The history of the American left is a history of passionate idealism and, by and large, political failure. Socialism, famously, didn't happen here, and isn't happening today, however loud the Tea Partiers yell. But the left has left a deep imprint on American life – deeper than most of us assume, says historian Michael Kazin in his new book American Dreamers. In Kazin's telling, generations of radicals and reformers, even as they failed to win mainstream acceptance, succeeded in nudging American society in a more humane and just direction. Rolling Stone got Kazin on the phone the other day to talk about how the American left – from abolitionists and early feminists to labor activists, anarchists and even communists – changed a nation.
In the book you say people tend to underestimate the left's contribution to American life. Why do you think that is?
Because it's true that the political left has always been relatively weak in the United States. But I argue in the book it's been more successful as a cultural left; that is, in various times in American society there have been people on the left who've been able to help transform the moral culture of society by articulating a compelling vision about how society should run, even if they weren’t able to form a powerful movement to carry through those ideas.
What are some examples?
Americans believe now things that used to be quite radical, such as that all citizens deserve equal rights and that racial or ethnic identities must be respected no matter what. Civil rights for African-Americans, Latinos, women’s suffrage and full equal rights for women in every sphere of life, gay rights, the idea that it’s OK to have sex because it’s pleasurable: The pioneers of those ideas and of the kinds of reforms we often take for granted today were leftist radicals – from Abolitionists, to the Greenwich Village socialists early in the 20th century, to – even – the Communist Party in the 30’s and 40’s, and the New Left in the 1960’s.
And a lot of the time the people promoting these ideas were writers, artists, singer-songwriters …
The kinds of people you'd find on the cover of Rolling Stone ...
I talk a lot in the book about the popular artists of the 1930’s, people like Woody Guthrie; Doctor Seuss (he was on the left in the ‘30s and ‘40s and continued to be throughout his life); Sidney Buchman, the screenwriter for Mr. Smith Goes To Washington; the photographer Dorothea Lang; of course John Steinbeck – when he wrote The Grapes of Wrath when his wife was in the communist party and he was working with the left-wing union. These and others, who were either communists or close to the communist party and who helped to frame how Americans understood the Depression at the time and how we still understand it.
And yet communists didn't wield any political power.
No, and for good reasons, because they were clearly in thrall to a radical foreign power. However, the people who were inspired by a vision of a different kind of society did help I think to help Americans to identify with people who were hurting in the Great Depression, which is different than the way that most Americans see the Great Recession today.
So much for where the left has been most successful. Where it been least successful?
In presenting a convincing argument for why American capitalism should be changed fairly radically – why we should have something that in Europe goes by the name of social democracy and that Republicans think of as purely socialism but which is something less than state control of the economy. Most Americans are fairly comfortable with capitalist society. And the left has not been able to make them uncomfortable with it.
You write in the book that there’s one exception to that rule -- the Progressive Era.
Right, during the period roughly from the 1890s to the 1930s the left was actually able to make an argument that rich Americans needed to have more social responsibility, that maybe unions were important ways for workers to gain a measure of democracy on the job as well as better living standards and many of the activists who were pushing those arguments and also in those movements pushing those changes were leftists of various kinds – populists, socialists and communists.
Do you see those kinds of arguments gaining traction again, given the dire state of the economy and the huge income gap that’s opened up?
Not really. I think most Americans don’t have a sense that there is any alternative to what we have. They continue to look for scapegoats rather than looking at the structure of the system as a problem. Also I think that part of the problem is that the left has been identified too much with Washington, with Big Government. So when government fails to do what it promises – even in times when you could argue Wall Street and the capitalist system itself is the real problem – people identify that failure with the Left and certainly don’t see the left as any solutions to that problem.
You write that the American left today is at a low point.
The last chapter of the book which is called “Rebels Without a Movement,” there are certainly cultural rebels like Michael Moore, Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky who are making sometimes trenchant – and sometimes overly simplistic -- critiques. Yet there is not a movement of the left we can identify that organizes millions of people to demand a coherent alternative to what it is right now.
What has to change?
If the left is going to be successful it’s got to speak to a much more heterogeneous group of Americans. Today it is perceived rightly or wrongly by many Americans as being present mostly in big cities on both coasts especially in upper middle class areas in those cities and in academia. It has to appeal as well to working class Americans who want a better world and also different parts of the country.
What kind of vision will it take?
It’s not going to be with the old kind of socialism, much less communism. It’s got to be built around a vision of a decent society: What kinds of changes in America are necessary to make this a decent society so that everyone can lead a decent life? We’re not going to get to a true equality in my lifetime probably in anybody’s lifetime, that’s utopian, but I think we can talk about a society which treats everyone decently where everyone has decent housing decent healthcare, a decent job where we have a society where people do feel like they’re their brother and sister’s keeper and we believe it’s important to take care of each other. And that would be pretty radical.