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Journal of Democracy 12.2 (2001) 74-87



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The Americanization of the European Left

Seymour Martin Lipset


In a book published in 1998, a distinguished sociologist asserted, "No one any longer has any alternatives to capitalism--the arguments that remain concern how far and in what ways capitalism should be governed and regulated." What makes these words especially noteworthy is that the man who wrote them, Anthony Giddens, was also widely known as the intellectual guru to British prime minister and Labour Party leader Tony Blair. By embracing "The Third Way" (the title of Giddens's book), explicitly understood as a middle path that avoided both the anticapitalism of the left and the conservatism of the right, Blair helped bring to an end a century-long period in which the European left had been dominated by socialists. By so doing, he and his counterparts on the continent have also furthered the process of making political party divisions in Europe resemble more closely those of the United States, where socialism never gained a serious foothold.

Socialist theorists from the late nineteenth century on have been bedeviled by the question of why the United States, alone among industrial societies, has lacked a significant socialist movement or labor party. Friedrich Engels tried to answer it in the last decade of his life. In 1906, the German sociologist Werner Sombart published a major book on this theme, Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? That same year, the Fabian H.G. Wells also addressed the question in The Future in America. Both Lenin and Trotsky were deeply concerned with the phenomenon, for it questioned the inner logic of Marxist historical materialism, as expressed by Marx himself in Das Kapital, where he [End Page 74] stated that "the country that is more developed [economically] shows to the less developed the image of their future." 1 From the last quarter of the nineteenth century on, the United States has been that country.

Given Marx's dictum, leading pre-World War I Marxists believed that the most industrialized capitalist country would lead the world into socialism. This position became entrenched in Marxism. While still an orthodox Marxist (before he became the most influential revisionist of Marxist ideas), Edward Bernstein noted, "We see modern socialism enter and take root in the United States in direct relation to the spreading of capitalism and the appearance of a modern proletariat." In 1902, Karl Kautsky, considered the German Social Democratic Party's leading theoretician, wrote that "America shows us our future, in so far as one country can reveal it at all to another." He elaborated this view in 1910, anticipating that the "overdue sharpening of class conflict" would develop "more strongly" in America than anywhere else. August Bebel, the political leader of the German Social Democrats, stated unequivocally in 1907, "Americans will be the first to usher in a Socialist republic." 2 This belief--at a time when the German party was already a mass movement with many elected members of the Reichstag, while the American Socialist Party had secured less than 2 percent of the vote--was based on the fact that the United States was far ahead of Germany in industrial development.

The continued inability of socialists to create a viable movement in the United States was a major embarrassment to Marxist theorists who assumed that the "superstructure" of a society, which encompasses political behavior, is a function of the underlying economic and technological systems. Max Beer, whose 50-year career in international socialism included participation in the Austrian, German, and British parties, and who worked for the Socialist International, described the anxiety voiced in private discussions by European Marxist leaders regarding the weakness of socialism in America. They knew that it was a "living contradiction of . . . Marxian theory" and that it raised questions about the validity of Marxism itself. 3

In a 1939 publication intended for a popular American audience, Leon Trotsky reprinted the sentence from Das Kapital quoted above, only to dismiss it with the comment, "under no circumstances can this . . . be taken literally." 4 Trotsky...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3214
Print ISSN
1045-5736
Pages
pp. 74-87
Launched on MUSE
2001-04-01
Open Access
No
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