How the Left Changed a Nation
By Michael Kazin
Knopf, 352 pages
Michael Kazin—coeditor of Dissent magazine, one-time leader of the Harvard chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, and now a professor at Georgetown University—is up to something interesting in his new book, American Dreamers. He intends it as a partial corrective of Howard Zinn’s wildly successful People’s History of the United States, the alternative account that casts our national narrative as an unbroken series of oppressions, injustices, genocides, and oligarchical thievery. Zinn “was stronger on polemical passion than historical insight,” Kazin writes, an activist who “reduced the past to a Manichean fable.”
Zinn’s influential 1980 screed has sold in the millions and, by offering fable rather than fact to explain the nation’s past and present, has contributed to the present-day left’s inability to understand why it does not appeal to Americans the way that conservatism does. Kazin’s ambition to correct Zinn’s fatal flaws and provide his confreres with a more accurate account of American history from a leftist perspective is therefore an honorable one. The ambition, however, is not matched by the results.
In American Dreamers, Kazin offers a lively and broad overview of the various reform movements or “lefts” from the 1820s to the present, with well-rendered portraits of reformers and radicals, from the feminist Elizabeth Cady Stanton to the flat-tax advocate Henry George and on down to the American Communist Party and the New Left.
Kazin believes they are all tied together by a left-wing tradition of utopian searching and considers them to be the forerunners of today’s left. This is the first questionable aspect of American Dreamers, for the continuity it describes between 19th-century activists and, say, those who pledged their allegiance to Stalin is more the result of a romantic imagination than a reflection of reality. In 1972, the socialist historian Aileen S. Kraditor (who later moved rightward) wrote an important essay in the British Marxist journal, Past and Present, in which she observed that the pitfall radical historians make is that they focus on “Our Side’s heroism, dedication, love for The People” without grasping that “the content of freedom in actual fact and in the meaning people give the word changes drastically from group to group and generation to generation.”
For example, the abolitionists, as Kazin points out, were mainly a broad group of Christians vehemently opposed to the system of slavery. Most abolitionists, black as well as white, were “born free in the North, worshipped at a Methodist or Baptist church,” and were “carriers of the evangelical spirit,” which was the “most ubiquitous face of the movement.” The likening of such people to the profoundly secular radicals of our time—rather than to, for instance, today’s evangelical Christians, who are as horrified by abortion as abolitionists were by slavery—says more about what Kazin wants to claim for today’s left than it does about the apostles of the Second and Third Great Awakenings.
Indeed, to the extent that he faults the abolitionists, it is for their failure to have taken up the cudgels for the issues of income inequality that consume him and others like him today. He is disappointed they did not question the economic system in the North, treating it instead as “a model of fairness and opportunity.” He also writes disparagingly that the abolitionist Gerritt Smith gave millions of acres of land to black abolitionists to create an interracial colony, but failed “to divest himself of the wealth that allowed him to decide who was worthy of his philanthropy and who was not.”
At one point, Kazin writes favorably about the Oneida Community, the utopian commune established by John Humphrey Noyes in the 19th century that survived for three decades. Noyes, he writes, was a sexual liberationist who “preached a loose form of serial monogamy, stipulating only that true affection should accompany desire.” But Kazin’s readers do not learn that Noyes’s concept of “sexual apprenticeship” allowed him to choose the women he wanted to sleep with, so that a “superior variety of the human race” would be furthered from “the practice of breeding.” But Daniel J. Flynn, in A Conservative History of the American Left, showed how the community fell apart at the seams, only to be saved by commune members who broke with Noyes’s collectivist concepts and established Oneida as a corporation that sold flatware on the free market all over the world, and later military goods used in World War I.
By far the most fascinating pages in Kazin’s book are about the American Communist Party and the Popular Front, the latter being the movement to bring non-Communist liberals together with Communists in the 1930s in pursuit of leftist goals.
Kazin acknowledges that the American Communists were beholden to Stalin and uncritical defenders and supporters of his tyrannical and murderous regime, and that its members virtually did whatever Moscow ordered them to do. Yet, he argues that within America they played a progressive role that helped change America for the better, especially in their active commitment to civil rights for African Americans. As he puts it:
Most American Communists had devoted their lives to fighting for many of the same causes as had their radical predecessors. And their efforts helped advance reforms any contemporary liberal would favor. The Party…mobilized jobless men and women to demand immediate aid from the government; organized low-paid workers into unions; battled discrimination by race and religion and national origin; and advanced a good education, health care, and access to cultural resources for every American.
Kazin is repeating here the Communist apologia of the 1930s that party members were simply “liberals in a hurry.” But he runs into difficulty with his own argument when he acknowledges that the Party frequently refused to advance the cause of civil rights, as when it opposed the Negro labor leader A. Philip Randolph’s call for a march on Washington during World War II against segregation. The Party, in thrall in those days to the glory of the American-Soviet alliance, argued that nothing could be permitted to stand in the way of unity in the effort to win the war.
That stood in sharp contrast to the fact that a few years earlier, the Party had called for strikes in war industries at the time that President Roosevelt had begun rebuilding America’s armaments—because in those days (before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union), the pact between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s regime was of paramount importance. During the Cold War, the American Communist party demanded that if a war with Soviet Russia broke out, their followers had to prepare to go underground and engage in sabotage against American industries. Kazin acknowledges that the Party fought for its causes “with one eye fixed steadily on the needs of the USSR.” Yet he unconvincingly concludes that its role in American history was positive.
In the realm of the arts especially, Kazin applauds the Popular Front culture—the celebration of the “common man” and “the people” in the ballads of Woody Guthrie, the compositions of Aaron Copland, the cantatas of Earl Robinson, the folk revival led by Pete Seeger, and the children’s stories of Theodore Geisel, later known as Dr. Seuss. In this he breaks from the disdain for the Front’s politicized sentimentality, expressed by anti-Stalinist social democrats like Irving Howe, the cofounder of Dissent, the magazine at which Kazin is now an editor. Howe believed that the Communists, through their strong control of major cultural apparatuses, did great damage to the growth of a genuine American radicalism while befouling the culture at large.
In one sense, Kazin is right. The Party did prove “more influential working through aesthetics than organization.” But he misses the irony that its widespread acceptance transcended the intent the Communists had for it. At the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, the Republican Ronald Reagan watched as the newly Republican Frank Sinatra serenaded the audience at the Statue of Liberty with “The House I Live In”—with lyrics by Abel Meeropol, the Stalinist who took in the children of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg after their execution.
Rather than help to destroy the system and replace it with “socialism,” Popular Front songs actually instilled American pride in the last best hope of earth. Kazin himself acknowledges this when he notes that at President Obama’s inauguration festivities, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen sang Guthrie’s most well-known anthem, “This Land Is Your Land,” even including the usually absent “radical” verses, and yet it simply “vanished into the frigid air.”
Kazin mistakenly attributes to the Communist Party the decision of Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey to lead a battle for civil rights within the Democratic Party at the 1948 convention. He argues that former Vice President Henry Wallace’s independent presidential run—largely backed by the Communist Party—that same year “helped persuade liberal Democrats to take a step they had dithered about for decades.” Humphrey had no need of instruction from Wallace on the virtues of desegregation, and he was a sworn enemy of the influence exerted by Stalinists on the man who fit precisely Lenin’s characterization of the Western “useful idiot” who would advance Communist interests without understanding he was doing so. In fact, Humphrey had waged his own battle in Minnesota against the Communists in the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party’s ranks until he succeeded in ousting them.
Kazin ends his discussion by saying that the Party’s “accomplishments were too essential to the history of their time to be written off as crowd-pleasing banalities or Stalinist apologetics.” But in reality, their accomplishments were few—unless you consider it a great accomplishment to ruin the possibility that a genuinely radical alternative would emerge, free from all ties to Moscow. It is surprising that Kazin, who favors the birth of such a movement, fails to understand this.
The last section of his book, tracing the fortunes of the New Left to that of the incoherent identity politics of radicals today, is the most problematic. Kazin celebrates thugs like those in the Black Panther party as genuine radicals, viewing all of the New Left as a great movement espousing a new “utopian social vision with the desire for an emancipated self.” He treats a street criminal such as the Panther Huey Newton as a valid revolutionary idol and does not see how the early SDS whose “participatory democracy” he celebrates so easily moved on to identification with Ho Chi Minh and North Vietnamese Communism, which another of his heroes, Tom Hayden, proclaimed a “rice-roots democracy.”
Toward the book’s end, he thinks one great accomplishment is that the New Left entered the 60s campaigns of Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, and George McGovern and then “transformed the party of Cold Warriors into a party whose most dedicated members opposed sending troops to fight anywhere in the Third World.” The left’s takeover of the Democratic Party, perhaps the development that most harmed the Democratic Party’s effectiveness, is seen by Kazin as the New Left’s major victory. Now, as he says, we have “rebels without a movement,” leading Kazin to praise even the likes of Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky.
Kazin is left longing for a powerful movement that would force Barack Obama to become the “transformative figure” he “aspired to be.” In his view, the left has to not simply work to improve America, but to motivate people to join a movement that will create a better world on the socialist model. He writes that Howard Zinn was unable to answer or even address the key dilemma for any American leftist: Why have most Americans rejected radical socialist solutions and instead embraced “the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live”?
But in American Dreamers, Kazin never gets any closer to an answer. Despite, or perhaps because of, his own long and serious examination of the examples offered by past American reformers and radicals, Kazin simply doesn’t understand the very plain and very straightforward reason for the failure of radicalism in America.
It is, of course, quite simple: the vast majority of Americans have found the arguments on behalf of democratic capitalism to be far more persuasive and the Constitution of the United States to be fulfillment enough of their own utopian hopes.