The Unacknowledged Victories of the American Left
Review by Beverly Gage, New York Times Book Review
We might as well call it: The American left is dead. Faced with the greatest crisis of capitalism in almost a century, the left has mounted no effective mass protests, inspired no significant uprisings, spawned no major institutions or policy revolutions. In Wisconsin, labor unions lost their greatest public battle since Ronald Reagan’s showdown with air traffic controllers. In the midterm elections, the Tea Party, not the left, took advantage of economic discontent to upend the status quo. Today, the dream of socialism exists mostly as a far-right phantom, to be conjured up when Democrats dare to imply that Medicare or Social Security might serve the public good.
The historian Michael Kazin acknowledges that Americans have reached what may be “a nadir of the historical left.” But he urges sympathizers not to despair. According to Kazin, the American left has never been much good at building institutions, or getting people elected or seeing its economic programs realized. But it has been enormously effective at shifting the nation’s moral compass and expanding its sense of political possibility. The real problem for today’s left, Kazin writes, is that its members have forgotten how to think big — how to look beyond the uninspiring present to a more dazzling and egalitarian future. Defending Medicare and Social Security may be all well and good, but what ever happened to utopia?
“American Dreamers” is Kazin’s bid to reclaim the left’s utopian spirit for an age of diminished expectations. An editor at Dissent magazine and one of the left’s most eloquent spokesmen, Kazin presents his book as an unapologetic attempt to give the left a history it can celebrate. For more than two centuries, he writes, American radicals have sounded the alarm about crucial injustices — slavery, industrial exploitation, women’s oppression — that the rest of society refused to see. It is time for the left to stand up and take credit for these efforts.
Who is — or was — “the left”? Today, many Americans use the word interchangeably with “liberal.” As Kazin points out, this would have been anathema to earlier generations, when leftists and liberals often viewed each other as ideological foes. For most of the 20th century, liberalism meant tinkering, finding a kinder and gentler way to preserve the status quo. Leftists, by contrast, put their faith in structural change. Kazin’s left includes all those who fought for a “radically egalitarian transformation of society,” from abolitionists to Communists to the modern feminist and gay rights movements.
By far the most important of the early movements was abolition, and abolitionists linger throughout the book as Kazin’s archetypal leftists, prophets and dreamers who saw an injustice and fought to correct it despite the blindness and hostility of the larger society. The best among them practiced what they preached, forming interracial cooperatives and marrying across color lines. They also suffered for their ideals, enduring violence, social ostracism and, in some cases, death. In the end, they were vindicated by history, the ideals that they championed finally inscribed as the nation’s conventional wisdom.
Things did not turn out so well for other radical movements (if one can describe a bloody civil war, followed by a century of racial struggle, as “things turning out well”). In many cases, leftists dreamed big, suffered for their causes and died utterly unsuccessful. The Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs, who went to prison for his opposition to World War I, won release in 1921 only to be cast aside by the movement he had created. Stokely Carmichael (a k a Kwame Ture), the onetime firebrand of black power, died in obscurity in Guinea, still trying to forge a Pan-African movement. Kazin’s portraits are often inspiring, but they also highlight why the revolutionary path has long been reserved for the dedicated few. Dreaming big is usually a lonely occupation, especially when the currents of history seem to be flowing in the opposite direction.
Kazin is frank about the flaws and outright evils of certain leftist movements — most notably, the midcentury Communist Party. Its sins have been well documented, from loyalty to Stalin up through espionage. Still, Kazin finds much to admire in the Communists’ early commitments to civil rights, as well as their hard work on behalf of American labor. Communists were ready to knock on doors when everyone else wanted to sit back and listen to the radio.
Kazin offers a similar, if more benign, analysis of the New Left, the movement in which he came of age. Young radicals made plenty of mistakes in the 1960s (not least in trying to build a movement around something as fleeting as “youth”). But their accomplishments, he writes, have stood the test of time. In less than two decades, radicals helped to realize the promise of civil rights, end the war in Vietnam and create a new world of possibility for both women and homosexuals.
“American Dreamers” is not a prescriptive book, offering instructions based on the past. Lessons nonetheless have a way of creeping into its text. The left generally failed, according to Kazin, when it emphasized atheism, collectivism and ideological purity. It has been more successful when taking the form of broad, heterogeneous movements struggling for individual rights. Witness the rise of gay marriage, arguably today’s most effective left-leaning social campaign. Viewed as a utopian dream, it promises to transform the institution of marriage. But viewed as a civil rights matter, it simply aims to include more people in an existing institution.
In the final equation, Kazin argues, the left was most successful not in politics but in culture. In the 1930s, Popular Front artists produced a run of modern classics, including Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” and John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” work that defined the Great Depression for millions of Americans. During the 1960s, music changed the consciousness of an entire generation. (Even now, it seems, the left tends to attract better rock stars, writers and actors than the Tea Party.) And these powerful cultural voices, Kazin suggests, continue to shift how Americans think about the world.
This is a hopeful message. All the same, one can’t help wondering if it is truly possible at this late date to recapture the utopian visions of radicals past. The left has lost its fire not simply because “nothing so big or important” as slavery or Vietnam has come along to stoke the embers. The left is in crisis because its animating vision — of a world transformed through socialism — has all but collapsed. Kazin is right to note that not all leftists identified as Socialists or Communists, and not all have considered economics the central site of contest. But socialism was always the big idea that explained how issues like racial inequality, gender oppression and factory wages all fit together.
What will replace it — if it does, in fact, need replacing? Kazin isn’t sure. But he argues that nobody will answer that question effectively until leftists dream big once again.