American Culture--the Socialist View

Teacher and social scientist, OSCAR HANDLIN is a valued member of the Department of History at Harvard and one of the most thoroughgoing students of nineteenth-century New England. He has written widely on topics in American social and economic history; his Boston’s Immigrants, 17901865 is a standard reference book. Mr. Handlin is now at work on a companion volume, written from the point of view of the immigrants and dealing with their problems in this country.



AMERICAN democracy has consistently played an ambiguous role in the thinking of members of the British Labor Party. This country presents English socialists with a grave intellectual challenge, for here is a society that seems to attain the ends of personal liberty and human dignity despite its subjection to capitalism. Whether in the brilliant invective of George Bernard Shaw that seemed humorous two decades ago, or in the open popular hostility of the last few years, English radicals have tempered their respect for the United States with disdain, their faith with fear, and their love with dislike.

Harold J, Laski’s American Democracy offers a strategic opportunity for examining these attitudes. That Laski fails in this earnest attempt to understand the culture and people of the United States is not due to want of ability but to the distorted perspective of his intellectual position. The nature of his failure uncovers the weakness of the assumptions with which an important group of writers have approached the problems of America and of modern society in general.

The essentials of American democracy Laski finds in a spirit and in a tradition that, for a time, made Americanism unique as a principle of civilization. Constant expansion on the frontier of a new continent revealed endless vistas of opportunity; here expectation of personal progress without limit nurtured the faith in an enlightened self-interest, redounding to the advantage of all. Out of the Revolution came an openness in class structure that permitted the free rise and fall of individuals in the social system. Out of Puritan Christianity came the gospel of work and the emphasis on achievement above all other values. Together, these forces generated a creed of egalitarianism that was fundamental to all the accomplishments of American democracy.

Laski insists, however, that this development was interrupted when the emergence of industrialism elevated businessmen to a position of predominant power, prestige, and practical influence. Since the Civil War, Laski maintains, the businessmen have, increasingly, found their interests opposed to the traditions of American life, and have protected their positions by intruding upon every aspect of culture in the United States. Everywhere Laski finds this group subverting the older democratic spirit which, otherwise, might undermine their security. For America is still a democracy, and popular forces are still capable of taking power into their own hands, possibly to use it against the men of wealth.

At the moment, he concludes, the United States is at a crossroads, about to decide whether “it will become altogether a society which tries to fulfill the democratic ideal or a society which tries wholly to deny it.”

Many of Laski’s specific criticisms of American life are valid. Sections such as those on the ideal of success, on the law, on labor and the courts, on Catholicism, and on the treaty-making power of the Senate are carefully thought out and, in themselves, enlightening. But the work as a whole rests on the false assumption that a group seeking power in the state can alone reshape the institutions of a society. That notion breeds two fundamental errors: first, an unreal estimate of the businessman’s place in American fife; then, a mistaken conception of the relations between the dominant groups in a society and its culture.

One may accept the proposition that business influences the most crucial phases of life in America. But one need not conclude that that influence is the simple product of dictation by businessmen. If, as Laski grants, the United States was a free society until recently, it would not have allowed a single social group to acquire a hold upon every phase of its culture. The spread of business values cannot be accounted for without conceding that the Americans were, in advance, not hostile but receptive. But since Laski views business values as alien, antipathetic, to the older Americanism, he cannot explain how they managed to infect it. The Du Ponts now run Delaware, the copper companies Montana; and the party bosses of the city machines (despite a tendency to cooperate with the New Deal) are simply tools of businessmen, so Laski insists over and over, But such ascendancies could come into being only if the wicked were able to fasten upon elements of impurity that already , tainted the liberal egalitarian faith of the other citizens.


FAILURE to explain the operations of the evil genius of the businessmen suggests a closer examination of these characters. Yet it is difficult to tell just whom Laski means: significantly he rarely uses the more familiar term, “capitalist.”

Throughout, the designation “businessman is applied as if it referred to a unified and coherent group. No meaningful differences are recognized among the rentier Brahmin of Boston, the financier of New York, the oilman of Texas, the industrial manager, the corporation executive, and even the local shopkeeper. It is true that Laski sometimes seems to have in mind a more restricted identification— the industrial tycoon of the post-Civil War period. But on the other hand he often refers to the group as if it reached back to the eighteenth century, before the development of manufacturing; thus Hamilton, John Adams, and Calhoun are mentioned as if they were all spokesmen of business.

Actually, Laski does not use the term “businessman" with its usual economic meaning to designate persons who hold a definable role in relation to the system of production. Instead he applies it to anyone in American society who holds a favorable attitude toward property and property rights. This is primarily a conception around which to drape the characteristics of those who defend the rights of property. No wonder the businessman, so broadly conceived, influences every aspect of American life.

One crucial type of American is altogether overlooked in Laski’s treatment. There are chapters on the businessmen (whoever they are), on the proletariat, and on the professions; but, as far as Laski seems to know, agriculture in the United States is entirely a matter of sharecropping, debt, and migratory labor. There is not a word about the very important group of farmers who are neither tenants nor debtors. Furthermore, Laski mistakes The Grapes of Wrath for an economic treatise. There are large numbers of tenant farmers in Iowa (when they are not wintering in California) whose effactive income runs into live figures; and it should be remembered that a farmer with a twenty-thousanddollar mortgage on a hundred-thousand-dollar farm is not only a debtor, but also a man of property. Laski fails to mention such people, perhaps because there is no way of distinguishing them, in terms of attitudes and ideas, from those who fall into his category of businessmen.

Laski’s formula prevents him from understanding that American life does not involve the conflict of the antithetical forces of business and equality, but rather the unfolding of diverse, sometimes contradictory, consequences from a common process of growth. Availability of goods in relative abundance is a condition that encourages equality. But it also creates an interest in property that militates against the establishment, of egalitarian ideals. If the two tendencies are distinct, their source is one; and hence the ambivalence that leaves room both for the crassest materialism and for the most outlandish idealism in the United States. In this society, then, power comes to a group not when it imposes its controls upon the whole body, but when it succeeds in drawing support to itself through strategic appeals to general underlying interests and beliefs.

The conception of the businessman’s exercise of control supplies the unifying link in Laski’s view of culture. What the various social institutions and cultural forms have in common is the fact that they are dominated by a ruling group which bestows a distinctive character upon them. In addition to the weakness of Laski’s discussion of the specific nature of that control, this view embodies an inadequate estimate of culture. It denies that institutions have any life or, in fact, any significance of their own, apart from their relationship to power.

If schools, therefore, are considered entirely from the point of view of who runs them, and not of what they are and do, then it is safe to conclude that they are dominated by the power of big business. Yet what do we learn of the nature of the college after we concede that the trustees have power from without and the president from within? Having explained that, Laski still cannot explain why the law schools, certainly close to the interests of businessmen, are, as he says, the best branches of the university. Nor can he explain why the exceptional institutions managed entirely by the faculty or by some other group of non-businessmen are no better than the orthodox, nor even essentially different from them. For the government of the university, with which Laski preoccupies himself, has little effect upon the social forces that decide which children wish, and are able, to become students, upon the intellectual forces that make the instructors mediocrities or worse, and upon the cultural forces that place the life of ideas so low in general esteem.

So it is with religion. Perhaps it is true that the churches have always been pillars of laissez. faire, supplying “a means of escape from emotional drives which might otherwise have been directed into the examining of social foundations" and thus encouraging “the acquiescence of citizens in the existing social order.” Discounting all the exceptions, that generalization will still not explain why the lower classes remained fundamentalists while the upper moved toward liberal Christianity. To how that Southern capitalists subsidized the revivalist churches in the mill towns still does not account for the workers’ fanatical loyalty to those very sects.

As for literature, beyond a kind of Philistinism that sees only a joke in Gertrude Stein and in Ezra Pound, Laski has a single standard by which to judge writers since 1900: whether they are honest enough to agree with him in describing the contracting opportunities of American life. The radio, the newspapers, and the movies are discussed only as devices that influence public opinion naturally on behalf of the businessmen — for, in Laski’s view, ideas are simply handed down to the masses by their ruling class. There is no recognition that these media are also instruments of a popular culture in the shaping of which the people themselves have a part.

Even when it comes to politics, Laski repeats the error of focusing upon the incidentals of control rather than upon the realities of action. He cannot conceive any other function for the American state than that of control in the interests of the ruling class. When, as before the Civil War, he finds few signs of such control, he concludes that the country was run by a “negative state.”In so doing, he swallows the National Association of Manufacturers’ myth of laissez faire and disregards all sorts of positive functions — education, amelioration, regulation. For the same reason, Laski is completely unable to understand that American local government has been the proving ground for all sorts of political and social innovations. Such agencies he regards simply as tools of the businessmen, to be purified when “the rich in America . . . surrender the advantages . . . they have gained" from their corruption.


THERE is no quarrel with Laski for recommending changes in what is corrupt and ineffective. His fault lies in advocating a change that seems allinclusive but is really partial; that seems substantial but is really delusive. And since the nature of the remedy he prescribes affects his diagnosis of the disease, he cannot be depended upon either as practical guide or as scholarly analyst.

The pitfalls that prevented Laski from making full use of his splendid talents were inherent in the intellectual climate in which he worked. He was not alone misled. There was something in the foggy atmosphere of English liberal socialism that also betrayed the Webbs, the Hammonds, and G. D. H. Cole. To the degree that they adopted a common approach to society and to social science, these writers constituted a school. As a group, they were deeply influenced by the benevolent currents of socialist thought that swept along the most sensitive English intellectuals in the quarter century before the First World War. In a nation which had, by then, suffered the harshest effects of industrialization, in which British ascendancy seemed decisively eclipsed, in which there appeared to be no further opportunity for mitigating hardships through expansion, it made sense to seek a clue to all the disorders of society in the nature of the system of production.

The liberal socialists’ assessment of the grim situation was, significantly, tinged with optimism. In recognizing the evils about them, these people did not surrender the confidence that they could create a good community on the basis of the economic techniques brought into being by capitalism. They reasoned that what was at fault was not the mode of production proper industrialization, mechanization, proletarianization — but only its unjust control. Concentrating entirely upon the element of control, they overlooked the possibility that insecurity, isolation, and social maladjustment might be the products of the cities and factories rather than of predatory ownership alone. And they applied that, fundamental judgment from the realm of the economic to society as a whole. Every aspect of culture, they insisted, was shaped by the men who ran it; if the businessmen corrupted the arts, the sciences, and the polity, then regeneration called only for the replacement of the bad ruling class by the good.

Inevitably, that attitude involved a focus of interests upon politics. The guild socialists and Laski, in the period when he advocated a pluralistic society, believed that there could be autonomous areas of social and economic activity. But by the 1930’s, even these people were convinced that the assumption of governmental authority was the necessary prerequisite for power in, and improvement of, any other sphere. Some Fabians thought the change could come through constitutional gradualism; others, like Laski, for a time thought a violent revolution necessary. But in either case, the first premise was that the effective changes in the life of a community came directly through political action.

This attitude had a deep effect upon Laski and upon the rest of the group as intellectuals. Their radicalism involved less a conception of ethics or of historical development than a conception of the pivotal use of power. Consequently, while they continued to make theoretical acknowledgment of the significance of social and economic forces, they actually became far more concerned with the structure of the state.

It is not a coincidence, then, that Laski’s failure in his analysis of the Unitod States is comparable to that of Sidney and Beatrice Webb in their treatment of Soviet communism. Like the Webbs, Laski thinks the qualities of a society are determined by the system of power embodied in the state. Just as the Webbs began their description of the Russia of 1935 with a long discussion of the Soviet constitution, so Laski devotes the largest section of his book to political institutions. What is more, every other section of the work hinges upon this central subject. The alignment of classes and the conditions of culture are alike discussed Only in so far as they are relevant to government and its control. There is not even a discussion of the American economy, except in parenthetical references to its effect upon political power. For that very reason, a disproportionate amount of space is devoted to such purely technical problems as the optimum length of the President’s term of office, the powers of the House of Representatives, the character of the civil service, the function of the Cabinet.

In this emphasis upon politics is concealed an assumption with which no member of this group ever came to grips. Laski criticizes such American reformers as Channing, Emerson, and Parker for thinking that an act of will could “overcome the power of deep-rooted customs and strong interests. But he himself does not realize that the use of state power to effect the deepest social changes also embodies faith in an act of will — only with the addition of force; and he never explores the question of how such an addition alters the tenacity of customs and interests. On the contrary, in this book and elsewhere, he consistently discusses the significant social choices as if they were purely personal in nature, dependent merely upon the will of the governors. If Laski is so persistent in ascribing all the ills of America to its business rulers, it is largely because he is sure that other rulers could cure all.

The consequences of that faith were not categorical so long as there was latitude in if for freedom to choose among rulers. But Laski, and those who thought like him, produced their ideas and attempted to apply them in a very definite social situation which quickly eliminated that latitude. In the 1920’s, Laski came back to an England in which, given the intellectuals’ emphasis upon polities, the only hope of intellectual reformers was the Labor Party. Through the long series of frustrations and betrayals climaxed by that Ramsay MacDonald, party loyalty and party discipline became fixed principles, even when they involved many personal sacrifices of ideals. The price of playing any part in the party drama was acquiescence in the decisions of the directors; carping critics would be condemned to the futile role of making “noises off.”Out of years of subjection to trades-Union bureaucrats, who treated the intellectuals, at best, as a harmless front, not to be taken seriously, there survived only the glimmer of hope that once power was attained, ideas supplied by the men of ideas would be legislated into acts.

Hence Laski’s repeated insistence that no advance can be made without the prior creation of a disciplined labor party. For the same reason he bitterly condemns American radicals, not for the failure of their radicalism, but for their failure to build a radical party. They “support particular aims,”he charges, “they do not fight for general power.” The corollary is that the fight for general power justifies, and often necessitates, deferment of the fight for part icular aims. What t his amounts to is the establishment of party discipline as the sole social and cultural value.

There must have been moments when Laski had doubts, as in 1936 when the Bournemouth conference of the Labor Party imposed a shocking restriction upon its members’ freedom of speech, or as in 1939, when Cripps was purged for deviations from the party line. But such momentary qualms easily subside when men cease to be concerned with the free individual and think only of the “free Society.”

From such a simplistic view was not likely to come a satisfactory account of a modern culture, in which the popular, the mass elements are important, often determining. Nor are those who take this view likely to mark out a trustworthy path for current action. When Laski, unable to understand how Americans can cooperate in practice without agreeing on lirst principles, calls for definition of an ideology capable of being enacted into law, he does so without reckoning on the consequences. For such a process of definition would rule out the very features of American life that he finds most attractive.

A more adequate view of our culture would have revealed that the volume of production has mounted although industry has remained unenlightened, that the conditions of labor have improved although labor organizations have retained their anachronistic structures, that the mass of people are ever more educated though the machinery education is still backward, and that reform movements have succeeded although reform parties have failed. Americans have reached the ends of which Laski approves, through means of which he despairs, precisely because they have not limited their capacity to act by the dogmas of any overreaching ideology. Freedom to pursue the concretely good and the concretely useful without reference to ultimate judgments of principle may have given American life its chaotic quality; it was also the great source of its strength.