Debating Socialism: The Seligman-Nearing Debate at 100
Sunday, January 23, 1921. It was a good day to watch a fight. An audience of thirty-five hundred packed the Lexington Theater in midtown Manhattan. What was the fare for the afternoon? A boxing match? A wrestling bout? A martial arts exhibition? No, this was something else. This was an intellectual battle, a three-round debate between two economics professors on the resolution “That capitalism has more to offer to the workers of the United States than has socialism.”
Arguing the affirmative was an establishment figure, Edwin R.A. Seligman, a scion of a wealthy New York banking family and chairman of Columbia’s economics department.
Arguing the negative was the radical activist Scott Nearing. Nearing had earned his PhD at the Wharton School in 1909 and was now teaching at the Rand School of Social Science, a school for activists run by the Socialist Party of America.
Today we can debate socialism with some degree of detachment. But in 1921 there was a tangible sense of vulnerability. Revolution was in the air. Germany’s loss in the Great War precipitated a constitutional crisis—the November Revolution of 1918—triggering revolts and a series of short-lived socialist republics. Hungary was rocked by a series of revolutions between 1918 and 1920. And, of course, there was the mother of all revolutions: the Bolshevik Revolution and the resulting Russian Civil War.
This was also the time of the Red Scare. In 1919 Italian anarchists, followers of Luigi Galleani, mailed several dozen bombs to prominent politicians, journalists, and industrialists. This was answered by the Palmer Raids, in which Wilson’s Justice Department rounded up ten thousand foreigners with suspected radical ties. The unrest continued. In September 1920 Wall Street was bombed. Thirty-eight died.
Would revolution come to the United States as it had in Europe? The question was far from academic. There was ample reason for discontent. The postwar economy was in rough shape, with declining GDP, price deflation, and high unemployment. People were suffering.
Seligman framed the debate in four key ways:
- The interesting question is not how wealth is distributed, but how it is created.
- We need to compare actual capitalism with actual socialism, not theoretical socialism to actual capitalism.
- Capitalism is progressive. It advances and improves.
- It is not enough for socialists to argue that their system will produce good outcomes. They also must demonstrate that these results cannot
Article from Mises Wire