Lost causes, especially those that foster lingering loyalties and nostalgic memories, are among the most prolific breeders of historiography. If survivors deem the cause not wholly lost and perhaps in some measure retrievable, the search of the past becomes more frantic and the books about it more numerous. Blame must be fixed, villains found, heroes celebrated, old quarrels settled, old dreams restored, and motives vindicated. Amid the ruins controversy thrives and books proliferate.

Few would deny that at present the socialist cause in America has rarely looked more lost, its prospects more dismal, or its adherents more divided and confused. Yet the search of the past for answers to the old questions continues undiminished. Why is this country the only industrial nation in history that has produced no significant movement for socialism? Were the causes of failure to be found outside or inside the movement? In either case what were they? Why the ups and downs of such small successes as were briefly enjoyed? Why, in the last upswing, did members of the New Left assume that they had no history and cut themselves off from their forebears?

Irving Howe, long-term editor of Dissent and author of several works bearing on this subject, describes his book as “a modest contribution toward the renewal of socialist thought,” but “not a history of that movement.” And yet history forms the matrix of his reflections and is a constant reference point: what happened and why. “Let us stop the clock at 1912,” he begins, thus starting with the golden age of American socialism, the era of Eugene Debs. This was the brief period before American intervention in the First World War, when the Socialist party seemed to be entering the mainstream of American political life. In the 1912 election it polled nearly 6 percent of the total vote, and elected more than a thousand Socialists to office, including one congressman, fifty-six mayors of cities scattered from Michigan to California, and many councilmen and aldermen. More than three hundred socialist newspapers, most of them weeklies, with an estimated total circulation of two million or more, spread the message. But that was the peak of the movement, never again approached, and the promise was never fulfilled.

Reflecting on those years of the movement, Howe is impressed, as others have been, with its heterogeneity as well as with its ingenuous enthusiasm. Its impassioned editors and orators mixed fierce calls for direct revolutionary action with bland Christian moralizing, homespun Marxism, western syndicalism, and naive idealism, all of them caught up in the prevailing optimism of the Progressive era. Among the oddly assorted components of the Socialist party for a time were stolid Wisconsin social democrats, fire-eating Wobblies of the IWW, Yiddish-speaking New Yorkers, Texas Populists, Oklahoma tenants and miners, and Christian socialists from all over. Presiding over this conglomeration, but keeping himself aloof from its internal disputes, was Eugene Victor Debs, “an orator able to establish a rapport with the American people such as no other radical in this country has ever had.”

In line with recent scholarship,1 Howe stresses the predominance of the West and South in the early years of the movement, with the greatest strength of the party lying in the trans-Mississippi states. In 1912 Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana gave Debs nearly a tenth of the votes he received. Oklahoman Socialists built the strongest state party in the country and claimed more dues-paying members than the largest state. In 1914 its candidates received 15,000 more votes than the Socialists of New York, which at that time ranked only twenty-ninth among states in the percentage of Socialist votes, and most of them came from upstate.

The grass-roots appeal of early American socialists recalls the mood that E.P. Thompson attributes to the Methodists, who carried into early English radicalism “a profound moral earnestness, a sense of righteousness and of ‘calling’…and (at its best) a high degree of personal responsibility.”2 The evangelical message of Debsian socialism combined religious with secular millenarianism, and thousands of native American Protestants responded as to the preacher’s call to salvation. The old Populists, who joined the movement in great numbers, had tapped the same religious vein and in their old-style evangelist camp meetings had converted church hymns to party uses, as the Socialists did after them. Genuine economic conflicts, many of them of a class nature, and sectarian dogma as well, undoubtedly helped to intensify party zeal. But without the quasi-religious appeal in native accents it is doubtful that grass-roots socialism would have got as far as it did in its attempt to become a major American party.

Like most Americans of their era, the socialists had more than their share of innocence. With a nonpartisan faith in “progress” and no time at all for self-doubt, they were, as Howe puts it, a people who had “not yet heard our century’s bad news.” That news began to pour in after the start of the war in 1914. Not all the bad news for American socialists was related to the guns abroad. Already the reformist elements on the right, along with many of the old Populists, were slipping away to President Wilson’s New Freedom, while the defection or expulsion of leftists was shortening the other end of the spectrum. Intellectuals of all kinds began to join the exodus from the Socialist party. All these troubles, however, were dwarfed by the ones that followed on the American intervention in World War I. The Socialists convened immediately and, heedless of the consequences, took their stand on principle, denounced the intervention as “a crime against the people,” and called for all-out opposition to conscription. The predictable government response was devastating for the old Socialists. Their leaders were jailed or silenced, their publications banned from the mails, their headquarters raided, their meetings broken up, a third of their western locals destroyed.


Paradoxically, the immediate result of the antiwar position was a growth in party membership during the war. But most of the new members came from Slavic immigrants who were seized by sudden enthusiasm for the Russian Revolution. Most of the losses resulting from wartime repressions, on the other hand, were suffered by native-born members from the West and Southwest. A sharp geographical shift in the center of party strength took place. In 1912 fewer than 15 percent of party members were foreign-born, but by 1919 they made up a clear majority. After 1917 the Socialist party bore small resemblance to the old heterogeneous, grass-roots movement. The new recruits knew little about American conditions and scorned the advice of such provincial Socialists as Dan Hogan of Arkansas, who warned that “the psychology of American workers is different” and that the party should “not appear to support Russian methods for America.” The new majority was bent on splitting the movement in order to form a Communist party, in line with the strategy of Moscow. What remained of the socialist movement after the split of 1919 was a pathetic remnant.

In his analysis of this early failure, Irving Howe finds “a thread of continuity” that he believes runs throughout the history of the left in America. “It is a thread of failure to recognize the distinctive characteristics of American life and society, complicated by an equally damaging incapacity, or refusal, to recognize that a strong native tradition of sectarianism contributes heavily to this failure.” In some degree this reverses the more familiar thesis that the faults in the American left are lack of principle and consistency, and a weakness for compromise. The native tradition of sectarianism is illustrated for Howe by the defiant intransigence of the weak American Socialist party’s antiwar stand, at a time when the powerful members of the Second International in European countries were willing to abandon principle and support the war. It was another instance of “the Debsian socialists’ habit of draping a fierce rhetoric onto a somewhat less-than-fierce politics,” a nonrevolutionary party indulging in revolutionary postures. The price was the destruction of their party.

Howe picks up the “thread of failure” in the 1930s, when he became a young participant instead of a reader of socialist history, and he follows the theme through the sad story of that decade. An admirer of Norman Thomas as he was of Debs (both “models of selflessness”), he nevertheless believes that “the purism of the party’s leadership helped speed the decline.” Leaders of the 1930s, like their predecessors, “indulged in a ‘leftist’ rhetoric that brought them moral comfort but no political gain. They were the victims of a fundamentalist Debsian theology regarding the American electoral process.” They never learned “how to reconcile a leftism induced by sensitivity to European events with the need for relating to the greatest wave of social reform this country had seen for many decades”—the New Deal wave that swept along with it many of their potential constituents of the working class. Socialists stood aside, clung to fundamentalist purity, and watched Huey Long and Father Coughlin win the loyalties of their own natural public in the South and West. They refused support for Upton Sinclair’s movement in California and shunned efforts to tilt the New Deal to the left for fear of betraying their principles and being contaminated by the wickedness of the old party. They did not realize that “purity could be had only at the cost of impotence,” and became “victims of their own rectitude.” Howe believes that if “they had only bent a little more, they might not have been broken.” They should have known, he thinks, “that the best way to rally the American people against fascist demagogues was to invoke the values of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—to appeal, that is, to sacred standards, felt memories, powerful myths of a native democratic past.”


These confessions of party flaws and failures Howe makes painfully, as if they somehow were a breach of personal integrity. (He confesses that the first ballot he cast for a Democratic party candidate made him “almost physically sick.”) He reveals no such qualms in his treatment of the “deeper historical reasons” for the long-term collapse of American socialism. By this he means “the terrifying rise of Stalinism, which led to a perhaps fatal besmirching of the socialist idea.” He traces the ironies and treacheries of the Communist Popular Front in America, which coincided with the peak of the Stalinist terror and the Moscow trials, but he does not go deeply into the tragicomic history of American Communism and its subservience to Moscow. This reticence may be because he has already written extensively on the subject elsewhere.3 And in an engaging autobiography he has described his personal encounter with “the inanities of American Stalinism—posturings of rectitude, fantasies of violence, complete incapacity to attend to the pulse of American experience.” His account of the appeal of Marxism for all its sects is worth recalling in view of the current retreat from the faith:

Marxism advanced a profoundly dramatic view of human experience. Its stress upon inevitable conflicts, apocalyptic climaxes, inevitable doom, and glorious futures gripped our imagination. We were always on the rim of heroism; the mockery we might suffer today would turn to glory tomorrow; our loyalty to principle would be rewarded by the grateful masses…. The moment of transfiguration would come, if only we held firm to our sense of destiny.4

The task Howe sets himself in Socialism and America is that of accounting for the failure of socialism in this country and adducing such lessons for the movement as this experience provides. That task brings him face to face with the classic problem of “American exceptionalism,” most commonly associated with Werner Sombart’s famous essay on the subject, Why Is There No Socialism in the United States?, published in 1906, but addressed by many before and since that date. After reminding us that both Marx and Engels anticipated a good many of the themes of exceptionalism in their discussions of the failure of socialism in the United States and acknowledged American distinctiveness and deviations from their models, Howe takes on Sombart “to minimize—though not to dismiss” the “objective historical factors” that allegedly account for the failure of socialism in America. These include the absence of a feudal past, material prosperity and social mobility of the working class, free or cheap land, the tides of immigration, and the two-party system.

Acknowledging that all these forces were at work, Howe pronounces them less than conclusive in their bearing on American socialism: “They explain too much and thereby too little.” The missing feudal background accounts for some of the difficulties but not for the failure of socialism; it could have been a boon as well as a burden to the movement. On the material side, the “reefs of roast beef” on which dreams were said to be wrecked were not all that prevalent or well distributed. Gulfs of disparity in wage rewards between ethnic and regional division of labor were quite wide, wider than in Europe, and American advantages over northern European labor seem to have been exaggerated. As for the American workers who did prosper, there is no reason to equate affluence with docility. In fact, American labor was comparatively militant, though violence rarely led to socialist politics. The promise of upward mobility, like that of free land, was probably more potent as myth than as actuality. And between Sombart’s claim about the availability of roast beef and his claim about free land there arises a contradiction: if American workers were so contented, why were they yearning to escape to the frontier? In any case, few did escape.

This line of thought, as Howe admits, leads away from the emphasis on coercive material conditions and toward cultural factors over which intelligence and will have somewhat more control. One of these was immigration, especially the waves of southern and East European immigrants during the early years of the century, which split the working class into competing ethnic segments. While he agrees that the immigrants presented special concerns, Howe is inclined to believe that they were more of a problem for unions than for socialists, that they were sometimes a source of strength for the party, that assimilation of ethnic groups into American society could handicap socialism more than could their ethnic isolation, and that on the whole this factor of immigration “does not take us very far in explaining the difficulties of American socialism.” It is the last of Sombart’s objective factors, the American political system, that Howe takes most seriously. That system, with its two-party rigidities and complexities, and its inducement to workers to vote for “the lesser evil” rather than “throw away their vote,” did present a formidable obstacle to the growth of a significant third party.

While he by no means rejects the idea of American exceptionalism, Howe simply does not think Sombart’s social and economic factors are the most important ones, but rather that “the distinctiveness of American culture has played the more decisive part in thwarting socialist fortunes.” Central to this culture is the national myth of America as humanity’s second chance, a “New Israel.” We had already had our revolution and another was superfluous. That myth was based on an ideology with a nonideological mask, which Howe chooses (anachronistically, in my opinion) to call “Emersonianism,” an ideology that “has become as elusive and protean…as Marxism or Freudianism.” This pervasive ideology, Howe believes, is essentially the restatement of “an old Christian heresy” that provides “religious sanction for the American cult of individualism.” By means of it the American could be “self-creating and self-sufficient…through his unmediated relation to nature and God,” a state of “self-induced grace” by which he could make his own fate. This belief could take the guise of rightist antistatism or radical anarchism, “free market” worship or IWW syndicalism.

Both right and left appealed to standards and values of the early republic that they claimed had been violated by the other. Neither right nor left was truly estranged from American society. Looking back, Howe finds earlier perceptions of this American exceptionalism in the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci and the maverick American socialist Leon Samson. The latter called Americanism a “substitute socialism” to which the American adheres “much as a socialist adheres to his socialism—because it does him good…. Every concept in socialism has its substitutive counter-concept in Americanism, and that is why the socialist argument falls so fruitlessly on the American ear.”

Impalpable and elusive as the myth is, Howe nevertheless believes that socialists will either have to destroy it or find some way to make their vision seem its fulfillment before socialism can ever hope to become a significant force in America. Since they have found the myth of “a covenant blessing the new land” is too deeply rooted to destroy and that it is futile to retreat into the comforts of Marxian inevitability, he is driven to the alternative of accommodation. And the only feasible accommodation he can suggest is through liberalism. “If there is any future for socialism in America,” he writes, “it is through declaring itself to be the partial ally of liberalism with which it shares fundamental democratic values and agrees upon certain immediate objectives; after that, it can be said that socialists propose to extend and thereby fulfill traditional liberal goals by moving toward a democratization of economic and social life.”

Liberalism is, of course, a fighting word for most Marxists, and Howe is perfectly aware of that. By way of forestalling summary dismissal he interposes the chapter “Socialism and Liberalism: Articles of Conciliation,” in which he traces the evolution and abuse of the term “liberal” down to twentieth-century usage, which he equates roughly with movements for the welfare state. In America, however, liberalism has taken on indigenous traits ranging from anarchic at one extreme to authoritarian at the other, all colored by native individualism and utopianism, and the appeal of movements based on conscience and a strand of “hostility toward politics per se—a powerful kind of moral absolutism”—which makes conciliation no easier.

This account is followed by a potted history of major socialist criticism of the variants of liberalism, starting with the “classical” variety, which was derided by socialists as an ideological rationale for bourgeois ascendancy and laissez-faire capitalism. Even though some socialists are credited with honoring its liberating effects on behalf of humanity at large, most socialist criticism of liberalism has been reductionist, if not contemptuous. The most common line is that liberalism cuts off politics from the interplay of needs and passions, and condones bourgeois institutions that sanction the pursuit of selfish interests without regard to a larger community. Timidity, evasiveness, vacillation, and weak compromise are included in the bill of indictment. Liberalism, for its part, has kept up a barrage of criticism against socialist concentration of power, impairment of political liberty, and promotion of tyranny.

Given the history of abrasive and often polemical relations between liberalism and socialism, what reasonable prospect remains for their reconciliation or alliance? Can social liberalism and democratic socialism hope to converge? In his more optimistic mood (and there is always a pessimistic one competing with it) Howe finds ground for hope in several directions. Liberalism has profited from socialist pressure in coping with social injustice and moving to the welfare state—whose own often alleged tendencies to excessive bureaucracy Howe hardly discusses. Socialists have been forced to acknowlege their debt to freedom and the evil of trampling on liberal values in the name of hierarchical order and proletarian dictatorship. They have seen the state take on an authoritarian autonomy under a despotic governing minority. An autonomous military frequently steps into power when conflict weakens competing classes sufficiently and rules in its own interest rather than that of any class. These events have raised perennial questions about the human condition and politics, on which traditional wisdom and the insights of writers from Aristotle to Montesquieu shed more light than socialist theories; and to these questions some liberals and conservatives—Max Weber and Raymond Aron come to mind—have given more thought than have most of the theorists of socialism. The socialist critique of liberalism “now seems less cogent” than it once did. Its direction has undergone change of late as has that of liberalism. Howe suggests that “the difference between social liberalism and democratic socialism keeps growing smaller, so that at some point that difference may become no more than incremental.”

In his more pessimistic mood Howe wonders if the life has not gone out of the socialist faith and if, like Christianity, while gaining in numbers, it has lost its claim to speak for Western culture. In spite of the millions of people in Europe who accept the label and the powerful parties that still use the socialist vocabulary, he feels that “some deep inner crisis of belief, to say nothing of public failures and defeats, has beset socialism,” and wonders “whether we are caught in a drift of historical decline, perhaps beyond reversing.” He applauds efforts of recent decades to clarify socialist values and reverse the decline. These efforts, representing “a significant shift” in socialist thought, have resulted in doctrines that are, we are told, “now accepted as truisms.” Among them are the belief that there is “no necessary historical sequence from capitalism to socialism”; that “the abolition of capitalism is not necessarily a step toward human liberation,” but can and has led “to societies far more repressive than capitalism at its worst”; that what is decisive in defining a true socialist society is not the abolition of private property but rather “the political character of the regime exercising control over a post-capitalist or mixed economy”; and that in such a society “the means of production, to an extent not rigidly determined in advance, are collectively or socially owned—which means democratically controlled.” How this social ownership and democratic control are to be carried out remains unclear, although Howe talks of transitional “steps” such as public controls over investment and employee ownership of some enterprises.

This painful reconstruction of values has “led to skepticism about certain elements of traditional Marxist thought”—some of them obviously of long standing. They include the doctrine that the working class would be the leading agency of revolution (“History has vetoed this idea”); that nationalization of industry under socialist control would smooth the way for the new society (it is, Howe comments, a “neutral device, available to just about every kind of government”); or that “economic planning is a unique aspect…of socialist society” ensuring justice and order.

Long before the end of this revisionist litany, a chorus of old socialists would doubtless be yelling, “Hey! not so fast!” But Howe contends that the modern revisions are now “truisms.” He admits that the democratic and humane road to the socialist order would be long, slow, and bumpy, full of delays, detours, and setbacks. “But if it is to be a socialism of free men and women,” he insists, “there can be no other way.” The alternate route of “temporary” dictatorships has reduced whole nations “to barbaric mockeries of the socialist idea.” If it was the malign fate of that idea to have been grotesquely dramatized before the world most conspicuously in Russia and China, there seem at least to be some redeeming lessons to be derived from it. With an eye to these Howe declares, “Times change. We will emerge from our present slough of small-spirited conservative acquiescence and live again by more generous aspirations.”

Once more, however, on the heels of this affirmation, doubts assail him. “Does the socialist idea, even if rendered more sophisticated than it was in the past, still survive as a significant option? Has it outlived its historical moment?” He continues as if in answer to his question:

Socialist movements have great achievements to their credit, yet nowhere on the globe can one point to a free, developed socialist society. The proclaimed goal has not been reached, and as I write it does not seem close. Socialism has been shaken by failures, torn by doubts. Its language and symbols have been appropriated by parodic totalitarianism, and from this trauma we have still to recover.

…Once an idea becomes contaminated or a generation exhausted, it is a long time before new energies can be summoned, if summoned at all. Whether socialism can be revived as a living idea—which is something different from the mere survival of European social-democratic parties as established institutions—is by now very much a question.

Howe concedes that “socialism is not on the political agenda” in the United States today and that “socialist transformation is not on the immediate agenda in Europe.” He can well imagine that “a movement in America might choose to drop the socialist label,” so besmirched is it with the shame of Russia, China, Poland, and Cuba that it “creates more trouble than it’s worth.” But even with a new name—“economic democrats” or “democratic radicals”—and a new vocabulary, the substance of the old problems would remain the same for those who “still regard capitalist society as an unjust society” and are still “repelled by its ethic of greed.” For old socialists like himself with the experience “in their bones” he believes the time for disavowing labels and insignia “has not yet come”—though he adds, “Such a time may come.” But he also adds, “Whatever the fate of socialism, the yearning for a better mode of life which found expression in its thought and its struggle will reappear. Of that I am absolutely certain.”

It is a painfully searching and candid apologia that Irving Howe has written, and it deserves more attention and respect than it is likely to get in times like ours. It is his hope, however, that “those friends of tomorrow” he confidently expects to respond to the yearnings he still retains “will have so completely absorbed the lessons of our age that they will not have to rehearse them.” If they prove to be at all interested in those lessons of our age they would do well to look into this book.

This Issue

January 30, 1986