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The Left vs. the Liberals

Joyce Naltchayan/AFP/Getty Images
Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader (right) and Reform Party presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, Washington, D.C., November 2000

Labor protests surely helped heighten the sense of emergency early in 1935—when the Communist Party, still denouncing FDR and the New Dealers as “social fascists,” opposed the Wagner Act—but they were not the principal inspiration of the reformers, who had begun shaping their own ideas and goals decades earlier. Those goals were not to pass piecemeal reforms that would placate or restrain radical labor. The Wagner Act, for example, explicitly protected and encouraged industrial unionism and, as Kazin notes in passing, “enabled industrial unions to gain a sturdy foothold in factories and mines and on the docks.”

New Deal social legislation certainly had its shortcomings, as Kazin points out: conservative Democrats from the South and West were able to exempt agricultural workers from the Wagner Act’s provisions, while, chiefly for administrative reasons, casual laborers, domestic servants, and federal employees as well as agricultural workers failed to gain coverage under the Social Security Act, signed into law by Roosevelt a few weeks later. Overall, though, New Deal liberals like Wagner and Keyserling did far more for the subsequent rise of radical labor than Kazin describes.

Kazin’s overemphasis on the Communists, meanwhile, leads him to omit entirely some of the left’s genuine triumphs during the 1930s and 1940s, and in the generation after. He seems uninterested in those who gained actual political influence. American Dreamers contains not a single reference to the socialists Walter and Victor Reuther, who courageously both opposed Communists and made the United Auto Workers one of the strongest forces in the American labor movement and the Democratic Party. Nor does Kazin mention the left-wing clothing workers’ leader Sidney Hillman, whom FDR relied upon for campaign organization (“Clear it with Sidney”), and was an important figure in Roosevelt’s 1944 victory and in labor’s integration into the Democratic Party. Kazin excludes the other anti-Communist social democrats who became major forces inside the mainstream trade unions and left-liberal political efforts like the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota—the organization that, following its merger with the state’s Democratic Party in 1944, became the base for the youthful Hubert Humphrey, who became a leader of the national party’s pro–civil rights wing.

After the Eisenhower interregnum, these various streams emerged to make possible the enormous policy achievements of the Great Society. The anti-Communist unions, moreover, helped create and support, among other things, a stalwart movement of labor solidarity against communism in Poland and throughout Eastern Europe—a movement that in time was instrumental in overthrowing Soviet totalitarianism. There is a great deal to criticize in the work of the anti-Communist social democrats, including the stubborn and tragic support that some of them gave to the disastrous American war in Vietnam—but to ignore them and their contributions altogether truncates, flattens, and simplifies the history of the American left.

The civil rights movement may stand as the grassroots insurgency that runs the closest to the contemporary academic left’s conception of political change. Kazin calls it the one radical commitment of the era “that has stood up well over time,” and here he describes the contributions of black anti-Communist leftists like A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin. He also makes the case that Martin Luther King Jr. was just as committed as the avowed socialists were to what he calls “radical structural change.”

Yet Kazin fails to describe how the movement won its major political victories. The 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act receive only brief mentions. President Lyndon Johnson is presented almost entirely as the mendacious engineer of the Vietnam misery. Instead of explaining the sources of the Great Society and the workings of presidential leadership, Kazin writes at length about the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s turn to black nationalism and the rise of the Black Panthers. He credits black power militants with prodding millions of blacks “to comprehend themselves and their society in assertive and candid ways.” He has some criticism of the Panthers, but his praise for how black radicals supposedly emboldened African-Americans culturally becomes a substitute for analysis of the left’s role in the complicated politics of civil rights reform. If the cultural factor is all-important, why slight Berry Gordy and the rise of Motown?

Kazin’s treatment of the left since the 1960s is particularly incomplete. He astutely appraises the antiwar New Left and its revival of older radical conceptions of ethical responsibility. Kazin’s argument about the left’s cultural impact helps explain the lasting effects of the feminist and gay rights movements, with their insistence on “the expansion of individual liberty into every sphere of private life”—an insistence that, as in the case of Roe v. Wade, he observes, led to more than cultural changes. But here, too, his thesis that the advancement of women’s and gay rights demonstrates the cultural reach of a politically thwarted left neglects the indispensable legal efforts of liberals. (He makes no mention, for example, of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union before President Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court.)

Kazin then describes how the New Left degenerated into ferocious and abiding contempt for liberals and liberalism, which sent some of its adherents spiraling into the violence and neo-Leninist sectarianism of the Weather Underground. And with the New Left’s demise, Kazin avers, “for the first time in 150 years, no American radical movement survived that was worthy of the name”—an amnesia attack that forgets modern feminism after 1973.

Here, though, Kazin’s analysis begins to go haywire, as he returns to his basic presumptions about the left and American politics. He unsurprisingly ignores those influential and productive groups—ranging from the Children’s Defense Fund to the National Resources Defense Council—that by his definition are insufficiently radical. Instead, Kazin discusses various single-issue left-wing campaigns of the last thirty years, including those that opposed President Reagan’s nuclear weapons buildup and policies in Central America, and laments how almost all of them have failed. Crediting social critics including Michael Moore with gaining “a foothold in popular culture,” he yearns for much more, yet cannot say what that might be.

And so he repeats his refrain: “Reformers from above,” he writes, “always needed the pressure of left-wing movements from below.” Lacking that pressure, Bill Clinton could not be “the transformative figure” Kazin says he wanted to be, and Barack Obama will not become one. Lacking that pressure, liberalism will retain “the baleful image it acquired in the 1970s: as an ideology out of touch with the interests and beliefs of ordinary Americans.”

Out of touch? Kazin’s gloomy account of the last three decades sidesteps the fact that for eight years, the Clinton administration, although it rarely used the demonized label “liberal,” preferring “progressive,” attempted to reinvent the New Deal liberalism of the 1930s and make it relevant to the changed world of the 1990s and the new century. To be sure, many liberals as well as leftists criticized Clinton’s policies, sometimes harshly, not least the welfare reform legislation of 1996.

But whatever Kazin might think of Clinton’s record, he owes his readers a fair-minded statement of its actual strengths and weaknesses, if only to show how his notion of a left-wing social movement would and could realistically have made it better. He fails to explain why the Clinton administration oversaw the longest period of economic growth in modern times, one that significantly raised family income and real wages for the first time in a generation, brought the lowest black and Hispanic-American unemployment rates in American history, moved seven million citizens from welfare to paid employment, and reduced poverty by about 25 percent.

In glossing over the Clinton years, Kazin ignores how American leftists retained contempt for liberalism, a turn of mind that led the left to the single act that did more to change the nation than any it had done since the civil rights years. Angered by Clinton’s awkward stand on gays in the military (forced upon him by a sideswipe masterminded by Senator Sam Nunn of the Armed Services Committee and General Colin Powell), his withdrawal of Lani Guinier’s nomination as assistant attorney general (after Senator Ted Kennedy among others strongly advised him to drop her), and his support, endorsed by such economists as Paul Krugman, of the North American Free Trade Agreement, the left largely abandoned Clinton, and had little to offer in the bitter fight over his comprehensive health care reform in 1994, after which Newt Gingrich and right-wing Republicans seized control of the House of Representatives.

Clinton outfoxed Gingrich in a confrontation over a debt limit bill (preventing the savaging of Medicare and Medicaid and leading to passage of a host of progressive policies), but leftists condemned Clinton as the smarmy practitioner of “triangulation.” The infuriated Republicans responded to Clinton’s successes by manipulating the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and then, while heeding the formalities, they conducted an unconstitutional impeachment, after which the Senate quietly voted acquittal. Leftists like Christopher Hitchens and Barbara Ehrenreich continued to deride Clinton (and his wife) as serial liars and mountebanks, and sometimes repeated groundless Republican confabulations.

The historic achievement of a prominent part of the left soon followed: ensuring the election of George W. Bush over Al Gore in 2000. Kazin devotes only one third of a paragraph to Ralph Nader’s three third-party campaigns for the presidency, and only a lone sentence to how, in 2000, the former consumer advocate carefully and consciously drew votes away from Democrats in key swing states and thereby enabled Bush to win Florida “and, with it, the White House.” Kazin now plainly disapproves of the catastrophe, but even in the obvious light of what a turning point Bush’s election proved to be, he slights it.

Several of the leftists whom Kazin praises as cultural celebrities supported Nader, and some of them recycled false Republican attacks on Gore as, in Ehrenreich’s words, an “inveterate bribe-seeker.”2 Kazin himself lamented at the time that Nader had not managed to build a stronger third-party challenge to what he called the Democrats’ disgusting “poll-driven moderation.” He conceded that Nader’s candidacy was helping Bush, but what truly disturbed him was Nader’s failure to stir mass enthusiasm and break through the latest ridiculous competition “between two men in dark suits and red ties who keep their fingers in the air and their brains on automatic pilot.”3 Thus Al Gore, one of the most experienced and creative liberal policy leaders of his generation, was seen as the moral and political equivalent of George W. Bush.

By 2008, Bush and the Republicans had wreaked so much havoc and become so discredited that the Democrats’ chance came around again—and the left persuaded itself that a young, centrist African-American with little national political or government experience was the “transformative” movement president for whom they had been waiting for decades. But leftists’ enthusiasm faded when President Barack Obama undertook to initiate what Kazin calls “a new era of modest reform.” American Dreamers went to press before Kazin could mention Occupy Wall Street and the left’s disillusionment and displeasure with Obama, although he has since described OWS’s anarchist fervor as bracing in its egalitarianism but unlikely “to make the leap from visionary protest to sensible politics.”4 He concludes his book with hopes for radical egalitarian ideas that might yet inspire an effective social movement, all as yet undefined. Kazin’s left is “TBD.”

As a historian, Kazin, despite his sober judgments, exaggerates the importance of some radicals even as he ignores others’ genuine achievements—and does so at liberalism’s expense. His view of history acknowledges but diminishes the debt radicals have owed to liberals—just as it blinds him to the damage some leftists have willfully done over the last thirty years to liberal ideals and, ironically, to their own.


The Left vs. the Liberals’ September 27, 2012

  1. 2

    Ehrenreich, “Vote for Nader,” The Nation, August 21, 2000. 

  2. 3

    Kazin, “Where’s Perot When We Need Him?” Los Angeles Times, October 29, 2000. 

  3. 4

    Kazin, “Anarchism Now: Occupy Wall Street Revives an Ideology,” The New Republic, November 7, 2011. 

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