TURN OUT THE LIGHTS, THE PARTY’S OVER: Why Socialism Didn’t Happen in the United States

Thursday, August 17, 2000

Why did socialism fail to become a major force in American society? Every major first world country has been governed by a socialist or social democratic party at some point in the past century...except the United States. Does socialism’s failure in the United States stem from strategic mistakes made by socialist leaders? Or has socialism always been fundamentally incompatible with American culture?

Recorded on Thursday, August 17, 2000

Peter Robinson: Welcome to uncommon knowledge, I'm peter Robinson. Our show today, why the socialist party, the party of the working man never became a major power here in the United States. In the time of our grandparents and great-grandparents, socialist parties were becoming major powers throughout Europe. Germany; the Social Democratische Partie Deutshland, which fortunately can be shortened to SDP was founded in 1875, by 1912 it had become the largest party in the Reichstag. Britain; the labor party was founded in 1900, by 1924 it had made Ramsay Mcdonald prime minister. France; the section Francaise de international Overe, which is not an item on the menu but the French socialist party, was founded in 1905. by 1937 it had made Leumet Blume prime minister. Russia, well, we all know what happened in Russia. The united states; here in the united states, in the late 19th and early 20th century, workers were indeed joining unions and striking for higher wages and better working conditions, what they were not doing, by and large, is joining the socialist party. Why? Why was the united states different? With us today two guests. Seymour martin Lipset is author of It Didn't Happen Here, Why Socialism Failed in the United States, he is also a senior fellow at the Hoover institution. Martin Carnoy is a professor of education at Stanford University.

Title card: Where's The Beef?

Peter Robinson: Why didn't socialism succeed in the United States? Classic explanation offered by the German sociologist, Werner Sombart, 1906, long time ago. He writes, "on rafts of beef and apple pie socialist utopias of every description go down to destruction". In other words, America has always offered so much opportunity to the common man that the common man never felt the need for socialism. Marty, what's wrong with that explanation?

Seymour Martin Lipset: Because other rich countries have elected socialist… the Scandinavian countries, which are certainly wealthy, have stronger social democratic parties than anybody.

Peter Robinson: And martin so you'd agree that this is an inadequate, incomplete explanation for why socialism failed…

Martin Carnoy: Well I don't think it's completely inadequate because in fact in the 19th century Scandinavia- Sweden wasn't doing so well, and people were leaving Sweden and coming here, so for, for land. So I don't think it's-

Peter Robinson: He's on to something.

Martin Carnoy: He's on to something.

Peter Robinson: Ok, so you would agree he's on to something?

Seymour Martin Lipset: Oh I'd agree with that too.

Peter Robinson: But he's on to it enough because you just wrote a whole book filling it out.

Seymour Martin Lipset: Right, right.

Peter Robinson: Ok.

Martin Carnoy: I agree with that too.

Peter Robinson: The name of Marty's book is, It Didn't Happen Here, what's the it?

Seymour Martin Lipset: It is socialism. That we never got a socialist party of any major significance. We're the only industrialized country in the world, in which a socialist or labor party is not a major party.

Peter Robinson: Ok, but you make the point in the book that it could have happened here, that there were moments in history when it almost, might have happened here. how much socialism is their in American history?

Seymour Martin Lipset: Well…a fair amount. The biggest resumed(?) in the democratic, well in both parties. a number of people who were socialists decided to run in the primaries. In the republican as well as the democratic…there was a group…

Peter Robinson: This would be when?

Seymour Martin Lipset: Well… 1916, a group called the Unpartisan League in North Dakota ran in the republican primary and won, and when they had a government they set up Dakota made flour, which is state owned flour, a state bank, cooperative selling of wheat. In fact John Gunther in his book Inside America, says, "there's as much socialism in North Dakota as in Sweden". The same thing happened, they didn't elect but in California, Upton Sinclair, who was a socialist ran for governor on the socialist ticket and got 50,000 votes in 1932. In 1934 he ran with the same beliefs, he ran inside the democratic primary, he won the nomination, he got 900,000 votes, he didn't get elected but-

Peter Robinson: When did socialism in this country reach it's zenith… to the extent that it did have a zenith when did it reach it?

Seymour Martin Lipset: Well the party, the socialist party's zenith was 1912 or 1914, Eugene Debs got 6% of the vote in 1912.

Peter Robinson: 1912, ok…

Martin Carnoy: But I would say that it would seem that if you really talked about socialism, the kind of social democracy, if you consider Sweden…

Peter Robinson: Right…

Martin Carnoy: As sort of within the capitalist system, the most socialist, if you exclude the communist countries, then you'd have to say that the 1930s, reached its zenith, that that was the zenith of socialism in America because in fact the democratic party, as Marty argues quite forcefully in his book, essentially incorporated, co-opted many of those ideas and incorporated them into the democratic party. That made it very difficult for the socialist party…

Seymour Martin Lipset: But still the extent to which the democratic party moved in the direction of Stateism was still a fair degree less than you got done by European social democratic parties when they were in power.

Peter Robinson: If the 1930's marked the high tide of socialism in America when did the tide begin to recede?

Title: May Day, May Day, May Day

Peter Robinson: The Great Depression begins in 1929, the economy collapses, we have a deflation, a quarter of the work force is thrown out of work, and a socialist could say… This is the fulfillment of our beliefs, the capitalist system is breaking down, socialism will follow. A what point does a socialist in America know the game is up, that this country will not become socialist?

Seymour Martin Lipset: Say in part by the end of the depression. You know the socialist party got 800,000 votes in 1932, the communists got about 100,00o plus. In 1940, the socialists were, had down to 100,000 votes. Now of course the democrat Roosevelt was still in office.

Peter Robinson: Right, so it's during the presidency of Roosevelt, the socialist project just collapses at that point.

Martin Carnoy: No, not the project. i don't think the socialist, no-

Peter Robinson: No?

Martin Carnoy: No I don't think so. In part, it's over because the democrats have incorporated many of the ideas. Now clearly, and Marty's right, that compared to what happened in Europe, during this same period, as far as nationalization of industry, ecetera there was no nationalization, the only public industry in the United States was the TVA, which by the way…

Peter Robinson: Tennessee Valley Authority.

Martin Carnoy: Which by the way was created during the 1930s. So but it never went farther than that and in Europe it went much farther, you know all the utilities were owned ecetera by the state, many of the banks. So Marty's right on both scores, but one of the reasons, you could argue as a leftist, as a progressive…

Peter Robinson: Right…

Martin Carnoy: That in fact the democratic party had become the progressive party in America, in that period. So then I would say that the game was up, the game went, got finished by late 1940s.

Peter Robinson: By the late 1940s when it's clear the democratic party is not at war with the capitalist system.

Martin Carnoy: Well it never was…

Peter Robinson: It's merely tempered here and there…

Martin Carnoy: But consider this, which you didn't discuss in your book, was that if Wallace hadn't broken with Roosevelt he would have been the vice-president in 1944.

Peter Robinson: Give us background. Now Henry Wallace…

Martin Carnoy: Henry Wallace ran as a progressive in 1944 I believe.

Seymour Martin Lipset: Fourty-eight.

Martin Carnoy: In fourty-eight, right. But he-

Peter Robinson: Ran as a third party candidate…

Martin Carnoy: That's right.

Peter Robinson: … Against roosevelt, no truman in fourty-eight.

Seymour Martin Lipset: Against Truman.

Martin Carnoy: Against Truman, as Strom Thurman ran as the other side of state-rights. But in fourty-four, if he had been the vice-president in 1940, in fourty-four if he had been selected again as the vice-president and I think he would have been if he hadn't broken with Roosevelt. He would have been president and Henry Wallace was clearly represented the far left wing of the democratic party. So that would have been quite interesting. Would he have dropped the bomb on Hiroshima? I mean there's some interesting possibilities there.

Seymour Martin Lipset: But you know if I may enter one correction. He didn't break with Roosevelt in 1944, it was the democrats who threw him out. The party, you had machine politicians and they felt, they were afraid of just what-

Martin Carnoy: That he was too far to the left.

Peter Robinson: He was too far to the left.

Seymour Martin Lipset: And Roosevelt was probably going to die so they insisted that he go.

Martin Carnoy: Right, ok.

Seymour Martin Lipset: And then Truman was nominated… he was a candidate of the machines.

Peter Robinson: Let's examine some of the specific reasons socialism failed in the United States.

Title Running On Empty

Peter Robinson: Marty, you name three reasons the socialist movement in the united states failed let's take each one in turn. First failing, I quote you, "the socialists were unable to sustain a strong and durable socialist party". Why?

Seymour Martin Lipset: Well there were a number of reasons. One, well I'd say, two major ones. One is what I call, the value system of America. That the United States is an anti-stateist country. Americans in the legal sense are suspicious of the state, and this I would say in shorthand stems from two things. One, the revolution, which was an anti-stateist revolution. you know Jefferson, who was the leader of the left, said "that government governs best, which governs least". And that value system has continued-

Peter Robinson: Not a very left wing statement for you-

Martin Carnoy: The other is religion. We are a Protestant sectarian country, not a church country. The church is the Anglicans, Catholics, ecetera who is state related, hierarchical. And the Protestant sects, many of whom were persecuted in England, were very- wanted separation of church and state, wanted individualism. So you had a very individualistic, anti-status church and you had a political tradition, which is sunk in that is against the state. And that has meant that efforts to foster states of all kinds run up against that. Now that doesn't mean they can't succeed or they can't have-

Peter Robinson: But they're in a hostile culture-

Seymour Martin Lipset: They're in a hostile culture.

Peter Robinson: By comparison with Britain, Germany- any European country you can name. Second failing, "socialists were unable to create", I'm quoting you again, "a labor party in alliance with main stream unions as in other English speaking societies". What do you mean by that?

Seymour Martin Lipset: Well what I mean, you know you have a labor party which is in power in Britain, you have a strong labor party in Australia, and the like-

Peter Robinson: And they're all supported by unions.

Seymour Martin Lipset: And these were founded basically by- the unions came in and the socialists were almost a minor element in the United States there were strong elements which wanted a labor party but it's interesting the socialists rejected it. The socialists, before World War I, thought that the idea of a labor party was going to squelch them, that they would become the labor party.

Peter Robinson: So they made, that was a strategic error on their part?

Seymour Martin Lipset: Right.

Peter Robinson: That they did not make common cause with the unions.

Seymour Martin Lipset: I think so.

Peter Robinson: But is it also the case that unions in this country were anti-stateised by comparison? So there-

Seymour Martin Lipset: Oh yeah right, that's part of the anti- stateism. The AFL was syndicalist. They believed in workers power, not state power. Gaumpers was the forty year long president of the AFL-

Peter Robinson: Samuel Gaumpers.

Seymour Martin Lipset: Said, that once when he was asked what his politics are said, "Well I guess three-quarters of an anarchist". And the thing, and we had a revolutionary labor movement in this country, the IWW, Industrial Workers of the World. But they weren't socialists, they were anarchical syndicalists. In fact the AFL and labor history, I think, is misunderstood or mis-descriped. It's described as a conservative organization, since the early days, but it's strike rated, engaged in a higher strike rate than European unions. There was more violence by trade unions, bombing and so on, in the Untied States than in Europe. These were not conservatives, these were syndicalist, who wanted to extend the power of unions, not the state.

Peter Robinson: They played tough, they threw a lot of strikes, but they were not engaged in the promoting state ownership of the large industries.

Seymour Martin Lipset: Right right.

Martin Carnoy: There weren't industrial unions. In fact the unions in the United States compared with continental European unions or the Scandinavian unions have always been exclusionary in the sense that they have tried to protect their workers against other workers, and this really hurt the unions as late as the early 1970s, they continued to be viewed by many workers as protecting the insiders verses the outsiders.

Peter Robinson: So the impulse in unions in Europe is workers of the world unite. And the impulse in unions-

Seymour Martin Lipset: More, more-

Martin Carnoy: more or less.

Peter Robinson: But in this country it's- my workers, inside the Ford plant unite and protect our jobs and keep other people from trying to take them away from us, there's no kind of impulse toward brotherhood.

Martin Carnoy: Even today in France, when a union makes a strike, most people in France support the strike, even though it's against, in some sense, their interests, like the pilot strike at air France-

Peter Robinson: It ties up traffic, it's a nuisance.

Martin Carnoy: Or the railroad workers, it drives everybody crazy. But they say, basically, we agree with their position. That doesn't happen here because it's a different history, it's more political . Unions were associated with more general political action in Europe and have been historically. Here the AFL set the tone, we protect our, a syndicalist position, as Marty puts it, we protect our workers against everybody else.

Peter Robinson: The third and final failing. "socialists", again I'm quoting you, "Were unable to capture one of the major parties". How come?

Seymour Martin Lipset: Well- one of the- I mean partly the general thing they were up against, the culture and so on. But also they didn't try, when most of them thought they wanted to build their own party. When socialists did try in a number of cases, in North Dakota, California, Washington, they were able to do it and socialists actually controlled the democratic party in a number of states at different times and the republican party too, so that the, in states, not in the country. So the question is if the socialists had tried to run inside the democratic primaries would they have been able to capture it. I don't think they would have been able but they would have had a lot more influence.

Peter Robinson: Ok, now- next topic. How important was American exceptionalism to the failure of socialism?

Title Division of Labor

Peter Robinson: Even if the socialists had make no strategic mistakes that you could point to, could socialism have succeeded in this country or is the political culture of this country simply too hostile to stateist enterprises for them ever to have succeeded?

Martin Carnoy: We haven't discussed what I consider the main reason, which might answer this question-

Peter Robinson: Go ahead.

Martin Carnoy: -In the negative, saying that even if they hadn't made mistakes, it would, they would not have succeeded. First of all, the massive immigration into the United States of very diverse groups, very diverse groups which simply had their own culture, which they brought from the old country. Most of them were peasants, not industrial workers, which he points out, so they didn't carry with them that industrial worker culture. And the other point is the existence of the negro question, as gonner mirrdaul called it back in 1940. We had a very large immigrant population of African Americans with no, for a very short period of time, civil rights, and then those disappeared by the 1880s when if fact the worker movements were coming, and there was tremendous hostility between the northern white workers and the blacks which was promoted by the industrialists. So for example in the famous homestead strike, Carnegie Mills in Homestead Pennsylvania, he brought black workers up from Birmingham-

Peter Robinson: Specifically to unnerve his own white workers-

Martin Carnoy: No, to break the strike.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Martin Carnoy: Not to unnerve the workers but to break the strike and he knew that those two groups would not cooperate.

Peter Robinson: The socialists could not succeed in this country in part because they were never able to consolidate the labor force. The white workers were always conscious that there was a large pool of black labor that could compete against them-

Martin Carnoy: Or other ethnicities.

Peter Robinson: Or other ethnicities. Other immigrants about to arrive any minute, black labors who could be put on trains by industrialists and shipped north to Pittsburgh in the steel mills. So what the two of you are describing is a situation that for a whole complex of interlocking historical reasons made it hopeless for socialism in this country. You'd go for that?

Martin Carnoy: It made it much more difficult.

Peter Robinson: So here's my question- let's look at the consequences of the failure of American socialism.

Title: Risky Business

Peter Robinson: You argue Marty, and again I'm quoting you, "The United States combines an extremely high standard of living with exceptionally low level of taxation and social spending, the legacy of not having a socialist party in this country and exceptionally high levels of income inequality and poverty". What I want to know is, do you wish it were other wise? Do you wish that we had had a socialist program set in place in the United States?

Martin Carnoy: Lets, let me put it a different way, and I argue this in a book that's called Sustaining Flexibility and that is, it's interesting that Europe, which Marty Argues correctly, is in some sense shedding part of its socialist past. But because it starts at an initial position, which is much more welfare state oriented. Rather than in the United States which has much less of a welfare state. The meaningful part of that today is the fact that European children and workers in general are much more supported against risk than in the United States. So risk- we are a country with individualism, we push people to take much higher risks but of course the cost of that is that we have much higher rates of poverty than in other industrialized countries.

Peter Robinson: Let me put it to you this way Marty, ok?

Martin Carnoy: Yep.

Peter Robinson: I grant everything that Martin says but let me know- how you- now let me take it and twist it around again. We do have more inequality and more poverty here large part of that is because we have such a dynamic economy that we're attracting millions of immigrants, legal and illegal from around the world. The immigrant population tends to drag down the equality figures. The technological prowess that we have permits these welfare states to keep staggering on in Europe because we get wave after wave of technology washing out form the United States to Europe. It was our economic prowess that permitted us to produce the material that defeated Hitler in the second world war. This is a wonderful thing, it is what you describe in your book, it is not lamented, it is one of the great blessings of god upon this particular country. What do you think of that Marty?

Seymour Martin Lipset: Well I think this is true in terms, in fact I (?) want to question the standard of living, but what is also true is what Martin says, this risk factor. That the people at the bottom are in worse shape than the people at the bottom in countries which have been social democratic, I don't think there's much question about it. Though the other side of it is that if you take the over all- the overwhelming majority of Americans are in better shape than equivalent kinds of people are in Europe. And hence it's a mixed bag and if I may make one other point relevant to this on the inequality thing, it's true that in money terms we are more unequal and particularly in wealth terms, ownership. But if you look at consumption and consumption standards Americans are better off and the gap between the lower part and the upper part in consumption is smaller than in other countries, you know, every American has a car-

Martin Carnoy: Well I don't agree with that because you're not measuring all the public transportation in Europe that isn't counted in those consumption figures. Free education, all the way through university which is not counted in those consumption figures so anybody that has spent any time in Western Europe realizes that although the average European has less square feet of living space than an American the fact is that they consume, they have an enormous amount of consumption and in addition to that you have to count what the anxiety and risk factors would be-

Peter Robinson: So France has a stagnant economy-

Martin Carnoy: But there's no way-

Peter Robinson: Ten eleven percent- by comparison with ours-

Martin Carnoy: I don't, I don't-

Peter Robinson: But you get to drink good red wine and brie even if you're unemployed.

Martin Carnoy: That's, the last part of that is true and the first part is the fact that the economy is not stagnant, Europe is now growing at the same rate as the United States-

Peter Robinson: Because they finally are figuring out, they're cutting taxes, they're following the American model.

Martin Carnoy: They're not cutting taxes very much and the fact is that they have kept almost all the institutions, that they just have- the one part that I think your statement about the innovation in the United States etcetera I think is absolutely correct.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Martin Carnoy: And but the thank god part is a little bit difficult to accept because in fact one could argue that you actually, first of all work a lot less in Europe and you have the same standard of living for much less average hours of work. in the united states we now surpass Japan in the number of hours of work that a typical average American works and if you talk to American children about how much they see their parents- I think you'd have to- you can talk to European children you'll find that they see their parents a lot more.

Peter Robinson: Last topic. Is there any prospect of a revitalized socialist movement in America's future?

Title A Hungry Man is an Angry Man

Peter Robinson: Marty writes at the end of his book, quote, "there are signs that the influence of social democracies a distinct approach to policy is not over. The seemingly universal shift to support for capitalism and the free market may be of short duration. Now look, we know he's a very eminent sociologist, but that- there's a little bit of that- that's crazy, isn't it. it is over?

Martin Carnoy: Well it depends how you define- if you define socialist prospect as the idea of state control of the economy-i- it is over.

Peter Robinson: That game is over.

Martin Carnoy: That game is over and it's been over for a long time in fact. But the part about people wanting more security, more regulation, etcetera I think in that sense he may be right, that in fact it's a swing of the pendulum. That ultimately it's going to be difficult to sustain and that's the argument that i make in my book. That the Europeans may have a better shot at sustaining the kind of flexibility that's necessary, this market flexibility that's necessary to have high growth because they have in place those social democratic and socialists concepts of welfare.

Peter Robinson: Marty, explain yourself, what do you mean that socialism isn't over in this country?

Seymour Martin Lipset: Well one of the things, you know, even though we have this amazing economy with this tremendous growth and it's lasted longer than ever before I somehow am not convinced that the business cycle is dead that's it never going to go back down again, now I don't think it will ever go to the way it did in the thirties. I think that there will be recessions, there will be downswings, and the reaction of the electorate, and I'm talking now of elections, is that demand that the government step in and do something.

Peter Robinson: Do something-

Martin Carnoy: To create jobs, and so on. And so that I think will happen again and at that point you'll have- you know the democratic party in terms of American politics will swing left.

Peter Robinson: Let me try to get your assessment of the socialist prospect in this country by asking you to make a couple of predictions. It's television so we have to be quick. Ralph Nader, as we tape -who knows what he'll be polling when the tape airs- but as we tape this show, Ralph Nader the green party candidate the presidential candidate, the closest thing we have in the year 2000 to a socialist candidate for president is polling three percent in some polls, four and a half percent in other polls. this guy is not going to win. 2012, three presidential elections from now, what will the green party candidate poll? Martin?

Martin Carnoy: Very little.

Peter Robinson: Marty?

Seymour Martin Lipset: I would agree.

Peter Robinson: Very little, ok, so let me ask you this then. 2012, or 2020, let's make it twenty years from now, will the health care system in this country have become more socialized, will there be more government intervention of and regulation of the health care system in this country, about the same, or less? Martin?

Martin Carnoy: More.

Peter Robinson: More. Marty?

Seymour Martin Lipset: I think more too. In fact I can tell- you know I have a physician in Washington who is a friend of pat Buchanan, is a conservative republican, and he told me recently; you'll be surprised to know that I, and all the doctors in my office are for the single payer system. He said this HMO thing is a total disaster. We've lost control and we can't go back and the only way we get control of dealing with our patients again is to go to the single payer system. Because in Canada the government keeps out totally of the relations between doctors and patients. They pay the bill- the doctors send the bill to the government but they don't tell them what they can do.

Peter Robinson: So it ain't over even yet. Marty and Martin, thank you very much.

Martin Carnoy: Thank you.

Seymour Martin Lipset: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: So the question is this in this error of globalization, will the united states take it's cue from countries that still have strong socialist parties or will prosperity, let's see what the little lady packed today, more rafts of roast beef and apple pie, keep socialism away? I'm, peter Robinson thanks for joining us.