The University of Wisconsin Press

American Studies / History / Political Science / History of Science, Medicine, and Technology


American Socialists and Evolutionary Thought, 1870–1920
Mark Pittenger

History of American Thought and Culture
Paul S. Boyer, Series Editor

American Socialists and Evolutionary Thought demonstrates how evolutionary theories fundamentally shaped, and ultimately undercut, the American socialist movement. Mark Pittenger examines the attempts of radicals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to synthesize the evolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer with socialist philosophy, social theory, and political practice. In contrast to authors who have shown the influence of Darwinism on conservative and progressive political ideologies, Pittenger establishes that radicals also took scientific ideas seriously and wanted to link the public fascination with evolution to their own cause.

Looking at theoretical, political, and fiction writing by American socialists, Pittenger identifies debates among factions during two distinct periods: the Gilded Age, during which socialism was a fragmented aggregation of largely non-Marxist individuals and organizations; and the Progressive Era, when socialism coalesced into a distinctly Marxist movement, seeking political and economic power via the American Socialist Party. Many activists of both eras saw evolutionary science as the necessary foundation for socialist theory and practice. Some tried in various ways to incorporate pragmatism, cultural relativism, and rights for blacks and women into their programs, or worked to democratize scientific knowledge in service of the class struggle. But, as a result of the social pressures on socialists to adopt less radical positions and of their own desires to appeal to a broader constituency, the Marxist call for a workers’ revolution receded in importance, replaced by the less painful notion that socialism would arrive as the result of natural and inevitable processes.

As socialists broadened their message it became difficult to distinguish it from other types of progressive reform. Pittenger’s insights regarding the role of evolutionary science in American socialist thought are an important contribution to understanding why socialism has not had more of an impact on modern American society.

Mark Pittenger is an assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado.

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Pittenger's book is turquoise with a white title and an abstract pattern in a darker shade of turquoise

February 1993
LC: 92-028041 HX
320 pp. 6 x 9

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Paper $24.95 s
ISBN 978-0-299-13604-8
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Cloth $60.00 s
ISBN 978-0-299-13600-0
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