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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 TheStreet.com, 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."