winner-take-all presidency, a fragmenting
federalism, a bought judiciary and a two-party Incumbent Protection Society).
So everybody is measured by his or her ability to produce wealth, those who
die with the most toys win, anyone who fails to prosper is morally
condemned and a vote for Ralph Nader, Ross Perot, John Anderson, George
Wallace, Henry Wallace or Robert La Follette -- not even to mention Norman
Thomas and Eugene Debs -- is considered to be a waste of franchise.
To be sure, we have had more than our fair share of labor violence.
Otherwise, we would never have needed Pinkertons. One recalls, at random,
the Haymarket riot, the Homestead strike and the Ludlow massacre; Harlan
County and Coeur d'Alene; steelworkers in Chicago and Detroit, textile
workers in Lawrence and Paterson, dockworkers in San Francisco, rubber
workers in Akron, Ohio, and gravediggers in New Jersey; Joe Hill, Big Bill
Haywood, Tom Mooney, Mother Jones; Molly Maguires and Wobblies. But the
most depressing chapters in "It Didn't Happen Here" are devoted to a labor
movement that had already internalized the all-American ethos of
anti-statist individualism before the first left-wing agitator explicated
the first contradiction -- a working class needing to lose lots more than
its chains. "I'm all right, Jack" and "Less Filling! Tastes Great!" don't
add up to "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his
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