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Socialism and America by Irving Howe (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $17.95; 228 pp.) : TAKING SIDES: THE EDUCATION OF A MILITANT MIND by Michael Harrington (Holt, Rinehart & Winston: $16.95; 264 pp.)

November 03, 1985|Larry Ceplair | Ceplair teaches American history at Santa Monica College. and

American socialism as a movement may not be dead, and as a doctrine not decayed, but the odors wafting from the corpus of recent works are not encouraging. Irving Howe and Michael Harrington champion a movement that has exhibited little viability since the 1930s.

Howe, in a series of essays, provides a historical and theoretical overview of American socialism, while Harrington, in a collection of previously published articles, offers in-depth looks at some of the issues that have engaged him as a socialist: Encounters with liberals, student activists, the Vietnam War, American corporations, and European socialists. Harrington's pieces, even those from 30 years ago, seem fresher and more alive than Howe's more recently composed chapters. The latter are tired, almost embalmed.

Both, however, fail to diagram a method or praxis for realizing their socialist hopes, and both no longer hew their analyses from the hard material of objective conditions, but shape it instead to soft, subjective notions. In these books, cultural fatalism has replaced evolutionary economism as the lodestar of the socialist compass.

European socialist parties have not proved any more visionary or imaginative than the American, but at least many of them wield real power or stand on the threshold of it, proving that whatever else they lack, they have learned how to function effectively in their country's political systems.

Not only has the American socialist movement failed to attract the masses, but Harrington warns, "I see no possibility that socialists will play a major role in leading a mass movement in the foreseeable future." Howe's bleak outlook leads him to offer to drop the name if that would make the program more acceptable to more people.

America's thunderous indifference to socialist ideas and the repeated failure of European socialism to advance beyond the borders of humane welfare programs was duly registered by Harrington in a dialogue he conducted with Howe in the New York Times Magazine (June 17, 1984). When asked if there were socialist solutions to the problems created by world capitalism, Harrington replied: "I'd be more modest and say, socialist emphases."

Their modesty is as commendable as it is historically valid. American socialism, as Howe spends almost two-thirds of his book proving, has failed to do much more since World War I than come to an understanding of Stalinism and clarify socialist values. It has singularly failed to develop a delivery vehicle for the humane qualities that Howe and Harrington assign to it. Both demand a democratic road to socialism; both argue that socialists must travel that road arm in arm with liberals; but both fail to blaze the trail. Far more words are devoted to describing the destination than to marking the route.

Neither Harrington nor Howe provides a satisfactory reason for the Socialist Party's failure to build even a rudimentary mass base from the huge social groups ignored by Democrats and Republicans: blacks, immigrants, industrial workers and women. Howe's explanation, that Protestant evangelical strains provoked a sectarian outlook does not help to understand why, for example, A. Philip Randolph, an ardent socialist activist, had to build the first permanent black labor union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, virtually without the aid of the American Socialist Party.

Howe's analysis of socialist collapse during the '30s also begs the question. The party did not concentrate on the "real issue . . . conviction, hope, energy," trust in the values of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and stubbornly refused to understand Stalinism, the welfare state, or the positive aspects of liberalism.

Howe dismisses the traditional objective reasons offered by past interpreters to explain the failure of socialism in America (no feudal past, material prosperity, upward mobility, an open frontier, ethnic cleavages), emphasizing instead a subjective factor: political attitudes. Americans, he argues, have no capacity for long-range political movements that slowly accumulate strength for some ultimate purpose. They are, instead, prisoners of the American Myth, of "Emersonianism," which Howe endows with an "all-but-autonomous life." This vision of Americans as "self-creating and self-sufficient," he argues, is the decisive factor.

Unfortunately, Howe is no more able to forge a weapon against this cultural enemy than his predecessors could against the economic one. He falls back upon the usual sword of the thinker without method: the categorical imperative. "If socialism is ever to become a major force in America it must either enter deadly combat with and destroy the convenant myth or must look for some way of making its vision of the good society seem a fulfillment of that myth." Harrington impales himself on the same point, arguing that socialists must make peace with liberals and must convince liberals that socialism is the next logical step for them. (Emphases mine.)

If these books, in which musts predominate over how to ' s , are an indication of the depth of socialist thinking in America, the doctrine's prognosis is grim indeed.

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