Home-grown Radicals

The American as Anarchist: Reflections on Indigenous Radicalism

by David DeLeon
Johns Hopkins University Press, 242 pp., $14.00

Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895-1943

by James R. Green
Louisiana State University Press, 450 pp., $24.95

A decade or so ago it seemed to some—even to a few Frenchmen—that American radicalism was setting the pace, or was about to do so. Student risings of 1968 in various countries hailed the American model and exchanged representatives and slogans across the Atlantic. Jean-François Revel assured the world that “the revolution of the twentieth century will take place in the United States. It is only there that it can happen. And it has already begun.” He went on to declare, “It is the revolution of our time…. It therefore offers the only possible escape for mankind today.”

Talk of this exceptional revolutionary model soon subsided, however, and we have returned to the discussion of a much older kind of American “exceptionalism.” This is the historic question of why of all the advanced capitalist countries in the world the United States is the only one where socialism never gained a mass following, where Marxism never caught on, and where the working class has never produced a mass-based party of its own. Only recently was the first full translation of Werner Sombart’s Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? (1905) published in this country. The controversy is much older than that and the literature on the subject is vast, but the scholars seem no nearer to a consensus on the answers than they are on the causes of the American Civil War.

Marx and Engels themselves wrote copiously on the question but produced no coherent explanation for the failure of socialism in America. Like most of their followers down to the First World War, they clung to the faith that the most advanced capitalist nation would lead the way to socialism and that America was the “Promised Land” of the socialists. Lenin, Trotsky, and Gramsci worried the problem unsuccessfully. Lenin emphasized “the longstanding political liberty and the exceptionally favorable conditions” for capitalism; Trotsky declared Marx was not to “be taken literally” on the subject; and Gramsci stressed the complete ideological hegemony of “Fordism,” and Americanism as a sort of surrogate socialism.

While neither of the two books at hand addresses this historical problem as such, both speak to it directly and indirectly as a consequence of questions raised by their own subjects. David DeLeon has written what is essentially an essay on national character as it relates to the ideals, behavior, expectations, and goals of American radicals. He starts at the beginnings and comes down to the present, drawing his types and illustrations mainly from the Northeastern states but speaking of radicals in the country as a whole. James Green writes of socialism in a specific region of the Southwest in a limited period and treats its history concretely and in detail. DeLeon, in trying to characterize indigenous radicalism as it was, is necessarily (and often mainly) concerned with defining and explaining what it was not and could not be. Green, in telling the neglected and heretofore virtually unknown history of a grass-roots socialist …

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