German sociologist Werner Sombart posed a question more than a century ago which has occupied social scientists ever since--why there was no American socialism.
American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset answered Sombart's question with his theory of American "exceptionalism," which suggested that a range of factors--the anti-statist nature of our founding, more open class structures, religious congregationalism, the unionist tendencies of American labor, etc.--had produced a different "political culture" that effectively immunized the American proletariat from the socialism their European comrades succumbed to.
Despite Lipset's assurances that socialism can never gain traction in America, Republicans have long accused Democrats of trying to introduce it. Democrats have responded by claiming that Republicans are ignorant of what socialism consists of; more specifically, the defining feature of public ownership of the means of production that few, if any, Democrats have advocated. For Democrats, Republicans see Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance and mistakenly see socialism (to which is also often appended the claim that FDR and his New Dealers didn't so much subvert capitalism as "save" it from its worst tendencies).
The Democratic Party's sharp shift to the left during Donald Trump's presidency, dramatically accelerated in less than a year of Joe Biden's, provides us, however, with an opportunity to consider whether Lipset got it right about one part (American "exceptionalism") but wrong about the other: whether that exceptionalism truly immunized us against socialism, in an Americanized form.
If America is indeed "different," as Lipset argued, then there is no reason to expect that our version of socialism wouldn't be different as well, that we might have been on what Friedrich Hayek called the "road to serfdom" for a long time without realizing it.
It isn't so much that the differences between the new world and the old made us resistant to socialism per se, but that the kinds of socialism that prevailed have differed.
By socialism in this sense we are not talking about the Marxist-Leninist version, replete with "dictatorships of the proletariat" manned by vanguard communist parties in "people's republics," but the softer kind that emerged in late-19th century western and northern Europe, the "revisionist" or "evolutionary" socialism of the British Labor Party, the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the American Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas rather than the Stalinist kind advocated by the French Communist Party (PCF), Italian Communist Party (PCI) and the CPUSA of Earl Browder and Gus Hall.
A number of questions are thus raised by the question of whether a distinctively American-style version of socialism can be said to exist and makes any ideological sense.
The first of these is whether the increased state control over the means of production persistently and successfully advocated over time by American liberals and progressives can serve as an effective substitute for public ownership of it; that the distinction between the two (state ownership and control) might amount to less than our supposedly non-socialist left claims.
This is another way of asking whether decades of taking from Peter to pay Paul under the auspices of welfare-state redistributionism, now culminating in the Biden administration's spending plans and radical measures like college loan forgiveness and rent moratoriums, could constitute a serious assault on the principle of private property that defines capitalism and distinguishes it from socialist alternatives.
A second question concerns the extent, if any, to which the spending, taxing, and regulating program of Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders differs substantively from the spending, taxing, and regulating programs of European social democrats.
If that difference has come to be trivial, then there would be little reason to use terms like "progressive" or "liberal" to describe Americans who in Europe would be routinely referred to as socialists or social democrats.
Might it be that, per Lipset, the term "socialism" is simply too radioactive even now in American politics, such that it has to be imposed through the back door, incrementally, in largely stealth fashion, and with deliberate ideological obfuscation?
Third and finally, is it possible for a political party (in this case the Democrats) to continually move leftward on the ideological continuum, as they have in the last two decades, without at some point running into some variation of socialism?
Put somewhat differently, if the Democratic Party can be said to have come increasingly under the sway of a "radical left" wing that draws from Marxian assumptions (as the very concept of "radical left" implies), then isn't the party becoming fundamentally Marxian whether it admits it or not?
Seymour Martin Lipset published his last major work, "It Didn't Happen Here: Why Socialism Failed in the United States," just a few years after a Democratic president confidently declared in a State of the Union address that "the era of big government is over."
Perhaps both the prominent sociologist and Bill Clinton were a tad premature?
At the least, and as we now debate the promised transformation of American economic life via the means of Biden budget proposals, it would seem like an opportune time to return to the question of whether socialism has a place in American life, and if so, what kind of socialism it will be.
Freelance columnist Bradley R. Gitz, who lives and teaches in Batesville, received his Ph.D. in political science from the University of Illinois.