By Robert Higgs
It’s May Day—International Workers’ Day—a time for us to celebrate the workers of the world, who, as Marx told us, had nothing to lose but their chains and therefore would inevitably mount a worldwide revolution to throw off the hated capitalist system that had forged their chains. But something happened on the way to the workers’ socialist revolution—a great many things, in fact, including World War I, which proved that the workers’ devotion to their nation-states was much deeper than their devotion to their comrades in the working classes of other countries.
Moreover, in some industrial countries, especially the USA, the socialist workers’ movement never took deep root, and whatever impetus it had spilled over into other political causes and movements and was thereby dissipated and dispersed. Hence arose the question stated by a leading German sociologist (and very bad economist) Werner Sombart in the title (as translated into English) of his 1906 book Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? Sombart’s answer, at bottom, was “roast beef and apple pie.” That is, the hated capitalist system in the USA had delivered most workers such a comfortable standard of living that they considered socialist revolution a stupid idea and wanted nothing to do with it.
This, oddly enough, was basically the correct answer, although much more complex answers can also be (and have been) given, especially in the great work by Aileen Kraditor, The Radical Persuasion, 1890-1917. To put Sombart’s conclusion in modern American terms, I would not make reference to the well-fed workers’ roast beef and apple pie, or even to the sumptuous servings of cheap delights dished out by Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell, but rather to monster pickups, big-screen TVs, and refrigerators full of Bud. American workers have a thousand times more interest in the Super Bowl game than they have in the overthrow of capitalism (if such we continue to call the fascist monstrosity that now sits astride our politico-economic order).
Happy May Day, comrades.
About the author: Robert Higgs
Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy for The Independent Institute and Editor of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation.