Martin Lipset was another one of those brilliant undergraduate students whose debating skills in particular and critical acumen more generally were honed at the Alcove One of the cafeteria of the City College of New York in the late thirties and early forties. The unifying factor of those 30-50 City students who congregated at Alcove One was not ideological purity (although they were all people of the left of varying and indeed conflicting stripes) but rather their strident opposition to Stalinism. Lipset came to Alcove One as a kind of Trotskyist but left the party after his first year at City. In an autobiographical essay published in 1996 Lipset suggests that his life work as a sociologist, more narrowly, as a political sociologist, had been motivated by three questions which he posed while an undergraduate student at City and as a graduate student in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University under the supervision of Robert K. Merton and Philip Selznick.
As a Trotskyist or socialist from high school through graduate school, I became interested in three questions. The biggest one was—why had the Bolshevik revolution in the Soviet Union led to an oppressive, exploitative society?… The big question was, therefore, how did a revolution, led by people who had come out of the socialist movement, which had been dedicated to reducing inequality and making the world more free, result in totalitarianism?
The second question that concerned me was: Why had the democratic socialist movement, the Second International, the social democrats, failed to adhere to policies that would further socialism? By “furthering socialism,” I mean the coming to power in industrial countries of socialist parties who would make their countries more egalitarian, more democratic, and less economically oppressive by enhancing the role of the state in the economy as well as by changing political practices…The issue for us was why the democratic socialist parties had failed to follow a correct Marxist line; we asked what had led them to be compromisers, reformists, and advocates of the middle way?…
The third political question that interested me greatly was why the United
States had never had a major socialist party. The United States is the only
industrialized country that has never developed an electorally viable socialist or social democratic party or powerful labor movement…The third question, therefore, was Sombart’s old one: “Why no socialism in the United States?”
Lipset claims that he was given insight in relation to two of these questions by reading the book by Robert Michels, Political Parties, which had been introduced to the Alcove One group by Philip Selznick. (In an interview conducted with Daniel Bell about a year before he passed away, Bell described Selznick’s triumphant flourish to the author he introduced the others in Alcove One to the tenets of Michels’ book. One-upmanship seemed to be a common sport in the Alcove). Michels had formulated a sociological law according which the tendency to oligarchy is inherent in every organization. “Whoever says organization, says oligarchy,” Michels wrote. On account of the political and technical requirements of organizational life and the lack of alternatives to existing leadership cadres even in the most democratic of political parties – Michels’ test case was that of the most democratic of political parties in pre-WWI Germany, the SPD, the German Social Democratic Party. In his study of the ITU (published in 1953 under the title Union Democracy), Lipset was able to show that what saved the union from the ‘iron law of oligarchy’ was the existence of competitive elections internally creating a countervailing force to the oligarchical tendency outlined by Michels.
Lipset discovered that, unlike the situation in the United States where the Socialist Party of America never received more that 6% of the popular vote at its highpoint, there was a much more successful socialist party, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Lipset studied the CCF, a largely agrarian socialist party, which succeeded in forming a government in Saskatchewan in 1944, the first socialist government in North America. In comparing the success of the CCF in Saskatchewan with the agrarian radicalism across the border in North Dakota, Lipset had discovered that the parliamentary system was far more conducive to third party challenges because 1) there was no presidential election which tended to minimize third party candidates (the ‘wasted vote’ phenomenon) and 2) within the province of Saskatchewan there were active local civil groups, cooperatives, service and communal voluntary organizations which provided both party workers and significant voters for the CCF. The agrarian socialists in North Dakota one the contrary had to function within the Republican Party.
Lipset left Columbia University in 1956 for a position at UC Berkeley where he continued to be interested in the problems of democracy, class consciousness and social mobility. He worked with Reinhard Bendix and jointly published an edited reader on social mobility from a perspective largely influenced by the German sociologist, Max Weber , Class, Status and Power.
But his most successful book – it was translated into a score of languages – was Political Man. Rewriting a number of his earlier papers and integrating them in a work which might with justice be referred to as the most influential book in political sociology in the latter half of the 20th century, Lipset showed how sociological analysis could be applied to understand the nature of democratic systems, the differences between democratic polities internationally as well as differences between democratic and totalitarian systems globally.
Lipset left UC Berkeley in 1965 (just after the tumultuous eruptions of the Free Speech movement the previous year) for Harvard University. There he continued his research on democratic polities, analyzing voting behaviour, the impact of religion, ethnicity, value systems, etc. influenced by Parsonian theory.
In a 1975 work The Divided Academy, Lipset took up the question of the ideological orientation of academics in the American universities. Building on the works of others such as Thorstein Veblen, Joseph Schumpeter, and Paul Lazarsfeld, he confirmed the left-leaning tendency of academics although he disputed the argument of the sixties academic radicals that they were ignored, oppressed, censored or otherwise unrewarded. If anything it was the conservative academics who were embattled.
Lipset continued to write on the lack of socialism in the United States – America had a tradition of anti-statism, even in the labour movement. Along with his old friend Earl Raab, he did a study for the Anti-Defamation League of the B’nai Brith on right wing extremism (The Politics of Unreason, 1970); Picking up on his early interest in Canada he engaged in a comparison of the political values and institutions in Canada and the United States in Continental Divide, 1989 which led to significant debate between Lipset and a number of Canadian political sociologists and political scientists. He also took up the question of American exceptionalism in a book by that title (1996).
Lipset was among the most honoured of American social scientists, winning prizes and awards for his writings and his political judgment.
Agrarian Socialism: The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in Saskatchewan, a Study in Political Sociology Berkeley, University of California Press, 1950.
Union Democracy: The Internal Politics of the International Typographical Union with Martin Trow and James S. Coleman, Glencoe, The Free Press, 1953.
Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics New York, Doubleday, 1960.
Student Politics New York, Basic Books, 1967.
Revolution and Counterrevolution: Change and Persistence in Social Structures, New York, Basic Books, 1968.
The Politics of Unreason: Right Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970 with Earl Raab, New York, Harper and Row, 1970.
The Divided Academy: Professors and Politics with Everett Carl Ladd, Jr., New York, McGraw-Hill, 1975.
Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada, New York, Routledge, 1990.
American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword , New York, Norton Edited Books, 1996.
“Steady Work: An Academic Memoir”, in Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 22, 1996, p. 1-27.