Dreams From the American Left
A history of leftist vision and self-sabotage.
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.
Paul Berman, a writer in residence at New York University, is the author of Power and the Idealists.
Photo by Phil Humnicky/Georgetown University.