The victory of a self-proclaimed socialist, Bernie Sanders, in the New Hampshire Democratic Primary seems to go against much of what we know of American politics. For most of the twentieth century, after all, historians grappled with a question the German sociologist Werner Sombart first raised in 1906: why is there no socialism in the United States?
Since the dawn of mass-based partisan politics in the 1830s, serious contestants for the White House and Congress have cultivated constituencies that cut across class divisions, and unlike Sombart’s Europe – where the likes of the British Labour Party and German Social Democrats spoke in the name of an industrial proletariat – no workers’ party emerged on the far side of the Atlantic. Even after the (some have said barren) marriage between organised labour and the Democratic Party during the New Deal, American political parties have remained kaleidoscopic coalitions, stubbornly resistant to easy sorting along social lines.
In explaining socialism’s absence, historians sought to understand American exceptionalism: why did the United States stand apart? Scholars found in the Sombart question their equivalent to the old chestnut of what brought down the Roman Empire. They came up with almost as many answers. Sombart himself said roast beef and apple pie: higher wages put enough food at the table to keep the Bolsheviks at bay. Others turned to the safety-valve of western land, the ethnic balkanisation of an immigrant nation, the poisonous legacy of African slavery, the structure of the federal union, and state-sponsored repression at key moments – the 1880s, post-World War I, and 1950s – when the left looked to be gaining a foothold.
To some, hostility to socialism was deeply encoded in an American character genetically wired to value individualism and acquisitiveness. Others rooted it in peculiar patterns of political development. A common argument explained how, unlike British Chartists forced to organise as a class for suffrage rights, white American workingmen secured access to the ballot box before industrialisation gathered pace. Their political identity calcified prior to the factory system imprinting itself on their collective consciousness.
By the 1990s the Sombart question no longer seemed so pressing. There might have been no socialism in the United States, but after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc there didn’t appear to be much of it anywhere else either. The normative assumption embedded in Sombart’s formulation – that Americans had departed from a natural course of historical development – proved unfashionable in an era suspicious of grand narratives. And the effort expended in explaining socialism’s absence had blinded historians to how workers did respond to industrial capitalism.
Indeed, from the 1960s onwards scholars had been rescuing indigenous opposition to a new economic order from the ‘condescension of posterity’. Books and journals lauded the political radicalism of Tom Paine, the ‘artisan republicanism’ of proudly-independent craft workers, and rear-guard resistance to time and work discipline on the part of native born ‘traditionalists’ and transplanted European peasants. Working-class action here did not need the ‘s’ word to describe it.
To one of the foremost historians of the American left, Eric Foner, Sanders misses a trick here. He’s urged the insurgent candidate to downplay unfavourable comparisons between the United States and Scandinavian socialism and root his message in a longer tradition of American radicalism. Foner, whose uncle Philip fell prey to McCarthy-era anti-Communism, is no doubt well aware of the need to claim the high ground of Americanism – something the early twentieth-century socialist leader Eugene V. Debs did to good effect in combining Red rhetoric with patriotic paeans.
But if the United States has a stronger tradition of radicalism than socialism, the latter should not be written out of its history completely. Marx might have been wrong in anticipating that U.S. workers would vote themselves into communism but the paper he wrote for in the 1850s, the influential New York Tribune, enthusiastically embraced utopian socialist designs.
Around the same time, the most widely-read American novelist – the now nearly-forgotten George Lippard – praised European socialists as heralds of a new age and built a revolutionary secret society dedicated to pursuing the right to work and home. And just a few years later the Federal government sponsored (albeit with marked reluctance) one of the most dramatic redistributive schemes of the modern age: the uncompensated transfer of property rights to four million slaves of African descent, from slaveholders to ex-slaves.
In the Progressive era of the early twentieth century, meanwhile, socialist parties enjoyed some success in the likes of New York mayoral elections, and Communist Party organisers proved instrumental in building interracial alliances during the New Deal. Around the margins, at least, socialism has left its mark on the American past, even if it’s been largely absent from the major parties.
Sanders still faces long – perhaps even insurmountable – odds to win the presidential nomination. New Hampshire has a habit of springing surprises and he’ll face a far greater challenge in primaries to come in states where Clinton’s support is deep-rooted. And his decision as an independent senator to contest the Democratic nomination in some way shows that Sombart has not yet been superseded, there’s still no major socialist party in the United States. Yet in his idiosyncratic way Sanders is building on deep-rooted traditions of dissent that historians preoccupied with Sombart’s famous question were always likely to miss.
Andrew Heath is Lecturer in American History at the University of Sheffield, specialising in the Civil War-era United States. You can see Andrew’s other History Matters blogs here, and find him on twitter @andrewdheath.
Image: Bernie Sanders at a rally in New Orleans, July 2015, by Nick Solari [Wikicommons].