Segment from City Upon a Hill

Seeing Red

The hosts share a little-known story about that time Stalin coined the term “American Exceptionalism.”

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BRIAN: So far, we’ve been talking about the idea of exceptionalism, tracing its roots. But for all the talk of cities on hills, I don’t think that either Winthrop or JFK used the word exceptional to describe the United States. So I want to turn for a minute to where the actual phrase American exceptionalism comes from.

ED: Well Brian, it’s a 19th century visitor to the United States who’s most often credited with creating that language. That would be Alexis de Tocqueville, who reported back to his fellow Frenchman in 1840 that Americans democratic politics made their country unique. But even though Tocqueville did use the word exceptional, he didn’t actually use the word exceptionalism, and we want to get things right here on BackStory.

So we need to jump forward to the 20th century, specifically to a political organizer who is jotted down some notes on the state of the American economy in 1927.

BRIAN: It is a basic fact that American capitalism is still on the upward trend, still in the ascendancy, much more than any other capitalism in the world.

ED: Now, here’s the catch. To this guy, this was bad news. See, Jay Lovestone was the head of the Communist Party of America, and he had spent the last few years watching as economic chaos in post World War I Europe led to rising class tensions and rampant inequality. His comrades in Europe thought the proletarian revolution was just around the corner.

BRIAN: But back here in America, the economy was booming, and that made Lovestone very nervous. The United States was the most advanced capitalist economy in the world. According to Marxist theory, that meant the revolution should be hitting America first. So like, where were the barricades? Where was even the protest?

ED: So in 1929, Lovestone finds himself with an awkward job. He has to account for the absence of American socialism to none other than the top dog of the communist international. That would be Joseph Stalin– if you could imagine trying to explain something to Joseph Stalin. And the explanation that Lovestone came up with was basically this. America is different from other countries.

PETER: The international revolutionary leaders have always recognized the special conditions under which the American labor movements have developed.

BRIAN: He pointed to the history of frontier living, the lack of a feudal past, the social mobility here. All these things, Lovestone explained, had created a unique society in which workers were more tolerant of economic inequality. So Marx’s theory, well, it didn’t quite apply here.

ED: As you can imagine, Joseph Stalin was not compressed. And his response? He demanded that Lovestone quote, end this heresy of American exceptionalism.

MALE SPEAKER: Who do you think you are? Trotsky defied me. That is he. Zinoviev defied me. That is he. [INAUDIBLE] defied me. There is he. And you, who are you? Yes. You will go back to America. But when you get back there, nobody will know you except your wives.

BRIAN: And so that’s how the term American exceptionalism came in to being– not with the founders, not with Tocqueville, not with any of the intellectual forefathers of today’s political leaders. Instead, it was with Joseph Stalin.

PETER: So guys, what happened to Lovestone, and what happened to American exceptionalism?

ED: Well, Lovestone is pretty quickly moved to the margins of the Communist party. That’s immediately followed by the great crash of 1929, which makes the whole idea of America being immune from the currents of world history look ridiculous. And so in 1930, at the Communist Party Convention, they underlined just how wrong this whole idea of American exceptionalism was.

BRIAN: The storm of the economic crisis in the United States blew down the house of cards of American exceptionalism.


PETER: So Brian, we’re in the heart of your century– the 20th century. What happened after the war to the idea of American exceptionalism?

BRIAN: Well, what happened, Peter, was a very odd story. Because what had been really the charge of the left– that America was exceptional because it did not have socialism– got flipped into America was exceptional because it could stand up to socialism, which seemed to be dominating the world. The Soviet Union thrived after World War II. It served as a model to many lesser developed countries as to the kind of political and economic system they wanted.

And exceptionalism became that claim of those who were looking for more enduring American qualities that got defined as precisely the opposite of those contained in the Soviet Union. America believed in God. The Soviet Union was godless. America was built on capitalism. The Soviet Union issued capitalism. America was a nation that believed in voting, in democracy. The Soviet Union was autocratic.