(above: Eugene Debs, leader of the Socialist Party of America, one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World)
In an earlier post, I described several misconceptions about conservatism in the US, especially given the three decade long disintegration of the Republican party to the ultra-right (See American Conservatism). There are several myths about liberalism in the US as well, which, arguably, are more far-reaching in their effects.
Arguably, the foundations of American liberalism were set by Thomas Jefferson and the first liberal party was the the Democratic-Republican party. Up to the early twentieth century, the US followed the patterns of European liberalism. By the turn of the century, it seemed that the US could actually surpass the “Old World” in terms of social and political progress. In fact, Werner Sombart, a well-known Marxist of the day, predicted that the US would be the first socialist country, because of its high level of development.
The US continued on a similar trajectory as other societies in Europe and, of course, Canada and Australia, its closest cultural brethren. The Workingmen’s Party had large support from the population, especially in the south. Later, several key members of the labor movement joined the party, now the Socialist Labor Party (SLP): Albert Parsons, George Schilling, and Daniel de Leon. Eventually, the Social Democrats, (SDA) founded by Victor Berger, and the Socialist Labor Party merged. An International Workers of the World (IWW) founder, Eugene Debs, eventually led the socialists through five failed attempts at the presidency.
However, what arguably undid the labor movement, unlike in Canada and Australia, was the president’s ability to stop a general strike. This is especially true because of the socialist opposition to WWI and the growing fears of about a potential “American revolution” like the Russian one. Despite a common heritage and similar historical circumstances, it seems that the parliamentary systems of Canada and Australia prevented Woodrow Wilson’s (See America and the Cold War) and later Ronald Reagan’s ability to crack down on organized labor.
While the Socialist Party continued to persevere to its modern incarnation, the Democratic Socialists (DSA), the large majority of leftist politics was taken by the Democratic Party, starting with Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, on to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
The US has had a long and complicated history with left Marxism and socialism in general. However, it is one that shouldn’t be ignored for more convenient narratives.