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Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The American Left's Unique Political Traditions: An Exchange With A Visitor

Our thanks to James Ruhland, a buggy visitor, for his stimulating comments: in particular, about the impact of economic influences in helping to account for the unique non-socialist nature of the American left in politics, whether past or present.


Prof Bug:


Is the emphasis on wage levels corresponding to presence or absence of a strong Marxist/Socialist tradition really warranted, given that Marxist and Socialist movements have more often than not originated not from the bottom, but instead from fairly well-off, well-educated segments of a population?

It's an observation made by Joshua Muravchik in his book Heaven on Earth. Those who clamor most for Socialism, those most likely to adhere to Marxist views, are rarely the poorest. They're most often a educated - if politically disempowered - class. The members of the Bolshevik movement weren't from poor backgrounds. Neither were the founders of the British Labour movement.


Muravchik believes that what made America distinctive was the nature of our own Labour movement, and its leaders, from Gompers to Meany, who rejected Socialistic/Class-warfare solutions. The focus on America's PCI relative to that of other nations as an explanation for the lack of a strong Marxist movement seems - well, almost Marxist in its Materialism.


Thank you for the comments, all stimulating and in effect reducible to two different sets: one about the leaders and mass-following in the Marxist movements, and the other about economic influences in shaping the American left's history. What follows are the buggy replies to each set.


I. Who Led the Socialist and Communist Parties and What Were the Bases of Their Mass Followings?


1) The Mass-Based Support of Social Democratic Parties


It's true that the leaders of Socialist Parties in the 19th and 20th centuries were middle class types, usually intellectuals, but there would have been no mass party following except for large numbers of the new urban working classes flocking to their socialist messages and platforms . . . especially, of course, in those countries in West Europe (or elsewhere) that had mass democratic franchises. The same observation about intellectual leaders is even more applicable to the Communist Parties, or their forerunners like the Russian Social-Democrats cleaved into two wings (Bolsheviks and Mensheviks), before and after 1918.


2) The Main Difference Between The Mass Followers of Communist and Social Democratic Parties After 1918.


The mass grass-roots supporters of Socialist parties were urban working classes, even if the leaders were still middle class themselves. By contrast, even in revolutionary Russia in 1917-18 and during the civil war period over the next three or four years, the urban working classes were very small in number, and Lenin and Trotsky and the rest of the Bolshevik leadership relied increasingly on the support of peasants, drawn to the party in that period by two policies: an abrupt end to the murderous war with Germany in early 1918 and the simultaneous transfer of huge estates to peasant ownership.


That policy of support in the countryside was then consolidated after the civil war ended after the civil war ended, roughly 1921, by the New Economic Policy, which allowed the peasants to keep their land for private use . . . even as the policy encouraged private manufacturing. The NEP lasted about eight years. It clearly enjoyed mass support, both in the countryside and in the cities. Only with Stalin's drastic industrialization of a command economy beginning in the late 1920s --- which nationalized all land under state ownership and forced the peasants into collective factory-farms --- did the peasants in great number fight back, burn their livestock and crops, and became increasingly repressed, crushed, and killed until all resistance was tamed. Large numbers of peasants in the Ukraine, one of the Soviet Union's biggest grain-producer, were slaughtered in enforced famine from Moscow.


3) The Communist Discovery of the Peasantry


Beginning in the 1920s, there was a further shift by small Communist parties in backward countries --- especially in China --- toward a mass peasant-base. Small wonder. There was scarcely any urban working class to mobilize in that country or elsewhere; by contrast peasants --- brutalized there as they had been in East Europe and Russia for hundreds of years by luxury-loving aristocratic landlords and rapacious states --- were the bulk of the populations, and what's more, their hatred of the landlords and state bureaucrats (and security forces) could easily be mobilized by an effective CP leadership for revolution . . . particularly with the breakthrough development of guerrilla warfare and the political mobilization of the peasants by Mao and his followers in the Chinese CP.


4) Peasant-Based Communist Revolutions Were Always Led by Intellectuals


Needless to say, in China or Vietnam or Yugoslavia --- to take three countries with large indigenous revolutions that brought Communists to power without the presence on their soil of the Soviet Red Army --- the leaders were all university-educated intellectuals from the middle classes. The same is true of the mass-murdering Pol Pot Communist leaders in Cambodia in the 1970s and early 1980s: most were educated in France. In Cuba, Castro relied more on an urban-based support, not just peasants, but then he took power without claiming to be a Communist, something he only discovered to be his preference, it seems, after his success in the late 1950s.


One other point is worth noting in passing: the big difference between the Chinese peasantry and Russian state- and collectivized farmers since Maoism in China (1979) and Communism in the Russia.


By 1991, when the Communist system collapsed in Russia, farmers there had known only state- and collective-farms for over 6 decades. Nobody knew anything about capitalism, and at most farmers --- who were more or less agrarian factory workers --- had had some experience with small patches they could cultivate for personal use. By contrast, China's peasantry had been collectivized for less than 3 decades when the shift towards privatization in the countryside began in 1979. Unlike the Russian farmers who were totally uninterested in responding to new market-based incentives and land ownership, China's farmers --- most of whom remembered what a pre-Communist system was --- responded with diligent promptness. The result was a massive increase in agricultural production and output, which also freed up well over a hundred million formerly destitute peasants for work in the expanding industrial sectors in town-and-country enterprises.


II. Economic Influences in Shaping the Non-Socialist History of the Left in American Politics


1) What Explains the Absence of Socialism and Marxism on the American Left?


As for the explanation of why there is no socialist or Marxist tradition in US politics, I agree: economic factors alone aren't the only causal influences, important as they are --- and not only agree, it's something the article here clearly set out. For that matter, we haven't even finished looking at the economic influences, such as property or land ownership in the 19th century in the US. Political, social, and cultural influences also count.


That said, you downplay wrongly, it seems, even the two economic influences singled out so far --- an unusually high real wage by international standards for unskilled workers in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and an unusually high standard of living to boot. Recall that though Britain, the first industrial country, had a higher per capita income throughout almost all the 19th century compared to the US, American wages --- for the unskilled (the vast bulk of laborers at the time) --- were twice as high as far back as the 1830s, and were still 54% higher in 1914 on the eve of WWI despite a tremendous outflow of workers from Britain and Europe who immigrated in large number to the US (about 33 million in the period of the 19th century down to 1922), as well as several million others who went to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, and Argentina.


2) High Wages (and Other Economic Influences) vs. Pragmatic Trade Unions Alone: Britain and the US


To grasp the importance of very high wages, note that a pragmatic trade union movement does not itself guarantee there won't be eventually a major socialist political party in a country.


Consider Britain as a foil here.

There, too, trade unions were legalized early on ---more or less in the 1820s, despite legal restraints of a limited sort that persisted --- and their leaders were pragmatic and non-socialist as well. Unlike on the Continent where the struggle to gain union rights coincided with the struggle of the working classes for a democratic vote --- which meant that almost all trade unions on th Continent allied early on with the new Socialist parties --- there was no socialist party of any sort in Britain for several decades. Even when the working classes began to get the right to vote --- in 1867, then more generally in the mid-1880s --- no socialist party ever emerged. The workers with a vote either supported Liberal or Conservative party leaders and candidates.


That all changed in 1900. A combination of trade union leaders, middle-class intellectuals, and disenchated Liberals formed the Labour Party. Never Marxist, it nonetheless immediately joined the Marxist Second International Socialist Movement and committed itself to altering capitalism in Britain along socialist lines.


3) Note the stress on Labour's commitment to changing the economic status quo of capitalism.


In particular, even though the Labour Party never bought into the European and other Socialist Parties' notions of class-conflict and class-warfare, it did eventually adopt a full-blooded socialist program in 1918, right after WWI. In clause 4 of its new constitution, to be more specific, Labour adopted a policy platform that committed it to full socialization of the economy --- read, full nationalization. That commitment remained in place for decades. After 1945, when Labour finally attained full power for the first time in Britain --- no longer dependent on Liberal Party support as it had been briefly twice in the 1920s --- the two Attlee governments moved quickly to nationalize much of basic production in the country. What followed? Only in the late 1950s did the party formally renounce the goals of full socialization and opted in theory for doing what it had done in the late 1940 and campaigned on in the 1950s: expand the regulatory-and-welfare-state system in ambitious ways while leaving capitalism (and a fair amount of nationalized industry) intact.


That, to repeat, was the shift in basic policies of Labour in the late 1950s.


Since then, Labour has gone further under Tony Blair's leadership in renouncing its early socialist heritage. It has cut back mightily on its welfare-state ambitions; agreed with Margaret Thatcher's de-nationalization schemes of the 1980s; and generally adhered to most of the other free-market reforms that Thatcher's Conservative governments undertook in the 1980s. In that respect, the party can't be regarded as socialist any more in even a watered-down form.


4) The bottom-line conclusion here?


Pragmatic trade unionism from the outset doesn't explain much, by itself, whether the US or Britain would eventually have a socialist party. Britain has had such a party, the US hasn't.


More concretely, both the British and American trade union movements were pragmatic from the outset: both enjoyed legalization early on; didn't espouse initially socialist goals; were in fact generally non-political; and their members and other workers had the vote fairly early on in their unions' histories. And yet in Britain, after 1900, a major working-class socialist party, non-Marxist in nature, emerged and eventually nationalized much of Britain industry while developing an extensive regulatory-and-weflare state system . . . whereas in the US no working-class party ever did materialize, Marxist or otherwise.


Other influences, economic and otherwise, had to be at work in explaining these differences. Setting them out and analyzing them one by one is what this buggy mini-series on American ideology is partly about.


The much higher standard of living in the US, particularly high real wages, was one big factor in accounting for the difference, though --- to repeat --- other influences counted too, and we will be looking at them in detail starting soon. One of these, related to wages and living standards, was the belief in considerable opportunity for self-betterment and individual upward mobility. Another was the huge diffusion of property ownership in the US: by the 1830s, 80% of Americans owned farming land of their own, a striking contrast with Europe. Yet another influence was that American workers had the right to vote for all offices without property qualifications by the 1830s' Jacksonian revolution: in fact, 67% of white males could vote in 1840 or so, whereas the equivalent in Britain was 2-3% (concrete figures will be given later). Even after the 1867 legislation that gave many British workers the right to vote in parliamentary elections, property qualifications remained a pre-condition for another two decades or so.


III. What Will Follow in the Series


In the meantime, the next article in this series will continue the economic analysis, focusing on the distribution of income --- historically less unequal in the US than in Europe right down through the 1960s (despite obvious growing inequality within the United States as it rapidly industrialized after the Civil War and 20-25 million poor immigrants streamed into urban centers and formed large ethnic-based communities).


In the meantime, our thanks once more to James for his very thought-provoking comments that enabled these Prof Bug observations to be set out here.

Replies: 2 comments

Greetings, thanks for the response, and I look forward to the upcomming articles.

Yah (grrr), I meant Tito when I wrote Trotsky. A mental hiccup >_< I was thinking Tito and wrote Trotsky, for inexplicable reasons.


Posted by James Ruhland @ 12/23/2004 02:17 PM PST

Greetings, thanks tons for the extensive reply. A couple observations:

"Lenin and Trotsky and the rest of the Bolshevik leadership relied increasingly on the support of peasants, drawn to the party in that period by two policies: an abrupt end to the murderous war with Germany in early 1918 and the simultaneous transfer of huge estates to peasant ownership."

To me that illustrates not the appeal of Marxism to the peasants, but the opposite. Opposition to the war is, IMO, independent of Marxism - though the Bolsheviks road it to power.

A desire for private land ownership also does not demonstrate an attraction to Marxist theory - quite the contrary. The struggle of the Kulaks against collectivism shows just how strongly they wanted private ownership, not Socialized or communal control.

The Bolskeviks did not ride a wave of mass Marxist appeal to power - they road opposition to the war, and a desire for private land ownership, to power.

Trotsky's rise to power in Yugoslavia may or may not illustrate the appeal of Marxism to the masses - it might instead illustrate the charisma of a successful war-leader who resisted foreign occupation in a dynamic way. I will say that from what I've read, Eastern Europe did not have a major Marxist movement until after the Red Army washed over it - then people joined Communist Parties, arguably because it was a ticket to power (you couldn't hold it unless you were a member of the CP. Stalin wouldn't let you). Vietnam arguably falls into the same category: Ho Chi Mihn was a successful resistor of foreign occupation and that appealed to the nationalism of the Vietnamese. The fact that he was Marxist made them (accidentally) Communist. If he had been of some other ideology, then that would have prevailed.

Western European countries such as France and Italy *did* have significant Marxist/Socialist movements, though, and China is its own case as well. Was it the Marxism of Mao's movement that brought people to it? In the end he did prove persuasive on that score, presenting it as "the" alternative to the corrupt aristocracy that still controlled most of China throughout the Komuntang (spelling is probably off there) period. They didn't see its dark side until after '48.

Buggy Prof later writes:

"by contrast peasants --- brutalized there as they had been in East Europe and Russia for hundreds of years by luxury-loving aristocratic landlords and rapacious states --- were the bulk of the populations."

That's certainly true, but a dislike of the ruling aristocracy does not automatically translate into Marxism or Socialism, until that seems to become "the alternative" - an alternative raised by the middle-class intellectuals that led such movements.

But raising that point illustrates that there was always greater class-conciousness in not only Eastern Europe but Western Europe, including Britain, and Asia (China mentioned) than in America, even before America's living-standards surpassed those of Britain.

Might it be that relative absence of class conciousness, sense of itself as a middle-class nation, that set America apart? That in turn led to a greater adhesion to market principles, limited government (rather than provider-government), and the like, which then led to a higher standard of living. That is, the higher PCI was the result of the exceptional American attitude, rather than the creator of that exceptionalism.

"As for the explanation of why there is no socialist or Marxist tradition in US politics, I agree: economic factors alone aren't the only causal influences, important as they are --- and not only agree, it's something the article here clearly set out."

Well, it's a matter of emphasis - in your opinion, I downplay the economic factors too much, while I think you emphasized them too much. 8-)

We'd have to go deeper into why unskilled labor was paid more in America than in Britain, which you might cover later, to see how it relates. I suppose it would be appropriate to ask a question regarding the higher wages paid to unskilled American workers as far back as 1830 as to whether those calculations include enslaved labor or not - enslaved labor in the American south being unpaid (though receiving goods-in-kind for subsistance).

But I'm not sure you mentioned the pre-existing (relative*) lack of class-conciousness in America compared to other nations, including Britain (of course, America does have some class-conciousness, class distinctions, including early on. The antibellum American South, alluded to above, arguably had the most distinction between planter aristocracy and lower classes - but even American slavery, while by no means pleasant or excusable - was relatively "milder" compared to that practiced in French Haiti or Portugese Brazil).

Britain is a useful foil in this exchange because, arguably, they had less of a class-distinction than in continental European countries. Thus it might not be surprising that they "lagged" in the creation of class-based politics. Britain had its revolutions (Cromwell et al) relatively earlier and relatively milder than on the Continent (the Terror followed by Bonepartism, for example - then an attempted return to Ancien Regime control).

Colbertism was, I believe, brought up in one of your pieces but that illustrates that command-economics, mercantilist solutions, "managed trade" and regulated practices predate Marxism and Socialism in the (continental) European tradition.

"That, to repeat, was the shift in basic policies of Labour in the late 1950s."

Oh, I'm not disputing what the policies of Labour or Socialist movements were.

Overall, I suppose I'm asking a "Chicken or Egg" question - which came first, and which was the consequence (more than the cause) of the other? Did the exceptional American wages for unskilled labor come first, and result in an exceptional American attitude towards Political Economy? Or was it the obverse - an exceptional American outlook on class and related questions of Political Economy resulted in greater adhesion to market principles, which Buggy Prof has demonstrated lead to higher living standards (thus raising the well-being of paid unskilled labor, that then reinforcing/bolstering the American exceptionalism on Political Economy)?

I suppose a counterpoint here might be our own early version of Colbertism, Hamiltonianism, but that never entailed the class-divisions that existed elsewhere or the attitude that lower classes were less worthy (and thus less worthy of being paid for their work), and it had to compete with a Jeffersonianism that, when woven with Jacksonianism, created an outlook of opportunity-to-prosper for all (which I would argue was already there, incipient in the colonial period. That is, colonizing a distant land attracted a certain sort of individual - an individual - that differed from the start from the peasantry & worker-bees that remained behind).

Hmmmn. . .now I'm thinking a comparison with the Australian experience might help me here. And it really would be good to know if the data for the wage-rate of unskilled American labor circa 1830 counted unpaid slave labor, or left those (millions) out of the calculation.


Very good rejoinders, James. No point in my dealing with them now. By the time the next two or three articles are finished, we'll have covered all the various influences --- economic and non-economic --- that have shaped the unique nature of the US political left. You'll find that I agree with you on one key point: a lack of powerful class consciousness of the sort that existed in Europe, Asia, and Latin America in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries . . . at any rate, on the part of the large masses of population in each of the countries there, whether urban working classes or peasants.

One main reason for the very diffuse sense of a working-class consciousness here is economic: large property ownership in the US in the early 19th century, among free-farmers . . . reinforced by all the huge land to the west of all habitations, save on the Pacific coast. 80% of American (white) males owned land of their own, mainly for farming, in the 1830s --- a big contrast with Europe and elsewhere. A high wage level, dealt with already, reinforced this. Another factor we'll single out: the big ethnic and racial divisions within the US working classes, especially in urban areas as the US industrialized. Those divisions worked against a coherent ethnic consciousness of the sort that materialized among a much more ethnically homogeous English or German or French or Argentine or Chinese workers (or peasants).

Then too there was early voting rights for white males in the US: 10-20 times higher, as you'll see, than in Britain during the 1830s. Anyway, the list of influences runs on, and I look forward to more comments from you.

Thanks again! Well done! (One minor error, no doubt a typo: Yugoslavia's key Communist leader was Tito, and afte 1945. Trotsky, of course --- as you clearly know --- was second in command of the Bolshevik wing of the Russian Social Democratic Party, later Communist after 1918, just behind Lenin.

Posted by James Ruhland @ 12/22/2004 07:56 PM PST