The German sociologist Werner Sombart posed a question over a century ago that has occupied social scientists ever since: why there was no American socialism.
American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset answered Sombart’s question with his theory of American “exceptionalism,” which suggested that a series of factors – the anti-state nature of our founding, more open class structures, the religious congregationalism, unionist tendencies of American labor, etc. – had produced a different “political culture” which effectively immunized the American proletariat from the socialism to which their European comrades succumbed.
Despite Lipset’s assurances that socialism can never gain traction in America, Republicans have long accused Democrats of trying to introduce it. Democrats responded by saying that Republicans did not know what socialism was; more precisely, the defining characteristic of public ownership of the means of production that few or no Democrats have advocated. For Democrats, Republicans see Social Security, Medicare and Unemployment Insurance and mistakenly see socialism (to which is also often appended the claim that FDR and its New Dealers did not subvert so much. capitalism that they “saved” it from its worst tendencies).
The clear left turn of the Democratic Party under the presidency of Donald Trump, dramatically accelerated in less than a year of that of Joe Biden, however offers us the opportunity to wonder if Lipset is right on a part (the “exceptionalism American) but false on the other: if this exceptionalism has really made us immune to socialism, in an Americanized form.
If America is indeed “different”, as Lipset has argued, then there is no reason to expect our version of socialism not to be different, either, that we could have been sure. what Friedrich Hayek called the âroad of serfdomâ for a long time without realizing it.
It is not so much that the differences between the new world and the old made us resistant to socialism per se, but that the types of socialism that prevailed differed.
By socialism in this sense, we are not talking about the Marxist-Leninist version, filled with “dictatorships of the proletariat” led by vanguard communist parties in the “people’s republics”, but of the gentler kind that has emerged in the past. the end of the 19th century in Western and Northern Europe. , the “revisionist” or “evolutionary” socialism of the British Labor Party, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the American Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas rather than the Stalinist type advocated by the French Communist Party (PCF) , Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the CPUSA of Earl Browder and Gus Hall.
A number of questions thus arise as to whether a distinctively American version of socialism exists and has ideological meaning.
The first of these is whether the increased state control over the means of production, persistently and successfully advocated over time by American liberals and progressives, can serve as an effective substitute for property. public of these; that the distinction between the two (state ownership and control) might be inferior to our supposedly non-socialist left demands.
That’s another way to ask if decades of Peter taking to pay Paul under the auspices of welfare state redistributionism, now culminating in the Biden administration’s spending plans and sweeping measures like cancellation university loans and rent moratoriums could constitute a serious attack on the principle of private property which defines capitalism and distinguishes it from socialist alternatives.
A second question concerns the extent to which, if at all, the spending, taxation and regulatory agenda of Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders differs substantially from the spending, taxation and regulatory agendas of the European Social Democrats.
If this difference has become insignificant, then there would be little reason to use terms like “progressive” or “liberal” to describe Americans who in Europe would be consistently referred to as socialists or social democrats.
Could it be that, according to Lipset, the term “socialism” is just too radioactive even now in American politics, so that it has to be imposed through the back door, gradually, in a largely stealthy manner, and with obscurity? deliberate ideological?
Third and finally, is it possible for a political party (in this case the Democrats) to move continuously to the left on the ideological continuum, as they have done over the past two decades, without at some point failing to run up against a variation of socialism?
In other words, if we can say that the Democratic Party is more and more in the grip of a âradical leftâ wing which is inspired by Marxist assumptions (as implied by the very concept of “Radical left”), then doesn’t the party become fundamentally Marxist, whether it admits it or not?
Seymour Martin Lipset released his latest major work, “It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States,” just a few years after a Democratic president confidently said in a state-of-the-art speech. Union that “the era of great government is over.”
Maybe the eminent sociologist and Bill Clinton were a little premature?
At the very least, and as we now debate the promised transformation of American economic life via the Biden budget proposals, it would appear that the time is right to return to the question of whether socialism has a place in life. American, and if so, what kind of socialism it will be.
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, earned his doctorate. in Political Science from the University of Illinois.