Engels and American Socialism
Posted by jleavittpearl
Friedrich Engels, like his mentor, was profoundly interested in the relationship between socialism and the United States. In a letter to Friedrich A. Sorge unofficially entitled Why There is No Large Labor Movement in America (1893), Engels attempts to examine this complex relationship and to determine the precise social conditions which appear to block the formation of a European style socialist movement in the United States.
The context of his letter to Sorge (the crisis perpetuating the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890), marks this letter as particular relevant, in light of the ongoing economic crises in the American and European nations. He writes, prefiguring the frustrated responses to the American bank bailouts:
“The repeal of the silver-purchase law has saved America from a severe money crisis and will promote industrial prosperity. But I don’t know whether it wouldn’t have been better for the crash to have actually occurred.”
What Engels here expresses is not an economic masochism, but a recognition of the inability of American society st large to recognize the problematic of capitalism without a dramatic, if not destructive, event. It is perhaps not surprising that the strongest reemergence of socialist principles in a generation has arisen in light of the recent economic downturn. Yet, as the reduced influence and coverage of such movements as Occupy Wall Street has shown, the transition of these principles into practice is not without its own problems, of which Engels emphasizes two, both of which remain as accurate today as they were one hundred and twenty-five years ago.
“First, the Constitution, based as in England upon a party government, which causes every vote for any candidate not put up by one of the two governing parties to appear to be lost. And the American, like the Englishman, wants to influence his state; he does not throw his vote away.”
This frustration, deeply felt by anyone who has ever seriously supported a third-party or third-party candidate, remains a serious obstacle in the face of socialist-minded Americans. Just like the Green and Libertarian parties, the inability to garner sufficient support has locked American socialist parties in a Catch 22. Without sufficient support, major national coverage is impossible; without major national coverage, sufficient support is not possible.
“Then, and more especially, immigration, which divides the workers into two groups: the native-born and the foreigners… To form a single party out of these requires quite unusually powerful incentives…the bourgeois need only wait passively and the dissimilar elements of the working class fall apart again.”
Here, Engels has identified what may be the most difficult obstacle to American variants of socialism, its diversity. While the diversity of American culture provides the potential for a rich, vibrant society, the reality is generally much darker. Racial tensions, the stark division between citizen and non-citizen, and similar problems divide Americans, particularly the most vulnerable citizens, from one another. It is the (quite relative) homogeneous nature of such nations as Sweden which has allowed for a seemingly smooth transition to democratic-socialism. This is not to assert, as many critiques of socialism might argue, that the heterogeneity of America eliminates the possibility of political unity as such, but merely to recognize that such unity will necessitate significant work and direct action.
“Third, through the protective tariff system and the steadily growing domestic market the workers must have been exposed to a prosperity no trace of which has been seen here in Europe for years now…”
It is perhaps only this final barrier that has been overcome. Unfortunately, this latter is only due to the rise in unemployment and the widening gap between the richest and poorest Americans. Once again, the rise in dissatisfaction with Laissez-faire capitalism, and the seeming increase in the relevance of socialist/democratic-socialist principles may be a direct correlate of this seeming decrease in prosperity.
Even in light of the pessimism of Engels report, socialist-minded Americans must not give up hope. Instead, these barriers must be seen not as indestructible, but as points of targeted growth. Unity across ethnic bounds, reformation of the American party system; these are goals that can be directly targeted for reformation. And perhaps development will be possible.