Eric Foner on the “Tragedy” of Socialism’s Failure

“To the Marxist paradigm that underlies this vision, I have no objection.” Eric Foner

College faculties tend to be very liberal – and very defensive about it. Any accusation of left wing bias makes the typical college professor fiercely indignant; and the most biased profs usually show the most indignation.

Campus Marxists have even been known to join together to form groups and publish papers to give an aura of academic legitimacy to their denunciations of their conservative critics. As far as their public image is concerned, university professors clearly want to be seen as moderate, mainstream Americans who can be trusted to give their students a well-rounded education.

When scholars write for other scholars, however, they are more candid.

The subject of leftist language in scholarly works is far too large for a short column like this one, so I am restricting today’s comments to a single paper by one very prominent history professor: Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? by Professor Eric Foner. Professor Eric Foner has served as president the American Historical Association and various other academic association; and is the author of the widely used freshman history textbook Give Me Liberty (which I have criticized pretty harshly in various pages of this website).

Dr. Foner also seems to be pretty thin-skinned. He once had a heated exchange with conservative columnist Daniel Pipes  after Pipes criticized something Foner had said in a public forum. When David Horowitz included a section on Foner in his book The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, someone quickly threw together a Wikipedia page about Horowitz’ book, which portrays the whole book as a fraud and a crime, and puts a heavy emphasis on the passages about Foner.

Academic Papers: Where the Truth Comes Out

When Dr. Foner is writing for his fellow scholars, however, he shows no reluctance to own up to his Marxist sympathies. In Why Is There No Socialism  the professor applauds “the heroic struggles of European workers and socialists,” and makes it clear that he mourns the failure of Socialists and/or Communists to take control of the American government.

This paper is basically a review of the various theories left-leaning scholars have offered to explain what Foner repeatedly calls “the problem”: the failure of Socialist and Communist parties to gain political control of the United States. Foner finds the failure of Socialist parties in this country inexplicable given that, as he puts it, “The Left parties of Europe have without doubt improved the conditions of life for their constituents.”

A more politically moderate observer might leave some room for doubt about the benefits of Socialism in Europe, given the chronically high unemployment rates of European nations, among other things; but to a college history professor the benefits of Socialism are indubitable.

In the paper, the professor rather wistfully speculates that if the American Socialist Party had joined forces with the radical leftist group International Workers of the World (IWW) in the early twentieth century, the combined strength of the two might have made them a powerful force in American politics. The failure of these two groups to merge, he writes, was “the underlying tragedy of those years.”(Italics added.)

Professors with Marxist backgrounds

Anyone who denies that the halls of academia are full of hard core Socialists and Marxists should read this paper. In describing the work of his own mentor, Dr. Richard Hofstadter, Foner says that Hofstadter and another scholar “shared Marxist backgrounds.”

On the next page Foner describes the scholarly work of “one group of historians strongly influenced by the radicalism of the 1960’s.” In describing another school of thought on the subject of why America is not yet fully Socialist, he says that this approach has “an obvious appeal for more optimistic left-historians.”

In one section of the paper Dr. Foner describes Marxist political parties as victims of “outright repression.” This issue, he states, is “often stressed by historians sympathetic to American socialism.”He does not explicitly say that he is one of these historians sympathetic to Socialism, but a quick read of his history textbook will make his sympathies pretty clear. Page after page portrays American Communists as victims of unfair political repression.

In critiquing yet another scholarly theory about why Socialism has not caught on in the US, Dr. Foner rather unnecessarily reassures his colleagues that “To the Marxist paradigm that underlies this vision, I have no objection.”

If that is not clear enough, Foner further reveals his leftist sympathies by condemning the United States as an “imperialist nation” and “the very focal point of world imperialism.”

The Party and the Kremlin

Interestingly, Foner admits in this paper that in the 1930’s the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) “achieved primacy on the Left partially by virtue of its relationship with the USSR, the only existing socialist state,” and further admits that “every Communist party in the world had to deal with the Comintern.”

(The Communist International, or Comintern, was the department of the Soviet government that funded and controlled Communist parties in democratic nations).

These admissions about CPUSA and Comintern more or less contradict various statements in the professor’s textbook, where he basically portrays CPUSA as a home-grown political party that had nothing to do with the Soviet Union.

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In the paper, Foner makes this admission about a Soviet connection after praising CPUSA for all the positive things they supposedly did. “The achievements of the Communists,” he tells us, “were indeed impressive.” They “took the lead in a remarkable array of activities – union-building, demonstrations of the unemployed, civil rights agitation, aid to republican Spain, etc.” Dr. Foner’s history book goes into even greater detail about the supposed virtues and accomplishments of the Communist Party USA, but without the admission that they were agents of the Soviet Union.

Labor Union Leaders as Right Wingers

Professor Foner’s comments about organized labor reveal his radicalism as well as anything else in this paper. Where a moderate-to-liberal Democrat would typically express support for America’s union leaders, Foner condemns them as capitalist stooges: “Other writers contend that the problem is not the nature and role of unions per se, but the fact that labor leaders have constantly sought to undercut the militancy of the rank and file, preferring accommodations with capital to prolonged class struggle. Whether this is a question of the perfidy of individual ‘misleaders’ or the growth of bureaucratic structures isolating officials from their membership, the result has been a union movement uninterested in posing a political challenge to capital.”

Union leaders, in other words, have spent too much time negotiating with factory owners to get better wages and benefits for their workers, and too little time trying to overthrow America’s non-Marxist political system.


Professor Foner is quick to express his indignation whenever anyone accuses him of having a left wing bias. To borrow a phrase from Shakespeare, methinks the professor doth protest too much. The things he writes for his fellow academics make it abundantly clear that he is not just liberal, but radically leftist. Students who are required to study his tendentious history textbook should be aware that they are reading a version of history that comes from the far left.


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3 thoughts on “Eric Foner on the “Tragedy” of Socialism’s Failure

  • So… Exactly what textbook was this that denied slavery ever happened? Quite telling that you couldn’t name it…

  • Slavery was (and is) much more prevalent in muslim countries and Africa than in the USA. The Koran is chock full of instructions & pronouncements from Mohammed about exactly when a person can seize an innocent victim as a slave and how the slave master is supposed to treat their slave.

    Even indigenous North, South, and Central American Indian tribes widely engaged in slavery – and some even engaged in cannibalism as well as human sacrifice.

    For further reading for those ignorant of human history, by definition, all Monarchies were systems in which the rulers had unlimited authority over the peasant classes this effective rendering them slaves (rulers could kill them and take their possessions – even their wives – at will). So, people of all races have been victims of slavery over thousands of years.

  • What does the far left lie about? The far right would have you believe that slavery never even happened. A textbook was recently published in Texas, claiming that Africans were brought over as migrant workers. Horrifying events have been covered up by a white history. So what might I ask you, so wrong about being socialist, communist, or radically left, if it be anything more than of those titles?

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