Posted on November 24, 2020
American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation
A panoramic yet intimate history of the American left — of the reformers, radicals, and idealists who have fought for a more just and humane society, from the abolitionists to Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky — that gives us a revelatory new way of looking at two centuries of American politics and culture.
Michael Kazin — one of the most respected historians of American politics working today — takes us from abolitionism and early feminism to the labor struggles of the industrial age, through the emergence of anarchists, socialists, and communists, right up to the new left in the 1960s and ’70s.
While the history of the left is a long story of idealism and determination, it has also been, in the traditional view, a story of movements that failed to gain support from mainstream America. In American Dreamers, Kazin tells a new history of the left: one in which many of these movements, although they did not fully succeed on their own terms, nonetheless made lasting contributions to American society that led to equal opportunity for women, racial minorities, and homosexuals; the celebration of sexual pleasure; multiculturalism in the media and the schools; and the popularity of books and films with altruistic and antiauthoritarian messages.
Deeply informed, at once judicious and impassioned, and superbly written, American Dreamers is an essential book for our time and for anyone seeking to understand our political history and the people who made it.
“Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. Kazin, of Georgetown, is one of the great historians of American social movements, and though he is on the broad left, he has written sympathetically about figures not always associated with the left like William Jennings Bryan. This history deftly and honestly describes the victories and failures of the various left-wing movements in U.S. history and, even in a body of work as formidable as Kazin’s, really stands out for its erudition and intelligence.”
“‘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.”
– Beverly Gage, New York Times Book Review
“Kazin is a lucid writer and a capable synthesizer, drawing together strands of politics, economics and culture across a broad sweep of American history. His narrative unearths the obscure contributions of Frances White, who urged her sexually integrated audiences to “turn your churches into halls of science,” and revisits the great works of Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton in the overlapping causes of abolition and women’s suffrage. He describes the union leaders and rivalries that defined the early 20th century left, and he pays homage to the counterculture of the 1960s, including the iconic Tom Hayden (“Mickey,” one colleague reports after meeting Hayden, “I’ve just seen the next Lenin.”).”
– Jim Newton, Los Angeles Times
“Feminists, labor militants, civil rights stalwarts, and socialists have captured America’s heart–though rarely its votes–according to this perceptive history of the radical left. Kazin (The Populist Persuasion), editor of Dissent magazine, surveys visionaries, organizers, and rabble-rousers, including abolitionists and free-love communards of the 1830s, Gilded Age utopian novelists and temperance crusaders, feisty Wobblies and avant-garde bohemians, patriotic Popular Front Communists and ’60s firebrands. From this tumult of movements and personalities–everyone from John Brown to Naomi Klein, Dr. Seuss to Noam Chomsky–Kazin discerns continuities: radicals, he contends, succeed by influencing liberals rather than winning power, and by championing individual freedom and self-fulfillment; they fail when they attack religion and nationalism, advocate economic leveling, or advance sectarian purity and Marxist dogmas. Kazin’s argument that the socialist economic program was always “stillborn” while the Left’s cultural project–social equality, identity politics, artistic freedom, sexual liberation, and antiauthoritarianism–has triumphed is not new, and it lends the book a tone more of eulogy than of celebration; still this is a lively and lucid synthesis of a vital political tradition.”
– Review, Publisher Weekly
“His book explores the way the national conversation has been changed by union organizers, gay rights activists and feminists. He also writes about how their techniques have now been adopted by the Tea Party movement. From Michael Moore to “Wall-E,” he argues that, although the left has been successful at transforming American culture, when it comes to practical change, it’s been woefully unsuccessful.”
– Mandy Van Deven, Salon
“In a new compendious and erudite history of the left, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin does not closely examine the Obama presidency, but he suggests that such despair may just be a constituent part of belonging to the left. Even his title signals caution: dreamers seldom make for the most effective political leaders. And Kazin’s is no rosy account of a continual march of progress; rather, it is a careful and nuanced view of the saga of the American left, and one that focuses on the idealistic radicals and progressives from the early nineteenth century down to Barry Commoner and Betty Friedan. For the political junkie as well as those simply curious about the saga of the left, his book is helpfully crammed with numerous informative portraits of famous as well as more neglected figures.”
– Jacob Heilbrunn, Washington Monthly
“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.”
– John Kappes, arts and entertainment editor of The Plain Dealer.
“Young progressives owe themselves the pleasure of reading American Dreamers to understand the tradition in which they’re engaged and how the historical successes and failures of the American Left shape the choices they face now. Kazin has shown through the years that asking questions relevant to current struggles does not distort history. On the contrary, in the hands of a relentlessly honest historian, this approach sheds new light on the past and unearths truths that eluded others. Kazin will be read many years from now as one the most productive, graceful, provocative and intelligent historians of our era, and American Dreams is his masterwork.”
– E. J. Dionne, author of Why Americans Hate Politics and Souled Out
“Michael Kazin has distilled years of his deeply informed thinking into a eminently readable book full of astute judgments, bringing generations of radicals and reformers out of the shadows, restoring them to the honored place they deserve in the history of an America that serves ‘the better angels of our nature.”
– Todd Gitlin, author of The Sixties