How a Left-Wing Look at America's "Heroes" Reveals Its Own Ignorance



Ron Radosh is a PJ Media columnist and Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute. This article is cross-posted from PJM with the permission of the author.

The Nation magazine is playing a trick on me. I regularly receive a lot of books, since publishers know I review many and they’re hoping I’ll respond by writing up the one they are pushing. Many are conservative books; others histories; others simply by publishers who know I’ve written on a topic that their new book covers.

But until now, Nation Books, an imprint of the Perseus Book Group, has never sent me one of the books by any of their left-wing authors. But two days ago, I received a copy of Peter Dreier’s new book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. Dreier is the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics and director of the Urban and Environmental Policy Program at Occidental College, and happens to be one of the main characters of Stanley Kurtz’s new book on Obama’s radical redistributionist plans for a second term (he has an entire section).

I know why I received the book. Dreier, a man I have met personally and who is a good friend of a good friend of mine, sent me a nasty e-mail a few years ago. He went bananas after I wrote one of my critical articles about Pete Seeger (one of his heroes in the new book) and told me that not only was I one of the worst people on earth, but that he knew that the only thing that got me up in the morning was the desire to drive to Wal-Mart, shop there, and hence oppress the poor. I responded to him that he should complain to his other great hero, Bruce Springsteen, since just that week the singer had announced that his new CD would be exclusively sold at Wal-Mart! I then got in my car and, to make myself feel good, drove to Wal-Mart and did some grocery shopping.

So the reason I got the book -- I know how publishers and their publicity departments work -- is that Dreier asked them to mail it to me. Expecting me to take the bait and attack the book, he could then come up with a line for an ad: “The reactionary right-wing writer Ron Radosh hates this book, so you know it has to be good,” or something along those lines. So, indeed, I accept the challenge, and henceforth will make some serious observations about what Dreier has written.

Andrew Carnegie

Observation One: In earlier editions of The Nation, excerpts of some of the profiles were characterized as “The Fifty Most Influential Progressives of the Twentieth Century.” Since then, the title of the actual book has changed the characterization from “Progressives” to “Americans.” They are also now called the “greatest” rather than the “most influential.” Had Dreier kept the same title as the articles listing the same individuals, at least he would have been honest by showing his core group of readers that he is highlighting for recognition activists and leftists. But now he makes a different assertion. With “The 100 Greatest Americans,” he is saying that they were all “progressive;” i.e., men and women of the Left.

To that, I ask some simple questions. Does Dreier actually have no room in his list of the greatest Americans for any businessmen, entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers, and other Americans who were not defined by their politics? Does he not have space for any president save Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt?

What about any men of business? He may not like Andrew Carnegie (God forbid, as he was an anti-labor steel manufacturer), but his philanthropic efforts created the now-endangered public library system throughout our country. He also was a proud anti-imperialist who opposed the U.S. annexation of the Philippines and the new power of the U.S. in Cuba after the end of the Spanish-American War. Like so many others, he was a man of contradictions, but one would think Dreier might appreciate some of what he chose to do with his wealth. But don’t look for Carnegie or any other manufacturer in the book -- by definition, a capitalist made money and is hence a reactionary.

No, Dreier’s great heroes were, as he writes, “organizers and activists who mobilized or led grassroots movements for democracy and equality,” anyone “who challenged prevailing ideas and inspired Americans to believe that a better society was possible,” and politicians who “gave voice to social justice movements in the corridors of power” and wrote laws “that changed society.”

Bayard Rustin

Observation Two: Many readers, including conservatives, will readily agree that many of Dreier’s choices were or are indeed great Americans. But let me show, by singling out what he says about one entry in particular, how he distorts the story of some of the people he lists to have them fit in with his own very left-wing politics.

First, let us look at his entry on the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, the chief advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the strategist and organizer of the 1963 march on Washington. As Dreier writes, Rustin “was black, gay, a pacifist, and a radical, and thus had four strikes against him in influencing mainstream America.” Dreier then continues to summarize his career. He writes that the black labor leader A. Philip Randolph and the pacifist A.J. Muste hired Rustin in 1941 to lead the youth division of Randolph’s March on Washington movement, in which the Pullman Porters’ leader threatened a nationwide march during World War II to highlight racism at home and to push FDR to open up jobs in defense industries for black workers.

What he leaves out is that the American Communist Party, of which Rustin as well as Randolph had become vigorous opponents, argued against any effort to call attention to the sad plight of African Americans at home, since it would have interfered with the war effort and harmed the ability of the United States to aid the Soviet Union in fighting Hitler. In organizing the effort for a march, Randolph and Rustin both were against the bulk of the CP-led “progressive” movements. When Randolph capitulated to FDR, and the president got him to call off the march by promising to create a Fair Employment Practices Board, Rustin condemned Randolph as a sell-out, something for which he apologized to his mentor years later.

On Rustin’s role advising King, Dreier writes that “as a former Communist and as a gay man, he was a political liability” and thus had to work “quietly and in the shadows” rather than as an open organizer and activist. This, of course, is highly inaccurate. Rustin began to appear regularly as a main challenger of radical black nationalism, and of Malcolm X in particular. He debated Malcolm X both on radio and on TV, as well as in person. Moreover, Rustin was openly a fierce anti-Communist, and rather than support pro-Communists Ella Baker and Stanley Levison -- who, Dreier fails to report to his readers, was the CPUSA’s top money man -- Rustin opposed both of them, especially for their sectarian tactics at the 1964 Democratic Party convention and their all-or-nothing stance regarding the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Dreier writes that Rustin “continued organizing within the civil rights, peace, and labor movements.” Nowhere in his entire profile does he mention that Rustin was the chairman of the social-democratic organization Social Democrats U.S.A., the wing of the old Socialist Party that broke with Michael Harrington and Irving Howe. Nor does he mention that Rustin opposed the Sandinistas and the Soviet Union, and worked alongside Ronald Reagan on behalf of Solidarity in Poland and in conjunction with Lane Kirkland, head of the AFL-CIO, whom the Left attacked as a CIA agent.

He slyly says that Rustin “was one of the first public figures to call for the withdrawal of all American forces from Vietnam.” This is nothing but a joke to anyone who knew him. Rustin publicly opposed the mass 1965 SDS organized March on Washington against the war, because he would not take part in any march that welcomed people who supported a Viet Cong victory in South Vietnam. Rustin favored only a negotiated settlement, and not any measures that would lead to a Communist victory, which he said would be worse than an independent pro-U.S. regime in the South, which at least had political parties and a free trade union movement.

Instead of letting readers know what he thought, Dreier writes that after LBJ’s escalation of the war, Rustin “muted his criticisms” because he wanted to avoid “alienating LBJ.” This is a slander against Rustin, who did not care whom he alienated if he thought he was correct. Rustin argued that the nation could afford a strong defense policy and liberal social programs, or both guns and butter. He was a classic Cold War liberal like his ally Hubert Humphrey.

His conclusion, that Rustin “lost credibility among many New Left student activists,” is certainly correct, but that is because on almost every essential issue, they did not welcome the support or help of an anti-Communist who knew that the United States was a free country worth defending.

Observation Three: Now let us look at Dreier and the question of communism. In various entries, any individual who was an anti-Communist is per se bad. When a hero of his is a pro-Communist, fellow traveler, or dupe, that person is lauded as either good and taking the right position or a victim of McCarthyism.

Dreier has an entry on the philosopher John Dewey, who, he writes, fought for “workers’ rights, women’s rights, and civil rights.” He praises him for fighting the “hysterical Red Scare ” during World War I and for joining what he calls the “movement to outlaw war” and for a world court. He does not mention, however, that the latter was the chief initiative of a conservative Republican president, Warren G. Harding.

Most significant, however, is that nowhere will the reader learn about Dewey’s heroic fight against the Stalinists and his decision to honor Sidney Hook’s request to chair the international commission to evaluate the charges made in Moscow against exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky. The Dewey Commission, as it was called, became the centerpiece of a world campaign that succeeded in exposing what Trotsky called “the Stalinist school of falsification.” By breaking with the anti-anti-Communist consensus of his fellow liberal intellectuals, Dewey showed his independent streak. To leave out any mention of this in a profile of Dewey is simply unforgivable.

Finally, let us look at his entry for the most famous Communist entertainer and African American hero in the United States, the late bass baritone Paul Robeson. Now, Robeson was indeed a legitimate American hero. He was an All-American quarterback on the 1915 Rutgers University team, a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and the valedictorian of his graduating class, all in the time of major segregation and racism. He was named to the college Football All-America team and had varsity letters in football, baseball, basketball, and track. In 1923, he earned a law degree from Columbia University. Then he turned to an acting and singing career, the fields in which he rightfully became an international success and the first African American superstar. Obviously, Paul Robeson was a man of immense talent and energy.

Then, Peter Dreier’s profile turns both dishonest and misleading. He writes: “When World War II ended and the Cold War began, Robeson’s outspoken support for the Soviet Union became highly controversial.” Dreier continues to note that according to Robeson’s  biographer Martin Duberman, Robeson privately “had begun to have doubts about the Soviet Union, particularly its mistreatment of Jews.” Actually, there is no evidence for this at all. When Robeson visited the Soviet Union in 1949, the Soviets did take the arrested Jewish poet Itzik Feffer, whom Robeson had met years earlier, out of prison to make it appear that he was alright. Feffer had silently indicated to Robeson that he would soon be killed, but when he came back to the U.S., Robeson told the press that rumors about Soviet antisemitism were false, that Feffer was fine and in good health, and that only the warmongers wanted to spread hatred about the great Soviet Union. Then Dreier writes the most amazing bit of pettifoggery:

But when speaking in the United States, Robeson never uttered any criticism of the Soviet Union, leading many to suspect that he was a communist. (my emphasis). “Because my father was a slave,and my people died to build this country…and I am going to stay right here and have a part of it.”

That his father being a slave had anything to do with Robeson’s love affair for Stalin and company of course makes no sense whatsoever.

Dreier continues with the following:

The attacks on Robeson escalated dramatically after he spoke at the Congress of the World Partisans of Peace in Paris in 1949. Robeson said that American workers, white and black, would not fight against Russia or any other nation. In the United States, however, the media misreported his remarks, interpreting them to mean that black Americans would not defend the United States in a war against the Soviet Union. [In fact, Robeson was not misreported. He meant that American blacks would not fight the one socialist nation that supposedly had conquered racism.]

After that, it was open season on Robeson. He was denounced ... as being disloyal to the United States, and a shill for the Soviet Union.

Two points. First, Dreier’s readers never learn that just as Robeson’s critics claimed, he was a member and leader of the Communist Party USA. As Paul Kengor has pointed out in his book The Communist, on the hundredth anniversary of Robeson’s birth in 1998, the CPUSA issued a document penned by its chief, the late Gus Hall, in which Hall acknowledged publicly what he called “the full truth and nothing but the truth. Just as we have had to tell and retell the truth about the Communist Party, so we have had to undo the lies about our Communist heroes.” Hall then wrote: “Paul was a proud member of the Communist Party USA.” He added that he did not “declare his Party membership openly” because that was policy for “well-known public personalities.”

Robeson, Gus Hall continued, was a man of Communist “conviction” and Hall wrote that Marxism-Leninism “defined, guided and motivated his whole life, his every word and deed. He never forgot he was a Communist. Marxism-Leninism and the Communist Party gave Paul’s life meaning and direction. Comrade Robeson’s magnificent life was nourished and sustained by Marxism-Leninism and the ever-growing Communist Party.” Hall noted that he met with Robeson regularly to collect his yearly dues and to renew his CP membership.

Second, Robeson was indeed a “shill for the Soviet Union.” Not only did he refrain from ever criticizing anything in Stalin’s totalitarian state, he also went out of his way to tell the world that the Soviet Union alone was building a worldwide progressive humanity, and that Soviet communism was the future of the world. At the time of the great purges in the 1930s, Robeson said, “From what I have already seen of the workings of the Soviet government, I can only say that anybody who lifts his hand against it ought to be shot!” No wonder Robeson received the Stalin Peace Prize in 1952, calling Stalin a “kindly, good” man of “wisdom, deep humanity” and “understanding.” Stalin’s “noble example,” he stated, left Russians “a rich and monumental heritage.” Upon the tyrant’s death, Robeson said it “left tens of millions all over the earth bowed in heart-aching grief.” A shill indeed, to put it mildly.

Observation Four: Finally, I cannot refrain from ending on one reference to Dreier’s profile of Pete Seeger. As [my regular] readers know, I have written about him ... far too many times. All you have to do is Google my name and that of Seeger and all I’ve written will come up. Those who have read my entry, or my memoir Commies (the section in which I discuss Seeger I’m glad to report is being reprinted, believe it or not, in a new book titled The Pete Seeger Reader, which will come out next year), know that I have made one major criticism about Seeger. A straight CP Party-liner, during the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Seeger and the Almanac Singers recorded their album of anti-interventionist and anti-war songs titled “Songs for John Doe.” The lyrics of the songs attacked foreign war, FDR as a warmonger, and any alliance with Great Britain as an imperialist policy. When Nazi Germany broke the pact and invaded the U.S.S.R. in 1941, overnight Seeger and the Almanac Singers recalled the records and quickly began to sing pro-war songs calling for an alliance with the Soviet Union against Fascism.

So what does Peter Dreier, who knows the facts, say about this? The simple answer: nothing! All he writes is that the Almanacs “wrote their own songs to advance the cause of progressive groups, the Communist Party, the Congress of Industrial Organizations unions [he does not mention that they stopped their pro-union songs during the war, since the CP endorsed a no-strike pledge and urged high productivity for workers without wage increases], the New Deal, and, later, the United States and its allies (including the Soviet Union) in the fight against fascism.” Rather than deal with any of the obvious contradictions and Seeger’s clear Stalinism, he writes only that the Almanacs were “part of a broader upsurge of popular progressive culture during the New Deal.” He complains that they were “hounded by the FBI, got few bookings,” even though that came during the Cold War, and it was their own sectarianism that got them few gigs. No mention, of course, the song he used to sing during the early Cold War, “Put My Name Down Brother, Where Do I Sign?,” which urged his audiences to endorse the so-called Stockholm Peace Petition, the pro-Soviet cause of the day which favored unilateral Western disarmament and said nothing about Soviet defense policy and development of their own “socialist” atomic weapons.

So, to sum up, what The Nation and Peter Dreier have produced is not a list of the last century’s greatest Americans, but rather those whose activities and lives can be molded into Dreier’s Howard Zinn-like understanding of the American past. And of course, all his entries are pro-Communist. He has to praise the founder of the UAW, the late Walter Reuther, but rather than comprehend that this trade union leader fought hard to eliminate Communists from the union since he understood that they were a real threat to free labor, he only can explain that “Reuther shared some of the blame” for labor’s decline as well as the AFL chief George Meany, since “as part of the Red Scare, Reuther had expelled many of the most radical and experienced organizers and leaders from labor’s ranks.” It never occurs to Dreier that Reuther knew that the Communists’ loyalty was to Moscow, not to the rank-and-file of his own union.

Anyone who wants to see how leftist intellectuals define heroes will learn from this book about their distorted view of the United States. Those who want to learn about real American heroes will simply waste their time if they even take one look at it.

* * * *

Rebuttal from Peter Dreier

Originally posted as a comment on PJM and reprinted with permission of the author.

Thanks to Ron for taking my book seriously. Everyone I profile in the book The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century contributed to making America a better society. In the introduction I point out that they were "heroes but not saints." I don't agree with everything they said or did.

Teddy Roosevelt was an imperialist and something of a racist, but he was also an early environmentalist and pro-labor. Thanks to the pioneering Meat Inspection Act -- which TR supported after socialist Upton Sinclair's book The Jungle raised awareness of the awful conditions in slaughterhouses -- our food is safer. Ron says that the book has two presidents, but it has three; he omits Lyndon Johnson. He was wrong on Vietnam and other foreign policy issues, but his support for the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and the war on poverty merits his inclusion in the book. I don't forgive Alice Paul's antisemitism, but I admire her remarkable work on behalf of women's suffrage. I don't agree with Margaret Sanger's support for eugenics, but her courageous advocacy of women's reproductive freedom was a blow for human rights.

Ron asks why I didn't include "businessmen, entrepreneurs, scientists, engineers and other Americans who were not defined by their politics?" The book does include scientists (Albert Einstein, Henry Wallace, Rachel Carson), and businessmen (Tom Johnson, Wallace), as well as athletes, musicians, Supreme Court justices, organizers, social workers, playwrights, theologians, academics, and others. I also admire entrepreneurs like Julius Rosenwald and Edward Filene who devoted their energies and fortunes to social philanthropy, a proud American tradition.

Because the book defines "greatest" as those who helped made the U.S. a more humane and democratic society, it is inherently about politics.

Ron says "all his entries are pro-Communist." Ron knows this is wrong. Quite a few were strongly anti-Communist, including Walter Reuther, Bayard Rustin, Allard Lowenstein, and Michael Harrington, and of course Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson. Most of the people I profile in the book were not involved with Communists one way or another, including Louis Brandeis, Jane Addams, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, John Kenneth Galbraith, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Cesar Chavez, Billie Jean King, and Thurgood Marshall.

Some of the 100 people in my book were liberals and reformers, some were progressives, some were radicals and revolutionaries. Some were Socialists.

Ron looks at twentieth-century America through the lens of whether someone was or wasn't in (or sympathetic to) the Communist Party. Of the one hundred people in the book, a small handful -- including Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Harry Hay, Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson, Betty Friedan, and others -- were either in the CP or its front groups dealing with labor, women's rights, and civil rights issues. I look at their overall contributions to society, which were incredibly positive. They are lifelong reformers and radicals. They are not defined simply by the few months, or even the few years, they were involved with the CP and its orbit.

Ron's is simply wrong about my take on Bayard Rustin. From his work with King on the Montgomery bus boycott (1955) to his work with Randolph on the March on Washington (1963), Rustin was not a public figure, as his biographer, John D'Emilio discusses at great length. His most important contributions to the civil rights movement were mostly behind-the-scenes, because King and others considered his homosexuality and radical affiliations a liability.

Finally, Ron also makes a serious error in relying on Stanley Kurtz's book about Obama to learn anything about me. The book mentions me in a few places as having some influence on Obama's political views. I am hardly one of the "main characters" in the book, as Ron suggests. More importantly, Kurtz has no evidence of my having any influence -- directly or indirectly -- on Obama. I've never met Obama. I have no idea whether Obama ever read anything I wrote or ever heard me speak. Neither does Kurtz, which is why he uses words like "probably" and "possibly" to describe a relationship that never existed. Kurtz's book is not history or biography; it is conjecture and paranoid conspiracy theory. Ron is misguided to rely on it.

My book is about the great figures of America's liberal and progressive movements -- women's rights, labor, civil rights, environmentalism, peace, human rights, gay rights -- and the many ways they've made America a better country. From women's suffrage to workplace safety, from Social Security to the Civil Rights Act, from the progressive income tax to the minimum wage, from the Environmental Protection Act to laws requiring seat belts and nutrition information, they helped transform ideas that were considered radical to taken-for-granted common sense. We all stand on their shoulders.

* * * *

Response to Peter Dreier

Originally posted as a follow-up on PJM, slightly edited for length, and reprinted with permission of the author.

...I thank Peter Dreier for writing a serious response to my critique of his book, and for avoiding ad hominem remarks so typical of many on the Left. It is important to have the opportunity to debate serious issues with one’s opponents, and it is to Dreier’s credit that he obviously agrees with this, and has sought to engage me on our very real differences.

First, Dreier has a traditional and I believe very wrong-headed comprehension of the reforms of the Progressive era and its aftermath, including the New Deal. I am surprised that he seems unfamiliar with the pioneering work of an entire group of left-wing historians of the 60s and 70s, including Gabriel Kolko’s The Triumph of Conservatism, my friend the late James Weinstein’s The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, and my friend Martin J. Sklar’s masterpiece, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism . These scholars, like the late libertarian economic historian Murray N. Rothbard, (with whom I co-authored a book, A New History of Leviathan, that you can download free on the internet), provide a very different paradigm of our past than the one favored by Peter Dreier.

All of the above historians argue, with convincing evidence, that the reforms that Dreier heralds as a result of response to struggles from below, were actually sponsored, supported and introduced into legislation by large corporate interests, that sought state and government regulation in order to destroy small business competitors that could not afford to offer goods like safe meat. Government did the job that allowed them to triumph. As Kolko so deftly shows, they did not need Sinclair’s The Jungle to join a fight for safe food. It was, to use a term of our own era, the crony capitalism of the past. In my own essay “The Myth of the New Deal,” included in the book Rothbard and I edited, I show how the key New Deal reforms also had the strong support of the largest corporate interests.

Dreier is correct that I only concentrated on what I call the pro-Communist entries. Yes, many of those he heralds were anti-Communist. One such hero was Allard Lowenstein, and I agree with him that he was. (William F. Buckley, Jr., I recall, honored him and spoke at his memorial service, alongside many of the Left who attended and spoke.) Dreier talks about Lowenstein’s pivotal role in Freedom Vote and Freedom Summer, and the effort to register Mississippi’s oppressed black citizens to vote in 1963. But look at Dreier’s entry. Readers do not learn that, objecting to Communist control and influence in SNCC and the group’s decision to fire its lawyers like Joe Rauh and hire in their place the Communist-led National Lawyers Guild, Lowenstein dropped out and sharply criticized SNCC for its turn to the far left.

Another profile Dreier writes is that of Michael Harrington, the successor to Eugene Debs and Norman Thomas as the titular head of America’s small socialist movement. As my readers (and Dreier) well know, I was an associate of Mike in both the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and Democratic Socialists of America for many years, and I knew him well. He makes it quite clear, since Dreier’s own proclivities are pro-Communist, that he thinks Harrington was wrong to criticize SDS and the Port Huron Statement for “being inadequately critical of the Soviet Union and of American communism.” But Harrington, as Paul Berman has pointed out in numerous essays, was correct to object to SDS’s willingness to include open Communists in its membership, hence opening themselves up to totalitarian takeover of the group within a few short years.

Dreier is happy that later, Harrington “apologized and got back in the student radicals’ good graces.” Indeed. And from my point of view, that is precisely the shift to the Left that led in later years to Harrington’s irrelevance, and to his growing support for totalitarian movements like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

Finally, Dreier writes that I make “a serious error in relying on Stanley Kurtz’s book about Obama to learn anything about me.” I have a feeling Dreier is talking about Kurtz’s 2008 book, not his new one. He writes that Kurtz “mentions me in a few places as having some influence on Obama’s political views,” a charge to which he writes “Kurtz has no evidence” at all.

Kurtz’s view, however, is based on an op-ed Dreier co-authored with Marshall Ganz in the Washington Post on August 30, 2009, in which he is described as an advisor to the Obama campaign. Kurtz, who can speak for himself, writes that Dreier’s “vision bears an uncanny resemblance to the overall direction of Obama’s presidency,” and he argues that his work is “useful for piecing together his views and then comparing them to the direction of the Obama administration.”

I should also note that in 2010, Princeton historian Sean Wilentz wrote an article for The New Republic in which he wrote “The dream of the Obama presidency based on a movement model of politics was devised by Marshall Ganz, a veteran union organizer and lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School, hired as an Obama campaign official and charged with training Obama volunteers -- and articulated by Ganz’s ally, Peter Dreier, also an Obama adviser, a member of Progressives for Obama, and a politics professor at Occidental College.” Wilentz refers to Dreier as a “publicist” for Obama who regularly heralded the “new age” of America that was coming into being with Barack Obama.

So on this issue, I would suggest that Professor Dreier protests a bit too much.

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