In the late nineteenth century, the United States was the most advanced capitalist country. According to a Marxist model, this should result in the rise of socialist movements. The advance of capitalism is considered to eventually produce the means that will bring about its downfall. Why, then, has there been no significant socialist movement in American history?
The German sociologist Werner Sombart attempts to formulate a solution in his essay Why is there no socialism in the United States?, published in 1905. Sombart's analysis is focused on a comparison of the United States with Germany, which had the largest socialist party in Europe in the early 20th century. The book is divided into three sections: politics, economics, and the social environment. The crux of Sombart's argument is that all three of these combined to create circumstances in which it was extraordinarily difficult for socialist parties to emerge.
The American political system of the 19th century was not conducive for the rise of third parties. The Democrats and the Republicans dominated public life through their party machines. The first-past-the post electoral system inherited from Britain meant that it was virtually impossible for candidates outside the two parties to win office.
Sombart makes a lot of the fact that Americans had 'the free gift of the vote'. In other words, there was no comparable struggle in America for the working class to gain the vote as there was in Europe. All working class white men had the vote. Thus, the working class was already incorporated into the political system. In Europe, many working class movements initially campaigned for basic political rights. In America, however, socialist party policies had been pre-empted on this issue.
The democratic character of the American state was also significant. It contibuted to a naive belief in the possibility of ordinary individuals to influence political decision-making. This obviously legitimated the system. But more importantly, the American workers did have more say over the actions of not only the Federal government but also of numerous local officials than any European working class. Candidates in favour of working class interests could be elected, and working class people could get patronage jobs through the party machines. In this way as well, the American working man was uniquely integrated in the political system. It seems obvious that he would be averse to a movement that espoused a doctrine of overthrowing that system.
Sombart's economic argument is basically this: "All socialist utopias come to grief with roast beef and apple pie." The American worker had no need to accept socialism since he had food on his table. Sombart's argument here is based on a comparison with Germany. With numerous statistics, he attempts to demonstrate that the American worker was considerably more affluent than his German counterpart. The American worker earned about two to three times more than the German. The cost of living was roughly equal, and thus the standard of living of the American was considerably better. Consequently the American was much more content with his life. He felt no need to overthrow the existing society, whereas the poorer German was more inclined to radical politics.
The social argument can be summed up as: "no feudalism, no socialism." The United States had no feudal residues, it was from the beginning the bourgeois society par excellence. Sombart asserted that there was no essential difference between the working class and the bourgeoisie in America; the proletarian did not bow down before the aristocrat as in Europe. A sense of 'rank' was lacking. Furthermore, the absence of a feudal pecking order meant that class consciousness was virtually nonexistent among the American working class. Thus, solidarity within the working class had a much less firm basis in America than it did in Europe. To use Marx's phrase from the Eighteenth Brumaire, the American working class was perhaps a class in itself, but crucially not for itself. It did not have a basis for cohesion.
There are several defects in Sombart's argument. First of all, he ignores the fact that no blacks had the vote. Neither did women. The whole working class was therefore not integrated into the political system and there was plenty of scope for socialist parties to campaign for basic political rights for excluded groups. Furthermore, in Germany there was universal male suffrage. The Reichstag had minimal powers compared to the US Congress, but the system was more democratic than the American one. The question is more complex than what Sombart would have us believe.
The economic argument seems intuitively true. No misery, no need for socialism. But is this true? Most socialist leaders in Europe were bourgeois, not proletarian. See Marx, Engles, Lenin. It seems obvious that to be able to participate in socialist politics one has to have a level of aflluence that the average proletarian lacks. The reason that Lenin could spend decades inciting revolution in Russia was because he was a hereditary nobleman and his family had significant property from which he derived a steady income without having to work. And often, the best off sections of the working class are the most radical. Thus, it might be assumed that the affluent American working class would as a whole be more radical than the poorer German one. Whatever the truth of the matter, Sombart's crude economic analysis does not work.
What about the social argument? There is no doubt that the lack of feudalism in America is crucial to understanding the perceived lack of socialist development. But, as Karabel argues, the lack of strict social distinctions may actually legitimise the existing social order. The relative self-confidence of the American worker perhaps made him more content in his position rather than give him the boldness necessary to effect a change. The essence of the social argument seems to stand, however. Because there were no feudal residues in the United States, there was no basis for class consciousness on which a socialist movement could build.
My analysis of Sombart is obviously very limited, and I am aware that my knowledge of American history is hardly sufficient to even begin addressing the question of why no socialism exists in the United States. I have simply tried to present some of Sombart's arguments critically. Let me finish by pointing out a central puzzle that Professor Howell has stressed. It is: what does Sombart's question mean? Is it true that there has been no socialism in the United States? In a sense this is obviously true, since the United States has never been a socialist country. However, neither has Germany, Sombart's paradigm case of a country with socialism (leaving aside the DDR). But it has had a mass socialist movement. So this seems to be Sombart's meaning. Perhaps there hasn't been a mass socialist movement, but socialists were succesful at the local level in many areas in America in the early twentieth century.
One should also ask why should there be socialism in the United States? Why is the question relevant? It seems that Sombart's analysis is premised on the Marxist notion that the development of capitalism will eventually lead to the development of socialism. But if one does not accept this model, the problem ceases to be a problem. Furthermore, Sombart's question is based on the comparison with Germany. His work could be retitled: why is the United States not like Germany? Which does not seem such an important question as the one he purports to be asking. His comparative approach also invites the question, why Germany? Why not England? A comparison with Britain might have yielded considerably differing results, since even with all its feudal residues and its developed capitalism Britain had scarcely more socialism than America did. This points to a general question about the validity of historical comparisons, but that should be the subject of another node.
Howell, D. Lecture on Sombart (York, University of York)
Howell, D. Seminar on Sobart (York, University of York)
Karabel, J. 'The failure of American Socialism Reconsidered' (in the Socialist Register, 1979)
Sombart, W. Why is there no socialism in the United States?