The Reasons Why

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…

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