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Book Excerpt: American Dreamers – How the Left Changed a Nation

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American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation by Michael Kazin

Courtesy Knopf

Following is an excerpt from American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation by Michael Kazin.


What Difference Did It Make?

The free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
—Marx and Engels

You have to describe the country in terms of what you passionately hope it will become, as well as in terms of what you know it to be now. You have to be loyal to a dream country rather than one to which you wake up every morning.
—Richard Rorty

In dreams begin responsibility.
—William Butler Yeats

This book was inspired by Dr. Seuss. Around the time the Supreme Court helped elect George W. Bush in 2000, I took refuge from political despair by thinking about the books my mother had read to me in the 1950s, several of which I also read to my children forty years later. Seuss, whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel and who had neither an M.D. nor a PhD, got his start in the cartoon business illustrating ads for an insecticide company, but he soon turned his talent to political purposes. Although he never seems to have joined a left organization, Seuss was a man of the Popular Front, that broad left vessel anchored by the Communist Party. For two years in the early 1940s, he was a regular cartoonist for the left-wing New York City daily PM, contributing hundreds of drawings that skewered such figures as Charles Lindbergh for warming up to Hitler and flagrant racists like Governor Eugene Talmadge of Georgia.

After the war, Seuss began to produce children’s books that used witty rhymes and fluid, fanciful drawings to convey the best principles and some of the fondest aspirations of the left. He kept this up until his death in 1989. The books, which have sold millions of copies, include The Sneetches, a brief for racial equality; Yertle the Turtle, a satire of fascist tyranny; The Lorax, a plea to save nature from corporate greed; The Butter Battle Book, a fable in support of nuclear disarmament; and Horton Hears a Who!, a parable about the need to act against genocide. His most famous book, The Cat in the Hat, while less overtly political, introduced a sublimely destructive feline who did his bit to inspire the counterculture of the 1960s.

Seuss made great children’s literature out of the essential critique and vision of the left. He married the ideal of social equality to the principle of personal freedom. As the journalist E. J. Kahn Jr. put it: “In his books, might never makes right, the meek inherit the earth, and pride frequently goeth before a fall, usually a pratfall.” Seuss crafted “messages” with more wit, hipness, and color than any movement activist I have ever known. But he rarely took part in protests or campaigns, and few of his readers appreciated that he was illustrating a coherent and quite political worldview.

Seuss’s work was an underappreciated accomplishment in the long, if often difficult, history of the American left. Radicals in the U.S. have seldom mounted a serious challenge to those who held power in either the government or the economy. But they have done far better at helping to transform the moral culture, the “common sense” of society—how Americans understand what is just and what is unjust in the conduct of public affairs. And that is no small thing. “The most enduring aspects of a social movement,” writes the historian J. F. C. Harrison, “are not always its institutions but the mental attitudes which inspire it and which are in turn generated by it.”
Leftists who articulated big dreams of a different future did much to initiate what became common, if still controversial, features of American life. These included the advocacy of equal opportunity and equal treat- ment for women, ethnic and racial minorities, and homosexuals; the celebration of sexual pleasure unconnected to reproduction; a media and educational system sensitive to racial and gender oppression and which celebrates what we now call multiculturalism; and the popularity of novels and films with a strongly altruistic and anti-authoritarian point of view.

Some of these cultural radicals were famous, or infamous, in their own time and remain staples of classroom lectures today: the abolitionists Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass, the class-conscious utopians Edward Bellamy and Henry George, the sexual radicals Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman, the pro-Communist entertainers Paul Robeson and Woody Guthrie, the feminist writer Betty Friedan, and the black power orator Stokely Carmichael. Others, like Max Eastman, editor of The Masses, are familiar mainly to academics who understand how critical that magazine was to the rise of a modernist sensibility in the early twentieth century.

A focus on what the left did to alter American culture can provide a partial answer to the most important question one can raise about any movement in history: What difference did it make to the nation and the world?*

The ability of radicals to develop a culture of rebellion, of alienation from domestic authorities, and to expand the meaning of equality appealed to many Americans who gave little or no thought to actually voting for a left candidate or joining a radical party. The cultural left articulated outrage about the state of the world and the longing for a different one in ways the political left was unable to do.

A caveat is necessary here. Culture and politics are not separate spheres; a cultural change can have important political consequences. For example, the feminist awakening of the 1960s and ’70s began a process that led to more liberal state abortion laws and then to Roe v. Wade—as well as to funding for child-care centers, laws against sexual harassment, and an increase in women running for and getting elected to public office. Conversely, a profound shift in the political sphere can alter private opinions and behavior. The Civil War did away with human bondage, which made it possible, albeit in painfully slow steps, to establish a new common sense about the moral imperative to treat individuals equally, regardless of their race.

But when political radicals made a big difference, they generally did so as decidedly junior partners in a coalition driven by establishment reformers. Abolitionists did not achieve their goal until midway through the war, when Abraham Lincoln and his fellow Republicans realized that the promise of emancipation could speed victory for the North. Militant unionists were not able to gain a measure of power in mines and factories and on the waterfront until Franklin Roosevelt needed labor votes during the New Deal. Only when Lyndon Johnson and other liberal Democrats conquered their fears of disorder and gave up on the white South could the black freedom movement celebrate passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. For a political movement to gain any major goal, it needs to win over a section of the governing elite (it doesn’t hurt to gain support from some wealthy philanthropists as well). Only on a handful of occasions has the left achieved such a victory, and it never occurred under its own name.

The divergence between political marginality and cultural influence stems, in part, from the kinds of people who have been the mainstays of the American left. During just one period of about four decades—from the late 1870s to the end of World War I—could radicals authentically claim to represent more than a tiny number of Americans who belonged to what was, and remains, the majority of the population: white Christians from the working and lower-middle classes. At the time, this group included Americans from various trades and regions who condemned the growth of corporations for controlling the marketplace, corrupting politicians, and degrading civic morality.

But this period ended after World War I—due partly to a epochal split in the international socialist movement. Radicals lost most of the constituency they had gained among ordinary white Christians and have never been able to regain it. Thus, the wage-earning masses who voted for Socialist, Communist, and Labor parties elsewhere in the industrial world were almost entirely lost to the American left—and deeply skeptical about the vision of solidarity that inspired the great welfare states of Europe.

During the rest of U.S. history, the public face and voice of the left emanated from an uneasy alliance: between men and women from elite backgrounds and those from such groups as Jewish immigrant workers and plebeian blacks whom most Americans viewed as dangerous outsiders. This was true in the abolitionist movement, when such New England brahmins as Wendell Phillips and Maria Weston Chapman fought alongside Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. And it remained the case in the New Left of the 1960s, an unsustainable alliance of white stu- dents from elite colleges and black people like Fannie Lou Hamer and Huey Newton from the ranks of the working poor.

It has always been difficult for these top-and-bottom insurgencies to present themselves as plausible alternatives to the major parties, to con- vince more than a small minority of voters to embrace their program for sweeping change. Radicals did help to catalyze mass movements. But furious internal conflicts, a penchant for dogmatism, and hostility toward both nationalism and organized religion helped make the political left a taste few Americans cared to acquire.

However, some of the same qualities that alienated leftists from the electorate made them pioneers in generating an alluringly rebellious culture. Talented orators, writers, artists, and academics associated with the left put forth new ideas and lifestyles that stirred the imagination of many Americans, particularly young ones, who felt stifled by orthodox values and social hierarchies. These ideological pioneers also influenced forces around the world that adapted the culture of the U.S. left to their own purposes—from the early sprouts of socialism and feminism in the 1830s to the subcultures of black power, radical feminism, and gay liberation in the 1960s and 1970s. Radical ideas about race, gender, sexuality, and social justice did not need to win votes to become popular. They just required an audience. And leftists who were able to articulate or represent their views in creative ways were often able to find one.
Arts created to serve political ends are always vulnerable to criticism. Indeed, some radicals deliberately gave up their search for the sublime to concentrate on the persuasive. But as George Orwell, no aesthetic slouch, observed, “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

This book seeks to explain what the left won, what it lost, and why. The last objective requires some preliminary thoughts. In a sense, the radicals who made the most difference in U.S. history were not that radical at all. What most demanded, in essence, was the fulfillment of two ideals their fellow Americans already cherished: individual freedom and communal responsibility. In 1875, Robert Schilling, a German immigrant who was an official in the coopers’, or cask-makers’, union, reflected on why Socialists were making so little headway among the hardworking citizenry:

Everything that smacks in the least of a curtailment of personal or individual liberty is most obnoxious to [Americans]. They believe that every individual should be permitted to do what and how it pleases, as long as the rights and liberties of others are not injured or infringed upon. [But] this personal liberty must be surrendered and placed under the control of the State, under a government such as proposed by the social Democracy.

Most American radicals grasped this simple truth. They demanded that the promise of individual rights be realized in everyday life and encouraged suspicion of the words and power of all manner of authorities—political, economic, and religious. Abolitionists, feminists, savvy Marxists, all quoted the words of the Declaration of Independence, the most popular document in the national canon. Of course, leftists did not champion self-reliance, the notion that an individual is entirely responsible for his or her own fortunes. But they did uphold the modernist vision that Americans be free to pursue happiness unfettered by inherited hierarchies and identities.

At the same time, the U.S. left—like its counterparts around the world—worked to establish a new order animated by a desire for social fraternity. The labor motto “An injury to one is an injury to all” rippled far beyond picket lines and marches of the unemployed. But American leftists who articulated this credo successfully did so in a patriotic and often religious key, rather than by preaching the grim inevitability of class struggle. Such radical social gospelers as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edward Bellamy, and Martin Luther King Jr. gained more influence than did those organizers who espoused secular, Marxian views. Particularly during times of economic hardship and war, radicals promoted collectivist ends by appealing to the wisdom of “the people” at large. To gain a sympathetic hearing, the left always had to demand that the national faith apply equally to everyone and oppose those who wanted to reserve its use for privileged groups and undemocratic causes.

But it was not always possible to wrap a movement’s destiny in the flag. “America is a trap,” writes the critic Greil Marcus, “its promises and dreams … are too much to live up to and too much to escape.” In a political culture which valued liberty above all, the left had more difficulty arguing for the collective good than for an expansion of individual rights. Advocates of the former could slide into apologizing for totalitarian rule in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. But to give primacy to “freedom” could deprive the left of its very reason to exist.

In trying to advance both ideals, radicals confronted a yawning contradiction: in life as opposed to rhetoric, the desire for individual liberty routinely conflicts with the yearning for social equality and altruistic justice. The right of property holders and corporations to do what they wish with their assets clashes with environmentalists’ desire to pre- serve the natural habitat, with the desire of labor unionists to restrict an employer’s right to hire and fire, and with the freedom of consumers of any race to buy any house they can afford. Leftists who claimed to favor both liberty and equality could not resolve such conflicts. Neither could major-party politicians. But Whigs, Republicans, and Democrats basked in the glow of legitimacy, which often shielded them from the same charges of hypocrisy that bedeviled the left.

Without political power, radicals inside the U.S. never had the opportunity to become tyrants. But they could fight to expand the “politics of the possible” without losing their utopian edge. And in that effort, the makers of words, music, and images were as essential as minor-party officials and grassroots organizers.

Taken together, leftists were American dreamers in three senses of that oft-used phrase. They dreamed about a different kind of society and culture; their visions were the extensions of a larger, far more consensual dream; and, like most dreams, theirs came true only in part and usually not in ways they would have preferred. Such are the inevitable ironies of history.

What follows is a pragmatic narrative, one that clashes with the traditional view of the U.S. left as a failure, whether heroic or otherwise. “Radicalism in the United States has no great triumphs to record,” wrote Christopher Lasch, “but the sooner we begin to understand why this should be so, the sooner we will be able to change it.” Without political power or honor as prophets, leftists still helped to make the United States a more humane society. I am concerned with victories, however partial, and consequences, sometimes unintentional, of a left that is often written off as a lost cause.

I begin with the abolitionists and other smaller, though no less vibrant, forces who, in the early decades of the nineteenth century, crusaded for causes beyond the emancipation of the slaves: the freedom of women and of workers, and the growth of socialist colonies on the land. These were the first radical social movements in U.S. history, and they created a capacious agenda for all those which followed. Next, I take up the question of how far erstwhile abolitionists, black and white, were able to push the nation during and after the Civil War to accept the full equality of the races. Then I bring the story into the industrial era, when celebrated radicals proposed solutions to “the labor question” that eschewed violence and class hatred. The narrative next moves into the twentieth century, when there coexisted three types of socialist movements—two of which appealed to “producers” across the land, plus a clique of urban bohemians who linked social change to personal liberation. I then examine the paradox of U.S. Communism, a movement that yoked itself to Stalin’s despotism while advancing racial democracy and inspiring memorable arts of protest at home. Next, I balance the political blunders of the New Left against its remarkable imprint on American culture. Finally, I sketch a portrait of a left that, since the 1970s, has made a sharp and clever critique of the existing order but is unable—at least so far—to construct a political movement worthy of the name.

I do not attempt to offer a comprehensive or inclusive account of a radical tradition as long and complex, if not as well-known, as that of any other modern nation. Among the significant groups about which I say little or nothing are Catholic radicals, pacifists, the farmer-laborites of the 1920s and 1930s, and democratic socialists from the New Deal years to the present. I happen to sympathize strongly with the latter group. But I cannot claim for it a historical significance it did not possess.

Richard Flacks, a founder of Students for a Democratic Society, has written astutely, “Lefts everywhere confront the fundamental problem that they are calling on human beings to realize a potentiality which people, as a result of their everyday experience, do not readily perceive in themselves.” I hope this book shows how radical dreamers in my country have done their part.

Excerpted by permission from American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation by Michael Kazin (Knopf).


Interview: Michael Kazin on How the Left Changed a Nation


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