03 November 2011

The American Left: 1829-?

Any history of American leftism is going to be selective. Depending on how broadly you define a "left," or how historically and culturally specific you want to be, you could call the Founding Fathers leftists to the extent (itself disputed) that they were revolutionaries. In the Early National Period, Federalists might well have called Jeffersonians leftists, had the term any currency then, for their egalitarian attitudes and their supposed sympathies with the French revolutionaries who gave "leftism" its original political meaning. In American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, Michael Kazin traces American leftism back to three founding publications in the fall of 1829. Each represents one of the major tendencies Kazin sees in the American left. Thomas Skidmore's The Rights of Man to Property! set the tone for working-class activism. David Walker's Appeal ... to the Colored Citizens of the World announced black demands for emancipation and racial equality. Frances Wright's Course of Popular Lectures staked claims for feminism and what might be called lifestyle leftism in its secular sexual liberalism. All three tendencies fed into a "left" culture that would look familiar today, down to the folk singers performing at abolitionist rallies, but often shared political space uncomfortably. With the advent of socialism, Kazin introduces another uneasy triad, the populistic, non-Marxist "prairie socialists" of the midwest, the strongly Marxist "sewer socialists" of the big cities, and the "radical modernists" of Greenwich Village and similar places. The latter group carried on Wright's lifestyle leftism and took it to new extremes of expression, while the prairie socialists took the Skidmore tradition to its peak of national popularity. It fell to the Marxists, usually, to take the strongest stand for racial equality -- a point Kazin makes to partially redeem the otherwise Stalin-addled Communists of the mid-20th century.  He's less approving of the Marxists' (many of them immigrants) persistent alienation from American culture. Through much of the 20th century (with the Popular Front period of the mid-1930s the great exception) Marxists alienated ordinary Americans, in Kazin's account, by repudiating or simply ignoring much of the country's heritage. He believes that the U.S. has a usable past that leftists should embrace instead of condemning the entire American experiment in the Noam Chomsky manner. He also insists that any left worth the name has to maintain roots with the working class. He argues from personal experience that when the lifestyle leftists have the initiative and turn off the working class with extreme demands and behaviors, as they did in the 1960s after the Marxist crack-up, the movement may be doomed. Publishing just before the 2011 occupations began, he goes so far to say that, while there may be more radicalized individuals today in America than ever before, that the left was practically extinct as a mass movement by 1980.

Kazin's history makes a good guide for future leftists to the pitfalls of organizing an agenda. Equality would seem to be the baseline demand of any "left," but in practice white workers were often hostile to potential black competitors, while white and black abolitionists alike often opposed women taking public roles in their movement. Women's-rights activists returned the favor by demanding the vote on the basis of their intellectual superiority to black, immigrants, etc. Seeing common humanity as the basis of political equality didn't come naturally to many people. Kazin's analysis isn't really novel, but his emphasis on the tension between working-class activists and self-conscious radicals suggests a fundamental distinction between radicals and (for want of a better term) populists. These two groups (Kazin is a specialist on the latter) often seem to want the same things, or at least oppose the same enemies. But they seem to be guided by different visions of the good life. Both may be utopian by some standards, but we can think of populists as those who want an ideal world for themselves now, a world tailor-made for the people of today with all their particular values and desires, while the radicals  think (or feel) that the people of today should (or must) change in order to live in the ideal world, who can envision the citizens of Utopia as people crucially different and better than themselves. That radical demand can take the form of Marxist engineering of human souls to create "Soviet Man" or the more anarchic form long associated with the term "free love," but either form is unsettling to working class people accustomed to seeing themselves as the salt of the earth, whose own old-time values (religious or otherwise) are "good enough for me." Kazin clearly wants the left to give precedence to the working class -- there's no real movement without a mass base, in his view -- but it's unclear to what extent he would have radical modernists, lifestyle leftists, etc. defer to working class values that are often prejudices. He criticizes the New Left for seeming to ignore the working-class in their pursuit of personal liberation and their blanket condemnations of a still-revered nation, but he doesn't really say that radicals should put their demands aside. That means there has to be some greater tolerance on the part of the working-class (potential) base, but Kazin seems quicker to rationalize working-class rejection of radicals than radical challenges to the working class. The question remains how much tolerance of radical expression the egalitarian imperative requires -- or whether one group's egalitarianism is just an intolerant form of majoritarianism. All leftists have to face this question in some form, and to the extent that Kazin raises the question forcefully, his will be a useful book whether readers agree with his conclusions or not.

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