In the 19th century Alexis de Tocqueville, from an aristocratic background, decided to investigate America, which seemed to be making amazing civilizational and economic progress, in spite of its complete lack of nobles and royalty. His book, Democracy in America, concluded that yes, this country of hoi poloi seemed to be doing very well indeed.
In the early 20th century a German Professor of economics and sociology, Werner Sombart, sharing in the modest enthusiasm that Germans and other Europeans were feeling for Marxist theories of scientific socialism, became enamored of socialism, and even Hitler’s bold version of National Socialism, and theorized that political economics everywhere was heading in that direction – except apparently for America! Trying to make sense of this, he wrote a book, Why is there no Socialism in the United States? Disappointed in the American “experiment,” he attributed the relative backwardness of Americans to a number of temporary factors: the favorable conditions for capitalist enterprise in the U.S., upward mobility among the classes, the two-party system, and the Western frontier which seemed to bolster the possibilities of freedom. But these were just temporary impediments. He concludes,
All the factors that till now have prevented the development of Socialism in the United States are about to disappear or to be converted into their opposite, with the result that in the next generation Socialism in America will very probably experience the greatest possible expansion of its appeal.
The Growth of Socialism in America
To his disappointment, this did not seem to happen, even under stressful conditions like the Great Depression.
Germans and other Europeans after World War II have tried to establish various modified versions of socialism, sometimes under Christian auspices, meticulously avoiding the disgraced and failed Soviet and Nazi versions.
Americans have shown interest in socialism on and off, and even at times have had credible presidential socialist candidates like Eugene Debbs and Norman Thomas. The state of Wisconsin has had several socialist mayors, socialist representatives in the state legislature, a socialist representative in Congress, and nominated a socialist for the Presidency.
More recently, we have successors in the socialist tradition like Bernie Sanders and NY Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gaining a substantial following in the leftist branch of the Democratic Party.
A Christian Stance
In the past, some socialists have taken their cue from the Acts of the Apostles, where we are told that new converts to Christianity gave up their property and held everything in common (Acts 2:44, 4:32). As Christianity spread out of Judea, this practice waned, although a close approximation to that ideal can now be found in Catholic religious communities. Comparable property-sharing communities are also found in Orthodoxy, Anglicanism, and some non-Christian religions. In Israel, kibbutzim still exist, but only a few of them are explicitly religious. During the sixties, the mostly secular ideal of the “commune” in cities and farms became prominent; and some still exist.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explicitly states that the Church rejects communism and “national socialism,” and extremes of “socialization”:
The Church has rejected the totalitarian and atheistic ideologies associated in modern times with “communism” or “socialism.” Socialization also presents dangers. Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good. (CCC 1883)
However, ruthless capitalism is also suspect:
[The Church] has likewise refused to accept, in the practice of “capitalism,” individualism and the absolute primacy of the law of the marketplace over human labor. (CCC 2425)
Those responsible for business enterprises are responsible to society for the economic and ecological effects of their operations. They have an obligation to consider the good of persons and not only the increase of profits. Profits are necessary, however. They make possible the investments that ensure the future of a business and they guarantee employment. (CCC 2432)
But is there any future for highly structured secular socialist societies, without any strong religious bonds holding them together? The Soviet Union offers us certainly the most graphic failed experiment, as it tried to create a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” In Germany, the Christian Socialist Party, a conservative group initially formed in Bavaria, has had some successes, often in coalition with secular parties. But it is safely far from Marxist or even gradualist “Fabian” ideologies.
Recently, in an interview, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez was asked how she could realistically support socialism in America. The failed socialisms of Latin American countries like Venezuela and Cuba were offered as examples. She answered that she was thinking of the Scandinavian models. But all the Scandinavian countries are quite capitalist, with no central control, and are better described as welfare states funded by (what Americans would consider) enormous income tax rates equivalent to more than half of one’s income.
The requirements that Professor Sombart was looking for do not now exist in the United States, and it stretches the imagination to envision most Americans agreeing to give over half their income to the government to support a welfare state with free medical care, free education, a generous “social net,” or the other emoluments that one finds by living in Sweden, Denmark, or Norway.
But some would object that we have made gradual approximations to the welfare state with public schools, social security, Medicare, etc. The question of how far we are willing to expand government-issued emoluments and entitlements could be a major issue as our two political parties become more and more polarized.