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Sprinkle: On the Lack of an American Socialist Movement

June 25, 2011


    This article will attempt to explain, or at the very least, examine the reasons behind the lack of any successful socialist movement in the United States of America. Throughout the 1900’s, most of the world experienced some sort of socialist upheaval. Whether it was the flat out revolution in Russia, which led to the absolute obliteration of the royal Romanov family, or the more mild reforms experienced in Western Europe and Canada, a fair share of the world was beginning to lean further to the left than the Americans. In Scandinavia, a majority of the population came to embrace the reforms with open arms, whereas in Chile, Salvador Allende’s Marxist beliefs led to his suspicious “suicide.”

    However truly Marxist these individual reforms were, they were still Socialist movements of a sort. Why then was the American population so unwilling to go through any significant reform, preferring instead to slowly socialize system after system (from schools, to roads, to healthcare, etc.)? In the early 1900’s, it appeared that the United States was well on its way to its own socialist reform through the perennial presidential candidate Eugene Debs. Debs ran for president in every election from 1900 through 1912 and then ran again from a prison cell in 1920. In 1912, he actually managed 6% of the popular vote, a very high amount for a third party candidate in America.

    America even had significant socialist writers and journalists in those early years such as John Reed. Reed’s first-hand account of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the Earth, left tremors in the American psyche and was hated by the American government for its “subversiveness.” Reed was a tremendous advocate of communism and even broke ties with Debs, saying he was not going far enough in his radicalism.

    After World War I, support for socialist reform just slowly began to trickle away in America. The socialists could not find common ground to fight for and the Socialist Party ended up dividing into two separate groups, halving the percentage of the popular vote Eugene Debs would receive in his final campaign. Much of this was due to an almost xenophobic attitude towards the “reds” of the world. Many Americans looked at the Russian Revolution in horror, despite holding their own revolution in such great esteem. It is difficult to see the merit in a revolution largely against taxation when one compares it to a revolution against a essentially negligent and oppressive despot in the form of Czar Nicholas II.

    One of the biggest roadblocks to American socialism was simply a lack of people who would even consider socializing a viable option. Eugene Debs was an excellent orator and could sway just about any member of a crowd to see his side of an argument. The fact is, however, that it was impossible for Debs’ message to reach all areas of a nation where the population was as spread out as America’s. The South was nearly exclusively conservative, so Debs had little hope of finding support there, and much of the West had not yet begun to get used to being under state and federal governments, so there was little hope they would be in favor of any expanding of federal power through socialist reforms. Essentially, Manifest Destiny was one of the largest obstacles to socialism in America because people were so focused on expanding and striking it rich.

    Nations like Chile did not vote in socialist governments until the 1970’s, a time when it was much easier to spread political ideologies through radio and television. Not to mention the fact that these nations were already largely established in terms of population and the people were all living in a much greater proximity. Other nations that experienced violent revolutions, such as Guatemala, Cuba, Russia, and the Congo did so because the people were able to unite and rise up against dictatorships. Americans had the luxury of simply voting for a new president if things got too rough for the people, such as during the Great Depression. This time would have been ideal for a revolution, but not only could people simply elect a new leader, they also had to contend with a much more significant military force than the other nations.

    Lastly, World War II was a huge boon to socialism abroad in places like Western Europe, which were largely decimated after the war. People needed help and many turned to democratic socialism to receive it. Since many had no homes little possessions, other than their health after the war, universal healthcare seemed like a pretty great deal. In America, where Pearl Harbor and a few fiery balloons landing in the forests outside Astoria, Oregon were the only attacks against them, there was nothing to rebuild. People were happy to return to doing what they always had done. There was little need to dramatically change anything; citizens believed that since they won the war, they obviously had things right already. The rich were allowed to keep getting richer and the poor were allowed to keep on paying their health insurance and selling off their mortgages, just the way God intended.

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