Why the left’s despair over Barack Obama has deep historical roots.
American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation
by Michael Kazin
Knopf, 365 pp.
When Barack Obama was elected president, the American and European left swooned. He had only been in the Oval Office a scant eight months when he won the Nobel Peace Prize. But since then, the euphoria, at least among many of his prominent liberal-left supporters, has curdled into outright despair. Obama has been dinged for abandoning the very principles that animated his campaign. He promised but failed to shutter Guantánamo Bay. He re-signed the Patriot Act. When it comes to taxes, the debt, and a host of other issues, he seems to have let the Republicans take the lead. The candidate who promised change has himself changed, so the indictment goes, and not for the better.
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. (Ever hear of Emma Tenayuca, a young organizer known as “La Pasionaria de Texas” who called for bilingual education and workers’ rights in the 1930s?)
This approach can run the risk of becoming a gauzy PBS-type special, but Kazin is rarely less than incisive. He divides his history in three parts—the first focuses on the abolitionist and feminist movements, the second on the rise of the labor unions and socialism, and the third on communism and the New Left. Throughout, Kazin contends that while the left’s political accomplishments have been sporadic, its cultural impact has been far more pervasive.
The question haunting Kazin’s study is the one first raised by the German scholar Werner Sombart, who famously asked why there was no socialism in America. A conservative, of course, might flip the question around and ask why there should be socialism in America. Either way, America remains something of an outlier—at least compared with its European brethren, where socialism took hold in the nineteenth century. Solid conservatives such as Germany’s Otto von Bismarck regarded a social insurance system as a key element of state building. And in England, Benjamin Disraeli warned about the danger of “two nations,” one rich and one poor.
In America, however, the ambitions of the left, Kazin writes, collided headfirst with the American ethos of individualism. American immigrants and their descendants were not eager to replicate the oppressive states they had sought to flee back in Europe. Except at times of war and emergency, attempts to enhance state authority were, and remain, suspect. Many radicals, writes Kazin, understood 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.” Squaring individual rights with the dream of social equality is a conundrum that the left has never been fully able to resolve.
As Kazin sees it, the left first emerged in America with the abolitionist movement. Perhaps some historians will quarrel that this is a form of cooptation, of retrospectively endowing the abolitionists with a political coloration they never possessed. But as Kazin emphasizes, the abolitionists—mostly middle-class Protestant radicals—called for both individual rights and broader social justice. They were trying to create nothing less than a new nation. Their aims retain a contemporary ring. Antislavery militants, Kazin writes, tried to lead interracial lives: “Black and white activists wrote for the same publications, spoke from the same platforms, worshipped in the same churches, insisted on eating in the same restaurants and sleeping in the same hotels when on tour, and stayed in one another’s homes.” The pickle, however, was that the “freedom movement,” Kazin continues, “could never break through a stubborn barrier that divided it from a critical section of the emerging white working class”—in particular, from the Irish Catholics, who went on to become mainstays of the Democratic Party. The very same problem continues to assail the Democrats today as they seek to win back the white working-class vote, which the Republicans have successfully wooed away by emphasizing cultural issues.
The women’s movement was also coeval with the critique of slavery. Having witnessed the depravities authored by men in attempting to enforce and defend slavery, it probably could not have been otherwise. But the fight was slow going: when New York State gave women the right to vote in 1917, only one woman who had signed the 1848 Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments was “still alive to cast a ballot.”
Industrialization and the Gilded Age led to a different kind of left focused on labor. Kazin is particularly insightful on the Progressive Era, during which the left tried to curb the worst abuses of the new industrial magnates. He points to the emergence of three types of socialist movements. The first began among skilled workers in midwestern cities and tenant farmers. The second one was comprised of secular Jewish immigrants. “Jews,” Kazin writes, “are the only American ethnic group with an unbroken history of radicalism, and that tradition began with the rise of the socialist movement at the turn of the twentieth century.” The third was the rise of the modernist left, ensconced in Greenwich Village and a few neighborhoods in Chicago. “Modernist radicals sympathized ardently with the plight of labor and aided strikes by Jews and other recent immigrants from eastern and southern Europe. But their true passion was cultural revolution.”
The modernists, suggests Kazin, perhaps achieved success out of all proportion to their actual numbers; birth control, sexual freedom, civil rights for black people, and a new transnational identity meant that they were advancing a “cultural agenda whose appeal would grow in the years to come.”
His affinity for the left notwithstanding, Kazin is clear-eyed about the illusions in which some radicals swaddled themselves. During World War I, for example, they fancied that Washington, D.C., might be ripe for its own Winter Palace coup—a pipe dream not shared by the Bolsheviks themselves. Leon Trotsky, who lived in exile for several months in New York before returning to Russia in May 1917, sneered that the American Socialist Party was a “party of dentists.” A new American Communist Party emerged in 1919, one that battled relentlessly with American socialists.
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