I was fortunate to have taken a class with Professor Johnpoll in the 1970s when I was a graduate student at the University at Albany. He was sui generis––a cigar smoking, iconoclastic, child of Communists who admired people who flirted with the Left while despite concluding that their dreams can never be achieved.
Why never? The conundrum socialists have been unable to solve for two hundred years is how to get from present circumstances to the “cooperative commonwealth.” Further, they have not and never will reach a consensus on what the cooperative commonwealth looks like. Each person has his own vision of utopia, which makes it easy for the leaders of the Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions to get away with calling their un-cooperative societies socialism and imposing their totalitarian rule on their subjects.
In The Impossible Dream, Johnpoll dissects the history of the socialist leaders, movements, and organizations in the U.S. from the early nineteenth century to the 1970s. Based on extensive use of primary and secondary sources, he documents his thesis that these organizations and movements were bound to fail despite their high ideals.
The Long History of Protesting Capitalism
In the early days of industrial capitalism in England and the United States people chafed at the negative side effects of the “industrial revolution”––the lack of restraints on working conditions that chewed up people in the name of profit.
Not that pre-industrial societies lacked poverty or suffering, but what prevented the rise of reform movements in that era was an absence of a clear path to a better world. Once technology, starting with steam engines, introduced the possibility of a world where you were not tied to your previous station in life, reformers and reform movements sprouted like dandelions.
The primary critics of early capitalism were craftsmen whose skills were becoming irrelevant in the face of a new competitive environment where products could be produced in large numbers and sold for less than hand-crafted items. Combining religious images like the golden rule with visions of how industry could be re-organized, Robert Owen and others preached the coming of a society built around cooperative communities. Although the model communities Owen and others set up invariably failed––and did so very quickly by the way, they planted seeds which others sowed in the fertile fields created by early capitalism’s destructive excesses.
The goal of socialism––whether Marxian, Christian, or communitarian, is to take over ownership of the “means of production” and put it in the hands of the workers. The problem socialists have never solved, according to Johnpoll, is how one gets there. Nowhere was that more evident in the reformers’ dealings with the working class.
Labor Unions versus Socialism
In the nineteenth century, while reformers were preaching their individual variants of the total reformation of society, workers who couldn’t wait for the arrival of the cooperative commonwealth, began to form labor unions. For a time the interests of socialists and unionists were allied because owners backed by the police and legal system of the state resisted––often by force––all efforts of workers to organize.
Once the unionists demands began to be translated into law, however, their leaders broke with the socialists. When he expelled the socialists from his American Federation of Labor in 1903, Gompers said, “I want to tell you, Socialists, that I have studied your philosophy; read your works upon economics, and . . . I have heard your orators and watched the work of your movement the world over . . . Economically you are unsound, socially you are wrong, industrially you are an impossibility.”
For Gompers and others, socialists wanted to revolutionize all of society, while unionists were satisfied with improving the present-day lot of their members. This caused huge problems for socialists––some eschewed ameliorative gains while others saw reforms as the path to God’s kingdom on earth. Either way they failed again and again to win over the working class.
Socialist leaders, most of whom did not come from the working class, had an even harder time when it came to the problem of whether or not to participate in the electoral process. Some felt socialism could be brought about democratically, while others felt the owning class would never allow that to happen and only through an uprising by the working people of the world could a revolution that overthrew capitalism be accomplished.
Throw in conflicts born of ethnic differences and leaders personalities and you have a history of organizations being formed, making temporary gains, and then failing apart. It happened over and over again. Each generation of leaders thought this time will be different: this time the workers will vote for us or respond to our call for a general strike or join our socialist labor union. When that didn’t happen, they always had fellow socialists to blame.
Johnpoll clearly admires the reformers of the nineteenth century more than those of the twentieth with a few exceptions. Early reformers didn’t have experience to guide them and they paved the way for positive changes in society once social opinion or historical circumstance convinced the political party in power to implement reforms. They didn’t achieve their dream, but we take for granted many of the reforms they called for, from an end to child labor to unemployment insurance, from compulsory education to the right to collective bargaining.
Are Today’s Democrats advocating Socialism?
In recent years, the rhetoric in the Democratic Party in favor of some form of socialism has escalated. Bernie Sanders came close to winning the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2016 and remains one of the favorites in the 2020 race. This time around nearly the entire cast of presidential candidates is advocating one or more programs that amount to increased governmental control over various aspects of the production and distribution of goods and services. Health care and the environment are the most prominent areas where socialistic policies have won favor with the Party’s activist base, but except for Sanders none of the others seem willing to go full bore and denounce capitalism.
From a historical perspective what the Democrats are moving towards is more like the system that ruled the Soviet Union than the cooperative commonwealth envisioned by nineteenth century social philosophers––including Karl Marx. The Soviet Union was a totally statist society in which the state apparatus controlled everything, including personal choices in many areas. (There was nothing communistic about it.) We’re not there yet, but that’s the direction we’re heading in––namely, the sacrifice of personal liberties on behalf of the “common good.”
The problem is who defines what’s good and proper. In the Soviet Union, it was the Communist Party. In the US today, the federal bureaucracy has assumed the responsibility for defining specifics of vaguely wording legislation, often going against the will of the current chief executive.
The fact that we still elect the president is a critical difference between the U.S. and the Soviet Union because it offers the possibility that the power of the state can be restrained. Yet, to the average citizen, there’s little difference when waiting to get an appointment with the VA hospital in the U.S. or the poor quality of socialized medicine in the former USSR.
Ultimately, most reformers are totalitarians. They don’t like conditions in the present. Fine. They see a better world. Fine. They want to impose their vision of a better world on everyone else. Not so fine. We only have to look at Russia, China, and Cuba to understand what happens to the individual when reformers grab the power of the state. The individual becomes acted upon, not an actor. That’s the danger we’re facing in the U.S. in 2019. Reading Johnpoll’s Impossible Dream can help elucidate why the future world painted by today’s reformers is impossible to achieve no matter how appealing the picture.
Coda: Marx’s scientific socialism predicted the most advanced capitalist societies would be the first to undergo a conversion to socialism. Clearly that prediction was wrong. Lack of economic development where the elements of a capitalist system are non-existent or weak, is often coupled with a non-democratic political system, while in the US, where democracy while not perfect, is nevertheless deeply embedded, capitalism has raised the standard of living of the entire society even under the restraints of social legislation. Like democracy, capitalism is the best option available on a list of imperfect choices.
* An earlier version of this review was posted on Amazon and Goodreads in 2014.