Entry from December 12, 2012

Over at BookForum, Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland, reviews The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left by Landon R.Y. Storrs, published by Princeton University Press. According to Mr Perlstein, Ms Storrs, a professor at the University of Iowa, purports to answer Werner Sombart’s famous question of 1906, “Why is there no Socialism in the United States?” Though Mr Perlstein finds it to be “something of which she is utterly convinced, but cannot prove,” her answer lies in the intimidation of America’s naturally socialist left of the 1930s by the “Red Scare” of the 1940s and 1950s. To his credit, Mr Perlstein does not accept this remarkably feeble argument, though he doesn’t point out that Sombart had asked the question — and answered it by pointing to the relative prosperity and well-being of the average American — long before there was any more of a “Red Scare” here than there was anywhere else when socialism was in its intellectual heyday.

But he likes the book anyway — not because of its historical or philosophical argument but because it is a “fresh new study of the sociology of the left wing of the New Deal.” In explaining this aspect of Professor Storrs’s volume, it seems to me that his review provides a better answer than hers to Sombart’s question — though without his seeming to be aware of it. For he links (as, apparently, does Ms Storrs) the socialist politics of 1930s radicals to their unconventional sex lives — as, presumably, did a great many disapproving non-socialists at the time. So the answer to the question of socialism’s failure in the US may lie in the fact that what we now call “social issues” were irrelevantly tacked on to the “real” ones in the socialists’ view — that is, those involving economic ideas.

If so, the 1930s were just like the 2010s except in reverse. For now, of course, the social issues cut the other way. Now the sexual bohemians, the believers in free love and all sorts of what used to be called sexual libertinism outnumber the respectable, uptight bourgeoisie with their prudish morality based on outdated religious beliefs. Yet they are like them in this: that because they disapprove of the minority’s sexual morality, they also feel themselves bound to disapprove of their views on economics. Freedom in the one must be balanced, it seems, with unfreedom in the other. Future generations may ask why no capitalism in America? And the answer will be the same reason. The majority associates the sexual habits of the minority with their political and economic views, and regards that as reason enough for rejecting both.

That, by the way, could also go some way to explaining why political passions have run so high during most of the last century, though rarely so high as they do today. In other words, we have got ourselves into the habit of seeing political differences as moral ones in disguise. That’s why both sides feel justified in looking on each other not just as wrong or misguided but evil, or the next thing to it. Just look at the terms in which Professor Storrs’s book is blurbed by her admirers:

“This important book provides a fresh look at the chilling effect of the loyalty hearings in 1940s and 1950s America. Storrs argues that the anticommunist crusade had an impact above and beyond ruining lives. It changed the political discourse of the country, undermined any move toward social democracy, impeded feminism, and was far more corrosive than we think. The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left is an outstanding work of scholarship.” — Allan M. Winkler, author of The Cold War

All the same, I have my doubts about this answer to the Sombartian question, as I do about the implications for our depressingly socialist future. I think a more persuasive explanation of socialism’s uncongeniality to Americans can be found by looking to what the American Alan Jay Lerner did to Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion when he converted it into My Fair Lady. What Shaw, a well-known socialist, created as a bitter satire of the English class system was transformed by Lerner into a heart-warming story of a poor girl making good by climbing the social ladder with the help of lessons in elocution. In Washington we’re about to re-inaugurate the stealth socialist Barack Obama — but we’re also flocking to Arena Stage’s latest revival of My Fair Lady. Time will tell which of these events will prove the more significant.

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