It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States

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It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States should be essential reading for anyone that has ever been frustrated by the lack of a substantial left movement in the United States, as it offers a detailed historical and sociological study of socialism’s failure. Among leftists and academics there has been much discussion about why the United States never developed a substantial radical movement, although much of this talk is often based on hypothesis rather than the more detailed analyses put forth by Lipset and Marks.

The two authors take the most frequently cited arguments for why socialism failed in the United States–American exceptionalism, the electoral system, the relationship with the labor movement, the relationship with immigrants, sectarianism, and political repression–evaluating each argument with both analysis of movements within the United States and comparative analysis with socialist and left movements in other countries. This methodology works well and helps move the analysis beyond the hypothesizing of many others who have discussed the question.

Their approach illustrates the fact that there was not one reason why socialism failed; rather there are numerous explanations for its failure. Some of the reasons have to do with the socialists’ approach–they were overly dogmatic and unwilling to compromise in order to build a mass organization, socialism was perceived as a “foreign” doctrine brought by immigrants (although at the same time, “old” immigrants did not make a significant appeal to “new” immigrants because of perceived superiority), and they failed to connected with the mass of working people in the United States. Other reasons for socialism’s failure had to do with external circumstances–an electoral system that has an entrenched two-party system that is adept at absorbing and neutralizing radical movements, government repression, and the limits of Marxist theory.

I was not convinced by some of their claims–that the American Federation of Labor had syndicalist leanings and that Americans are characterized by an “antistatist” outlook (I do not equate skepticism of the federal government with antistatism) and that consequently anarchism had more of an appeal, but those were minor details. Overall, It Didn’t Happen Here is a thought-provoking that presents a detailed analysis of a question that has been asked by many and rarely answered so thoroughly. Understanding the failure of socialism in the United States is essential to understanding the failure of the general “left. However, I was left with one question after reading the text: in light of the failure of socialism, what will emerge as the viable alternative to capitalism and how can we avoid making the same mistakes?

Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks, It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States, (W.W. Norton, 2000).

Author: mediamouse

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