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The Left vs. the Liberals

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Scotty Kilpatrick/The Detroit News Archive
Walter Reuther, left, future president of the United Auto Workers, with Richard -Frankensteen following their beating by Ford Motor Company security men in the ‘Battle of the Overpass,’ at the Ford Rouge factory in Dearborn, Michigan, May 26, 1937. Reuther, while strongly anti-Communist, worked closely with, and also opposed, UAW activists such as Frankensteen who were cooperating with the Communist Party of the USA at the time.

Michael Kazin’s new book about American leftists and their impact on the nation over the last two centuries presupposes, as its subtitle suggests, that this impact has been enormous. But Kazin is a judicious scholar without bluster, a professor of history at Georgetown, and coeditor of Dissent, and his assessments are carefully measured. Kazin concedes that radical leftists have often been out of touch with prevailing values, including those of the people they wish to liberate. He concludes that American radicals have done more to change what he calls the nation’s “moral culture” than to change its politics.

And yet, even as Kazin tries to avoid romanticizing the left, his book leaves unchallenged some conventional leftist conceptions about American politics and how change happens. These conventions begin with a presumption about who controls American political life, what C. Wright Mills called the “power elite,” an interlocking directorate of wealth and bureaucracy at the top. Kazin refers to this directorate interchangeably as the “establishment” or the “governing elite.” Unless challenged by radicals, this elite, in his view, is slow to right social wrongs; but without the support of the elite’s more enlightened elements, the radicals remain in the political wilderness.

Occasionally—as with the abolition of slavery, the rise of the New Deal, and the victories of the civil rights movement—momentous changes supported by radicals have indeed come to pass. Yet Kazin argues that the liberal components of the governing elite have supported major reforms strictly in order to advance purposes of their own. Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans, he writes, embraced emancipation only halfway through the Civil War, when it became clear that doing so “could speed victory for the North” and save the Union, their true goal. Franklin D. Roosevelt endorsed labor’s rights only when he needed to court labor’s votes.

Even when they are successful, Kazin writes, the radicals—“decidedly junior partners in a coalition driven by establishment reformers”—end up shoved aside as the liberals enact their more limited programs and take all of the credit. Prophets without honor, the leftists return to the margins where they and later radicals dream new and bigger dreams until another social movement jars the establishment.

Some radical historians—most famously the late Howard Zinn—have described this pattern as a chronicle of thoroughgoing oppression. In their view, the reforms initiated by radicals have practically always turned into swindles, orchestrated by clever rulers to preserve and even reinforce their power. Kazin, who also despairs about the current state of the left, has a more positive view of liberal reformers and their reforms: the Emancipation Proclamation and the Voting Rights Act, he insists, were important political advances and not establishment ruses. But a basic pattern still holds for Kazin as it does for Zinn: radicals challenge the privileged; liberals co-opt them, claiming the glory. In effect liberals are the enemies of fundamental political change.

Most of American Dreamers consists of crisp and useful summaries of nearly four decades’ worth of historical research about American radicals and radical movements, including Kazin’s own work on the amorphous populist strain in American politics. For Kazin, the left consists of anyone who has sought to achieve, in his words, “a radically egalitarian transformation of society.” The definition embraces an enormous array of spokesmen and causes, and Kazin’s account runs from the abolitionists and workingmen radicals of the Jacksonian era through a succession of socialists, women’s suffragists, Greenwich Village bohemians, and civil rights protesters, down to today’s left-wing professoriat.

The lives of both the forgotten and better-known radicals—such as Emma Goldman—were usually similar to those movements: a season or two, and sometimes several seasons, of fame (or notoriety) and even of influence, followed by a return to the fringe. After the Civil War, for example, various radicals tried to move beyond emancipation to ensure full economic as well as political equality for ex-slaves. Most of the ex-slaves, however, hoped that Reconstruction would provide, Kazin writes, “a chance to exercise the same rights white citizens had long taken for granted”—hopes that were “hardly revolutionary,” that aimed “to fulfill the promise of liberal capitalism.”

Those hopes meshed well with the aims of Southern black political leaders who “generally fit the classic model of the self-made man.” There was little backing for the sweeping plans, advanced by Congressman Thaddeus Stevens and a band of Republican radicals in Washington, to confiscate the lands of ex-Confederates and distribute them to the freedmen. As it turned out, ensuring even basic civil and political rights for Southern blacks required extensive federal force that secured a restive interracial democracy in the South until a violent counterrevolution by Southern whites overthrew Reconstruction in the 1870s.

Even at the zenith of its popularity, during the decade before World War I, the Socialist Party, led by the charismatic Eugene V. Debs, failed to turn itself into an enduring mass movement. Something about America—especially its overarching ideals of classless individualism—blunted the Socialists’ appeal and led workers to support the so-called “bread-and-butter” unionism of Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor that would fight for maximum gain within the system. And some things about American radicals, including the Socialists—their inability to handle what Daniel Bell called America’s “give-and-take, political world,” their chronic penchant for self-righteous dogmatism and sectarian squabbling—have repeatedly undermined left-wing campaigns.

“And yet…,” Kazin seems to say. The familiar explanations for radicalism’s political failures proposed decades ago by Bell and Irving Howe still have merit, but, Kazin believes, they cannot tell the entire story. “Without political power or honor as prophets,” he insists, “leftists still helped to make the United States a more humane society.” They have done so largely outside of conventional politics, building what he calls an evolving “culture of rebellion.”

Alienated novelists, poets, playwrights, filmmakers, and songwriters, Kazin argues, as well as muckraking journalists and left-wing historians, have influenced many more Americans than would ever embrace a radical political movement. From Harriet Beecher Stowe to Bruce Springsteen, he finds a persistent radical artistic imagination that he believes has been the left’s mightiest weapon. To understand American radicalism’s humanizing power, and how the left changed the nation, it is less important, in Kazin’s view, to consider how Americans voted than to consider what books and magazines they read, what plays and movies they attended, and what songs they heard and sang.

The point is perceptive even if it is not especially novel: recall Abraham Lincoln’s famous if apocryphal remark to Stowe calling her the little woman who wrote the book that started the great Civil War. Kazin is at his most effective when he discusses the impact of novels like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or, more ironically, Frank Capra’s populist films of the 1930s and 1940s. Without question, fictional archetypes like Tom Joad or Jefferson Smith have left stronger and more lasting impressions on American perceptions than any radical tract.

As Kazin himself remarks, though, some of the artists promoted by the left—he mentions Richard Wright and could have included Bob Dylan—did eventually find the constraints of what Dylan called “finger pointing” oppressive. Kazin has much to say about the ways left-wing political impulses have inspired American artists, but too little to say about how leftism can reduce art to agitprop or smothering political kitsch, telling in its day but lasting only as artifact, like Clifford Odets’s play Waiting for Lefty.

More troubling is how, despite its recognition of the left’s shortcomings, American Dreamers still inflates the radicals’ political influence at crucial moments by slighting the politics of liberal reformers who actually had power. The familiar distinction between idealistic if sometimes wrongheaded radicals and craven or opportunistic establishment liberals drains liberal politics of intellectual potency as well as political integrity. Kazin understands that liberal reformism has existed independently of radical agitation—he cursorily calls the New Deal reforms “liberal achievements,” and mentions a stillborn liberal “new age of reform” in the 1960s—but his book chiefly makes liberalism’s ideas seem like weaker versions of the radicals’ ideals, advanced as responses to the radicals’ protests.

Kazin’s oddly brief discussion of the Civil War and emancipation is a case in point. Few if any historians would dispute the enormous importance of the abolitionists in provoking the sectional conflict over slavery. Yet Kazin thinks that the abolitionists had more to do with achieving emancipation than they actually did. As early as 1859, he writes, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry persuaded abolitionist leaders, although not the cautious moderate Abraham Lincoln, “that war was now the only solution.” Kazin neglects to mention that when the Southern states actually began seceding in 1860 and 1861, most radical abolitionists were eager to let them depart and regarded all efforts to save the Union as, in William Lloyd Garrison’s words, “simply idiotic.”1 In fact, Lincoln’s election, his refusal to compromise over barring the expansion of slavery, and his determination to crush secession if necessary—and nothing the radical abolitionists said or did—set off the war.

Kazin observes that the abolitionists enjoyed a new-found popularity and legitimacy after Fort Sumter, but he calls that popularity the major political factor in clearing the way for the Emancipation Proclamation, which is inaccurate. He disregards almost the entire history preceding the proclamation, including the ways that Lincoln skillfully played the fractious radicals off against formidable conservative Northern opinion in order to ensure that his proclamation did not destroy the Union cause. Kazin also gives Frederick Douglass much of the credit for convincing Lincoln to allow the enlistment of black troops, a pivotal decision in which Douglass and other radical abolitionists actually had no direct part at all.

Lincoln appears only fleetingly in Kazin’s book, as a stereotyped moderate who believed in the ballot over the bullet, opposed giving ex-slaves confiscated rebel land, and yet who somehow changed to the point where, in his Second Inaugural, he delivered an attack on the sin of slavery that Kazin deems worthy of John Brown himself. Kazin lacks a deeper appreciation of Lincoln’s antislavery politics going back to the 1850s and earlier, or the antislavery politics of his party, and of how the abolitionists affected the intricate mainstream politics that really mattered. His portrayal of the most convulsive event in American history is a skimpy caricature.

Kazin’s account of the New Deal years focuses on the Communist Party, and argues that the Party’s influence far exceeded its tiny membership (at its peak, perhaps about 75,000 members). Paradoxically, Kazin writes, the more the Communists proclaimed their genuine Stalinist ideology, the more distrusted and despised they became, whereas “the more they delayed and diluted their ultimate ends, the better they did.” The Popular Front, which dropped ultra-revolutionary rhetoric and embraced patriotic populist themes—coincidental with Stalin’s Great Terror—was, as Howe described it, “a brilliant masquerade.” Yet Kazin notes the successes of the Communist Party’s cadres as labor organizers for the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the late 1930s; he lists popular Party or pro-Party artists, including Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson, and hails what he calls the Party’s beneficial achievements, chiefly in culture—accomplishments that were essential to the history of their time but that critics have dismissed as “crowd-pleasing banalities or Stalinist apologetics.”

The link Kazin makes here between art and politics is hazy. “This Land Is Your Land” and “Pretty Boy Floyd” should not be written off as a Stalinist apologetics, but their value exists above and beyond Woody Guthrie’s pro-Communist sympathies. More important, Kazin’s slighting of the liberal reformers who supposedly wanted to snatch labor’s votes for President Roosevelt minimizes how the New Deal did a great deal more to open the way for the left than vice versa.

The decisive pressure for the New Deal measures, as Kazin knows but understates, came not from Communists or even the CIO’s leader John L. Lewis (a Republican), but from FDR’s own advisers as well as from urban liberals like Senator Robert Wagner of New York. The urban liberals had been working on labor issues long before the Great Depression or, for that matter, the Bolshevik Revolution. Wagner became galvanized by the Triangle Shirt Waist factory fire in 1911. His efforts on behalf of labor reform began while he was president pro tempore of the New York State Senate and a regular Tammany Hall Democrat; that work culminated, with the advice of young liberal counselors such as Leon Keyserling, in the landmark National Labor Relations Act in 1935 that bears Wagner’s name.

  1. 1

    Garrison quoted in James M. McPherson, The Struggle for Equality: The Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and Reconstruction (Princeton University Press, 1964), p. 33. 

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