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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.

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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.

Letters

The Left vs. the Liberals’ September 27, 2012

  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. 

  2. 2

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

  3. 3

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

  4. 4

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

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