Two history professors read Elena Kagan's undergraduate thesis.

The history behind current events.
May 21 2010 5:54 PM

Elena Kagan Could Have Been a Superb Historian

Two history professors read the nominee's undergraduate thesis.

Elena Kagan. Click image to expand.
Elena Kagan

Given the absence of judicial opinions by Elena Kagan, observers have taken to mining her other writings for clues about what kind of justice she would be—right down to her 1981 Princeton undergraduate thesis. Indeed, last week the demand for it reached such a pitch that the White House agreed to release it for public consumption. At a time when the moldy charge of "socialism" has been dragged out of the cupboard to label Barack Obama as un-American, Kagan's varsity opus—tantalizingly entitled "To the Final Conflict: Socialism in New York City, 1900-1933"—will undeniably pique people's interest, even if it's far from the Rosetta stone that some have imagined it to be.

To study something doesn't imply agreement or even sympathy with it, as Kagan's thesis adviser, the Bancroft Prize-winning historian Sean Wilentz, cautioned in the New York Times. Though such a caveat should be obvious, it needs reiterating, given the determination in certain right-wing precincts to see the thesis as proof of some hidden radical agenda. (Similar proof, inevitably, will be found in the sponsorship of Wilentz, who rose to national fame, and antagonized the right, by defending Bill Clinton before Congress during his 1998 impeachment hearings.) That Kagan wrote her thesis almost 30 years ago at the age of 21 gives us additional reason not to count on it as a guide to what Kagan thinks now.

Still, scholars—let alone college kids—usually aren't drawn to early-20th-century, internecine, left-wing sectarianism unless they feel some visceral connection to it. The wistful note in Kagan's conclusion offers a hint of that feeling: "In our own times, a coherent socialist movement is nowhere to be found in the United States. Americans are more likely to speak of a golden past than a golden future, of capitalism's glories than of socialism's greatness." Kagan doesn't exactly pledge her lasting fealty to the socialist cause there, but she does evince a certain underlying affection for the idealistic New Yorkers—heavily working-class, immigrant, and Jewish—who, laboring in sweatshops and living in squalid tenements, saw left-wing politics as a route to taming the inequities of industrial America.

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Of course, it's important to recall that in the Progressive Era socialism, even though it never organized itself into a first-tier political party, was nonetheless broadly palatable as a political approach. As Kagan notes in her thesis, "political progressives and reformers of every ilk used the more mild socialist ideas in their platforms and writings, and occasionally even put such ideas into practice"; she quotes the historian Charles Beard asserting that socialism's influence was everywhere, "penetrating our science, art and literature." (Socialists were also, through most of American history, fiercely at odds with Communists—a conflict lost on many casual observers of politics, who treat them as virtually identical.) Supporting socialist ideas, in other words, hardly placed someone outside the bounds of mainstream debate in the Progressive Era. Kagan's thesis doesn't show any outré ideological radicalism but, rather, some general sympathies for the social democratic left, with its commitment to far-reaching reform within the bounds of the possible.

"To the Final Conflict" examines the rise and fall of the Socialist Party in New York City. The city was home to a potent socialist movement during the first two decades of the 20th century. Voters sent 19 socialists to public office, at various levels of government, between 1914 and 1920; socialist publications enjoyed mass circulations; and the mighty garment unions lent socialism a solid working-class base. True, the party didn't represent an equal cross-section of New York's population. Most of its support, in all respects, came from immigrant Jews, the city's largest ethnic group. Yet while the Socialists failed to reach far beyond the Jews, their sheer numbers, which climbed upward of 1.75 million, enabled socialism to function in the city as a viable third party—that is, until it fell apart in the aftermath of World War I.

Historians in graduate school are still presented—at least we were, not too long ago—with the perennial riddle, first posed by the German sociologist Werner Sombart, of "Why is there no socialism in the United States?" Where the advanced European nations often had (and still have) thriving socialist parties, in this country, liberalism has always been the dominant ideology for the left (broadly defined), and the electoral prowess of socialist and communist parties was comparably meager and short-lived. Although countless eminent historians have weighed in on this question over the last century, Kagan as a college student gamely and impressively entered the crowded historiographical debate, producing arguments of considerable merit.

The first part of Kagan's answer is that historians have formulated the question incorrectly. In fact, she reminds us, socialism did exist in the United States and was quite promising during the first two decades of the 20th century. So she reframes Sombart's question to ask, more usefully, why did the Socialist Party fail?

The nub of her answer is that socialism's collapse, while ultimately triggered by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, really stemmed from long-standing disagreements—over philosophy, methods, and goals—between revolutionaries and moderate (or "constructive") socialists. The biggest difference had to do with how radicals and moderates expected socialism to be achieved: The radicals believed socialism would come by way of revolution, "as an overthrow, more or less sudden, more or less violent, physical, social, and economic," in the words of Louis Boudin, one of the party's leading left-wing intellectuals. By contrast, the "constructive" socialists, represented by state party leader, Morris Hillquit, envisioned that socialism would be ushered in by accumulated legislative reforms. This basic difference played out in countless disputes, from whether the party should involve itself in union affairs to how it should publicly represent its commitment to the existing political system.

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