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.

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.

Tensions over these issues extended back to the creation of the Socialist Party in 1901, and, as Kagan shows, plagued the party, as well as its associated trade unions, all along. They came to a head after 1919, when an insurgent left-wing declared its intention to take over the party and turn it into a replica of the Bolsheviks. Ugly factional struggles ensued. The result was a decimated Socialist Party in competition with an even weaker Communist Party. If socialism ever had a chance to succeed, it was now lost.

Although we can't fully evaluate Kagan's thesis because the footnotes—and virtually all indication of the primary sources she used—are missing in the PDF version that's floating about cyberspace, it's clear that the thesis made several notable scholarly contributions. She ably positioned her argument against the dominant explanations previous historians had offered. Most historians attributed the weakness of socialism in the United States to factors external to the party or movement itself: an ethnically divided working class, the two-party political system, the relative affluence that blunted a working-class consciousness. Kagan, by contrast, insisted on the importance of factors internal to the Socialist Party. In response to those scholars, such as the sociologist Daniel Bell, who argued that socialists were doomed to failure by their own inability to engage in the give-and-take of real life politics, Kagan stressed socialists' practical accomplishments: founding and managing unions that advanced racial integration, promoted labor education, and offered services to members. (The International Ladies Garment Workers' Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America operated mini-welfare states well before the advent of the New Deal.)

Kagan also took on historians such as Ira Kipnis (whose name she uncharacteristically misspelled), who contended that the party's expulsion of labor radicals in 1912 led to its destruction. Kagan's thesis persuasively argues that the party actually grew stronger after 1912 and reached its peak during World War I. Finally, against James Weinstein—arguably the most authoritative chronicler of socialism's demise—who stressed the Russian revolution as the key explanation, Kagan insisted on the primacy of deep internal rifts. If there's a major weakness in Kagan's thesis, it's here. Weinstein presented compelling evidence that previous debates between "left-wing" and "right-wing" Socialists played a minimal role in producing the 1919 split in which radicals, acting on proclamations from Moscow, attempted to purge moderate leaders in preparation for an all-out social revolution, only to be expelled from the party. A critical point made by Weinstein was that many of the chief actors in the split were recent Russian immigrants who had shallow roots in the Socialist Party. Kagan's thesis would have been strengthened by a more careful engagement with his findings.

On the whole, Kagan writes without evident bias, analyzing quite evenhandedly the rifts—which at times she suggests were doomed to be insurmountable—between the revolutionary and reformist camps in the Socialist Party as well as in the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union. If anything, Kagan seems to have more sympathy for the centrist "constructivist" leadership than do many historians who write about labor and radicalism. Her overall point, made without stridency, is that sectarianism, caused mainly by misguided revolutionary hopes, should ultimately bear the burden for the party's demise. Socialists, she seemed to say with some sadness and frustration, have often been their own worst enemies. In places, her tone even implies that she may consider this an ongoing characteristic of the American left. "Radicals have often succumbed to the devastating bane of sectarianism," she wrote; "it is easier, after all, to fight one's fellows than it is to battle an entrenched and powerful foe." In any case, there is no question that Kagan wrote not a propagandistic celebration of socialism's heyday but a judicious account of its self-destruction—with the hope that the left might learn from past mistakes.

Finally, quite apart from whatever political leanings it suggests, Kagan's thesis tells us something else significant about her. As a piece of research and writing, it displays remarkable intellectual maturity. It shows an uncommon ability to absorb and synthesize a large amount of information on what was, for an undergraduate in 1981, a fairly arcane topic. Kagan also exhibited an intellectual nimbleness in grasping and explicating subtle distinctions among different positions and factions within the complex labyrinth of radical thought—one where many historians have gotten hopelessly lost. She issued confident yet prudent judgments, and wrote in a taut and at times elegant prose that surpasses in quality that of more than a few professional scholars. The almost total lack of scholarly jargon is itself a feat.

These talents leave little doubt that Kagan would have become a superb historian if she had wanted to be one. Of course, even back in the 1980s, there was a tough academic job market in the humanities, and given the way things have worked out for her with her career choices, she probably made the right call.

Update, May 24, 10:17 a.m.: The historian Ronald Radosh has offered a similar assessment of Kagan's thesis—both its arguments and its high quality. As Radosh notes, it's heartening when people of different political perspectives agree on what is good scholarship.

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David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.

Tony Michels teaches history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author of A Fire in Their Hearts: Yiddish Socialists in New York.