‘American Dreamers’ looks back at the left’s victories and missteps

Review by John Kappes, arts and entertainment editor of The Plain Dealer.

The owl of Minerva flies at dusk, as the German Idealist philosopher G.W.F. Hegel was wont to say. In other words, we can truly make sense of what is happening only after the fact, when the bird has flown.

So it’s no accident that Michael Kazin begins “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation” with an introductory essay titled “What Difference Did It Make?”

Notice the past tense: It’s a question that is particularly germane now, with any iteration of “socialism” deeply out of fashion amid the rightward lurch of American politics over the last quarter-century.

Kazin’s answer, in brief, is plenty. (But it’s complicated.)

The left made plenty of difference, because this shifting constellation of intellectuals and unionists, firebrands and visionaries, however marginal, did much “to transform the moral culture” of the country and “initiate what became common, if still controversial, features of American life” — equal opportunity, a mixed economy, the social safety net and a passionate commitment to the public (as opposed to purely private) good.

Republican President Theodore Roosevelt, for example, while despising “class-conscious radicals, nevertheless worked hard to steal their thunder. He declared that ‘property shall be the servant and not the master of the commonwealth’ and promoted corporate regulation and craft unions.”

But it’s complicated, and the journey has been anything but smooth. Sterling causes such as abolitionism and women’s suffrage worked hand in hand with dubious “moral improvement” schemes such as the suppression of gambling and demon liquor.

Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University and an editor at Dissent magazine, tells this story clearly and with some muscle in his prose. He’s not afraid to tarnish the halos of social democracy’s secular saints.

Eugene V. Debs, who led the Socialist Party before World War I and “became the most popular messenger American socialism has ever known,” was all the same an inflexible and doctrinaire Marxist whose dogma “left most Americans cold.”

Even without the whiff of Oriental despotism introduced by V.I. Lenin, socialism according to Debs would have been top-heavy, statist and bureaucratic. There were real evils to battle in the era of child labor, robber barons and no minimum wage, but there were also real arguments against this set of solutions.

The book’s only rough patch comes with Kazin’s extensive review of American communism. Here is where it gets really complicated.

Kazin captures the party’s dashing self-image of standing at the barricades of history with verve. In fact, the romantic pull of his prose can sometimes eclipse the brutal fact that this was a yearning for a new world, however sincere, that came with a firing squad attached — “barracks socialism,” Lenin’s Russian critics called it.

“The rush to please the Kremlin may seem absurd in retrospect,” Kazin writes, “but given its birthright the CP had no real choice in the matter.” That “in retrospect” is telling.

Finding real choice in the matter in fact occupied a whole generation of some of the democratic left’s best minds, from James Burnham (who later skated all the way rightward) to Max Shachtman, Irving Howe and Michael Harrington.

Kazin underplays this bookish thread to focus on the colorful dead ends conjured by the 1960s New Left and 1980s identity politics. (As another German Hegelian, Karl Marx, put it, “History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.”)

Bookish or not, the attempt to map the contours of what we might call a Last Left is crucial in the Minervan dusk of Tea Party America.

For the ascendant right is in the throes of its own bender, the cargo cult of the unfettered market. When it’s time to sober up, Kazin counsels, “we need a moral and tolerant equivalent of the passion” behind the failed ideologies of old, to help us move on to wherever the dialectic of history takes us next.

Kappes is arts and entertainment editor of The Plain Dealer.