Magazine | October 3, 2011, Issue

A Long Red Sunset

American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, by Michael Kazin (Knopf, 352 pp., $27.95)

One of the hardy staples of American history is the question of what happened to American socialism. As the only industrialized nation in the world in which avowedly socialist or Communist parties have never held power or even seriously contended for power, the U.S. has been a persistent thorn in the grand Marxist scenario that had the whole world progressing inevitably towards a workers’ paradise. If capitalism was doomed, why were its gravediggers in the most successful capitalist nation on earth having so much trouble?

It was a question that worried even Marx and Engels, although they comforted themselves with the thought that, while slightly delayed, American socialism would imminently spring to life. But as the years went by and American socialism remained a pale shadow of its counterparts around the world, a minor academic industry sprang up to consider various explanations for “American exceptionalism.” All kinds of factors have been trotted out, from German sociologist Werner Sombart’s quip that “on the shoals of roast beef and apple pie, all socialistic utopias founder,” to implausible claims that a repressive American police state had blocked radicalism’s advance. Structural impediments to third parties, the nature of American immigration, the American frontier, and America’s lack of a feudal past have also been mentioned. Since the collapse of Communism and the conversion of many of Europe’s once proudly militant socialists to free markets and capitalism, a few people have had the temerity to wonder whether the absence of socialism in America marked, not its backwardness, but that of Europe.

A handful of American writers have even taken to proclaiming socialism’s victory in the U.S. Michael Harrington, the late founder of Democratic Socialists of America, proclaimed the AFL-CIO America’s disguised socialist vanguard. Michael Denning has claimed victory for the Left in the battle for American cultural hegemony. Now comes the latest celebratory salute, albeit a far more sophisticated and subtle one: Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers.

The book has a number of virtues. Kazin, a distinguished historian, provides an entertaining journey through some of the fascinating byways of American radicalism, filled with rogues, idealists, and quacks. (Many of the leading radical figures, he agrees, were personally eccentric or dogmatic or illiberal.) His writing is fluid, avoids professional jargon, and is often witty. Unlike many of his colleagues in history, with whom he shares a left-wing orientation, Kazin is fair to conservative critics of radicalism.

Most important, the book’s general thesis is largely accurate. Kazin admits that the Left has done far better at changing the moral culture than the political or economic system. When it has won political battles, it has done so by attaching itself to some wing of the American establishment. Where it has championed individual freedom, as in the abolitionist and feminist movements, it has succeeded in changing the country. But as individualism has triumphed, the Left’s collectivist vision of economic equality and solidarity has faded. Even as the culture celebrates the liberated individual, unions have been decimated and the political and economic system has been left largely intact.

Many of the stories Kazin tells are familiar ones, about crusaders against class inequality (Thomas Skidmore), slavery (David Walker), and women’s oppression (Fanny Wright). The two most successful 19th-century radicals were Edward Bellamy and Henry George. Bellamy’s utopian novel, Looking Backward, eschewed notions of class struggle and was permeated with notions of the Social Gospel. George, whose single-tax program put the blame for America’s problems on land speculators, appealed powerfully to Irish immigrants. Large-scale industrialization and increasingly violent labor confrontations in the 1880s set the stage for the growth of the first substantial radical parties. Radicals were weakened because of incessant fights between purists unwilling to compromise and “opportunists” willing to accept small, immediate gains. Oddly enough, Kazin never mentions Daniel De Leon, the leader of the Socialist Labor party, whose talents helped catapult the SLP into prominence and then ensured that it would wallow in sectarian isolation because of his ideological rigidity (he even expelled his own son from the party for disagreeing with his interpretation of Marx’s theory of value).

#page#Kazin’s discussion of the Socialist Party of America reiterates the political problems radicals faced. Its base was among midwestern Protestants, both skilled workers and tenant farmers, and New York Jewish garment workers; it had messianic visions, but conservative social views. Neither its radical wing nor its reformist wing could surmount these internal tensions. Oklahoma had the most politically successful Socialist party in the country before World War I, but the party was destroyed when the small farmers who formed its core decided to march on Washington to seize the government after the U.S. declared war. The Green Corn Rebellion (the marchers planned to subsist on corn en route) was quickly suppressed and socialism in Oklahoma became a distant memory.

In Milwaukee, socialists captured city hall and remained in power for decades. But the largely German brewery workers at the party’s core were derided by other radicals as “sewer socialists” because of their inevitable need to focus on the mundane tasks of governing a city. Even the charismatic national leader of the Socialist party, Eugene Debs, was too smitten with Marxist notions of the inevitable collapse of capitalism to accept the idea that political reform was the best route to victory. And, in his romanticism, Debs embraced the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), whose bloodcurdling rhetoric thrilled those who hated capitalism but terrified more moderate socialists.

Another wing of the Socialist party also scorned moderation. Around the turn of the 20th century, a new cultural Left was emerging in America, centered in Greenwich Village and championing modernism in the arts, sexual freedom, and secularism. Its newspaper, The Masses — which was not, Kazin notes, much read by the masses — scorned compromise, much preferring the Wobblies to the boring sewer socialists.

The weakest chapter of American Dreamers is the one dealing with the Communist party. Kazin recognizes that the CPUSA was a tool of the Soviet Union, defended one of the worst tyrannies in human history, and included a substantial number of Soviet spies. Yet he maintains that its members fought on behalf of civil rights, labor organizing, and the jobless, and, except for the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact, against fascism. But anyone who allied himself with the Communists on any of these issues soon learned that their commitment to such causes lasted only so long as the needs of Soviet policy permitted it.

Kazin recognizes that what the CPUSA did achieve was largely accomplished by deception. Why, then, does he defend most of its members? Part of his ambivalence stems from the same familial connection to the Left that frequently hinders American historians trying to make sense of its fealty to a tyrannical foreign power: He admits that virtually all of his wife’s family were CPUSA members. Their Communist activity, like that of thousands of other decent people, must have contributed to a better America. If their motives were noble, it must have been that other Communist party, the one staffed by Stalinoid drones operating out of a walled-off compound in lower Manhattan, that betrayed the dream of utopia.

Kazin’s argument for the Communist impact on American culture is much more persuasive. Communist-influenced artists, writers, and photographers — including Woody Guthrie, Yip Harburg, John Steinbeck, and Dorothea Lange — created many of the iconic works of Depression-era America. But the particular radicalism of their works has long since vanished from popular understanding. Kazin notes the revolutionary verses excoriating capitalism in Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” but 99 percent of Americans who hear the song take it for a paean to American patriotism.

#page#Kazin himself was a Sixties SDS radical who lived on an Oregon commune. He denounces the Maoists and Weathermen as “minute” movements, products of a “fatal delusion” about how to change America. Their major impact, he believes, was to tarnish the anti-war movement. Again, his personal nostalgia may have distorted his judgment. While only a small fraction of the New Left fully embraced revolutionary violence, a much larger faction either justified or apologized for it. And the culture of drugs, hatred of authority, and contempt for “bourgeois” values that the New Left popularized did far more damage to America than Kazin is willing to admit. The urban riots of the 1960s — he calls them “rebellions” — may have been immediately precipitated by acts of police brutality or anger at racism, but they became orgies of destruction, laying waste to vast stretches of American cities whose downtowns and businesses never recovered. The anti-war movement got the U.S. out of Vietnam, but evinced scant interest in the horrors that followed in Cambodia.

Kazin is not surprised by the failure of Pres. Barack Obama to meet the high expectations many on the left had for his administration. Obama had ties to community organizers spawned by the New Left, but the most important elements of the Left’s political organization had disappeared into the Democratic party, and the truly radical independent left-wing groups have been marginalized. Left-wing writers such as Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, and Howard Zinn sell millions of books, but their hatred of their own country (Chomsky), lack of an economic alternative (Klein), or simplistic “Manichean fable” (Zinn) have severely limited their political influence. The result has been the frustrating failure of the Left to realize most of its collectivist plans.

Having provided a thorough account of the American Left’s failure to make socialism a viable political or economic force, Kazin abruptly switches gears in his conclusion. Even though he forthrightly admits that “moral capitalism” is far better than “authoritarian socialism,” he stubbornly insists that we still need a utopian vision. A campaign for incremental change cannot inspire people. Without a passionate socialist Left, he fears, liberal change will not come easily. His problem is that far too many figures in the political movement he highlights in American Dreamers either embraced authoritarian socialism or had no compelling answers about how to avoid it. The socialist economic vision no longer is compelling to socialists; it is hard to understand how it will appeal to many Americans, who for more than two centuries have embraced private property, economic liberty, and political liberty. When American radicals — whether they were abolitionists, feminists, or gays — have agreed to those values, they have had an impact on American life. When they have started preaching collectivism, Americans have tuned them out.

– Mr. Klehr is Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Politics and History at Emory University and the co-author of Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America.    

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