Socialists of America, Disunited

Review of Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks's It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States (W. W. Norton, 384 pp., $26.95 ) and Maurice Isserman’s The Other American: The Life of Michael Harrington (Public Affairs, 449 pp., $28.50).

During both political conventions this summer, local police arrested scores of demonstrators demanding . . . well, they couldn't say exactly what it was they were demanding, much like the protesters who gathered during the meeting of the IMF this spring in Washington to let the world know that they were fed up -- not with anything in particular; just fed up.

It was as though these costumed, painted marchers were reenacting a drama for which they had the stage directions but not the lines -- despite the fact that the story they were reprising was only a generation or two old. As one of the IMF protesters told the Washington Post, he was carrying on in the footsteps of "his ex-hippie mother and his anti-fascist grandfather."

As a 1960s radical, I knew that despite all the talk of "youth rebellion" and the "generation gap," the revolutionaries of the 1960s were doing exactly what their parents most approved, since many of the parents themselves had been revolutionaries (or "anti-fascists") in the 1930s. It was, therefore, inevitable that the next generation of children -- reared on wistful retellings of the sit-ins, teach-ins, be-ins, and love-ins of the Age of Aquarius -- would want their turn when they reached protesting age.

The reason their efforts have been so feeble is that they lack a czar, or Great Depression, or Jim Crow, or Vietnam War to provide a compelling target. Then, too, they lack a vision of the happy future that will unfold after their chosen dragon is slain. For their parents and grandparents, the name of that vision was "socialism," an ideal that lay at the center of much of the turmoil of the twentieth century.

All over the world, socialism was the banner of rebellion, and for the most part it triumphed. By the end of the 1970s, advocates of socialism of one kind or another -- communism, African socialism, Arab socialism, social democracy -- held sway over most of mankind. America, however, caught only a glancing blow from this movement. For all their passionate intensity, the American radicals, whether of the 1930s or the 1960s, never amounted to more than a small minority, and neither the Socialist nor Communist parties ever gained a foothold in U.S. electoral politics.

In their valuable new book, It Didn't Happen Here, Seymour Martin Lipset, the doyen of political sociology, and Gary Marks attempt to explain this "American exceptionalism." They are scarcely the first. As they note in their preface, "the academic literature on this topic numbers in the hundreds of books and thousands of articles." But theirs is likely to remain the authoritative text.

The problem, they say, is "not that there are too few plausible explanations, but that there are too many." Lipset and Marks sort them into comprehensible categories and then assess each, mostly by means of comparisons with other countries or parties. For example, many writers have pointed to the obstacles that the U.S. electoral system places in the paths of third parties, but Lipset and Marks remind us that numerous third party candidates -- Ross Perot, John Anderson, George Wallace, Robert LaFollette -- were able to draw many more votes than the socialists.

Broadly speaking, the explanations are of two kinds: those that point to objective aspects of America's constitution, history, or sociology, and those that point to self-defeating actions by the socialists. Lipset and Marks believe both factors contributed. For example, the outbreak of World War I taught the international socialist movement the falsity of Marx and Engels's dictum that "the working man has no country." After learning to pay deference to nationalist sentiment, most socialist parties in Europe recovered their strength -- but in America, the unique demographics of the working class (composed of waves of diverse immigrants) discouraged class solidarity. Among America's polyglot proletariat, the tug of ethnicity was harder to overcome because it pulled in multiple directions.

The American socialists compounded such problems by their own dogmatism. The Socialist party in America, Lipset and Marks point out, "was one of the most orthodox Marxist parties in the democratic world." Fatally, it allowed itself to be divided from the labor movement. But it can be difficult to distinguish cause and effect in such matters. Few things contributed more to the socialists' isolation from labor than the party's opposition to World War I after America entered the conflict. But the lack of workers in their ranks was, as Lipset and Marks acknowledge, one reason the socialists persisted in their antiwar stance: Pacifism ran stronger among middle-class socialists than among their proletarian comrades.

The marginality of the Left may explain why the Communist party grew stronger than the Socialist party. In other democratic countries, with the exceptions of France and Italy after World War II, socialists dominated the Left. In America, too, the socialists did better in appealing to the general public, winning many more municipal and legislative elections and garnering more votes for their presidential tickets. The Communists, however, built a far stronger organization. Their party had a hundred thousand members at its peak, many times more than the Socialist party. It had more money (thanks to regular contributions from Moscow), more cadres working within labor, liberal, civil rights, and ethnic organizations, and a greater presence in the worlds of arts, letters, and mass entertainment.

The Communist party finally collapsed in 1956 less from the pounding it took at the hands of McCarthyism than from Khrushchev's speech to the twentieth congress of the Soviet Communist party revealing Stalin's crimes. At last, communism's barbarity was confirmed by the only witness the American Communists regarded as authoritative: the dictator of the Soviet Union.

Still, the shattered party left a lingering shadow. Even as the Communists came to admit what other Americans had long known about the USSR, many somehow clung to the conceit that they were wiser and nobler. They constituted an enduring milieu or culture, defined by an eagerness to see the worst in America and the best in its enemies.

Traces of this attitude remained visible where the party had once made itself felt: cause groups, academe, Hollywood, intellectual magazines. And it was perpetuated through the "red-diaper babies" who made up a large part of the 1960s New Left. This generation eschewed pro-Sovietism, but it romantically embraced the "revolutionary" movements of China, Cuba, Vietnam, and other non-western countries. It anathematized anti-communism, and eventually it produced a new historiography of American communism that consisted of apologias and celebrations.

In recent years, as damning revelations about Rosenberg, Hiss, and other Soviet spies have poured forth from Russian and American archives, historians have yielded ground while formulating new defenses. Two prominent ones, Ellen Schrecker of Yeshiva University and Maurice Isserman of Hamilton College, recently took to the pages of the Nation to explain that even though it had now been proven that hundreds of American Communists spied for Moscow, "espionage is . . . something that ordinary people, not moral monsters, do." True, it might be necessary to concede in the face of overwhelming evidence that the party was "a rigid, secretive, and undemocratic sect whose leaders followed the Soviet line and recruited for the KGB," but such defects must be weighed against the fact that it was also "the most dynamic organization on the American left, . . . the vehicle through which hundreds of thousands of Americans sought to create a more democratic and egalitarian society."

Isserman has also now given us a highly readable biography of Michael Harrington, former leader of the Socialist party and author of the 1962 The Other America, which is credited with inspiring the "war on poverty." The interesting parts of Maurice Isserman's biography, The Other American, trace the religious roots of Harrington's politics, showing how socialism was a substitute for the Catholicism in which his affluent parents had reared him. To the end of his life his commitment to socialism -- putatively rational, agnostic, empirical -- retained the resonance of religious conviction. As he put it a few months before his death, socialism "is not simply an economic transition, or a political transition [but] the emergence of a new civilization, . . . new ways of life for all the people of the Earth." One could devote a life to it knowing one would never see its attainment, but nonetheless the faith in an ultimate triumph made socialism "a movement of joy."

Although Isserman offers glimpses into Harrington's personal life, The Other American is mostly a political biography, and it reveals as much about the author as about the subject. When he left the Catholic Church, Harrington joined up with a socialist group known as the Shachtmanites. Max Shachtman had been a principal protege of Trotsky's, but had broken with him over the question of how to define the Soviet Union. To Trotsky it was a "degenerated workers' state," meaning that whatever its faults, the USSR was still somehow preferable to the capitalist states. Shachtman, on the other hand, concluded that the USSR was neither capitalist nor socialist but had hatched a new social system, unforeseen by Marx, "bureaucratic collectivism."

Although the argument was scholastic, it enabled the Shachtmanites to appreciate that communism, or "Stalinism," as they preferred to call it, was worse -- by any measure of humane values -- than capitalism. Shachtman was a spellbinding lecturer, and his periodic lectures (like Castro's, of enormous length) brought home to his radical audiences the evils of the Soviet system. Stalin had murdered not only more people but more Communists than Hitler, Shachtman would explain, rattling off numbers to prove it. He held a famous 1951 debate with Earl Browder, who had been expelled from the Communist party but whose loyal following believed that he would be back at the helm of American communism as soon as the misunderstanding was cleared up in Moscow. Shachtman listed the fates of leaders of various Communist parties behind the Iron Curtain who had been purged in the same twist of party line that had brought down Browder. Then he pointed to Browder and intoned: "There, but for an accident of geography, sits a ghost." Browder, so the story is told, turned ashen and failed to rise from his chair. There was also mirth in Shachtman's polemics: After Khrushchev's speech, Shachtman observed that Stalin "has been officially demoted from the office of greatest, wisest, and most adored leader in recorded history to the lesser office of maniacal mass-murderer, and some of his other improprieties and errors have also been registered."

Under such tutoring, the Shachtmanites became fierce anti-Communists, as did other veterans of the Left: the followers of Norman Thomas and Jay Lovestone, and such individual writers as Whittaker Chambers, Sidney Hook, George Orwell, and Arthur Koestler. Some had started out as Communists, others as Trotskyists or socialists. Some became conservatives, others remained on the non-Communist left. Because they had known the Communists from the inside or as competitors for influence, they more easily saw through the Communists' deceptions. And because they were radicals or former radicals themselves, they fought them with a zealotry that ordinary liberals or conservatives could not match.

Harrington's involvement with the Shachtmanites provides the main theme for Isserman. In his treatment, the tragedy of Harrington's career was that he allowed himself to be influenced by anti-Communists. When the New Left arose in the 1960s, the socialists, Harrington included, found themselves at odds with these younger radicals, who opposed anti-communism. A decade later, however, Harrington formed his own group, apologized abjectly for having criticized the New Left, effected a merger with one of the remaining New Left groups (the New American Movement), and ended up an advocate for Tanzania's socialist dictator Julius Nyerere and Nicaragua's Sandinistas. If only he had done all this earlier, laments Isserman, Harrington might have helped to build a more vibrant Left.

For the most part Isserman is coy about what underlies his criticisms of the Shachtmanites. Rather than lambaste them explicitly for being anti-Communist, he taxes them with being "sectarian." It was "sectarian" to criticize pro-communism in the New Left. Likewise when Harrington was a member of the Shachtmanites or the Socialist party, he was "sectarian," according to Isserman, but when he split to found his own little group, then he was no longer sectarian but the victim of sectarianism.

What makes Isserman's gambit transparent is that the very term "Shachtmanite" is Isserman's epithet for anti-Communist. The Shachtmanites finally disbanded in 1958 to join the Socialist party, abandoning the last vestiges of their distinct ideological line.

Most of what Isserman writes about occured after this. Any number of those singled out in Isserman's book as "Shachtmanites" had never been among them -- including Penn Kemble, Bayard Rustin, and me. (I was ten when Shachtmanism folded.) To be sure, when in the mid-1960s I joined the Socialist party, I loved Shachtman's lectures, but what I learned from them had nothing to do with the Trotskyite arcana that had once been the substance of Shachtmanism. It had everything to do with the evil nature of communism.

It is for this that he is hated, and not only by Isserman. In a lengthy review of Isserman's book in the New Republic, sociologist Alan Wolfe wrote that in joining the Shachtmanites, Harrington had stooped "to the lowest and the most counterproductive form . . . of sectarian politics of which the left is capable." And Wolfe echoed with embellishment Isserman's canard that the late Tom Kahn, a one-time Shachtmanite, had written a speech for AFL-CIO President George Meany that crudely mocked homosexuals. Since Kahn was a homosexual himself, Wolfe and Isserman portray him as pathetic and opportunistic. But there is no reason to believe that Kahn wrote those lines, and Isserman presents none. What Kahn did do was serve as wordsmith and point man in the AFL-CIO's legendary crusade against communism, and this apparently makes him fair game for such an underhanded attack.

Wolfe, who has since moved rightward, wrote as recently as the early 1980s:

In the Soviet Union the means of production are not in private hands, planning is the most prominent feature of economic life, there has been a marked tendency toward greater equality, and from time to time the Soviets act in support of socialist revolutions around the world. . . . None of these advances, and advances they are, would have been possible without the consolidation of political power to expand economically and the consolidation of military power to ward off a threat to those gains.

Both Wolfe and Isserman were New Leftists, and like other New Leftists, they were often sympathetic toward Communist regimes when these were stacked up against America. In this, they were guilty of moral blindness. These days, with the Berlin Wall a memory, everyone is anti-Communist, and those who muffed this fundamental issue have rarely been called to account. But apparently they cannot leave it there.

American Communists liked to call themselves "premature anti-fascists." It was characteristic of their self-admiration and their mendacity, since for the nearly two years of the Stalin-Hitler pact they were practically the only people in America who were not anti-fascist. Perhaps it is time to coin the term "premature anti-Communist," to describe all of those -- "Shachtmanites" and others -- who fought tooth-and-nail to defeat the Evil Empire when it was riding high. That seems to be a sin that the likes of Isserman cannot forgive.

Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is writing a book on the rise and fall of socialism, which will be published next year by Encounter Books.

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