- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2000

The failure and final passing of the American Socialist Party was one of the great blessings bestowed not only on the United States but on the free world as well. For that blessing we have to thank the party's willful refusal in the name of ideological purity, among other factors to seek and create an alliance with American trade unions.

I am, of course, extrapolating from the findings in "It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States," by Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks, so commanding in its scholarship and intellectual insights. The authors, however, provide incontrovertible evidence for my conclusion: Because American labor, the mainstream American Federation of Labor (AFL) in its early years, did not absorb the Marxist ethos, its leaders were able to see clearly almost from Day One that the Bolshevik Revolution was a disaster for freedom. And try as the Kremlin did for seven decades, the communists couldn't penetrate (except for a brief period) American labor.

The authors quote Harvard Emeritus Professor Daniel Bell, the leading scholar on American socialism, who described the party as "heavily doctrinaire … more so than most of its European counterparts because of its lack of commitments to the labor movement." As a result the AFL was the only union federation among those in Western industrial societies not to give its support to a working-class party. Mr. Lipset and Mr. Marks provide a brilliant analysis of a movement's defeat. Had it succeeded, it might have made the world safe for totalitarianism.

European labor unions, tied in almost all cases to a Marxist Labor Party, both before and after World War II, entered into all kinds of "united front" alliances with the communists; the hard-line anti-Soviet AFL spurned all of Moscow's overtures. While the socialist British Labor Party conference in 1933, with Hitler in power in Germany, voted not just for the reduction of the Royal Air Force but for its total abolition, American labor leadership rejected such misguided pacifism and "America First" isolationism.

West European unions were exchanging trade union delegations with the Soviet Union as they denounced Franco Spain's unions but the AFL, and later the AFL-CIO, adamantly refused to exchange delegations either with Moscow or Madrid. West European socialist-oriented labor exemplified something George Orwell wrote about Marxist intellectuals: "The sin of nearly all left-wingers from 1933 onwards is that they have wanted to be anti-Fascist without being anti-totalitarian."

The title of this book, by the way, is a play on the title of a 1935 satirical novel by Nobel Prize winner Sinclair Lewis, "It Can't Happen Here." Lewis tried to show how fascism, led by Huey Long and the Catholic priest Charles Coughlin, came to America while people smugly believed it could never happen in America.

What didn't happen in America the prospering of a socialist party has been a century-old puzzle to academics the world over, especially so when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had predicted that the United States would be the first industrial country to go socialist. One of the earliest to raise the question of why it didn't happen here was the German economist, Werner Sombart, who asked in 1906: "Why no socialism in the United States?" His answer was a memorable metaphor:

"On the reefs of roast beef and apple pie socialistic Utopias of every sort are sent to their doom."

The puzzle of American "exceptionalism" stunned European socialists because American unions were not docile collaborators with capital; rather, they were quite militant. In fact, industrial relations in the United States before World War II and for some of the postwar years were full of violence on both sides, more so than in Europe. Yet picket-line violence, real and threatened, did not create what Marxists called "working-class consciousness," a putative prerequisite to a proletarian revolution.

Perhaps the American worker was acting out what Samuel Gompers, first AFL president, told a U.S. Senate inquiry when asked what were labor's aims: "To get more." And when they got more, what then? Came the reply: "To get still more."

There is one omission from this superb study: an examination of the disastrous third party 1948 presidential campaign of Henry A. Wallace. The former vice president ran against President Truman as the candidate of the Progressive Party, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Communist Party. Even though Wallace had some labor support, it consisted almost entirely of the minority communist leadership in the then-CIO, not the rank-and-file. Once more American workers failed to fulfill their Marx-assigned role as the gravediggers of capitalism. Instead they became the gravediggers of Marxist socialism.

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