Socialism and America by Irving Howe, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $17.95.
December 31, 1985        

Everyone knows that chestnut about William and Henry James: one of them wrote psychological treatises that read like novels, and the other … vice versa. Irving Howe’s literary criticism has sometimes been as analytically tense and urgent as a political polemic. His new collection of political essays is written in a style as relaxed and engaging as vintage literary criticism.

Socialism and America sketches the rise and fall of the socialist movement in this country, weighs various interpretations of its failure, and speculates about what, if anything, socialism may mean hereafter. Early in this century, the Socialist Party had more than a hundred thousand members, including more than a thousand political officeholders, and 300 publications with a combined circulation of two million. Its leader, Eugene Debs, won 6 per cent of the vote in the 1912 presidential election. The Socialists seemed about to become a mass party and a presence in national politics. But within a decade the movement had fallen apart and become – what it has been ever since – marginal to American life. What happened?

Howe rounds up the usual explanations – intraparty conflicts, competition from Progressivism, government repression during World War I – but puts his own spin on them. What the Socialists lacked again and again, he argues, was flexibility, a willingness to adapt their program and rhetoric to the circumstances of their potential constituents. The Socialists’ positions on World War I, race relations, unionism, and electoral politics – and later on the New Deal and the Communist-sponsored United Front – had one thing in common: they were incomprehensible to many of the ordinary working people to whom they were addressed. Through tactical obtuseness and sectarian narrowness, the party left itself even more isolated and vulnerable than it was, in any case, bound to be. Howe patiently, charitably, recounts this history of missed opportunities.

In a broader sense, of course, the Socialists never had a chance. There are numerous competing theories about why socialism never took hold in the United States, but all of them recognize that the conditions under which American capitalism developed posed large obstacles to the growth of a European-style workers movement here. Among the conditions most often cited are the lack of inherited feudal class distinctions; America’s tremendous endowment of land and resources, and the exceptional prosperity and mobility this made possible; sharp ethnic cleavages caused by large-scale immigration; and the two-party system. Howe wants to stress something less often cited: “the independent power, the all-but-autonomous life, of the American myth.” Our national myth is individualism, a protean term that, for Howe’s purposes, means an abiding faith that in America self-assertion can almost always overcome social or natural constraint. This belief in the providential character – the essential benignity – of the New World finds its sublimest expression in Emerson. It finds its practical expression everywhere, from the fetishism of the “free market” to the moralism of the 19th-century reformers. Even the self-destructive sectarianism of mny 20th-century socialists derives from a characteristic American “tendency to settle into postures of righteous moral witness, to the disadvantage of mundane politics.” Howe suggests that socialists will have to find a way of combining class analysis with an appeal to the founding values of our mythical (though not utterly fictive) national “covenant.”

“Coming to terms” is the theme of Socialism and America, most explicity in the pivotal chapter “Socialism and Liberalism: Articles of Conciliation?” (That tentative, wistful question mark says a lot about the book’s tone.) The main socialist criticisms of liberalism have been aimed at the supposed connection of laissez-faire economics with political freedom, and at the failure of liberals to perceive the relationship between economic power and political power. Howe acknowledges the force of these criticisms, but also insists on a continuity of assumption and aspiration. “If there is any future for socialism in America, it is through declaring itself to be the partial ally of a liberalism with which it shares fundamental democratic values and agrees on certain immediate objectives; after that, it can be said that socialists propose to extend and thereby fulfill traditional liberal goals by moving toward a democratization of economic and social life. If some liberals express agreement with that perspective, then all the better.” This seems to me exactly right. There is nothing opportunistic about quietly, persistently pointing out to people what their own values imply. To put it far more crudely than Howe would: if socialism doesn’t come from anywhere, it isn’t going anywhere. And liberalism – the Enlightenment – is not a bad place to come from.

The last chapter, “Thinking About Socialism,” is a useful essay on the current meaning and future prospects of the socialism ideal. For the most part, Howe eloquently restates truisms – at least they ought to be – on the dangers of dogmatism and the need for attention to questions of scale, pace, and participation during the transition (if there ever is one) from capitalism. Best of all, he includes a discussion of Alec Nove’s marvelous Economics of Feasible Socialism, a book that all socialists and nonsocialists should read immediately. Nove offers a scrupulously realistic vision of how something that deserves to be called socialism might be achieved within, say, fifty years – starting from where we are now. This sort of tough-minded, intellectually responsible utopianism is, I suspect, what Howe has been searching for, Diogenes-like, throughout his long political life.

Irving Howe has been reflecting on defeat for half a century now, and the experience has produced a distinctive voice: urbane, rueful, usually gentle, though with an occasional touch of exasperated sarcasm. It is an immensely appealing voice. The youthful Trotskyite smugness Howe keeps confessing to has evidently worn off; politically, he seems one of those on whom not much has been lost. Commenting on one of the Socialists’ innumerable tactical failures, Howe sighs: “Complexity of vision, intellectual doubt, humane tolerance are often a handicap in politics.” He ought to know. Still, they’re not a bad legacy.