Is There an American Socialist Tradition? Possibly, but it is Not the one today's Left Celebrates

As I wrote in my first part of a blog post on this subject, John Nichols cites the most well-known American socialists of the past — Eugene V. Debs, Norman Thomas and Michael Harrington — as an example of how socialists were part and parcel of the American tradition, and how their socialism grew out of American values and as a basic part of our country’s heritage. This is particularly true of Eugene V. Debs, the titan of American socialism’s heroic years of growth and influence. Debs, as his biographer Nick Salvatore revealed in an excellent biography, spoke in the language of American republicanism and patriotism, eschewing Marxian ideology for the most part, and therefore managed to reach the average working-class citizen in a manner that other socialists never managed to match.


But Nichols ignores completely what happened to socialism after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, as the movement collapsed totally as many of its militants, contrary to Debs’ own advice, saw fealty to Lenin and his comrades as a necessary component of their program. Moreover, Nichols does not let his readers learn about the many socialists who broke with their party’s mainstream in two major respects — they came to value the American system as the embodiment of their dreams, and hence to both support its foreign policy (including entry into World War I) and to vigorously oppose the Bolsheviks and their domestic American supporters. This group included socialists like William English Walling, Algie M. Simons, Charles Edward Russell, and others. These socialists formed a pro-war and patriotic socialist group, The Social Democratic Federation. Although they are now forgotten, they were among some of the most well-known figures in the America of their time.

Among this group was John Spargo, whom I wrote about in this article which appeared in The Weekly Standard.  Spargo was among the very first Americans to call for opposition to Bolshevism, and to urge various administrations to develop a strong anti-Communist foreign policy. He grew close to the State Department, and during the Wilson administration, he personally created the policy of non-recognition of Lenin’s new regime, and actually wrote the policy document issued under the name of Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby. The policies he espoused would be exactly the kind both John Nichols and the other editors of The Nation opposed then and would find horrific today.

From the perspective of the American socialist tradition, what is most important are the conclusions Spargo reached about the country he loved. America, he believed, had become a nation whose system embodied the best of socialism: a belief in equality of opportunity, economic growth that would benefit the working man as well as the wealthy, and regulation of industry when it was deemed necessary.  Spargo called it “a communism of opportunity” or “socialized individualism.” In a new era, he wrote, capitalist America had progressed towards “a new type of communism, based upon private property and individualism,” in which the genius of capitalism would be channeled to achieve “socialization of results.”


During the New Deal era, he saw public funding of government projects as steps that retarded, rather than advanced, economic recovery. As an alternative, he favored an industrial democracy similar to that called for by social democrats, and based on cooperation of progressive businessmen and moderate trade union leaders. In addition, he feared that some New Dealers favored an American style of central planning that would lead to collectivism and have the same dangerous results as in the Soviet Union. The New Deal, he thought, was driving towards what historian Markku Ruotsila calls a “centralized, illiberal and coercive governance on par with Bolshevism and Fascism.” Spargo also favored regulatory legislation that would stifle corporate greed; but he opposed any move of government into business, arguing that it would lead not only to an unnecessary bureaucracy but also to increased taxes that would harm the production of wealth. Roosevelt’s domestic policies were, in effect, what Spargo had opposed when he was a socialist: a centralized bureaucracy leading to a new state capitalism.

Near the end of his life, his last political act was to endorse Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. Spargo’s analysis, then, is more than similar to the current analysis of the United States offered by my good friend, the historian Martin J. Sklar. In The Nation dated September 4-11, 2000, a discussion of Sklar’s importance is presented by Marc Chandler, who is identified as teaching international political economy at NYU, a columnist for the business publication, and the chief currency strategist for the Mellon Bank! His curriculum vita is hardly that of a flaming far left radical!

Chandler writes (his article, unfortunately, is not online): “The idea that capitalism and socialism are not mutually exclusive anticipates an arguably more intellectually rigorous discourse. American historian Martin Sklar develops this line of argument in a collection of essays published under the title The United States as a Developing Country (1992) and in a number of subsequent essays, most recently in ‘Capitalism and Socialism in the Emergence of Modern America:The Formative Era.'”

Chandler sums up Sklar’s work in the following paragraphs:

For Sklar, socialism refers to a mode of production, or what he calls “property production relations.” Socialist relations are those that supplement or to some degree supplant the property stake as the bedrock of one’s role and status in society. Socialism comprises those tendencies, forces and institutions that blunt, mitigate or adapt market relations to social goals.

Socialism, according to Sklar, is the redefinition of property rights in ways that make the market socially accountable and responsible. It broadens the meaning of human rights and citizenship. He finds socialism in the ways in which we celebrate our identities as citizens and not simply as factors of production, like breathing appendages to machines. Socialism lies in those various political, associational and contractual relationships that mediate, restrain and redirect the rights of property and the cash nexus. The part-conflicting, part-symbiotic relationship between capitalism and socialism does not simply take place between classes and institutions but within them as well. Sklar argues against equating capitalism with markets or businesses and equating socialism with the state or unions, which is what … many others have done. He suggests that each sphere may embody the capitalist-socialist mix that characterizes the modern American political economy.

In fact, Sklar argues, the large modern corporation, which many consider a defining institution of capitalism, is itself an embodiment of both capitalism and socialism: Its very origins lie in self-conscious attempts on the part of individual capitalists to escape the vagaries of the “free market.”


At this point, I hope some readers of mine will actually go to the link and read Sklar’s entire article, as complicated as it might be for some to follow. What he develops is a new way of looking at the nature of both capitalism and socialism, by what he has called the theory and reality of “the mix,” in which both elements of capitalism and socialism arose together during the era of the birth of the modern large corporation. This principle, he argues, “cohered strongly with prevalent American political principles associated with republicanism and rooted in the traditions and experiences of the American Revolution.” Hence, when Sklar refers to socialism, in his terminology it is the very opposite of the kind of state-command economies that existed in what the world came to know as “socialism.”

Capitalism, Sklar writes, “needs socialism for stability, and socialism needs capitalism for the wealth creation that generates and supports an ever expanding equalitarianism and noncapitalist investment and labor activity.” It is not antithetical to real liberal democracy, and is in fact in permanent opposition to the statism of the Left today and its supporters. So as Sklar sees things, the entire American system, including both of our major political parties, have embraced this symbiotic relationship, and in general, have moved to the left. “In the 1990s,” he argues, “President Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich have been the master leaders of this bipartisan leftward shift in the U.S. political spectrum and political culture.”

Socialism, then, is not the kind of government ownership, state command and managerial authoritarian systems most people call socialism, run by a vanguard political party and a group of bureaucratic statist managers — such as those now called for to administer ObamaCare by the new Independent Payment Advisory Boards that the President now calls for and that Stanley Kurtz has dissected in an important analysis at NRO’s The Corner. Indeed, Sklar now agrees with the essence of Kurtz’s views, but instead of calling Obama and his programs those of stealth socialism, as does Stanley Kurtz, he refers to Obama as a politician of the far radical fringe that acts in a Leninist, rather than socialist, fashion.

Sklar’s article is very complicated and deserves close, serious reading, and cannot be adequately summed up any more than I have attempted above. But I should note that his work has had a serious impact, and even the highly respected major conservative constitutional theorist John Yoo, who now teaches law at Stanford University, has used and assigned Sklar’s readings in his classes. In a review of one of his books for The American Journal of Legal History, Thomas K. McCraw of the Harvard Business School called Sklar’s work “a masterpiece that places us all in his debt.”


And last June, National Review’s Jonah Goldberg, author of the best-selling Liberal Fascism, urged his readers to also take a careful look at Sklar’s theories. He cites a blog post of mine written a year ago, in which I noted that Sklar believes that Obama will make “central to his presidency” what he calls “proto-statist structures characteristic of fascist politics — that is, ‘social service’ political organizations operating extra-electorally and also capable of electoral engagement,” that will lead to “party-state systems…in which the party is the state.” Thus, he notes that during the campaign, Obama favored armed public service groups that could be used for homeland security, that would tie leadership bureaucracies to him through the unions and groups like ACORN.

More recently, Sklar has written a series of papers he has been circulating on ObamaCare, in which he dissects the various proposals of it supporters as favoring medical care as “an instrument of partisan politics, ideological prescription … interest-group/activist pressures, and class/ethnic/racial/preference and deprivation … in short, social injustice.” The program, he argues, is “retrogressive and reactionary … compatible with a state-capitalist or state-socialist standpoint.” Although those who favor ObamaCare think of themselves as leftist representatives of the poor and the people, Sklar writes that the program they propose imposes “a scarcity regime upon an abundance capacity,” spreading around “squalor and inequality.” Moreover, he develops a constitutional analysis in which he argues that the health care law “may be found to violate the constitutionally protected rights of life, liberty, property, and privacy, as well as the constitutional division and limitation of powers among the federal and state governments,” and he declares it unconstitutional in its totality.

He concludes with these words: “Although commonly thought of as ‘left-wing,” or ‘left-progressive,’ nevertheless, from a historical perspective, ObamaCare is right-wing “Third worldist sectarian and reactionary,” and it is not consistent with “American constitutional government and its revolutionary traditions.”

To put it another way, Sklar — who considers himself both a Marxist and a socialist — takes positions completely in line with the majority of today’s conservatives. Indeed, he sees the anti-statism and fiscal responsibility of the Tea Party advocates as what he calls left-wing trends in societal development, and the statism of the Democrats and the current Left as more appropriately called reactionary and historically right-wing. Thus, in his writings, he has expressed support for Republican leaders such as Newt Gingrich in the 90s and Sarah Palin today, whom he wholeheartedly supports. As for the Tea Party, he uses Old Left terminology and somewhat facetiously refers to it as “the anti-fascist resistance.”


The problem, of course, is that someone like Gingrich, who rails against what he calls “the secular-socialist machine” that controls America, will not accept the way of looking at the United States as Sklar does; nor will most people change their terminology to refer to the self-proclaimed Left as actually Right; and the Right as actually Left. This becomes far too confusing and unrealistic, no matter how much of an argument Sklar puts forth.

But when he writes, as he has, that the Obama model of governance and community organizing is “a latter-day version of the [Leninist] ‘vanguard party,’ in this particular historical case, colonizing and taking over one of the two major U.S. political parties [the Democratic Party], and riding it to power for establishing a party-state-command regime,” conservatives can fully agree with his conclusions.

Finally, in a letter Sklar wrote to me, he argues as follows about the Democrats today:

The Democrats, in my view, have become a party with constituencies disproportionately strong beyond their numbers … that are anti-growth … anti working-class, anti-liberty, pro-ethnic race/identity, and in that sense, as used to be said by those on the left, reactionary. In their party composition and politics, the Democrats have increasingly been merging with managerial/bureaucratic power in society and with ‘capitalists’ in government — against the people’s interest in rising living standards, equality of opportunity, and strengthening of democratic liberty in the U.S. and its spreading throughout the world. This orientation of the Democrats is evident both in domestic politics and acts so far taken by the new administration, and rather strongly so in Obama’s Cairo and other speeches abroad. … In a longer U.S. history perspective, the Obama Democrats are more in the tradition of the 19th Century Democratic party running from Pierce, Buchanan and Douglas to Andrew Johnson-Seymour-Greeley-Tilden; and the Bush/Cheney/McCain/Palin Republicans are more in the tradition of the Republican party running from Lincoln-Seward-Stanton-Sumner-Grant to TR.

What he argues is hence much in line with what political scientist Daniel DiSalvo writes in the current issue of Commentary, in which he shows how the current Right is reformist and the Left, as he puts it, is “reactionary.” All of this is quite encouraging, revealing that there is much new thinking going on, and that the most important of this comes from today’s conservative movement and its intellectuals.


Let me end by returning to some final thoughts about John Nichols and his attempt to make statist “socialism” his model for what is part of the past American tradition. Nichols is the kind of socialist that Kevin D. Williamson effectively writes about in his new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Socialism, which is getting much publicity in recent days. But Williamson defines socialism as having two components, the “public provision of non-public goods,” and second, “economic central planning.” In Sklar’s lexicon, that definition is a straw man that is easily knocked down, which is what Williamson manages to do most effectively.

So, I am skeptical that many will take up Martin J. Sklar’s way of looking at capitalism and socialism. But this should not stop us from joining in his call for self-proclaimed liberals and conservatives who favor a fight on behalf of liberty against statism, to join together in the fight against the retrogressive and dangerous policies of the Obama administration, and help them attain electoral defeat in the next presidential election.


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