American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation
by Michael Kazin
Knopf, 329 pages, $27.95
Radical historians are notoriously untrustworthy analysts of the American experience because their ideological commitments so often distort their critical assessments. Frustrated by the disconnect between their vision of history’s destined outcome—the egalitarian bliss of the cooperative commonwealth—and the stubborn refusal of the nation’s history to realize, or even approximate, that vision, they regularly resort for explanation to improbable themes of conspiracy, oppression, or false consciousness.
Not so Michael Kazin, a professor at Georgetown University and a coeditor of the leftist magazine Dissent, as well as the author of a recent biography of William Jennings Bryan. Kazin counts himself a radical, but his politics do not dictate his history. His engaging account of the radical-left tradition in American Dreamers presents, on the whole, a radicalism without tears and without evasions. One may quarrel with him on a number of points, but he seldom indulges in sentimental mythmaking.
Kazin has no trouble conceding that the American left—that congeries of movements œdedicated to a radically egalitarian transformation of society—has, unlike its counterparts in Europe, failed to convert significant numbers of citizens to its collectivist views in politics and economics. But it has done rather better, he argues, œat helping to transform the moral culture, instances of which include equality for women, minorities, and homosexuals; sexual emancipation; multiculturalism; and a persistent streak of rebellious discontent and altruistic yearning in popular entertainment.
The disjunction between œpolitical marginality and cultural influence” can be explained, he rightly notes, by a dominant political culture that œvalued liberty above all” and that was therefore far more open to the infinite elaboration of individual rights than to appeals to a collective common good. Americans prefer freedom to equality, and that is why the radicalism of the free spirits in Greenwich Village has at least intermittently flourished while that of the class-conscious militants who periodically gathered for protests several blocks uptown in Union Square has consistently foundered.
Kazin begins his narrative in the late 1820s (before that, he says, America produced radical individuals but not radical social movements). Early radical impulses in abolitionism and workers’ and women’s rights reflected the perfectionist spirit of Charles G. Finney’s Evangelical Christianity and looked to individual conversion to righteousness—œromantic individualism, in the author’s terms—as the source of social transformation. Radical commitment was for the most part, he notes, an elitist affair: Even the proto-socialist communitarian movement—Brook Farm, New Harmony, the Oneida community—had little attraction for wage earners. And abolitionism had no appeal: The heavily Irish Catholic working class was not just anti-abolitionist but anti-black.
The Civil War brought emancipation, but the radical hope for economic democracy for freedmen through the confiscation and redistribution of former slaveholders’ property had, Kazin recognizes, little popular support. The great majority of Americans thought the proper role of government was limited to advancement of civil and political rights, not economic equality.
In the post–Civil War industrial surge, the left abandoned its individualism for a more collective approach to radical change. Conflicts between workers and owners in the late nineteenth century were intense and often violent, and the rise of the labor question produced a boisterous class consciousness and visions of a new social democracy. A broad antimonopoly crusade elicited diverse enthusiasms: Henry George’s single tax, Edward Bellamy’s nationalist movement, scattered anarchist outbreaks (the propaganda of the deed), the Knights of Labor, the Farmers’ Alliance, a Protestant social gospel.
Yet despite severe economic downturns in the 1870s and 1890s and titanic labor conflict in the Homestead and Pullman strikes, the mass agitation produced, as Kazin indirectly concedes, meager results. In Europe the left united by late century behind powerful Socialist and Labor parties, but America’s doctrinaire Socialist Labor party rose and fell without a trace, and not a single Labor candidate won significant national, state, or local office.
The one enduring labor movement of the era—the American Federation of Labor under Samuel Gompers—repudiated not just socialism but any form of activist government. The national Republican and Democratic parties remained largely untouched by all the protest, and the only significant political movement of the left, the People’s Party of the 1890s, was quickly absorbed by the Democrats.
America finally developed an enduring socialist party in 1901, but unlike its counterparts anywhere else in the West, its political significance was negligible. (Eugene Debs reached a peak for the party with 6 percent of the presidential vote in 1912.)
Kazin does identify two islands of socialist success. Almost alone among immigrants, Jews developed a strong leftist tradition, and many of them embraced Marxism as a messianic religion of humanity to replace the Torah piety they discarded as provincial and escapist. And then there were the œmilitant moderns, urban bohemian rebels like Margaret Sanger, Max Eastman, and Randolph Bourne, who augmented their Marx with Freud, Nietzsche, and Ibsen and who had some cultural influence in their efforts to integrate social change with personal liberation.
World War I and the Russian Revolution divided what there was of the left, and it was further weakened by severe government repression during and after the war. (It is striking, however, how little weight Kazin—on this occasion and others—places on government red scares in explaining the left’s marginal standing. Readers will surely be surprised, for example, to find no listing in the book’s index for either McCarthy or McCarthyism.)
Perhaps the left’s greatest success in insinuating its way into the American mainstream came under the Communist party’s Popular Front program during the late 1930s and World War II. While party membership never topped 100,000 and its sole electoral accomplishment came in electing two members to the New York City Council, its scientific explanation for the failures of capitalism in the Great Depression impressed many intellectuals, and its no enemies on the left approach to politics—it became a de facto ally of the administration of Franklin Roosevelt—made it appear to some as a plausible fulfillment of the nation’s progressive tradition.
Communism announced itself as twentieth-century Americanism, and communists were simply liberals in a hurry. Party members and left-liberal sympathizers had remarkable success in making the party’s influence felt—usually in hidden ways—throughout the nation’s political, cultural, and institutional life. It is telling that radicalism succeeded in the thirties insofar as its most effectual adherents managed to camouflage who they were and what they ultimately intended.
Kazin argues that the communist influence on America’s political culture in the thirties was essentially beneficial because it moved the New Deal leftward on a broad range of progressive reforms. But he does not deny or minimize the jarring irony that party members pursuing humane reform in the United States simultaneously gave uncritical support to, and denied the horrific crimes of, a Stalinist dictatorship that was engaging in mass slaughter in the communist homeland. (He touches only gingerly, it should be noted, on the involvement of American communists in espionage activities.)
The New Left of the 1960s differed from the Old Left of the thirties—indeed, from most of the radical past—in the depths of its alienation from American society. Racial bigotry and an unjust war in Vietnam were, in the youthful protesters’ minds, not so much departures from the nation’s ideals as revelatory symptoms of a fundamentally corrupt social system. America, they endlessly insisted, was a sick society: It was Amerika.
In scanting this aspect of the decade, Kazin’s often perceptive analysis goes somewhat askew. The author also, in my view, gets his priorities wrong: He places the race issue rather than the war at the heart of radical protest. It was the antiwar movement, not race, that defined the New Left and that drew millions of protesters into the streets. And on the race issue, Kazin is oddly uncritical of the view that white radicals had no choice but to accept the leadership of the thuggishly violent Black Panthers.
But he gets much else right about the New Left: its unprecedented emphasis on youth and preoccupation with personal authenticity; its rejection of capitalism on grounds more moral than economic; its movement away from the concerns of the working class and toward those of the well-educated and well-to-do; its casual dismissal of patriotism and its antinomian disregard for personal and social order. All in all, Kazin concludes, the New Left did more to discredit the liberal old order than advance a radical alternative. In fact, in helping undermine liberalism, it inadvertently opened the door to a conservative revival.
Not that the radicals of the sixties and the following decades could boast no successes. Their activities may have been, on balance, politically counterproductive (think of the Weathermen), but Kazin is right to note that their efforts in women’s liberation, gay rights, and multiculturalism have helped spark, over the past half century, a revolution in personal freedom.
But that does not leave Michael Kazin satisfied. The present moment marks, he gloomily concludes, a nadir for the left. Except for a strong presence in universities, radicalism has little institutional grounding. There are radical celebrities (Michael Moore, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader) and radical causes (outrage against the depredations of the banking industry, multinational corporations, and the World Trade Organization), but virtually nothing in the way of a radical movement. (Kazin finished writing before the emergence of Occupy Wall Street, but one doubts that that amorphous and leaderless outburst has the sustained energy and strategic vision he is looking for.)
Kazin argues that a diminished radicalism is a loss for America. The left, he concedes, has been often feckless and sometimes recklessly utopian—he notes Tony Judt’s maxim, The more perfect the answer, the more terrifying its consequences—but he insists that the utopian impulse is not itself in error, for we gain the possible only by reaching for the impossible.
Radicalism has over time made the United States a more humane society, Kazin believes, because its unrealistic demands have made for a better reality. Reformers like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have, in this view, been less transformative than they hoped because they had no significant radical pressure goading them to reach for more than the conventional wisdom allowed.
Be that as it may, it is not at all clear how Kazin’s yearned-for radical renewal might become more than an empty hope. His definition of the left is radical egalitarianism, and that egalitarianism requires, he indicates, some form of socialism.
But the most significant, if also mostly underappreciated, political fact of our time is the disappearance of socialism as an available option. That is evident not only, or even primarily, in the collapse of the Soviet empire but in the redefinition of the Western European left’s goal as social democracy, not democratic socialism. In that redefining, the dream of economic equality, along with that of public ownership and control of the means of production, has been quietly abandoned. And in that abandoning, radicalism would seem reduced from a mode of politics to a mood of unassuageable discontent.
James Nuechterlein is editor at large of First Things and a senior fellow of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.