In the late nineteenth century, the United States was the most advanced capitalist country. According to a Marxist model, this should result in the rise of socialist movements. The advance of capitalism is considered to eventually produce the means that will bring about its downfall. Why, then, has there been no significant socialist movement in American history?

The German sociologist Werner Sombart attempts to formulate a solution in his essay Why is there no socialism in the United States?, published in 1905. Sombart's analysis is focused on a comparison of the United States with Germany, which had the largest socialist party in Europe in the early 20th century. The book is divided into three sections: politics, economics, and the social environment. The crux of Sombart's argument is that all three of these combined to create circumstances in which it was extraordinarily difficult for socialist parties to emerge.

The American political system of the 19th century was not conducive for the rise of third parties. The Democrats and the Republicans dominated public life through their party machines. The first-past-the post electoral system inherited from Britain meant that it was virtually impossible for candidates outside the two parties to win office.

Sombart makes a lot of the fact that Americans had 'the free gift of the vote'. In other words, there was no comparable struggle in America for the working class to gain the vote as there was in Europe. All working class white men had the vote. Thus, the working class was already incorporated into the political system. In Europe, many working class movements initially campaigned for basic political rights. In America, however, socialist party policies had been pre-empted on this issue.

The democratic character of the American state was also significant. It contibuted to a naive belief in the possibility of ordinary individuals to influence political decision-making. This obviously legitimated the system. But more importantly, the American workers did have more say over the actions of not only the Federal government but also of numerous local officials than any European working class. Candidates in favour of working class interests could be elected, and working class people could get patronage jobs through the party machines. In this way as well, the American working man was uniquely integrated in the political system. It seems obvious that he would be averse to a movement that espoused a doctrine of overthrowing that system.

Sombart's economic argument is basically this: "All socialist utopias come to grief with roast beef and apple pie." The American worker had no need to accept socialism since he had food on his table. Sombart's argument here is based on a comparison with Germany. With numerous statistics, he attempts to demonstrate that the American worker was considerably more affluent than his German counterpart. The American worker earned about two to three times more than the German. The cost of living was roughly equal, and thus the standard of living of the American was considerably better. Consequently the American was much more content with his life. He felt no need to overthrow the existing society, whereas the poorer German was more inclined to radical politics.

The social argument can be summed up as: "no feudalism, no socialism." The United States had no feudal residues, it was from the beginning the bourgeois society par excellence. Sombart asserted that there was no essential difference between the working class and the bourgeoisie in America; the proletarian did not bow down before the aristocrat as in Europe. A sense of 'rank' was lacking. Furthermore, the absence of a feudal pecking order meant that class consciousness was virtually nonexistent among the American working class. Thus, solidarity within the working class had a much less firm basis in America than it did in Europe. To use Marx's phrase from the Eighteenth Brumaire, the American working class was perhaps a class in itself, but crucially not for itself. It did not have a basis for cohesion.

There are several defects in Sombart's argument. First of all, he ignores the fact that no blacks had the vote. Neither did women. The whole working class was therefore not integrated into the political system and there was plenty of scope for socialist parties to campaign for basic political rights for excluded groups. Furthermore, in Germany there was universal male suffrage. The Reichstag had minimal powers compared to the US Congress, but the system was more democratic than the American one. The question is more complex than what Sombart would have us believe.

The economic argument seems intuitively true. No misery, no need for socialism. But is this true? Most socialist leaders in Europe were bourgeois, not proletarian. See Marx, Engles, Lenin. It seems obvious that to be able to participate in socialist politics one has to have a level of aflluence that the average proletarian lacks. The reason that Lenin could spend decades inciting revolution in Russia was because he was a hereditary nobleman and his family had significant property from which he derived a steady income without having to work. And often, the best off sections of the working class are the most radical. Thus, it might be assumed that the affluent American working class would as a whole be more radical than the poorer German one. Whatever the truth of the matter, Sombart's crude economic analysis does not work.

What about the social argument? There is no doubt that the lack of feudalism in America is crucial to understanding the perceived lack of socialist development. But, as Karabel argues, the lack of strict social distinctions may actually legitimise the existing social order. The relative self-confidence of the American worker perhaps made him more content in his position rather than give him the boldness necessary to effect a change. The essence of the social argument seems to stand, however. Because there were no feudal residues in the United States, there was no basis for class consciousness on which a socialist movement could build.

My analysis of Sombart is obviously very limited, and I am aware that my knowledge of American history is hardly sufficient to even begin addressing the question of why no socialism exists in the United States. I have simply tried to present some of Sombart's arguments critically. Let me finish by pointing out a central puzzle that Professor Howell has stressed. It is: what does Sombart's question mean? Is it true that there has been no socialism in the United States? In a sense this is obviously true, since the United States has never been a socialist country. However, neither has Germany, Sombart's paradigm case of a country with socialism (leaving aside the DDR). But it has had a mass socialist movement. So this seems to be Sombart's meaning. Perhaps there hasn't been a mass socialist movement, but socialists were succesful at the local level in many areas in America in the early twentieth century.

One should also ask why should there be socialism in the United States? Why is the question relevant? It seems that Sombart's analysis is premised on the Marxist notion that the development of capitalism will eventually lead to the development of socialism. But if one does not accept this model, the problem ceases to be a problem. Furthermore, Sombart's question is based on the comparison with Germany. His work could be retitled: why is the United States not like Germany? Which does not seem such an important question as the one he purports to be asking. His comparative approach also invites the question, why Germany? Why not England? A comparison with Britain might have yielded considerably differing results, since even with all its feudal residues and its developed capitalism Britain had scarcely more socialism than America did. This points to a general question about the validity of historical comparisons, but that should be the subject of another node.


Howell, D. Lecture on Sombart (York, University of York)
Howell, D. Seminar on Sobart (York, University of York)
Karabel, J. 'The failure of American Socialism Reconsidered' (in the Socialist Register, 1979)
Sombart, W. Why is there no socialism in the United States?

Why is there no socialism in the United States? It's a complicated question. You'd probably need something about the length of a book to answer it properly, and you'd have to point out that actually there is some socialism in the United States, just not very much. The little socialist groups never got very far, even during the 1930s when the Great Depression was raging and the country's future was really up for grabs. Then in the 1960s, the counterculture which gripped the nation's youth wasn't at all socialist - it was a very American outburst of individualism and hedonism through which even the children of old leftists defined themselves against their (baffled) parents. Socialism has struggled to even enter the American political stage, whereas in Europe it's never fully left it. So what gives?

The answer, of course, lies in the different historical experiences of America and Europe. Modern political history begins with the Enlightenment and the invention of liberalism, in which people began to question the way society around them was structured and to dream of ways to remake it. This began in feudal Europe as liberal ideas were adopted by the new middle-class in the cities who began to question the rule of aristocrats and monarchs who controlled most of the nation's wealth in the form of massive rural estates and controls on trade. Liberalism - from where we get free-market economics, individual rights, and democracy - gave birth to political movements which wanted to break up the massive estates, put political power in the hands of a much wider group of people, and allow the free market to increase the wealth of all rather than having an economic system that mostly benefitted the already-rich.

This was broadly the idea behind the French Revolution and the American Revolution, yet the former ended in the Terror and Napoleon and the latter ended in the Constitution and Washington. Herein lies the beginning of the answer to our question. Implementing liberal ideas in Europe required a complete remaking of existing society - there were aristocrats whose heads needed chopping off, land which needed to be redistributed, the entrenched power of a conservative church to be taken apart, and angry neighbours in other countries who were worried you might give their own population ideas and so needed fending off. All of this required a powerful state. And so liberals, whose whole agenda was about decentralizing power and vesting it in the people, ended up having to centralize power in the state so that they could make war on the parts of their own society which they disliked.

By comparison, in the United States the whole social structure was already much more liberal. There was a blurring of the line between workers and owners on a scale not seen in Europe, leading to a social consensus which somewhere like France could scarcely imagine. There weren't entrenched aristocrats with private armies, or the same scale of economic monopolies and restrictions designed to keep the rich rich and the poor poor. The society which emerged from the American Revolution had its divisions - many of them regional - but it had a distribution of power and degree of social consensus which made a liberal political system viable from the start without constructing a strong state capable of smashing up the illiberal parts of society (with the exception of the South, which had to be integrated by force later).

It was this sense of unity, consensus and having already achieved a liberal society which proved such an impediment to socialism in America. The long era of social and literal warfare which began in Europe with the French Revolution - the whole modern history of Europe - led to increased spasms of extremism as the counter-revolution and conservatives fought back to defend feudalism against the liberals. When the liberals failed, the socialists appeared claiming that the liberal wasn't radical enough or willing to centralize enough power, or deploy enough violence; what really needed doing was a complete takeover of the economy to not only eject the reactionaries now but to ensure they never came back. In other words, the scale of resistance to the liberal project sparked ever more vicious attacks against those who resisted it, which in turn led to ever more vicious forms of reaction - like fascism, another thing that the U.S. (not coincidently) lacks.

By contrast, in the U.S. there was so little resistance to the liberal project that it never seemed necessary for a more extreme challenger from the left to intervene to ensure the final death of the old society. After all, the old society was already liberal: hence the glorification of America's history and the founding versus the disdain for our pre-liberal history that we usually find in Europe. Europeans view their history as a long process of waking up from a nightmare, whereas Americans view it as a constant struggle to maintain the immaculate Constitution and old values against the corrupting ways of the world. To Europeans, socialism can look like a way of finally putting the old ways down for good; to Americans, it is more likely to look like an alien threat to the City on the Hill. Believing themselves to already have freedom and equality, Americans have been suspicious of socialism as a threat to these things; while believing themselves to have neither, Europeans are more apt to embrace it.

And that is one reason why there is no socialism in the United States.

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