The American working class has never produced a genuinely mass-based political party of its own. In this it is different from the working class in every other advanced capitalist country. Yet there was a time when bitter struggles between American labor and capital—more acute than those in many European countries—seemed likely to bring such a party into being. The Socialist Party of America, founded in 1901 with 10,000 members, had, by 1912, grown to 118,000. More impressive still, it had elected some 1,200 public officials throughout the US, including the mayors of such cities as Milwaukee, Schenectady, Berkeley, and Flint. Some 300 socialist periodicals appeared. The Appeal to Reason, a weekly journal published in Kansas, reached a circulation of 761,747 in 1913.

Yet one should not exaggerate the height of the socialist wave, even at its crest. The optimism that had buoyed up the Party in its first dozen years faded with the reforms of the first Wilson administration. There was a brief upsurge of enthusiasm during World War I, particularly among immigrants opposed to American participation in the war. But by 1919, the Socialist Party was shattered almost beyond recognition by bitter internal disputes and the campaigns of federal, state, and local governments to suppress it.

The Communist Party of America, which took its place as the dominant force on the left, never managed to gain comparable popular support. Not even the Great Depression, which struck the United States with ferocity, was sufficient to produce a mass-based radical movement, either of the communist or the social democratic variety. The American working class, it seemed, was immune to the appeals of socialism even under the most auspicious conditions. But why?

One of the boldest attempts to address this question is Werner Sombart’s Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? First published in German in 1905 as a series of articles in the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik (where Max Weber had not long before published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), it was at first praised by the American Socialist Party. An abbreviated version of the introduction and first section appeared in the theoretical journal, the International Socialist Review. American socialist leaders were, however, offended by the second section of the work, for in it Sombart argued that the economic success of American capitalism had made the average worker into a “sober, calculating businessman without ideals.” The International Socialist Review ceased further translation, and in 1907 published a bitterly hostile review of Sombart’s book which had appeared in the newspaper of the German Social Democratic Party. Sombart, a social democrat much influenced by his reading of Marx when he wrote this book, went on to become a right-wing authoritarian who accepted Nazism in the 1930s.

Only now fully translated into English, Why Is There No Socialism? sets out to explain how socialism, supposedly a necessary reaction to capitalist development, could be so weak in the very nation where capitalism was most advanced. The conservatism of the American worker could be traced, Sombart suggested, to his unusual political, social, and economic position. What was most distinctive about politics in the United States was the extraordinary power of the doctrine of “popular sovereignty”—the belief that the people, and the people alone, actually govern. Socially, the American worker found himself in a society in which daily relations between people of different classes were uniquely egalitarian. Further, Sombart argued—although with more skepticism than some of his interpreters have suggested—the American worker’s chances to rise from his class were considerably greater than those of proletarians in Europe.

But Sombart, deeply influenced by the “vulgar materialism” that then dominated the German left, looked more to economic than to social explanations for American workers’ antipathy to socialism. Indeed by far the longest section of Why Is There No Socialism? is devoted to establishing the proposition that the average American worker enjoyed an immensely higher absolute standard of living than his German counterpart. In the United States, Sombart wrote in a much-quoted phrase, “all socialist utopias came to nothing on roast beef and apple pie.”

During the three quarters of a century since Sombart’s essay first appeared, it has exerted a strong influence, at times unacknowledged, on those who continue the debate about America as an “exception.” In fact, the main points of his explanation—the affluence and mobility of the American worker, the influence of the frontier, universal suffrage, the two-party monopoly, and egalitarianism in daily life—remain central in current discussions of the question. Today his essay merits examination for what it can reveal about both the strengths and the limitations of conventional explanations.

In pointing to the affluence of the American workingman as the main obstacle to the development of socialism in the United States, Sombart was hardly alone. But the materialist assumptions underlying this explanation—shared by Engels, among others, though with somewhat greater nuance—do not fully account for the complex historical relationship between affluence and radicalism. Under some circumstances, as in the increasingly prosperous Germany of the late nineteenth century and in France in 1968, affluence may in fact be accompanied by an upsurge in socialist activity. And within the working class itself, socialism sometimes finds its greatest support among the favored sectors of the proletariat: craftsmen and other skilled workers.


In the specific case of the United States, there are perhaps even more forceful reasons to reject the affluence thesis, at least in the unrefined form presented by Sombart. For to the worker accustomed to a certain standard of living, the absolute level of wages may be less important than the rate at which they increase as he grows older. And contrary to what analysts of both left and right had argued, the evidence suggests that real working-class wages rose less rapidly in the United States in the crucial period between 1860 and 1913 than in Sweden, Germany, France, and Great Britain—all of which produced major socialist movements.1 Further, the American economy during the years between the Civil War and World War I was perhaps even more subject to violent cycles of boom and bust than the economies of other capitalist nations.

Yet if life was not all “roast beef and apple pie” for American wage earners, their standard of living certainly compared very favorably with that of the typical proletarian in even the most advanced European countries. Nonetheless, there is little reason to believe that affluence undermined working-class radicalism in America in the simple way that Sombart and others have suggested. For if the sheer wealth of American society militated against the emergence of a mass-based socialist movement, it did so less through the embourgeoisement of the proletariat as a whole than through fostering the development of a special relationship between capital and strategic parts of the working class.

When Sombart visited the United States in 1904 he was struck by the apparently informal and egalitarian tone of daily life. Bourgeois from its very birth, the United States was a society without feudal remnants and free, accordingly, of those sharply defined precapitalist groups—aristocrats, peasants, and artisans2—which gave European societies a pervasive sense of class consciousness.

To a greater extent than any nation before and perhaps since, white America in the period before the Civil War was a society of independent producers—consisting overwhelmingly of farmers, shopkeepers, and craftsmen who owned the property they worked. There were, to be sure, huge disparities of wealth, but these were softened by a wide distribution of property which extended to perhaps four-fifths of the free men who worked. In view of the availability of free land and the absence of sharp class lines, the opportunity to acquire property seemed well within the grasp of all who had the industry to work for it.

But was the Jacksonian ideal of the “self-made man” anything more than a myth when applied to the vastly changed conditions of turn-of-the-century America? On this question Sombart was cautious, for he was aware that “the Carnegies and those parroting them” wished to “lull the ‘boorish rabble’ to sleep by telling them miraculous stories about themselves or others who began as newsboys and finished as multimillionaires.” Yet Sombart still suggested that the relatively greater opportunities for upward mobility available to American workers encouraged greater political quiescence here than in Europe. This thesis is perhaps the most famous single argument in Why Is There No Socialism?, but it is also one of the least well documented. The recent appearance of a group of historical studies of patterns of social mobility permits us to examine Sombart’s contention in light of new evidence.3

In fact, relatively few people moved very far, either upward or downward, in the supposedly open American class structure. Moving up a short distance from the station of skilled worker to that of clerk or shopkeeper has been fairly common in the United States; indeed, the sons of at least three out of ten blue-collar workers have obtained white-collar jobs during the past century. But more dramatic mobility has been much less frequent; in Boston, for example, only one youth in ten born into a working-class home ever succeeded in becoming a professional or a substantial businessman.

There was then some small truth in the Horatio Alger stories—with titles like Bound to Rise and Struggling Upward—that were read, according to one estimate, by perhaps fifty million Americans. Although members of the business elite have, in America, historically been recruited overwhelmingly from the children of the upper and upper-middle class, there were a small number of men of humble origins who managed to make themselves into large-scale businessmen. These few spectacular cases, plus the far more frequent instances of modest upward movement, may have been sufficient to sustain the national myth of individual success.


Sombart also argued that escape from wage labor was more common in America than in Europe. And although sociologists have long found it fashionable to argue that this is not so, recent studies show, for example, that the sons of nineteenth-century workers in Boston and Poughkeepsie were appreciably more likely to find non-manual jobs than workers in Bochum, a middle-sized German town in the Ruhr, and Marseilles.4

Perhaps even more damaging to working-class solidarity was the familiar American tendency to move from place to place. For if a worker’s hopes of rising in the world undermined his inclination to join in a collective struggle, geographical mobility undermined his capacity to do so, by destroying the bonds of common interest and trust that make collective working-class action possible. The figures of a dozen or more recent studies tell of astonishing rootlessness; throughout the past century and a half, no more than 40 to 60 percent of the population living in a given community at a specific time could be found there only a decade later.5

The extraordinary willingness of Americans to move about cannot be understood apart from the allure of a rich and open continent. If in other countries the itinerant wage earner was commonly seen as a victim of class exploitation, in the United States he became a symbol of initiative and resourcefulness. The worker on the move was, according to national mythology, the worker on the make. Even those workers who did not move could derive a certain comfort from the feeling that they too could move. Their main route of escape, Sombart wrote, echoing but never explicitly citing the “frontier thesis” made famous by Frederick Jackson Turner, was to the vast expanses of unsettled land in the West.

In fact, of course, very few industrial wage earners ever became independent farmers or, for that matter, farmers of any sort. Migration between 1860 and 1900 was not primarily, as Sombart implied, from East to West, but rather from the farm to the city. Indeed, for every industrial laborer who moved to the land, as many as twenty farmers may have moved to town.6

Yet the frontier may have undermined the appeal of socialism in more subtle ways. It attracted large numbers of Eastern farmers and immigrants who might otherwise have flooded the labor markets of the large cities. That so many did not settle in the Eastern cities helped to maintain relatively high wages in the Eastern factories. And by supporting workers’ faith in social mobility and in ceaseless movement, the idea of the frontier may have discouraged wage earners from organizing for political and social action.

Transience among Americans, however, was limited neither to the adventurous who sought their fortune on the frontier nor to those who migrated from farm to city. Indeed, many of the millions of immigrants who swarmed into the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries did so with the intention of ultimately returning to the familiar villages and towns of the Old Country. Arriving en masse in the United States at precisely the moment of greatest potential conflict between labor and capital, these itinerant immigrants carried out much of the work of industrialization. Strangely enough, Sombart, otherwise so sensitive to those aspects of American life that undermined working-class solidarity, had almost nothing to say either about the large numbers of immigrants in the American working class7 or the way the immigration divided the proletariat into separate, mutually suspicious nationality groups.

Contrary to American national mythology, many immigrants did not come to the United States in search of freedom and democracy. For the most part they were peasants who had lost their property as a result of the disintegration of traditional agrarian life in Eastern and Southern Europe. They came to America mainly to make money. If all went well, they reasoned, their earnings in the United States would enable them to return home with enough savings to purchase a piece of land. As one Slavic steelworker put it: “A good job, save money, work all time, go home, sleep, no spend.”

Most such workers went to America alone, many of them expecting to rejoin their families in Europe within a few years. In fact, between 1907 and 1911, just after Sombart wrote his book, for every hundred Italians who arrived in the United States, seventy-three returned. For Southern and Eastern Europeans as a whole, for every hundred who arrived8 in 1908, 1909, and 1910 (a bad, middling, and a prosperous year), forty-four left the United States. And these figures, if anything, underestimate the element of transience, for they do not include those countless immigrants who hoped to return to the Old Country but for one reason or another never managed to do so.

Immigrants moved back and forth across the Atlantic with the fluctuations of the business cycle. As immigration peaked during periods of boom, so it fell during the not infrequent years of economic failure, when throngs of immigrants boarded ships bound for their native lands. Not surprisingly, those immigrants who were least successful in the United States seem to have been the most likely to return to Europe. If, as Frederick Jackson Turner had suggested, a “safety valve” did indeed exist for the discontented American worker, it was apparently to be found less frequently on the frontier than in Old Europe.

Some immigrants did, however, join in militant struggles, particularly when wage cuts or layoffs threatened to block the practical economic goals that had lured them to the US in the first place. Over such bread and butter issues as these, tightly bound ethnic communities time and again exhibited an extraordinary solidarity. The strikes of immigrant workers—in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, in 1909, in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1913—were among the most bitter in the history of American labor. Yet only a few of these workers were ultimately drawn to socialism. For immigrants, with the exception of a small number who brought with them from Europe a strong history of political radicalism,9 were no more capable than native workers of translating their economic grievances at the work place into a broad and radical political movement.

If class consciousness grows not only out of common experiences of exploitation at the work place but also out of common experiences of association in the community—as the more subtle of the Marxist historians have argued—then its relative weakness among immigrant workers is understandable. The immigrants were often clustered together in tightly knit ethnic neighborhoods and their experiences there tended to reinforce their identity, as, say, Italians, Irish, or Poles, rather than their consciousness of themselves as members of the working class. From the local tavern to the lodge to the neighborhood church, ethnic segregation was the rule in daily life outside the work place. And marriage, at least within the first generation, was almost always within the ethnic group.

The political system, too, accentuated ethnic consciousness and discouraged class solidarity. By its very structure, the highly decentralized American system gave great importance to politics in the cities and neighborhoods—the very places where ethnic divisions were most salient. Within ethnic communities, the local organizations of the powerful urban political machines inducted immigrant workers into the American way of life. In return for votes, a neighborhood boss—often of the same ethnic group—would provide workers with jobs, housing, relief, and when necessary help in court. By the turn of the century, in New York and elsewhere, many immigrant workers were so well integrated into the local party apparatus that socialist organizing among them was often impossible.

Provided with limited opportunities to improve their earnings and social position, many immigrants, and their children as well, could still find no work other than low-paid manual labor, often of the most unpleasant kind. Yet while many of them may have felt that something was fundamentally wrong with a society that possessed so much but gave them so little, few were willing to risk embracing socialism in a nation evidently so hostile to any form of radicalism. To be “American,” the immigrant knew, meant to renounce all beliefs that in any way threatened the regime of private property. Life in America was hard enough for a “Hunky” or a “Dago”; one did not need to make it harder still by being a Red in addition.

Employers were quick to capitalize on the deep antipathies between workers of varying cultural and ethnic origins.10 One tactic was to hire workers of several different, preferably antagonistic, nationalities to work in the same plant. There, management often reserved skilled positions for native-born workers or “old” immigrants, leaving for “new” immigrants only semiskilled and unskilled jobs. Ethnic divisions thus coincided with different skills, thereby sharpening the already existing conflicts of economic interest between craft workers and common laborers.

This stratification within the working class had fateful consequences for the labor movement, for it permitted the formation of a native-born and “old-stock” working-class aristocracy which was pitted against a large mass of over-worked and underpaid “new” immigrant laborers. Aided by national, state, and local authorities and by the shrewder segments of the capitalist class, these more successful workers were able to gain a controlling influence over the whole of organized labor. This control—exemplified by the almost uninterrupted tenure of the brilliant and pugnacious Samuel Gompers as president of the American Federation of Labor from 1886 until his death in 1924—was bitterly contested by socialists. Indeed, as late as the AFL convention of 1894, a plank calling for the “collective ownership of the means of production and distribution” was only narrowly defeated. Yet by 1901, the year in which the Socialist Party was founded, the AFL had decisively rejected the idea of an independent working-class party and aimed instead to secure immediate gains within the market economy. Organized labor, in other countries the foundation of socialist strength, thus became in the United States a powerful ally of the capitalist order.

While Sombart neglected the ethnic heterogeneity of the American working class, he gave considerable attention to what he considered to be the distinctive effects of American democracy, particularly universal suffrage and the popular election of most important public officials. To an extent unknown in Europe, American wage earners believed in popular sovereignty—the idea that they, as the people, governed. Idealistic as it seemed, this belief was supported by visible results: the removal of unpopular judges and police chiefs, the election of pro-worker candidates to state and local offices, and, above all, the granting to wage earners of an astonishing number of patronage jobs. The “strong aversion of the American worker to Socialist tendencies,” Sombart suggested, was “explained in part” by this unusual relationship to the state.

Yet despite his considerable insight into the political position of the American worker, Sombart neglected an essential difference between the United States and other industrial nations: the lower classes in America won the right to participate in parliamentary democracy well before the Industrial Revolution and the emergence of a modern proletariat. As Selig Perlman pointed out in his neglected study, A Theory of the Labor Movement,11 socialist movements in Europe derived their initial strength more from the struggle for elementary political rights than from the battle for economic advancement. In America, however, the working class had already won the ballot and the basic rights of citizenship before widespread industrialization produced the labor movement. Possessing the same political rights as other classes, American workers never experienced the sense of exclusion that might have brought them together as a class. By the time American workers faced the full brutality of industrial capitalism, a long heritage of faith in the existing political system, if not the prevailing economic order was thus firmly established in the labor movement.

When, in the late nineteenth century, the struggle between labor and capital emerged into the open, a large proportion of the working class was already loyal to one of the two major parties. By the time the Socialist Party of America was founded in 1901, two powerful institutions—a reformist labor movement and a two-party system firmly tied to capitalism—had already enlisted many of the farmers and immigrants coming to work in the nation’s factories. Once this institutional order was in place, it was, as the socialists learned, remarkably difficult to dislodge.

Perhaps more than any other, the American working class was made up by waves of people who had never before done industrial work: native-born farmers, European peasants, and Southern blacks. Those forces that did shape the political consciousness of the American working class—organized labor, the two major parties, and, above all, the dense cultural life of the working-class neighborhood—encouraged the growth not of class consciousness but of a narrow interest-group mentality. In America, the same man could, as a worker, wage an economic struggle, sometimes a fierce one, against his capitalist employer while in his neighborhood he would accept the leadership of conservative merchants, builders, clergymen, and politicians who made up the local ethnic elite.

In the split between the worker as laborer and the worker as community resident may lie the solution to one of the great riddles of American history: why a working class capable of extraordinary militancy in its struggles in the mills and factories and railyards was apparently incapable of translating this tradition into broader demands for radical political change. For in America, ever since the abolition of property requirements for suffrage during the era of Jacksonian democracy, ties to the political system had been based not in work, but in the community. By the late nineteenth century, the conflict between capital and labor had become starkly visible in the work places, but the same could not be said for daily life in the neighborhood.

If the socialists were to succeed, they would have had to introduce a new party organization into the working-class neighborhoods themselves, where bonds of ethnic solidarity were typically stronger than ties of social class. Their inability to do this, and their failure to survive repression by government authorities during and immediately after the First World War, have left a legacy of defeat from which both the left and the cause of fundamental social change in America have never really recovered.

This Issue

February 8, 1979