07 November 2011

Socialism vs Bipolarchy 100 years ago: a footnote

While continuing my research on George R. Lunn after my post on the centennial of his election as a Socialist mayor of Schenectady, I found this intriguing tidbit in the digitized pages of the Reform Bulletin magazine. The author, Rev. Fred Winslow Adams, comments on the likelihood of the two major parties joining forces against successful Socialists, as they did against Lunn in 1913 but failed to do again in 1915. Adams envisioned a moment that didn't happen, when one Bipolarchy would be replaced by another in which the previous dominant parties would have merged into one reactionary party.

Our political history has demonstrated that there can never be but two great parties. If the Republicans and Democrats combine, as they are doing in some places, to defeat the Socialists, it makes the Socialists one of those two great parties. As between a combined old guard and the Socialists, the Socialists will in the end inevitably win. The only way to defeat Socialism, is for one of the two dominant parties of to-day to fearlessly strike out in the championship of moral legislation and progressive ideas. The pooling of the interests of the Democratic and Republican bosses means the triumph of Socialism.

Is it possible that the reason there is no strong Socialism in the United States is that the Bipolarchy did not consolidate itself into a single anti-Socialist party? Historians might argue that the Democratic party accepted Adams's challenge, beginning in his own time with the Wilson Administration. But was this (and is it today) a fearless striking out or, as Socialists themselves suggest, a pragmatic means of forestalling mass support for Socialism, worthy of a European conservative like Otto von Bismarck? On one level, it can be assumed that the two major parties never needed to join forces on a national level against Socialism because the new force was threatening only in isolated locations. But what if the peculiar genius of the American political system is such that, by insisting on the perpetually decisive significance of their own disagreements, by agreeing to continue to disagree -- and at some point to disagree with more vehemence than ever, the Bipolarchy never gave Socialists a chance to vie for political power on their preferred ground. It's probably more likely that Democrats and Republicans stumbled upon this strategy, if it actually worked, quite by accident, genuinely convinced that their differences were more meaningful, if not merely more admissible, than those separating both of them from the Socialists.

If we've discovered a rule of American politics -- and I'm not exactly ready to concede Adams's demonstration -- we should note that Bipolarchy cannot always forestall revolution by insisting on its own divisive sufficiency. The previous Bipolarchy of Democrats and Whigs fell apart in the 1850s when mass factions asserted the more urgent significance of differences between North and South or Protestants and Catholics. From the 20th century onward, the Democratic party has succeeded at appropriating class conflict by portraying itself as the workers' only defense against Republican rapine, while Republicans themselves condemn any declaration of "class warfare." Whether class politics can overwhelm the present Bipolarchy now when it has failed consistently for the past century is a question for Occupiers across the country and their sympathizers to ponder carefully. At their most radical, Occupiers group both major parties, or their leaders at least, among the hated "1%," but the trick is keeping the elephants and donkeys in a common conceptual cage.  If someone at an Occupation can figure out how to do it, everyone's stay in a park will have counted for something important.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Other aspect to look at is just this. Socialism, by it's very nature, demands participation by the working class. It is not a political philosophy that lends itself to a "leadership" or "political" class making the decisions and the people just voting aye to whatever "glorious leader" says. That, I think, was the failure of Bolshevism, this notion of a vanguard leadership that could simply ignore "the people" in pursuit of it's own agenda.