Dreams From the American Left

A history of leftist vision and self-sabotage.

Michael Kazin

Michael Kazin’s wistfully titled American Dreamers is a skillful discussion of a large and multi-branched topic—namely, the history of America’s radical left, starting with its roots in the early 19th century and climbing upward to today, or perhaps tomorrow, given that, at the end of the book, he worries about the future. Kazin tells us that he wrote his book under an inspiration from Dr. Seuss, which came to him during the fateful Y2K year 2000. The Supreme Court threw the presidential election to George W. Bush in that year. And Kazin, like a despairing man who has contemplated death by drowning, but then thought better of it, turned for consolation to fond childhood memories such as Yertle the Turtle and The Butter Battle Book.

He recalled that Dr. Seuss’ career began at a feisty lefty newspaper in New York in the early 1940s, drawing cartoons. He observed with satisfaction that, in later years, the ex-cartoonist, now a writer and illustrator, clung faithfully to his early political instincts. Dr. Seuss’ classic books express a sturdy left-wing contempt for fascists (Yertle) and greedy corporations (The Lorax), along with an admiration for subversive mayhem ( The Cat in the Hat). And Kazin took heart. Though the slough of despond may swallow America’s unhappy left for decades at a time, the left, he reflected, has every reason to boast defiantly of its mighty achievements of the past, beyond even the grandeurs of the Seussian oeuvre. He set out to chronicle the achievements. Then again, Kazin is a fair-minded history professor (he teaches at Georgetown University) whose own left-wing instincts hover modestly in the zones of social democracy (he is an editor of Dissentmagazine). His honest chronicle has ended up treading a judicious path that you might not expect from a disciple of The Cat in the Hat.

In Kazin’s usage, the word left designates pretty much everyone who has dreamed of bringing about, in his words, “a radically egalitarian transformation of society.” During the last couple of centuries, Americans have entertained this dream in many versions, which he describes by telling us about abolitionists, feminists, trade union radicals, Greenwich Village bohemians, prairie populists, Marxists, civil rights agitators, and so on. He reminds us that, time and again, left-wing movements have skillfully revealed dark flaws in American life, and, in doing so, have altered and refined what he calls the larger “moral culture” in the United States—the common sense appreciation of right and wrong.

But, in his clear-eyed way, he also notices that, time and again, the left-wing movements, having made their contribution, have straight-away shot themselves in the foot, typically by splitting into squabbling factions; and have shot themselves in the other foot by emitting odors of self-righteousness or by advocating and sometimes by advocating misbegotten policies. And politicians and other people with no left-wing credentials at all have profited from the left-wing self-destruction by mandating a few limited reforms and claiming the credit for themselves.

Even the abolitionists, who brought about the single largest egalitarian reform in America’s history, illustrate the pattern. Abolition itself was enacted only because, in the 1850s, mainstream politicians shoved the anti-slavery radicals aside and stole their program. And the mainstream politicians went on, post-Civil War, to abandon the freed slaves to the vengeance of aggrieved white racists. Kazin admires the People’s Party of the 1890s—the Populists, who dominated several parts of the country. But the Populists’ greatest success was merely to inspire the non-radical Democratic Party to take up the cause of economic regulation—the governmental duty, in the phrase of William Jennings Bryan, of whom Kazin is the biographer, “to put rings in the noses of hogs.”

The Socialist Party of the 1910s prospered only in a few places around the country. The Socialists’ arch-rival, the Communist Party of the 1930s, prospered in fewer places yet, and aroused hatred, too, because of the communist allegiance to the Soviet Union. These parties had their successes, even so. Kazin warily admires the Communist Party’s Popular Front. And the successes were promptly pocketed by the mainstream politicians and trade unions, who pushed through modest reforms and basked in the achievement. Something similar happened during the left-wing efflorescence of the 1960s and ‘70s, with its bouquet of civil rights activism, student New Leftism, modern feminism, gay rights, ecologists, and hippie communards, including the young Kazin himself for a while, or so he tells us. Issues emerged. Reforms resulted. But the reforms rarely went beyond offering newly refined concepts and guarantees of individual rights, instead of egalitarian new social programs.

Kazin expects still less or perhaps nothing at all from the radical left-wing mini-currents of our own time, the anti-globalist anarchists and public figures like Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein—groups and individuals who, in his portrayal, resemble all too closely the podium-pounding self-defeating hotheads of long ago. Kazin frets. He suspects that America’s left has reached its dismal nadir. And yet, how will America make any progress in the future if the radical left is no longer capable even of presenting a persuasive case for this or that reform?

I wonder if the entire story of America and its left couldn’t be presented in a slightly more encouraging way. Kazin’s definition of the left-wing goal—”a radically egalitarian transformation of society”—puts its emphasis, I think, on the word radically. He seems to suggest that, from a fully left-wing perspective, American life needs to be thoroughly uprooted. But what if America herself turns out to be a radical project, eternally pursuing an ever-receding democratic goal? Seen from that angle, some of the radical leftism that Kazin has discussed might amount merely to a bombastic style of proclaiming alienation—while certain other quieter and stronger tendencies in American life might turn out to be, upon inspection, just as ardently committed to an egalitarian future.

Kazin seems to me a little hard on 19th-century American Catholicism, for instance—sometimes for good reason. But Catholicism was also the church of the slum-dwelling immigrant poor, and its own version of social conscience helped pave the way for the mainstream trade unions of the 20th century. Then again, Kazin seems to me hard on the mainstream unions. He pretty much skips over a uniquely American phenomenon, the old-time socialist and labor fervor for international solidarity (a fine old left-wing phrase), which, by the late 1940s, generated a worldwide campaign, pro-labor and pro-democratic, against communism and the Soviet Union.

This was the campaign that became known as Cold War liberalism—a grand success, all in all, intermingled with Vietnam-sized calamities. Why shouldn’t Cold War liberalism, at least in its more attractive phases, count as one more huge achievement of the broader American left? Some of the mid-20th-century doughty American socialists who helped lead the civil rights movement were, after all, leaders, as well, of the worldwide anti-communist campaign—a story that has never been told at full length.

I know, I know—I have just made an exceptionally outrageous proposal, from the standpoint of anyone who clings to the current-day orthodoxy of the American left.

But if Kazin is right, and the current-day left has sunk to its lowest of low-points, those of us whose hearts still beat at the prospect of “egalitarian transformation” might reasonably conclude that, like the passengers in a downward-veering blimp, we had better take some of the old leaden orthodoxies and heave them overboard. The biggest of those ancient orthodoxies has to do with a lingering tolerance for the American communists of long ago. My proposal is to rid ourselves of any last trace of communist nostalgia. Let us applaud the liberal and left-wing anti-communists from 60 years ago or so, the unfashionable Cold Warriors, and figure out how to revive some of their majestic achievements in our own, not exactly peaceful era. Kazin does not rule this out. But neither does he rule it in—which means that, on the topic of the American left and its vexed history, the last word has still not been said.