Segment from Seeing Red

An “Exceptional” Phrase

Joanne, Brian and Ed trace the roots of the phrase “American Exceptionalism” only all the way back to… Joseph Stalin?


Within the Earth by Ketsa

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JOANNE: Brian, Ed, Nathan Connolly, and I are all historians. Each week, we explore the history of a story or topic in the news.

BRIAN: This week, Joanne and I are going to start off with a phrase that politicians love to use– “American exceptionalism.” This self-congratulatory refrain has a pretty surprising origin.

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 Frenchmen 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 jotting down some notes on the state of the American economy in 1927.

JAY LOVESTONE: 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 Marx’s 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 can 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.

JAY LOVESTONE: 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 impressed. In his response, he demanded that Lovestone, quote, “end this heresy of American exceptionalism.”

JOSEPH STALIN: Who do you think you are? Trotsky defied me. Where is he? Zinoviev defied me. Where is he? Bukharin defied me. Where 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 into being. Not with the founders. Not with any of the intellectual forefathers of today’s political leaders. Instead, it was with Joseph Stalin.