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Saturday, December 1, 2001

It Didn’t Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States by Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks

Did Socialism Really Fail in America?


W.W. Norton & Company · 2000 · 379 pages · $26.95

Reviewed by George C. Leef

Readers of this magazine will automatically be inclined to look askance at the title of this book. The United States slid into socialism, sometimes at a rapid pace and sometimes slower, during most of the twentieth century. Things don’t appear to be changing in the new century. To say that socialism has failed here is to overlook an enormous amount of socialistic law and regulation. But what political scientists Lipset and Marks mean by their title is that there never developed the kind of powerful political party overtly committed to nationalization of industry and redistribution of wealth that arose in most of the rest of the Western world.

It’s true that we have not seen anything like the Labor Party in Britain or the Socialists in France. Lipset and Marks endeavor to explain why that is so. So long as they stick to the terrain of political and sociological explanation, their book succeeds. Unfortunately, when they leave that terrain for a discussion of the implications of socialism’s “failure” here, It Didn’t Happen Here runs into grave difficulties.

Lipset and Marks advance several answers to their “Why did socialism fail?” question and also reject some that others have put forth. In the latter category, for example, is the political repression argument. Some hard-bitten socialists have contended that socialism was nipped in the bud by arrests, trials, and jailing of firebrands in the early twentieth century as well as judicial crackdowns on union activity. The authors reject that argument, observing that there were pockets of socialist success despite the repression—which was never widespread or systematic—and that judicial interference with union activity before the New Deal was rare.

The causes of “American exceptionalism” that Lipset and Marks posit are several. First, something in the American character created a barrier to the appeal of socialism. “Socialism,” they write, “with its emphasis on statism, socialization of the means of production, and equality through taxation, was at odds with the dominant values of American culture.” This point is certainly correct. Compared with Europe, where, owing to the rigidities of their economic structures, people had little opportunity to improve their lives, upward mobility was a well-known fact in America. Naturally, fewer people were ready for the socialists’ appeal to envy and advocacy of coercion.

Another explanation the authors advance is the fact that suffrage, for men at least, was widespread before the beginning of the socialist movement. They observe that in the United States (and also such countries as Switzerland and Australia), major nonsocialist political parties “had already sunk roots into the working class,” making it difficult for a new, avowedly socialist political party to gain much headway. That point, too, rings true.

Another convincing point the authors make is that the great diversity of the American population hindered the rise of the kind of militant workers party envisioned by socialists. Lipset and Marks write, “[E]thnic, religious, and racial cleavages were more powerful sources of political identity for most American workers than was their commonality as workers.” Whereas European workers were a pretty homogeneous lot possessing something of the “class consciousness” that Marxists are always talking about, Americans were a far more heterogeneous group and the thought “I’m a worker” was less common than the thought “I’m an Italian” or “I’m a Jew.”

There is much more to their explanation, and it’s perfectly sensible. Lipset and Marks go astray, however, when they discuss the implications of socialism’s “failure;” they believe that American policy has been less desirable than it would have been if we had had a powerful socialist party. They write, “[T]he organizational strength of the lower class of a society is decisive in determining the relative life chances of poorer people.” In their view, it’s bad that socialism didn’t develop in the United States because “those toward the bottom of a society must rely on political power if they are to influence the laws of their society.”

Lipset and Marks have swallowed that great piece of sucker bait that socialists dangle in front of people concerned about the poor—that they are doomed to a squalid and unfair existence unless the state disembowels the market economy with redistributive programs.

Nowhere do they recognize that many extremely poor people rapidly worked their way out of poverty in America prior to the advent of the welfare state. Nor do they see that the supposedly pro-poor programs of socialist states induce an economic arteriosclerosis that makes it far more difficult for poorer people to succeed. And they are blind to the fact that even in the hands of socialists, government policy inevitably comes to favor some groups at the expense of others. In France, for example, socialist policy is very pro-farmer, keeping food costs artificially high for everyone.

Too bad the authors tarnished their work with ill-informed prattling about the consequences of the “failure” of socialism in America.

George Leef is the book review editor of Ideas on Liberty.


  • George Leef is the former book review editor of The Freeman. He is director of research at the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.