If Barack Obama becomes America’s first black president, he will fit nicely into a radical narrative that places leftists always and everywhere combating bigotry, shattering stereotypes, and advancing race relations. Indeed, merely to oppose him, as the Clintons, Geraldine Ferraro, and the voters of Kentucky, West Virginia, and Indiana have discovered, is to invite charges of “racism” from his enthusiastic supporters — a trend that is sure to increase now that the contest has ceased to be an intramural one.
But history rarely conforms to the scripts that ideologues write. Racism, as important to understanding the American past as class divisions are to understanding European history, stains the history of homegrown radicals just as it stains the history of the nation which those radicals sought to change so radically. The American history that the Left lambastes is the American Left’s history, too.
Welsh industrialist Robert Owen effectively launched the American Left that is recognizable to us today. His “Declaration of Mental Independence,” issued on the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, assailed “a trinity of the most monstrous evils” — private property, marriage, and traditional religion. That program certainly sounds familiar. But one “monstrous evil” is noticeably absent from the utopian socialist Owen’s list: racism.
The ill-fated communal endeavor that Owen founded at New Harmony, Indiana, demonstrates how the white Left could be as snobbish toward racial minorities as the worst of their fellow countrymen. Owen’s Indiana commune excluded African Americans. “Persons of color may be received as helpers to the Society, if necessary,” New Harmony’s 1825 constitution condescended, “or if it be found useful, to prepare and enable them to become associates in Communities in Africa; or in some other country, or in some other part of this country.” In other words, anywhere but New Harmony.
The successors of 1820s’ Owenite communism, the movements inspired by Frenchman Charles Fourier that proliferated in the 1840s, exhibited a similar disregard for the plight of African Americans. Future presidential candidate Horace Greeley, future presidential assassin Charles Guiteau, and novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne were each caught up in the communal mania. But few blacks were. Like Owen, the Fourierists compared the condition of southern slaves favorably to that of northern industrial workers, providing fodder for apologists of the South’s “peculiar institution.”
For instance, the lead article in the inaugural issue of The Phalanx — the Fourierist’s official publication — claimed, “There are other social evils growing out of the same original falseness in the present system, which are equally unjust and oppressive as slavery, and which first demand our consideration.” The other injustices equivalent to slavery, the paper coolly noted, included “hireling dependence,” “monastic vows,” and “poverty.” Though slavers had no discernable role in the Fourierist craze, neither did African Americans.
Though antebellum utopians were largely indifferent to the plight of African Americans, the socialists and progressives who succeeded them aggressively advanced racist prejudices dressed up as science and progress. Instead of merely ignoring the problems of African Americans, the socialist and progressive Left actively contributed to them.
For Appeal to Reason, the most successful publication in the history of the American Left, segregation was intrinsic to socialism. Whereas “private ownership of industries mixes up the races, reducing blacks, whites, and yellows to a common level,” Appeal to Reason noted that “socialism would separate the races and lift them all to the highest level each were capable.” “The white worker in the shop, mine, and factory is told that Socialism means race equality,” the Girard, Kansas–based weekly explained, but in reality “capitalism has forced him to work side by side with the negro, and for about the same wage. . . . [I]n the SIGHT OF THE CAPITALIST ALL WORKERS LOOK ALIKE.” The Appeal, as did so many of its turn-of-the-century leftist readers, railed against the “yellow peril” and “Mongolian hordes” allegedly stealing jobs from “American” union workers.
“There can be no doubt that the negroes and mulattoes constitute a lower race,” Victor Berger, long the Socialist Party’s lone congressman, contended. “You know that capitalism never examines the color of the skin when it buys labor power,” the party’s national committeeman from Texas complained. When socialists acknowledged racial discrimination, they paternalistically counseled black Americans to abandon their selfish “personal” struggle for the “universal” struggle of the class war, which, when won, would magically solve all problems.
Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger spoke at a 1926 Ku Klux Klan rally, used the “n” word in reference to blacks, and deemed Aboriginal Australians “the lowest known species of the human family, just a step higher than the chimpanzee in brain development.” “The Jewish people and Italian families,” she testified to the New York legislature, “who are filling the insane asylums, who are filling the hospitals and filling our feeble-minded institutions, these are the ones the tax payers have to pay for the upkeep of, and they are increasing the budget of the State, the enormous expense of the State is increasing because of the multiplication of the unfit in this country and in the State.”
Despite all this and more, a friendly historian recently judged, “Sanger was no racist.” Then, by this logic, neither were Theodore Bilbo and Bull Connor. To advocate certain progressive ideas is, for fellow progressives, evidence of innocence. And to do so under the guise of progress instead of tradition or habit, and with an intellectual’s accent instead of a redneck’s, provides immunity. Nonetheless, the progressive era resulted in the proliferation of miscegenation prohibitions, an increase in lynchings, and a majority of U.S. states backwardly codifying eugenics.
The open hostility to blacks that characterized the progressives and socialists transformed into cynicism for the Moscow-gazing Left of the ’20s and ’30s, which saw racism not as a problem to solve but a tool to embarrass America.
John Reed, canonized by the Hollywood Left in the Academy Award–winning Reds and the only American buried on the grounds of the Kremlin, casually referred to African Americans as “niggers” and “coons” in his letters to wife Louise Bryant. The Communist Party that Reed helped found embraced separatism and long advanced a plan of carving a black homeland out of the American South. Lovett-Fort Whiteman, the pioneering African American Communist acknowledged as “the Reddest of the Blacks” in Time magazine in 1925, endured worse than a few ugly names hurled his way. In the midst of the late-’30s Stalinist paranoia focused on one-time rival Leon Trotsky, Fort-Whiteman’s comrades denounced him in Moscow to their Soviet overlords: “Lovett Fort-Whiteman, a Negro Comrade, showed himself for Trotsky.” The verbal condemnation was a literal condemnation, and Fort-Whiteman, an American citizen, died in the gulag shortly thereafter.
The Communist Party banned Japanese Americans from membership after Pearl Harbor. Party chief Earl Browder rationalized that “the best place for any Japanese fifth columnist to hide is within the Communist party.” Alas, there is no honor among fifth columnists. Browder purged Japanese-American fifth columnists from the ranks not because of their seditious beliefs — actually a prerequisite for membership — but because of their ethnicity.
Upon Browder’s ouster, new Communist Party totem William Z. Foster decimated the ranks of his party by embarking on a crusade against “white chauvinists.” Though most of these “white chauvinists” were as real as the Trotskyites and White Guards that the paranoid Stalin perennially sought to root out, the campaign revealed a guilt-ridden vulnerability on race and an inability to address the issue with maturity. This white guilt and promiscuous use of insult terms such as “racist” in describing political enemies plagued the broader postwar Left as well.
Look for African Americans in the book that helped launch the sexual revolution, Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. They’re not there. Look for black officers of the Students for a Democratic Society. They’re not there. Look for African Americans among Democrats in Congress. Up until Pearl Harbor, there’s one there.
Yes, that Democratic Party, whose congressional delegation voted in greater percentages against the Civil Rights Act of 1965 than its Republican counterpart. The Democratic Party, that was so transformed by the civil rights movement that, by 1972, it had to write racial quotas into its rules governing the selection of convention delegates. Bilbo, Faubus, Wallace — all the memorable political bigots were Democrats, not Republicans.
Today, a remnant of that Democratic Party survives in West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who can boast of having served as both Majority Leader in the Senate and Exalted Cyclops in the Ku Klux Klan. Given the long history of white supremacist attitudes harbored by so many of its officeholders and its more recent history of supporting racial preferences and quotas, the Democratic Party’s claim to Martin Luther King’s legacy of judging people by the content of their character, rather than the color of their skin, is simply absurd.
A number of American leftists rose above their times on questions involving race. Bible-thumping abolitionists, the founders of the NAACP, and pillars of the civil rights movement, such as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, were generally committed to some vaguely leftist set of ideas. But most leftists have reflected the times in which they lived — and a few have sunk beneath those times.
Seeing themselves not only apart from but above America, leftists imagine their ideological ancestors as immune from America’s historical stains. The Left has its own version of American Exceptionalism, one that sees radicals and progressives always at war with their nation’s sins — sins they so vocally rail against even after they have largely abated. Such a historiography tells us more about the present than the past. History is not as malleable to the wishes of today as today wishes it to be.
A Barack Obama presidency would not be a continuation of any long and noble crusade by the political Left against racism. If anything, it would atone for the Left’s history of participation in the distant travesties that it now, in such cowardly fashion, blames on others.
– Daniel J. Flynn is the author of A Conservative History of the American Left.