Jack Ross: Review of Michael Kazin’s "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation" (Alfred A. Knopf, 2011)


Jack Ross wrote "Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism" and is now writing a history of the Socialist Party of America.

The years since the election of Barack Obama have not been kind to the reputation of idealism, to say nothing of the ancient bugaboo of socialism.  A small literature has thus inevitably cropped up to defend the honor of the historic Left against the rhetorical onslaught of a Right which, in sharp contrast to the Right of just a generation ago, does not even seem to know or care what socialism is.  The S Word by John Nichols provided a competent basic retort to those who would slander the legacy of American socialism, but especially to anyone wishing to understand why the American Left still matters a generation after the fall of communism and now in the age of Obama and the Tea Party.

Michael Kazin attempts to bring more heft to the discussion with American Dreamers.  Yet his narrative is flawed by its studious adherence to the conventions and orthodoxies of this contentious subfield of American history.  Kazin observes that  only “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.”  But this statement can be made in large measure because he uncritically strings together abolitionism and nineteenth-century cultural radicalism, Debsian socialism, Popular Front communism, and the New Left.

Abolitionism was certainly a critical part of the heritage of the Marxian Left in America, but it owed at least as much to Populism, with its distinctly Southern roots and biases (not to be confused, of course, with nostalgia for the Lost Cause).  Socialists of the party’s heyday as varied as Victor Berger, Oscar Ameringer, and A. Philip Randolph were all known to take a less than starry-eyed view of the morality tale of the virtuous and triumphant Union.

In an excellent essay on the historiography of the American Left written as a preface to a 1996 edition of his late uncle Daniel Bell’s classic Marxian Socialism in the United States, Kazin considers the limits of the approach of so many New Left scholars to replace the question of “why no socialism?” with “look at all the republicanism!”  As he put it, “any concept that supposedly united James Madison, [nineteenth-century “Knights of Labor” leader] Terence Powderly, and millions of small farmers explained very little about political conflict.”  In other words, the problem of the past generation of historiography of the American Left has been that, in a misguided attempt to repent for the “America-hating” stigma of the 1960s, it has embraced the legacy of those moments when an alleged “Left” has been most neatly aligned with the white knights of consensus history.

Somewhat ironically, this was also the impetus for the rise of the apologist school of historians of American communism.  In devoting his entire narrative of the middle decades of the twentieth century to the Communist Party and the Popular Front, Kazin makes no attempt to whitewash the truth about communism or the Communist Party USA in particular, but it is precisely for this reason that his narrative is so pernicious.  Evidently not wanting to make waves among his colleagues, he makes a shocking abdication of personal imperative when he writes, “Among the 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.”

The many horrors and atrocities of Josef Stalin must certainly not be forgotten in any discussion of the Popular Front, but Stalin was only half of the problem.  The problem is, frankly, that the Popular Front was not radical.  The curious exemplar of the Popular Front chosen by Kazin in his introduction, Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, is a perfect illustration.  A man who had no radical affiliations whatsoever, before and after his tenure as a cartoonist for the short lived New York-based Popular Front daily PM, Kazin sees in Seuss’s highly jingoistic cartoons before and during World War II the prologue to what he views as the socially conscious messages of most of the famous Dr. Seuss children’s classics.  These interpretations may not be altogether implausible in most cases, but only Seuss’ The Lorax is widely regarded as having a socially conscious message.

Kazin extends this concept to define the legacy of the Popular Front as being through any artist who had even the most tangential relationship to it, and repeats this formula in his discussion of the legacy of the New Left, wildly exaggerating its impact through such media as The Simpsons.  But if, as Kazin argues laudably enough in his conclusion, “the utopian impulse should not be smothered under a patchwork quilt of policy prescriptions,” why should the fact that “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington were written by artists who were at the very least in the orbit of the Communist Party inspire Americans today to be interested in radicalism?  If one reads the greatest American cultural critic, Dwight Macdonald, the direct line can be easily deduced from the marriage of the Popular Front and mass culture in Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley to the gruel that is popular culture today. 

The political legacy is more problematic still.  How is a generation that came of age exposed to the raw jingoism of Fox News supposed to see something other than its predecessor in PM, to say nothing of an example of radical dissent?  Few have ever stopped to consider just how distant from contemporary progressive sensibility were the politics of the Popular Front.  To take the example of the last major expression of that politics, the 1948 presidential campaign of Henry Wallace, at least three defining characteristics of his platform can be identified—Zionism, free trade, and industrialized agriculture—that are nothing short of anathema to what American society today regards to be “the :eft.”  Indeed, it was Dwight Macdonald again who wrote a pioneering work of political journalism on Wallace, in which the dreary origins of the depredations of politics in the age of mass media can also be easily ascertained.

In the aforementioned essay on the historiography of the American Left, Kazin issued a welcome challenge:  “No fresh and probing interpretation has yet surfaced that might shake the confidence of either erstwhile New Leftists or their cynical intellectual adversaries in the certitude of their respective views.”  Rather than attempt this himself, Kazin has instead chosen to update the somewhat awkward consensus of comfortable assumptions for a generation of progressives to which the inheritance of the American Left is completely foreign—a generation which, as Nicholas von Hoffman commented some years ago when witnessing the rise of the liberal blogosphere, is more likely to have had grandparents on the social register than organizing rubber workers in Akron, Ohio.

Whatever the impact, or lack thereof, of this peculiar exercise by Michael Kazin, the challenge to historians remains grave.  To take just the most conspicuous example, there is an urgent need to restore the non-Communist Left to its place in the history of the 1930s.  But doing so requires clearing away myths and obfuscations that have built up over nearly a lifetime.  Taking up the challenge of Kazin’s 1996 essay, it would reveal the origins of Cold War liberalism in what amounted to a premature reform communism of ‘30s radicals, who prevented the Socialist Party, among others, from forming a Farmer-Labor Party that would have provided a radical and, in all likelihood, isolationist alternative to the New Deal that would have ensured the continued existence of an American Left rooted in the white working class. 

This thesis, needless to say, is a distressing one to a far larger portion of the American political spectrum than is typically affected by the tempest of the historiography of the American Left.  But it stands as a testimony to the real controversy that so much of historical writing covers up rather than gives voice, and is all the more pernicious when it comes to prevail in the historical literature of those who would seek to bring about revolutionary change.

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