Elena Kagan’s thesis on the collapse of New York City socialism

Excerpts from Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s undergrad thesis on socialism:

Ever since Werner Sombart first posed the question in 1905, countless historians have tried to explain why there is no socialism in America. For the most part, this work has focused on external factors–on features of American society rather than of American socialist movements. Socialists and non-socialists alike have discussed the importance of the frontier… the fluidity of class lines… the American labor force’s peculiarly heterogeneous character, which made concerted class action more difficult than it might otherwise have been. In short, most historians have looked everywhere but to the American socialist movement itself for explanations of U.S. socialism’s failure.

The success of the socialists in establishing a viable–if minor–political party in the early twentieth century suggests that historians must examine not only external but also internal factors if they hope to explain the absence of socialism from contemporary American politics. The effects of the frontier, of class mobility, of an ethnically divided working class may explicate why the Socialist Party did not gain an immediate mass following; they cannot explain why the growing and confident American socialist movement collapsed.

The collapse of New York socialism, although sudden, had deep roots indeed. From its first days, the New York SF was both divided within itself and estranged from many of its trade-union followers. Among the party’s members, a right-left cleavage arose early–a cleavage based not on the minutiae of dogma but on the very fundamentals of socialism itself. What was the proper class composition of a socialist party? What trade-union and electoral policies should the party follow? What attitude should the party take toward distinctly non-radical reform measures?..

Sigh. Yes, it’s much more important to first determine in excruciating detail precisely how many Marxists can dance on the head of a pin (and to attack those who arrive at a different number than you) than to, y’know, go out and organize and screw all the philosophical constructs.

Through its own internal feuding, then, the SP exhausted itself. forever…. The story is a sad but also a chastening one for those who, more than half a century after socialism’s decline, still wish to change America. Radicals have often succumbed to the devastating bane of sectarianism; it is easier, after all, to fight one’s fellows than it is to battle an entrenched and powerful foe. Yet if ‘the history of Local New York shows anything, it is that American radicals cannot afford to become their own worst enemies. In unity lies their only hope.

As one who once was in a hard left revolutionary Marxist group, I see her thoughts as quite accurate. Sectarianism is endemic to the socialist left. All the little groupuscules must differentiate themselves somehow from the other. That Monty Python skit about the Judean People’s Front is dead-on accurate, and funny too.

One reason such groups like this have little influence, especially in the States, is because the front groups they form to organize on specific issues have contradictory purposes. Such groups are really meant to be recruiting tools for the party rather genuinely organizing on the specific issue. Hence, they lock out moderates and attempt to keep complete control. But you can’t build a genuine mass movement if you exclude moderates. So, it’s inherently self-defeating.

Her essay seems neutral on socialism, and since she is 50 and from NYC, it’s a given that many of her parent’s friends and colleagues were probably socialist or at least sympathetic, as NYC Jews were major players in the left then. (This is emphatically not meant as a put-down or slur. Many of them, for example, were also early supporters of civil rights and marched in the South when doing so was dangerous.)

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