by Irving Howe ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 30, 1985
Six discerning if occasionally discursive essays from a veteran sociopolitical and literary critic, which go a long way toward explaining why democratic socialism has thus far failed to take root in the US. Under the charismatic leadership of Eugene V. Debs, American socialism peaked in 1912; the party's presidential candidate attracted 6 percent of the popular vote, and more than 1,000 members held public office. Six years later, Howe recounts, the movement was in shambles. Among other things, he attributes the collapse to internal (frequently regional) rivalries, e.g., between agrarian populists and IWW militants, and overtly repressive measures like the Espionage Act of 1917, which was used to put large numbers of social draft resisters in federal prisons. In particular, though, Howe cites the inability (or unwillingness) of Debsians to grasp the implications of the Wilson Administration's progressivism, including its break with the laissez-faire aspects of industrial capitalism. During the 1930's when socialism ""was no longer a sect but not yet a mass party,"" Norman Thomas ""brought new luster"" to a moribund movement, Howe observes. New Deal reformers stole much of the far left's thunder, however, and youthful radicals drifted into government and labor-union work. To this day, Howe remains bemused by the apparent preference of activist intellectuals for rhetoric that ""brought moral comfort but no political gain.""At the heart of socialism's failure to make its way in the US (a fate predicted by Marx and Engels) is the two-party political system. Social causes (abolition, civil rights, feminism) can survive, even thrive, over lengthy periods, he concludes, but it's virtually impossible for insurgent constituencies to secure substantive support from an electorate inherently reluctant to back sure losers. On the other side of this coin, Howe comments, is the refusal of leftists to suffer non-socialist candidates, however compatible their views; he reports becoming physically ill after voting for Adlai Steven-son in 1952. Howe has nonetheless kept the faith, retaining high hopes for socialism's ideas, if not the movement itself. During the past couple of decades, he contends, socialist theoreticians have become more adaptive, meaning less concerned with ideological purity; as one result, the party's aspirations now focus on ""qualities of social life"" rather than ""modes of property ownership."" Howe makes no claims as to what this nascent pragmatism might signify for socialism's future in the marketplace of political ideas. In the meantime, though, his judgmental status report provides tree believers and their adversaries a valuable source of analytic perspectives.
Pub Date: Oct. 30, 1985
Page Count: -
Publisher: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
Review Posted Online: N/A
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1985
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