SEYMOUR MARTIN LIPSET, the distinguished political sociologist who died on December 31, 2006, tells the story in a memoir of how he shifted in City College (CCNY) from science—as a prelude to dentistry—to sociology. During the Depression, the only member of his family who prospered was a dentist uncle, and that seemed the road to security. But Pete Rossi, a fellow student and member of the Trotskyist Young People's Socialist League, told him that sociology was the way to go—it could lead to a career in social work, and, because there would always be people in trouble in capitalist societies, there would always be jobs for social workers. I was a classmate of Lipset's, thinking much the same way. After trying various majors, I too shifted to sociology, with my eye on the federal exam for junior professional assistant, which, if one passed it, led to a job that paid $17 a week. Clearly, none of us young advocates for socialist revolution—which might have obviated the need to make a living under capitalism—were taking its near-possibility very seriously.
Still, we all migrated to the anti-Stalinist Alcove One in the CCNY cafeteria. (We never bought anything, instead bringing sandwiches from home.) Trotskyists, social democrats of various persuasions, and leftist Zionists (as I was) all hung out there. We learned from one another—not that I have any complaint about the formal education CCNY provided. In his memoir, Lipset recalls the day Philip Selznick (also to become a distinguished sociologist) brought to the Alcove's attention Robert Michels's Political Parties. Michels was a revelation. He explained why socialist parties did not bring socialism; why and how they turned into bureaucracies; why, despite a commitment to democracy, they were not democratic; and, by extension, why the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia resulted in a totalitarian dictatorship. Michels setLipset's agenda for a good part of his scholarly career. This was bracketed, at its beginning and at its end, by his inquiries into one particular question: Why was there no major socialist party in the United States? But Lipset also steadily considered, in many books, the question of how democracy is established and maintained, and how it can be lost, in organizations and in societies.
Lipset was unique among us in being able to start immediately on an academic career. Few of us dreamed of such a possibility. CCNY hadone available fellowship, as far as we knew, and Lipset got it and went to Columbia. (He told me about the phenomenal Robert Merton, who later became my teacher.) And he ingeniously found, through his prodigious reading of newspapers and journals, a subject for a dissertation that addressed his central concerns: Saskatchewan, awestern Canadian province and the only state in North America that had elected a socialist government. Lipset went off to study how it had happened and with what consequences. He also considered why it didn't happen right across the border in North Dakota, which had avery similar economic structure and economic conditions—and wherethe Non-Partisan League, a radical organization similar to the socialist Cooperative Commonwealth Federation that had taken power in Saskatchewan, was also dominant. This led him to ponder the differences between Canada and the United States, and to a lifelong interest in how the historically determined structures of societies set limits for their development that are difficult to transcend. Canada (that is, Anglophone Canada) was set on its course by the fact that it did not break with England through revolution, and itwas further influenced by American emigrants who opposed the revolution and the break with Great Britain. Canada was conservative; its conservatism paradoxically made possible in time its welfare state, similar to those in Europe, shaped by both far-sighted conservative politicians and their socialist opponents. The United States, in contrast, was individualistic and anti-statist. Its egalitarianism was more social than economic and aimed at equality in opportunity rather than in achievement.
Agrarian Socialism was the book that resulted, and it was stage one in Lipset's lifelong effort to understand why the United States, alone among the major industrialized countries, never has had a mass socialist party. In the course of his career, Lipset addressed the issue again and again, and it was also the subject of his lastbook (with Gary Marks), It Didn't Happen Here. Initially, he put great weight on the contrast between America's electoral system,with its winner-take-all presidential elections, and parliamentary systems, which seemed to foster minority parties. But, in time, Lipset discounted the significance of these differences, as henoted the third-party threats of George Wallace, John Anderson, and Ross Perot. Rather, he concluded, it was American values—individualism, anti-statism, a distinctive kind ofegalitarianism—that explained the country's indifference to socialism.
Lipset, along with so many radicals of the 1930s and 1940s, evolved into an admirer of the United States: its political system, its open society, its democracy, its opportunities—from which he and his friends had benefited. This embrace of America helped turn Lipset away from socialism. I recall running into him the morning after the 1948 election. We had both voted for Norman Thomas but were so happy that Harry Truman, surprisingly, had won. What did that tell us about our socialism?
Lipset's evolution made him, along with other social scientists of his generation and background, targets of the new student left of the 1960s. He and his old radical friends who had joined him in the academy discovered, in the period of student unrest, that they appreciated the role of universities as homes for independent thinking, they saw no reason why the authority of these institutions should be undermined, and they found leftist student obstruction of research for the national interest or on-campus recruiting for government agencies excessive and unjustified. Lipset was not particularly involved, as many social scientists were, with the Defense Department and research in support of U.S. foreign policy. But his studies of the conditions that made for democracy in developing societies, one of his central interests,made him a leading authority on the politics of important sites of our worldwide competition with Soviet communism and were useful for government-sponsored research. And his friendships with leading social scientists who conducted this federally funded and pragmatically oriented social research designed to promote nationalaims seemed to ally him with them.
As the student left became more and more hostile to what it dubbed Amerika, Lipset, with his deep appreciation of America, moved further to what he considered the center—and what the student radicals considered the right. He may not have called himself a neoconservative as that tendency emerged in the 1970s, but the neoconservatives were part of his intellectual and social circle: He wrote for their journals, and his research increasingly emphasized the role of values as opposed to class and economic interests. One of his most provocative and disputed articles was "Democracy and Working-Class Authoritarianism," which observed that while the poor "are everywhere more liberal when it comes to[economic] issues ... when liberalism is defined in non-economicterms—so as to support, for example, civil rights for political dissidents, civil rights for ethnic and racial minorities,internationalist foreign policies, and liberal immigration legislation—the relation is reversed. " Marxist and socialist sociologists did not like this, even though the conclusion came from research rather than ideology. Lipset could not have been surprised by Wallace's support among industrial workers when he ran for national office.
But Lipset, who always thought of himself as a liberal and never, I would guess, voted for a Republican for president, did not see Wallace and other third-party movements as harbingers of fascism, as some alarmed liberals did. He studied and wrote on the history of extreme right-wing movements—anti- Jewish, anti-Catholic,anti-black, and anti-immigrant—that have risen again and again inthe United States, but he saw these as anomalies in the American experience. He had faith in America. In his most interesting and original book, The First New Nation, he played an important role in redefining U.S. nationality as something new in the world: It was based on ideas, principles, values, rather than on British origins,on Protestant religion, on whiteness; it was not the nationality ofa primordial ethnic group, but something quite different. In principle, the entire world was eligible to become American.
In that book, Lipset also showed an appreciation for GeorgeWashington that is not common among intellectuals, who are generally attracted more by Jefferson or Hamilton or Madison. Butit was Washington who, by giving up the leadership of the Army at the end of the revolution and passing on the presidency to his elected successor after two terms, set the pattern that made the United States a stable democracy. Writing at a time when new nationsby the score were gaining independence and freedom, Lipset saw thisas an excellent—indeed, crucial—model for their founding fathers to follow. Alas, few did. Lipset went as far as anyone in defining the conditions that make for democratic success. And there is much in his writings that could help us understand why we have done so badly as we try to establish liberal democratic regimes in unlikely parts of the globe.
This article appeared in the January 22, 2007 issue of the magazine.