An appreciation of Seymour Martin Lipset

In his youth, the author of Agrarian Socialism was a Trotskyist; in his mature years, he figured prominently among neoconservative intellectuals, a group whose ideas and debates played an important role in shaping American public policy over the second half of the 20th century. It is an understatement to say this was a wide swing in political ideology. Admittedly, Seymour Martin Lipset’s swing never went all the way. He never identified as a Republican. His natural political allies were centrist and conservative Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Nonetheless, he contributed to the set of ideas that American conservatives now embrace.

Lipset, who died in December 2006 at the age of 84, studied at City College of New York, a decidedly non-elite institution that formed many who, like him, were second-generation Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. An excellent introduction to the importance of CCNY graduates in advancing neoconservative – but not only neoconservative – ideas is the documentary film Arguing the World, which traces the intellectual evolution of four graduates from youthful radicalism in the 1940s to reflective maturity in the 1990s. (Three of the four have neoconservative links; one remained faithful to the ideas of the left.) Lipset does not figure in the film but it inspired him to write what to my knowledge was his only movie review.1

At the heart of CCNY’s political life in the early 1940s, when Lipset was an undergraduate student, were three alcoves in the student cafeteria. Here is his description:

The alcoves were … a venue for a steady stream of debate and invective between Stalinists and anti-Stalinists. They were room-sized chambers in the college cafeteria with wooden benches on three sides and an opening to the main eating area. In front of each alcove was a large table, strong enough to hold the orators who frequently stood atop it to harangue those who gathered. The Stalinist or Communist alcove was known as the Kremlin, and the one next door, inhabited by a variety of anti-Stalinist radicals – Trotskyists, Socialists, anarchists, socialist Zionists, members of assorted splinter groups – was called Mexico City in honor of Leon Trotsky’s exile home. Proximity, of course, led to shouting matches, even though the Communists forbade their members to converse with any Trotskyists, whom they defined as fascist agents. My recollection is that students, occasionally joined by some junior faculty, were there all day, talking, reading, arguing, and eating.

What united those in his alcove, says Lipset, was the moralistic tone of their arguments. They knew what they wanted for the world; they were less sure than those in the two other alcoves (the third was occupied by ardent Zionists) as how to realize it. Whether the Soviet Union would have been a more humane empire if Trotsky and not Stalin had succeeded Lenin is one of the great hypothetical questions of the 20th century. At the time Lipset and others in his alcove were debating such questions, Trotsky himself had recently died in Mexico, a martyred exile. A Soviet agent, who had successfully insinuated himself into Trotsky’s entourage, had planted an ice pick in his head.

By the mid-1940s, when Lipset launched his doctoral studies, he had abandoned Trotskyism. But he retained the moralism of his CCNY alcove. He decided to study the CCF in Saskatchewan not for reasons of professional advancement or because his supervisor at Columbia University was particularly interested, but because he hoped to find in the Canadian prairies a model for a democratic, noncommunist socialism capable of taking root in North America. Agrarian Socialism, his revised doctoral thesis, was first published in 1950.

You can only understand home when you leave it

Agrarian Socialism is an important book in the context of Canadian political studies as the definitive study of the rise to power of the CCF in Saskatchewan. While I think Lipset right in his conclusion that it was essentially an extension into Canada of analogous democratic movements among farmers in the Dakotas and other plains states, I also agree with Allan Blakeney that the CCF was more than that. Lipset did not go very far in pursuing the question of how the CCF differed from its U.S. precedents – this omission was less excusable in the “updated edition” published in 1968 than in the initial 1950 version.

In this early work, Lipset illustrated several themes to which he returned over a long career. The most straightforward was his conviction that academics must go abroad if they hope to understand their own countries or the world. In Agrarian Socialism, it is clear that Lipset was interested in more than a case study. He was seeking answers to questions that transcend Saskatchewan or Canada: Why had there been no successful socialist party in the United States? What are the determinants of democratic politics and, in particular, how can democratic movements contend with the threat posed by bureaucracy? To what extent does American differ from Canadian political culture?

Later in his career, Lipset concluded that the answer to the first question – why no socialist party in the United States – was a matter of political culture, of the democratic values that made of the U.S. the “first new nation.” The United States is the first country to have generated expectations among nearly everyone – at least everyone who was not a slave – that the country should be democratic. Lipset afforded a place of honour to de Tocqueville as the first to describe Americans in these terms. Democracy in America was written by a Frenchman after travelling abroad. Later in life if not at the time, Lipset no doubt perceived his travels in rural Saskatchewan as a 20th-century equivalent.

Viewed as a detailed case study of the strength of democracy in a particular setting, Agrarian Socialism is a precursor to Political Man, a book that attempted rigorous answers to the second question, that of the conditions for democratic politics. Lipset’s subsequent summary of what that book demonstrated is “that the emergence and spread of democracy were related to socioeconomic development, to changing occupational and class structures, to higher per capita income, to widespread diffusion of education, to social homogeneity.”2 Many of these conclusions may seem obvious today, but he was among the first to study them quantitatively. He brought rigour to comparative case studies without losing sight of the “big” ideological questions that matter in these discussions. He was a pioneer of the work currently undertaken by institutional economists and political scientists who, with access to large comparative data sets, study attitudes to corruption, religious tolerance, the rule of law and so on and compare these attitudes across countries.

Changing his mind

Lipset was impressed by CCF conventions in the 1940s at which ordinary delegates offered spirited criticism of cabinet ministers (not a wise activity for ordinary party members to undertake in Communist-controlled countries.) He also documented the extent of civic engagement in Saskatchewan, evident in the many occasions for people to take part in elections – for school boards, for rural municipality councils, for executives of farm organizations and co-ops.

If “you can only understand home if you leave it” is the first theme illustrated by Agrarian Socialism, the updated edition illustrates a second: Lipset’s self-conscious change of mind on his fundamental intellectual questions. For this edition, Lipset added a 15-page introduction plus five articles written by faculty and students at Washington University in St. Louis. Mine was one of them.

In the 1960s Lipset still believed democracy was of crucial importance in containing the threat from potential abuse of state power, but now his expectations of what democratic political engagement could achieve were much more modest. The essence of democracy was to assure competition among elites. As with others who were evolving into neoconservatives, he had little empathy with the participatory democracy arguments of the New Left. Here is a representative passage of his ideas on democracy, from an essay written in 1962:

In essence, democracy in modern society may be viewed as involving the conflict of organized groups competing for support … This image of democracy as conflict of organized groups and of access by the ruled to their rulers may be far from the ideal of the Greek city state or of small Swiss cantons, but in operation as a system it is far better than any other political system which has been devised to reduce the potential exploitation of man by man.3

What ensures that these organized groups respect limits in their political conflict? For Lipset, the only guarantee lay in the depth of popular commitment to a democratic political culture. The United States was unique in that its citizens, more than those of any other modern democracy, expected elections to be reasonably honest affairs and expected elections to determine their rulers. And among American elites, democratic values meant that they were willing to cede power in the wake of a lost election and not to abuse power by destroying competitive elites. What he meant by democracy in his mature work is not inherently different from what current political scientists such as Robert Putnam mean by “social capital” and is similar to what Francis Fukuyama labels as “trust.”

Late in his career, in 2000, Lipset summarized all this as follows:

In 19th-century America, the ideology of the American Revolution was transformed into an all-encompassing liberalism stressing liberty, anti-statism, and individualism. In Europe, a dominant conservatism was wedded to the state – it was conservatives such as Britain’s Benjamin Disraeli, for example, who invented the welfare state – and it naturally gave birth to state-centered opposition, social democracy. Because its liberal ideology stifled the emergence of a state-centered opposition, the United States became an anomaly.4

The above 1962 description of democracy comes from Lipset’s introduction to an English translation of Robert Michels’s Political Parties. As with others in his CCNY alcove, Lipset was much influenced by this disillusioned study of politics as practised by the German Social Democrats prior to World War I. Michels famously concluded that an “iron law of oligarchy” operates over time within popular organizations. By virtue of this law, the diffuse exercise of influence by the many inevitably yields to a professional oligarchy, and the democratic culture of such organizations gives way to one that legitimizes this oligarchy.

The dictatorship of Stalin – along with the martyrdom of Trotsky – was the grotesque extreme of this dynamic. Although he doesn’t refer to it in this essay, Lipset, as a former Trotskyist, would have read The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky’s attempt to explain the transformation of the Bolshevik revolution into Stalinist dictatorship. Those who “betrayed” the revolution were allegedly the class of Soviet apparatchiks, and Stalin’s success was due to his having pursued their bureaucratic interests against those of the Bolshevik Party.

Michels’s “iron law” hovers over Lipset’s chapter on bureaucracy in Agrarian Socialism. In it he analyzed the conservative influence of senior officials on cabinet decisions during the CCF’s first term. He concluded the chapter with a pessimistic paragraph on their tendency to constrict options and accommodate the status quo: “Unless the electorate is given the opportunity to change the key experts as well as the politicians, elections will lose much of their significance. This problem will become more and more significant as efforts are made to increase the economic and social welfare role of the state.”5

In looking back in 1968 on the 1944–64 CCF government, Lipset allowed that “the Saskatchewan movement indicated limitations on Michels’ iron law.” But his basic conclusion was pessimistic: “Agrarian socialism in Saskatchewan was a consequence of anachronistic forces within the society, rather than a wave of the future.”6 Forces leading to urbanization and growth of government complexity were weakening participatory democratic traditions and were ensconcing power in a professional hierarchy. This had taken place both in the CCF as a political movement and in the government the CCF had led. In other words, the problem of bureaucracy remained whole; the CCF was not an exception to Michels.

The updated edition appeared during the Ross Thatcher interregnum in Saskatchewan – between the Tommy Douglas–Woodrow Lloyd administration and that of Allan Blakeney. Rereading my article 40 years later, I wince at some of the writing and at the melodramatic title (“Decline and Fall of Agrarian Socialism”). Like Lipset, I was much influenced by Michels. Obviously, I was wrong about the “fall” inasmuch as the CCF-NDP returned to office in 1971, albeit as a more staid urban-led social-democratic party relative to its earlier populist incarnation.

What Lipset missed

Initially, it seems bizarre that a cohort of young American radicals from the 1940s became convinced conservatives. But when one appreciates the eastern European roots of many among them, their visceral horror of Stalinist terror is understandable. And their intimate experience of ideological manipulation by Stalinist political operatives served to reinforce their anti-Communism. To their credit, this group of American public intellectuals sustained a root-and-branch critique of Communist dictatorship throughout the Cold War and rejected the “realist” conclusion that Western democracies should accept the Soviet empire as a legitimate permanent fixture of world politics.

They paid a price, however, in affording an overwhelming value to an “anti-statist” defence of liberty. In doing so, they failed to analyze what the government of an industrial democracy in the 20th century should be doing. For those of us who have been involved in the Saskatchewan CCF-NDP – in my case full-time involvement was for only a few years in the 1970s – it is unsatisfactory to sum up the endeavour as a few “limitations on Michels’ iron law” and as a doomed “consequence of anachronistic forces.”

In his contribution, Blakeney referred to leaders of the CCF who were not “men of the soil” and to creation of a professional civil service in sympathy with the party’s goals. Many of the leaders, starting with Douglas, were British-born, and they brought with them a critique of 19th-century capitalism based not on prairie populism but (to use Lipset’s turn of phrase) on a “state-centered opposition , social democracy.” The CCF was aided in its ability to attract qualified civil servants by the party’s failure to win election elsewhere in Canada. Arguably, the importance of the Saskatchewan CCF was its successful combination of American-inspired populism with British-inspired social democracy. Without that coming together of two political cultures, Canada would probably not have achieved a European-style system of universal health insurance.

The United States is exceptional not only in the sense Lipset emphasized. It is also exceptional in being the one major industrial country without health insurance for all its citizens. The majority of citizens in western Europe and North America expect, at a minimum, that the welfare state will extend to essentially free K–12 education and free access to basic health services. Both these services demand of government more than redistribution of income from rich to poor. They require an efficient bureaucracy. Which casts a shadow over any analysis of bureaucracy that places as much weight on Michels’s bleak perspective on bureaucrats as does Lipset’s.

Lipset was not oblivious to the importance of the CCF’s social policy initiatives during its two decades in office in Saskatchewan from 1944 to 1964. In his introduction to the updated edition, he described “the highly controversial medicare program.” He went on to conclude that “there have been few political units, relatively small in population, as interesting as the province of Saskatchewan.”7 And an interest in what government should do kept him affiliated to the Democrats; he never crossed over to the Republicans.

In a sense Lipset remained a Trotskyist to the end. In the West, Trotskyists often joined political parties of the centre or left, forming factions – usually very small factions – and regularly criticizing the compromises of the non-Trotskyist party leadership. Lipset did something similar with respect to the political parties he studied. After Trotsky was exiled from the Soviet Union, the criticism he offered was often astute, as was Lipset’s. But neither spent much time on the pragmatic requirements of implementing and managing a “state-centered” social-democratic solution to the wrongs of the world, perhaps because neither could acknowledge that bureaucracy has a positive as well as a negative role.


1In his review (“Out of the Alcoves,” Wilson Quarterly, Winter 1999), Lipset offered the following thumbnail sketch of the four “writers, thinkers, and editors of politically important anti-Stalinist magazines”: “Daniel Bell, a social democrat then and now; Nathan Glazer, a radical Zionist then and a Democratic neoconservative now; Irving Kristol, a Trotskyist then and a Republican neoconservative now; and Irving Howe, a Trotskyist then and a moderate socialist at his death in 1993. After World War II, all four wrote for influential anti-Stalinist organs such as Partisan Review, the New Leader, and Commentary. In 1953, Kristol helped create Encounter, a transatlantic anti-Stalinist journal based in Britain, and Howe went on to found Dissent in 1954, along with the late Michael Harrington (who deserves to be in the film, but did not go to City College). In 1965, Kristol and Bell launched the Public Interest (with Glazer later replacing Bell as coeditor).”

2 “Steady Work: An Academic Memoir,” Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 22 (1996), p. 14.

3 “Introduction,” in Robert Michels, Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul (1915; New York: Colliers Books, 1962), p. 36.

4 “Still the Exceptional Nation?” Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2000.

5Agrarian Socialism: Updated Edition (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1968), p. 329.

6Ibid., pp. xx, xvii.

7Ibid., pp. xxi, xxv.