Socialism and Radical Thought

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Editors: Mary Kupiec Cayton and Peter W. Williams
Date: 2001
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 5,338 words
Lexile Measure: 1460L

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Definition and Overview

Radicalism has been, paradoxically, at the center as well as the margin of American intellectual and cultural life. The American nation, although born of a revolutionary upheaval that Europeans took as a profound challenge to the old regime, has often displayed great suspicion of--even hostility toward--its radicals who seek deeper political and social transformations. Yet American radicals, despite the stigma and repression visited upon them, have contributed beyond their numbers to many of the nation's most celebrated intellectual and cultural achievements.

Radicalism means fundamental opposition to the prevailing social order. The ambition of radicals is to cut to the root of things, as the word "radical," which shares the same Latin ancestry as "radish," literally implies. It is not unusual for the term to be applied to extremists, but it is best reserved for those on the left, from progressives to revolutionaries. Other constructions mislead, especially when they include a far right that seeks to expand racial, class, and gender privileges. Radicalism, in other words, entails a visionary, sometimes utopian, aspiration to remake the world on the basis of the principle of human equality.

Socialism is the primary form of modern radicalism. The word sometimes functions as a vague humanistic ideal, but more exactly it suggests a society of common ownership in which public use, not private gain, is the baseline of production, and in which solidarity replaces alienation and exploitation. Thus, equality of condition, not mere opportunity, is axiomatic for radicals, and culture, politics, and economics are indissoluble for them. Radicals have tended to desire the reduction if not elimination of all invidious forms of privilege based upon privately appropriated wealth, and a culture in which creative development of personality replaces self-centered individualism.

Since the early nineteenth century, radicals have tended to oppose capitalism, the modern system of production motivated by private profit and characterized by market exchange and wage labor. The radical view has been that despite economic dynamism and technological innovations, capitalism on the whole is irrational, unreliable, and exploitative. Radicals have objected to other aspects of modern society as well, including racial oppression, imperialism, and militarism, and have tended to consider these endemic, hence requiring deep structural transformation rather than mere policy changes. Radicals have played a leading role in movements to abolish slavery and racial segregation, to obtain full social and political equality for women, to challenge empire and expansion (from the Mexican-American conflict of 1846 to 1848 through the Vietnam and Persian Gulf Wars), and to achieve an environmentally sustainable society. On the other hand, in numerous instances radicals involved in one or more of these causes failed, for a variety of reasons, to extend full or consistent support to the others.

Radicalism is distinguished from other forms of political thought, such as liberal reformism, not only by the extent of its egalitarianism but by the willingness of radicals to go beyond conventional means. Radicals have deliberately violated laws--for example, Jim Crow ordinances and constraints on free expression--that they deem unjust or illegitimate. They have also been willing to sabotage property and commit acts of violence, especially in self-defense against attacks on them. Moral and strategic controversy, however, has accompanied every unconventional tactic, and some radicals have advocated "safe and legal" approaches or declared themselves principled pacifists.

The vast literature on American radicalism has returned time and again to a central question framed at the dawn of the twentieth century by the German sociologist Werner Sombart: "Why is there no socialism in the United States?" Why is the American working class not more class-conscious? Why, despite sometimes ferocious workplace militancy, have American workers often aspired to become employers rather than challenge class rule? Why does America lack a mass party like the declared social-democratic parties of Europe?

One possible answer lies in Sombart's own oft-quoted answer: "On the reefs of roast beef and apple pie, socialistic utopias of every sort are sent to their doom" (in Daniel Bell, Marxian Socialism in the United States, p. 4). The very strength of American capitalism has made challenges to it difficult, even if according to the precepts of historical materialism that very maturity ought to have made it ripe for the plucking. Other commentators have attributed the weakness of American socialism and class consciousness to a host of other factors: the individualism and nationalism so prevalent in American ideology, the identification of native-born workers with conventional politics as a result of the early extension of the ballot, the extraordinary ethnic diversity and racial divides in the American working class, the unusual geographic and occupational mobility characteristic of American life, the capacity of the two parties dominant since the Civil War to absorb radical demands and fend off all would-be challengers, the ferocity of governmental and extra-legal repression visited upon American radicals, or the tactical, strategic, organizational, and ideological shortcomings of American radicals themselves. As historian Eric Foner has observed, however, many of these factors have actually proved radicalizing--and there are exceptions to them, too. The entire framing of debate in terms of "why is there no socialism" may prove less and less fruitful as the demise of the nominally socialist states of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, combined with the adaptation of western European parties to American-style campaigns and neoliberal politics, makes the United States seem in the vanguard rather than an exception.

Origins of American Radicalism

Although colonial America never had the landed aristocracy, feudal system, or extent of ecclesiastical domination that galvanized European social and political radicalism, the American Revolution had radical features. Enlightenment themes of reason, progress, and liberty were pronounced in Thomas Paine's pamphlet Common Sense (1776), a stirring plebeian call for full independence. In popular language, Paine demanded a democratic republic, opposed monarchy, and inveighed against hereditary privilege. Because the American Revolution was led by slaveholders and property owners, however, it has been a source of ambivalence for the Left. At times radicals have viewed the Revolution as a reluctant secession by a colonial elite devoted above all else to its propertied interests. At others, as during the Popular Front of the 1930s, the left has attempted to lay claim to the American fountainhead by emphasizing the Revolution's popular elements and libertarian themes.

The earliest form of American socialism was shaped, in any case, not by Paine's secularism but by Protestantism. The German sects at Ephrata in Pennsylvania and Amana in Iowa, the Shakers, and the Oneida colony of John Humphrey Noyes all exhibited a perfectionist instinct to withdraw from the sinful world to live as a community of saints, combining paternalism with common ownership of goods. Understandings of perfection varied, from the Shakers' ascetic program of celibacy to Noyes's doctrine of "complex marriage," which held the sexual impulse symbolic of spiritual union. Besides these exclusive religious ventures, there were socialist communities that aspired to be prototypes for universal social reorganization, such as the experiment inspired between 1825 and 1828 by Robert Owen. A successful textile manufacturer in Scotland, Owen sought to persuade business and political leaders to adopt his benevolent practices and enact educational reforms. On arriving in the United States, he addressed both houses of Congress, met with John Quincy Adams, and purchased land at New Harmony, Indiana, for a model of his system, which suffered severe schisms within two years.

The evangelical Protestantism of the Second Great Awakening, with its emphasis upon the responsibility of each individual to reject sin, contributed to radical abolitionism. William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper, the Liberator, established in Boston in 1831, was an unprecedented vehicle for demanding the immediate end of slavery and full civic equality regardless of race. Although divisions arose between those who advocated slave insurrections, like John Brown, and those, like Garrison and Frederick Douglass, who favored legislative and moral means to abolition, the radical abolitionist movement was a serious challenge to the ruling planter class of the South and to a form of property excused by the Constitution. It helped to alter public opinion and eventually spark a national crisis in the Civil War, culminating in emancipation.

Abolitionism fed many related movements, notably the women's rights campaign launched at the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, and to many nineteenth-century reformers, these causes were congruent. Sojourner Truth, an ex-slave and abolitionist, was fervently evangelical and spoke for women's rights. Henry David Thoreau, whose essay "Resistance to Civil Government" (1849) called for active disobedience of unjust governments and wars, defended Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. Transcendentalism, in fact, was centered in Massachusetts in the 1840s at Brook Farm, a religious-naturalist community influenced by the ideas of French utopian Charles Fourier.

Utopian socialists and radical abolitionists, however, had little connection to the labor movement before the Civil War. That was not the case with the Germans, beginning with the "'forty-eighters" forced into exile after the failed European revolutions, who became the first important immigrant ethnic group to contribute to the emergent American Left. With strong convictions, working-class loyalties, and an array of cultural institutions that by the late nineteenth century would include German-language newspapers, singing societies, gymnasiums, and labor lyceums, German American socialists played a dominant role in American radicalism through the 1890s--even, in strongholds like Milwaukee, into the 1930s and 1940s.

Ironically, given their criticisms of the utopians, the German American socialists were often insular, failing to reach native-born workers and disdainful of native-born radicals. In the Civil War period, Friedrich Sorge and others maintained active ties to the London-based Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who advocated trade-union action and revolutionary engagement with the main lines of historical development as against small-scale models, reformism, or adventurism. The socialists helped to establish a Yankee section of the heterogeneous First International, or International Workingmen's Association (1864-1872). After the inspiration of the Paris Commune (1870-1871), many native-born radicals grew attracted to the International, including sisters Tennessee Claflin and Victoria Woodhull, whose newspaper called for women's rights, world government, and free love, with the slogan "Progress! Free Thought! Untrammeled Lives!" To Sorge and other 'forty-eighters, Woodhull and Claflin's Weekly was the embarrassing work of reckless dilettantes and, when the First International lived out its last moment in New York, it was only after a purge of the native-born American reformers and their spiritualist-feminist ideas.

Conscious of their isolation, German American socialists tried to reach beyond their enclave by participating in 1876 in the formation of the first national-scale socialist party, the Workingmen's Party of the United States. In a strategic rupture that would be characteristic of the American Left, the party dissolved the following year with the defection of many (including Sorge as well as Adolph Strasser and Samuel Gompers, later to found the American Federation of Labor, or AFL) who believed it premature to run candidates before a trade union movement was securely established. Renamed the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) in 1877, the remaining party tried to bring together a multiethnic immigrant base, though it never integrated many native-born Americans. The SLP enjoyed some electoral success and established a trade union federation premised upon socialist political action before falling under the sway of Daniel De Leon, a brilliant but highly orthodox Marxist. Despite SLP hopes that he would reach new, especially Jewish, audiences, De Leon led it into sectarian sterility, epitomizing the exaggerated suspicion of others' purity that would recur in many other radical quarters.

American labor militancy rose sharply in the Gilded Age with the massive industrial eruptions that began with the nationwide railroad-centered strike of 1877, which had wide socialist participation. The 1877 upheaval was followed by other violent eruptions, including the repression of anarchists following a bombing at Chicago's Haymarket Square in 1886, a massive steel strike at Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892, and a strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company in Illinois in 1894 that was supported by the nation's rail workers. While reaching such intellectual heights as Henry George's economic treatise, Progress and Poverty (1879), Robert Koehler's paintings, The Socialist (1885) and The Strike (1886), Edward Bellamy's visionary novel, Looking Backward (1888), and Henry Demarest Lloyd's exposé of Standard Oil, Wealth against Commonwealth (1894), Gilded Age radicalism was, nevertheless, often a frustrating mishmash to socialists and anarchists, who joined it in common cause and found it better at identifying injustices than offering remedies. The Greenback movement, Knights of Labor, and People's Party drew upon the civic egalitarianism of American republicanism to favor the independent small producer--the artisan worker and small farmer. Viewing small property as the foundation of economic and civic virtue, their leaderships were suspicious of large accumulations of wealth but tended to emphasize anti-monopoly over anti-capitalism, and their economic prescriptions tended to target tax, currency, and credit rather than the realm of production seen as paramount by Marxists. Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), which excoriated elites as wasteful and parasitical, reflected this sensibility.

As Reconstruction came to an end in 1877, radicals and their organizations, such as the all-inclusive Knights, proved among the most egalitarian and tolerant of their day. Though not free of racism--native-born and Irish American labor radicals were among the most ardent exponents of Chinese exclusion--radicals were often the most principled advocates of equality. The Workingmen's Party included the first known African American socialist, Peter H. Clark. Albert Parsons, who at the time of his hanging in 1887 for his unproven role in the Haymarket bombing was the leading anarchist of his day, was a radical Texan who advocated the rights of freed people and married Lucy Gatherings, a woman of black, Mexican, and Indian heritage. Yet race could also prove divisive. Many white radicals capitulated to rising white supremacy. The demise of the Populist movement--which had elected congressmen and carried several states in the 1892 presidential election--had much to do with its ineffectiveness in the face of race manipulation by the Democratic establishment in the South. Georgia Populist Tom Watson, who had urged unity between black sharecroppers and poor white dirt farmers to fight the middlemen, banks, and railroads, was by 1912 a Catholic-baiting anti-Semite who denounced Woodrow Wilson for being "ravenously fond of the Negro," even though Wilson soon instituted segregation in federal facilities.

Debsian Socialism

One of the ironies in the history of American socialism is that when Werner Sombart asked, "Why is there no socialism in the United States?" in 1906, there was, in fact, socialism. The Socialist Party, which came to be the relatively durable, sizable socialist organization that radicals had been unable to forge in earlier periods, arose from the labor-farmer radicalism of the 1880s and 1890s. It was founded in 1901 as a merger of Social Democracy of America (headed by Indiana railway union leader Eugene V. Debs, radicalized by the Pullman strike) and some SLP defectors. By its height in 1912, the Socialist Party had 1,200 local elected officials and 33 state legislators, controlled municipal governments in cities ranging from Schenectady, New York, to Berkeley, California, and boasted more than three hundred sympathetic papers, including monthlies, weeklies, and dailies. The Appeal to Reason (1895-1922), the most successful of the socialist weeklies, had 750,000 subscribers and printed millions of copies of its special editions. Debs, the Socialist standard-bearer, won almost one million votes (6 percent of the total) in the presidential race of 1912.

Despite the charge that American socialism has been "in the world but not of it," as Daniel Bell wrote regarding radicals' sectarianism and dogmatism, the Debs era is notable for the creative immersion of American socialists in a variety of local conditions and milieus. Even rural states like Iowa, Arkansas, and Kansas were each home to more than a dozen socialist papers. In Wisconsin, Victor Berger was elected to the House of Representatives in 1910 and five times thereafter. Among tenant farmers in Oklahoma and Texas, socialists drew upon the tradition of religious tent meetings, holding gatherings of song, food, and education that could last for days. Slovaks, Slovenes, and Bohemians in industrial Chicago, Italians in New York, and other immigrant groups joined in large numbers. By 1910 the largest-circulation Yiddish paper in the world was New York's socialist Jewish Daily Forward, reaching 200,000. Its editor Abraham Cahan's novel, The Rise of David Levinsky (1917), spoke to the quandaries of assimilation. Chicago socialist publisher Charles H. Kerr, through his book publishing and in his periodical, the International Socialist Review (1900-1918), promoted works by novelists Jack London and Upton Sinclair (whose best-selling 1906 novel, The Jungle, was first serialized in the Appeal), humorist Oscar Ameringer, lawyer Clarence Darrow, and muckraker Gustavus Myer. The general bent, however, was didactic, lending some credence to middle-class progressive Walter E. Weyl's 1912 diary complaint that American socialists were "second raters, ... merely weak repeaters of other people's thoughts."

Such was not the case in Greenwich Village, where a creative New York avant-garde--including "new dance" innovator Isadora Duncan, poet Carl Sandburg, artists John Sloan and Art Young, dadaist Man Ray, and essayist Randolph Bourne--combined solidarity with artistic experimentation. In the freewheeling Masses (1911-1917), writers Floyd Dell, Max Eastman, John Reed, and Louise Bryant evinced modernist interest in psychoanalysis, free love, and feminism along with political sympathy for the class-struggle left wing in the Socialist Party, though others, like anarchist Emma Goldman, believed a classless society would never come about by the ballot. This cosmopolitan left embraced the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, a revolutionary union forged in 1905 that organized a number of militant industrial campaigns, one of which was commemorated in the "Pageant of the Paterson Strike" organized by Reed and performed by over one thousand workers at Madison Square Garden in 1913. The IWW was open--unlike the AFL--to women, blacks, and immigrants, and it created a spirited culture of jokes, cartoons, and such songs as Joe Hill's "There Is Power in a Union" and Ralph Chaplin's "Solidarity Forever."

As the increase in female industrial labor rendered the Victorian doctrine of separate spheres less and less tenable, questions of reproduction and gender resurfaced. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Women and Economics (1898), which advocated women taking productive roles outside the home, was not as influential as August Bebel's Woman under Socialism (1879), translated by De Leon, which treated the oppression of women and exploitation of workers as parallel, with socialism the only answer. Although some socialists considered woman suffrage a bourgeois diversion, others contributed to its passage in 1920. Many publicly visible women espoused socialism, including birth-control campaigner Margaret Sanger, deaf, mute, and blind activist Helen Keller, and mineworkers' organizer Mother Jones (known universally by that name rather than her given name, Mary Harris Jones).

Socialist advance was limited in part by theoretical weaknesses. Regulation, for example, though seen by many radicals as an initial step toward socialization (and by conservatives as socialism itself), tended to stabilize rather than transform corporate capitalism. The really crushing blow, however, came with the onset of World War I, which the Left opposed as imperial carnage. Pro-war intellectual defectors from socialism like William English Walling and Walter Lippmann became, along with the liberal New Republic and pragmatist John Dewey, the target of searing essays of conscience by Bourne. The Espionage Act (1917) and Sedition Act (1918) effectively criminalized dissent. The Left was set back severely by destructive government raids, postal-regulation interference, mob violence, and the confinement of leaders like Debs, who ran for president in 1920 from his prison cell. By the time the Red Scare reached its peak in the Palmer raids of 1919 and 1920, the Debsian left had been badly shattered, and although it underwent a brief revival in the 1930s under former minister Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party never matched its pre-war zenith.

American Communism

The emergence of the Communist Party, the dominant radical organization from its birth in 1919 through the 1950s, points to another--this time internal--source of decline of the old Socialist Party. Almost all American socialists welcomed the Soviet Revolution of 1917 in Russia, which created a workers' and peasants' government, but as the inspiration sparked revolutionary momentum in the Socialist Party's foreign-language federations, moderate and right-wing Socialist leaders maneuvered to preserve their organizational control, expelling about two-thirds of the party's membership in 1919. Joined by IWW members, the expelled created two competing Communist groups, both claiming the Marxist mantle.

The early Communist movement was made up of seasoned radicals like Reed (who died of typhus in the Soviet Union in 1920) and Wobbly firebrand Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, but the Red Scare and severe factionalism caused many to drop away. At Soviet insistence the groups united in 1923 as the Workers Party, to be renamed the Communist Party in 1929. Throughout the 1920s, the Communist ranks were small. Some artists and intellectuals, like Harlem Renaissance poet Claude McKay, were attracted early on, but the appeal only became clear in the Great Depression of the 1930s, when bleak economic conditions and the rise of fascism in Europe, along with party labor organizing and activism against unemployment, racism, and war, resulted in tens of thousands of new recruits.

Professionals, intellectuals, and artists were drawn to the party through a series of institutions. In the early 1930s, when party policy was militant, the emphasis was on a class war in culture. John Reed Clubs were created to forge agitational art: propagandistic murals, posters, and drama, as well as the "proletarian literature" typified by Michael Gold's Jews without Money (1930), a novel that concludes with a conversion to the Left. With the turn to a Popular Front around 1935, evocations of "the people" replaced the earlier identification of class with party in party-controlled institutions like the New Masses (1926-1947). An alliance with liberals was fostered, a patriotic-revolutionary tradition was imagined, and broad organizations like the American Artists' Congress and the American Writers Congress were favored. The late 1930s and 1940s were the apex of party cultural influence. Those with close ties to the Communist left included folksinger Woody Guthrie, composers Aaron Copland and Marc Blitzstein, singer Paul Robeson, playwrights Clifford Odets and Lillian Hellman, screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and Ring Lardner Jr., actor Charlie Chaplin, painter Ben Shahn, illustrator William Gropper, poet Langston Hughes, critics Kenneth Burke, Malcolm Cowley, and Granville Hicks, and novelists Theodore Dreiser, Howard Fast, and Richard Wright.

At the same time, the party came in for sharp criticism from a small but erudite group of intellectuals on the Left, notably the Partisan Review, once affiliated with the John Reed Clubs but reconstituted in 1936. Committed to Marxism but ardently opposed to the brutal and nationalist turn of the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin, as well as the perceived phoniness and vulgarity of the Popular Front, the anti-Stalinist left of the 1930s and 1940s upheld revolutionary socialism, workers' democracy, and internationalism. Many were favorably disposed toward modernism and the ideas of Leon Trotsky, the exiled Russian revolutionary Marxist. Small groups led by A. J. Muste, James P. Cannon, Jay Lovestone, and Max Shachtman, as well as forums like the Modern Quarterly (later Modern Monthly) (1923-1940) and Marxist Quarterly (1937), attracted old Masses editor Eastman, philosophers Sidney Hook and James Burnham, theorist C. L. R. James, novelists James T. Farrell, Mary McCarthy, and John Dos Passos, art critic Meyer Schapiro, literary critic Edmund Wilson, and journalist Dwight Macdonald.

While the Moscow show trials from 1936 to 1938 were a pivotal moral event for the anti-Stalinist left, the Communist Party experienced far greater defections as a consequence of the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939, which put an end to the Popular Front, and especially Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 speech against Stalin's legacy. The late-life membership of the distinguished African American intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois and the public notoriety of black women's studies scholar Angela Davis gave the Communist Party some visibility in the 1960s and 1970s, but after 1956 the party had a permanent reputation in radical circles for an authoritarian structure and stodginess, ensuring its triviality. Most party intellectuals, including those around the journal Science and Society (1936-), moved toward a more independent stance.

By the late 1950s, moreover, the party had already been severely battered by the cold war and McCarthyism. The domestic antiradicalism that reached a crescendo between 1947 and 1953 put the Left severely on the defensive. All varieties of radicals were subjected to a climate of fear and suspicion, purged from the labor movement, called before congressional investigative committees, and punished by blacklists, trials, and prison sentences. Many anti-Stalinist intellectuals dropped their anti-capitalism and made peace with the West--even, in the case of Burnham and Eastman, moving very far to the right. So did many ex-Communists, including Whittaker Chambers and Louis Budenz, demonstrating how repentance of youthful excess can take on religious dimensions even as a new "realism" is counseled.

A New Left and the Decline of Radicalism

To a greater extent than the New Left recognized, the origins of the 1960s radicalism lay in prior decades. Such periodicals as I. F. Stone's Weekly (later I. F. Stone's Bi-Weekly) (1953-1971), the National Guardian (later Guardian) (1948-1992), and Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman's Monthly Review (1949-), later joined by Harry Magdoff, reflected the emergence of an independent socialist milieu out of Popular Front circles. Opposed to the cold war, they stood at a distance from the Communist Party and strongly influenced the New Left when it emerged. Irving Howe's Dissent (1954-), originally the vehicle of decamping Shachtmanites, was sharply critical of what it saw as näiveté and adventurism in the new radicalism, but became a gathering point for erstwhile New Left intellectuals by the 1980s and 1990s. The politics of Berkeley's Hal Draper--whose essay, "The Two Souls of Socialism" (1966), helped define democratic radicalism--and the journal New Politics (1961-1977, 1986-) emerged out of the anti-Stalinist Left. A. J. Muste's peace activism, C. Wright Mills's sociology of the "power elite," and William Appleman Williams's historical assessment of American empire and corporate liberalism, all widely embraced by New Leftists, first took shape in the 1950s.

There were, however, undeniably new qualities to 1960s radicalism. Inspired by the civil rights movement and opposed to the Vietnam War, students and their community allies created a heterogeneous New Left that reached a peak from 1968 to 1970. Initially rejecting class struggle and the Stalin-Trotsky debate as passé, the New Left emphasized personal commitment, politics from the bottom up, and cultural liberation. Though the new radicals were often anti-intellectual, the New Left did contribute to social thought. The Students for a Democratic Society's "Port Huron Statement" (1962), a stirring manifesto drafted by Tom Hayden, gave eloquent expression to "participatory democracy," the idea that people should control the institutions that affect their lives. Herbert Marcuse, a lingerer from the Frankfurt school of German emigrés who resided in the United States during World War II, supplied a philosophical framework in Eros and Civilization (1955) and One-Dimensional Man (1964), arguing that consumer capitalism and technological rationality had created repressive domination, not a "free world." Folksinger Bob Dylan, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, songwriter John Lennon, and other artists and musicians of the counterculture were influenced by the political Left. In academic disciplines such as economics and literature, radical caucuses formed. In history, the journals Studies on the Left (1959-1967), Radical America (1967-), and Radical History Review (1970-) helped open a new social history.

By the early 1970s much of the Left realized that to dismiss working-class politics as a "labor metaphysic," as Mills had put it, was detrimental to practice beyond the campuses. A host of militant organizations like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Black Panther Party, League of Revolutionary Black Workers, Young Lords, and American Indian Movement put racism permanently on the defensive in American culture, and both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. drew socialist conclusions before assassination cut short their lives. But to transform society, the New Left needed more allies. Recognition of that strategic deficiency only dawned as a rash of self-defeating bombings, infighting, and revival of Stalinist dogma in Maoist form, along with a winding down of the Vietnam War and the onset of economic uncertainty in 1973, caused student radicalism to wither. Significant movements, notably feminism, gay rights, and environmentalism, grew in the 1970s and 1980s but were checked by corporate offensives and a powerful right-wing political coalition. Some intellectuals, like former Barry Goldwater speechwriter Karl Hess and National Review staffer Garry Wills, shifted from the Right toward the Left, but the larger tendency was in the opposite direction. Radicals David Horowitz, Ronald Radosh, Christopher Lasch, and Eugene D. Genovese moved rightward or to eclectic "beyond left or right" positions.

In film, left-liberalism was revived, championed by the likes of director John Sayles and actors Warren Beatty, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, and Ossie Davis, but constrained, as ever, by commercialism and corporate oversight. Radical writers who stayed the course and succeeded in reaching mass audiences in the 1980s and 1990s included foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky, historian Howard Zinn, novelist E. L. Doctorow, literary critic Edward Said, black studies scholar Cornel West, and feminist columnist Barbara Ehrenreich. Periodicals like The Nation (1865-) and In These Times (1976-) provided a stream of topical commentary, while Against the Current (1986-) preserved the wavering flame of revolutionary democratic socialism and The Baffler (1988-) revived sardonic avant-garde criticism of business culture. Advanced Marxist thought in the universities underwent a renaissance led by the likes of literary theorist Fredric Jameson, historical anthropologist Immanuel Wallerstein, and political theorist Ellen Meiksins Wood. The British socialist theoretical journal New Left Review (1960-) had several American editorial associates and established a New York arm of its Verso press, which published high-visibility books by Christopher Hitchens, Mike Davis, Alexander Cockburn, and Robert Brenner, among others.

Despite its intellectual virtuosity, the socialist left in the 1990s was at a popular low ebb. Many academic radicals adopted poststructuralism or "market socialism," departing from the left heritage of universalist egalitarianism. Though American socialists had long since stopped thinking of the East as a beacon of the future--indeed, the 1968 generation had sharply rejected the bureaucratic states' claim to represent socialism--the collapse of the Eastern European states in 1989 and Soviet Union in 1991 created a powerful presumption that "socialism is dead." Socialists objected that what had failed was not socialism but a bureaucratic class system, but short of the reemergence of sizable popular movements their view had little chance of penetrating the center-right fog. At century's end, radicals and socialists had produced no lasting movements and won no fundamental shift of power, though they had aided in human rights advances that most Americans had come to take for granted.

"Rather a Free Soul in Jail": Eugene V. Debs

These excerpts from Eugene Debs's 1918 speech in Canton, Ohio, illustrate socialist oratory at its height. The most famous speech in the history of American socialism, it resulted in a ten-year prison sentence for Debs.

I realize that, in speaking to you this afternoon, there are certain limitations placed on the right of free speech. I must be exceedingly careful, prudent, as to what I say, and even more careful and prudent as to how I say it. I may not be able to say all I think, but I am not going to say anything that I do not think. I would rather a thousand times be a free soul in jail than a sycophant and coward on the streets.

Are we opposed to Prussian militarism? Why we have been fighting it since the day the Socialist movement was born; and we are going to fight it day and night, until it is wiped from the face of the earth. ... I hate, I loathe, I despise junkers and junkerdom. I have no earthly use for the junkers of Germany; and not one particle more use for the junkers in the United States.

Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder. ... The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose--especially their lives.

Source: Tussey, pp. 243-279.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2350030126