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.

American Dreamers:
How the Left Changed a

by Michael Kazin
Knopf, 365 pp.

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.

The New Deal was a headier time for the left. Franklin Roosevelt saved capitalism from the capitalists, which meant that radicals didn’t wield much practical political influence, but they did, Kazin writes, help alter America’s perception of itself. Artists belonging to the Popular Front, a coalition of leftists and centrists, “took up subjects and themes that went beyond the limits of New Deal politics” by reinterpreting the American past as a struggle between plutocrats and working people of all races and campaigned against segregation laws. Pictures, cartoons, and films were all part of their assault against what they saw as American backwardness. Kazin reminds us that the sentimental populist film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (heralded, incidentally, by Sarah Palin as the kind of movie that liberal weenies don’t get) was written by none other than Sidney Buchman, a member of the American Communist Party. It’s important to note, however, that Kazin has no illusions about the mendacious character of the American Communist Party, which he notes always fought for civil rights and intellectual freedom “with one eye fixed steadily on the needs of the USSR.” “Glued” might be an even more apposite term.

It’s the 1960s that marked the true heyday of the left as a political and cultural force. Kazin reports that the professor and philosopher Marshall Berman, then a radical student, asked the literary critic Lionel Trilling what he thought of the Students for a Democratic Society-led strike taking place at Columbia in 1968—the rock music, erotic energy, chanting, and so on. Trilling was unfazed. “It’s modernism in the streets,” he replied. Perhaps it was. The New Left, as has been often noted, helped make significant strides that we now take for granted: the availability of birth control; feminism; civil rights. Kazin neatly links the 1960s left with what he sees as its progenitor during the abolitionist years. The insistence on uniting personal behavior with political aspirations marked both movements: “Both took delight in smashing taboos about interracial sex, about the proper roles of men and women, and about dress and diet. Both experimented with styles of communal living they believed would allow individuals to realize their ‘true’ nature and to find happiness doing so.” The impulses may have been similar, but it seems only appropriate to stipulate that William Lloyd Garrison or John Brown would have been bug-eyed at what was taking place at Woodstock or in Berkeley communes, though perhaps Brown could be seen as a distant intellectual ancestor of the Black Panthers. Violence, as Kazin notes, was “part of the utopian tradition.”

The left sputtered out as a political force in the 1970s—the end of the Vietnam War probably did more than anything to enervate it. Once the war ended, the left began to focus its efforts more intently on the environment, another cause that has gone mainstream, even if America’s actual efforts to improve it have been fitful and halting. For conservatives and neoconservatives, however, the 1960s served, and continue to serve, as a useful way to stir up middle-class anxieties about returning to an era of depravity and debauchery, a time when neither the kids nor the grown-ups were all right—a moment wittily captured in the 1968 movie I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! In it, Peter Sellers, who plays a successful, nerdy Jewish lawyer, abandons his suit and tie to join the psychedelic counterculture with his blond hippie girlfriend, who bakes hash brownies and gets his square parents laughing hysterically. All of this issued in a conservative backlash led by then California Governor Ronald Reagan, who attacked the counterculture with metronomic regularity. “A hippie,” he liked to say, “is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane, and smells like Cheetah.”

The result has been to emasculate mainstream liberalism. Even the very word has become taboo, as liberals try to rebrand themselves as progressives. Is this true progress? Kazin is dubious. He believes that it requires more than modest, practical policy prescriptions to create change. “Without powerful left movements,” writes Kazin, “neither Bill Clinton nor Barack Obama could become the transformative figure each aspired to be, and liberalism retained the baleful image it acquired in the 1970s: as an ideology out of touch with the interests and beliefs of ordinary Americans.”

The problem, of course, is that Kazin cannot specify what a return to socialist ideals would actually entail. And it is as much the strength of the right as the fractured nature of what the Obama White House has itself derided as the “professional left” that has prompted Obama to search for an elusive middle ground. That Obama’s moves, including bailing out big industry, have triggered a frenzied rush to tar him as a socialist dictator, out to expropriate the means of production, provides a telling index of the opposition that he faces. Instead of accusing Obama of slackening in his efforts to effect change, maybe the moment has arrived to cut him some slack.

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Jacob Heilbrunn

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest.