Fred Siegel: The American Left has a long history of utopianism

Roundup: Talking About History

[Fred Siegel is a contributing editor of City Journal and a professor of history at the Cooper Union for Science and Art.]

In 1969, the Theater for Ideas organized a symposium to discuss whether acting should be “theater or therapy.” The event was prompted in part by the antics of the Living Theater, which had become famous for asking members of the audience to shed their clothes onstage along with the cast. In an emblematic moment, the distinguished critic Robert Brustein, one of the symposium’s panelists, spoke of the importance of “supremely gifted individuals” such as Chekhov to the theater—and was met with shouts of “Fuck Chekhov!” Eventually that command would extend to “Fuck Shakespeare” and “Fuck Euripides.”

Another panelist was Paul Goodman, who had come of age in the 1930s and was now a guru to the sixties generation. His 1960 book, Growing Up Absurd, had taught baby boomers that winos offered “a wise philosophical resignation plus an informed and radical critique of society.” But Goodman became uneasy about what he had helped create. First, he compared the Living Theater and the symposium’s audience with the Anabaptists, a fanatical sixteenth-century antinomian religious cult that anticipated twentieth-century totalitarianism by promising its followers a transformation that would break with the world’s wicked ways. Then he told the enraged audience: “I’ve lived through moments like this before, and I’m always struck by the poverty of ideas. In the last 2,000 years, there hasn’t been a single new revolutionary idea.”

Goodman was overstating the case, but his point holds and is a kind of leitmotif of Daniel Flynn’s engaging new book, A Conservative History of the American Left. Flynn’s well-written narrative describes how the history of the American Left is marked, with some exceptions, by utopianism and a recurring hostility to middle-class American life. For the Left, a bright new future has always beckoned—if we can only break with our outmoded conventions.

This notion goes back a long way. In 1826, the British socialist Robert Owen, founder of a utopian community in New Harmony, Indiana, issued a Declaration of Mental Independence that condemned “private, or individual property—absurd and irrational systems of religion—and marriage.” Owen met privately with many American presidents, twice addressed joint sessions of Congress, and became an important influence on Friedrich Engels. In the document, which Flynn calls a mix “of Ross Perot, Harold Hill, Karl Marx and Jimmy Swaggart,” Owen argued that marriage was “the sole cause of all prostitution,” while religion “has made the world [into] one great lunatic asylum.”

Owen anticipated both Marx’s concept of “false consciousness” and Herbert Marcuse’s of “repressive tolerance.” He insisted that men, because of the way “they have been hitherto educated . . . are incompetent to form a correct or sound judgment.” Creatures of their environment, they “have been rendered irrational by the absurd doctrine of free will and responsibility.” All could be put right if “such subjects. . . . be instructed in better habits, and made rationally intelligent.” But until then, Owen didn’t want “the opinions of the ill-trained and uninformed on measures intended for their relief and amelioration. No! . . . their advice can be of no value.”

Owen’s sentiments were exemplified by the most famous of the utopian communes, Brook Farm in Massachusetts. Influenced by the ideas of French social reformer Charles Fourier, Flynn writes, Brook Farm was stocked with “Boston Brahmins, Harvard graduates, [and] descendants of the Pilgrims” who “retained the Puritan conviction that they were the elect” but had little common sense. Failures at subsistence farming, “dependent on charity for their Thanksgiving dinner,” they needed to hire unskilled laborers in order to feed themselves. Writing about the plebes, one of Brook Farm’s members, Charles Dana, insisted: “We are in fact the only men who can really point out their course for them and they can hardly help looking to us for their advisors.” But the laborers chafed under their supervisors’ feckless paternalism, openly mocking Dana and his fellows as “aristocrats.”...

The sixties ended with SDS’s morphing into the violent Weathermen, leftists with wealthy backgrounds who tried to “smash monogamy” through group sex and “smash capitalism” with pipe bombs. It was all very nineteenth-century, as was their Charles Danaesque sense of themselves as the “ruling class,” in the words of New Left founding father Carl Oglesby. New Leftists had “a deeply inbred assumption that they knew what the country needed, and they knew how to deliver it,” Oglesby explained.

A Conservative History of the American Left is highly readable and informative, if somewhat misnamed. It might have been better titled The Utopian Politics of Hope. With messianic hopes now being invested in the candidacy of Democrat Barack Obama, Flynn’s history is a timely demonstration of some disturbing continuities in left-wing thought.

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