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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Elena Kagan's Undergraduate Thesis

Via Brad DeLong, Elena Kagan's Undergraduate Thesis:

From the introduction:

Ever since Werner Sombart first posed the question in 1905, countless historians have tried to explain why there is no socialism in America. For the most part, this work has focused on external factors--on features of American society rather than of American socialist movements. Socialists and non-socialists alike have discussed the importance of the frontier... the fluidity of class lines... the American labor force's peculiarly heterogeneous character, which made concerted class action more difficult than it might otherwise have been. In short, most historians have looked everywhere but to the American socialist movement itself for explanations of U.S. socialism's failure. Such external explanations are not unimportant but neither do they tell the full story. They ignore or overlook one supremely important fact: Socialism has indeed existed in the United States.... The Socialist Party increased its membership from a scanty 10,000 in 1902 to a respectable 109,000 in the early months of 1919... a party press that included over three hundred publications with an aggregate circulation of approximately two million....

The success of the socialists in establishing a viable--if minor--political party in the early twentieth century suggests that historians must examine not only external but also internal factors if they hope to explain the absence of socialism from contemporary American politics. The effects of the frontier, of class mobility, of an ethnically divided working class may explicate why the Socialist Party did not gain an immediate mass following; they cannot explain why the growing and confident American socialist movement collapsed....

We are, then, left with three ultimately inadequate explanations of the sudden demise of a growing socialist movement. The otherworldliness of the socialists, the expulsion of Haywood in 1912, the Russian Revolution of 1917--none will satisfactorily explain the death of social- ism in America. What, then, was responsible? In attempting to answer this question, this thesis will focus almost exclusively on the history of the New York City local of the Socialist Party....

The collapse of New York socialism, although sudden, had deep roots indeed. From its first days, the New York SF was both divided within itself and estranged from many of its trade-union followers. Among the party's members, a right-left cleavage arose early--a cleavage based not on the minutiae of dogma but on the very fundamentals of socialism itself. What was the proper class composition of a socialist party? What trade-union and electoral policies should the party follow? What attitude should the party take toward distinctly non-radical reform measures?... At the end of 1918, old disputes quickly reappeared, but this time in even fiercer form. For years, large numbers of the SP's members and large blocs of its trade-union support had expressed deep dissatisfaction with socialist leadership. Now, the Russian Revolution set the spark... and the Socialist Party burst into flames. In 1919, the SP split into two.... Intra-party sectarianism had previously weakened the socialist movement; inter-party sectarianism now finished the job...

And from the conclusion:

In our own times, a coherent socialist movement is nowhere to be found in the United States. Americans are more likely to speak of a golden past than of a golden future, of capitalism's glories rather than of socialisms greatness. Conformity overrides dissent; the desire to conserve has overwhelmed the urge to alter. Such a state of affairs cries out for explanation. Why, in a society by no means perfect, has a radical party never attained the status of a major political force? Why, in particular did the socialist movement never become an alternative to the nation's established parties?

In answering this question, historians have often called attention to various charcteristics of American society... an ethnically-divided working class, a relatively fluid class structure, an economy which allowed at least some workers to enjoy what Sombart termed "reefs of roast beef and apple pie"--prevented the early twentieth century socialists from attracting an immediate mass following. Such conditions did not, however, completely checkmate American socialism.... Yet in the years after World War I, this expanding and confident movement almost entirely collapsed.... [T]he experience of New York.... From the New York socialist movement's birth, sectarianism and dissension ate away at its core. Substantial numbers of SP members expressed deep and abiding dissatisfaction with the brand of reform socialism advocated by the party's leadership. To these left-wingers, constructive socialism seemed to stress insignificant reforms at the expense of ultimate goals. How, these revolutionaries angrily demanded, could the SP hope to attract workers if it did not distinguish itself from the many progressive parties, if it did not proffer an enduring and radiant ideal? How, the constructivists angrily replied, could the SP hope to attract workers if it did not promise them immediate benefits, if it did not concern itself with their present burdens?...

Through its own internal feuding, then, the SP exhausted itself. forever.... The story is a sad but also a chastening one for those who, more than half a century after socialism's decline, still wish to change America. Radicals have often succumbed to the devastating bane of sectarianism; it is easier, after all, to fight one's fellows than it is to battle an entrenched and powerful foe. Yet if 'the history of Local New York shows anything, it is that American radicals cannot afford to become their own worst enemies. In unity lies their only hope. ---- Download Elena-kagan-thesis

via delong.typepad.com

    Posted by on Saturday, May 15, 2010 at 09:15 PM in Economics, Politics | Permalink  Comments (33)


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