Now is a good time for the American left to examine its long tradition, its many missteps, and the (often inadvertent) reasons for its occasional triumphs. Michael Kazin, co-editor of Dissent magazine and a long-time member of the academic left in good standing, offers in American Dreamers a heartfelt and searingly honest assessment of the history of the social movements and individuals who challenged the established order of their day, from the radical abolitionists and feminists of the antebellum era to the “battle of Seattle” in 1999.
Readers with even a passing knowledge of the radical tradition in the America will find a very familiar cast of characters in Kazin’s book, including Eugene Debs, the “beautiful losers” of the IWW, Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger, John Reed, the CIO, Allen Ginsberg, Tom Hayden, Stokely Carmichael, and Betty Friedan, to name a few. Still, for the uninitiated, American Dreamers effectively re-tells two centuries of American history as the story of a broad, if often thwarted, dissenting tradition. The biggest surprise is Kazin’s extremely capacious definition of “the left,” with which each reader will no doubt have their quarrel. I, for one, am happy to include William Lloyd Garrison and the radical abolitionists of the 1820s-1840s, despite their well-known defense of the emergent wage labor system denounced by many of their working-class contemporaries as “wage slavery.” Frances Willard and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, however, I am less comfortable with. It is hard to see this movement, the scourge of immigrant drinking habits, in company with the cosmopolitan Randolph Bourne, who championed a premature multiculturalism on the eve of the First World War. Perhaps such a big tent reduces the meaning of “the left” to the vanishing point.
No doubt this is part of Kazin’s aim, for if his book has an animating principal it is that when the left cut itself off from potential constituencies it could win only partial victories at best, or descend into sectarian irrelevancy at worst. The “ongoing clash between self-righteous purists and anxious opportunists” defined the left’s internal struggles from its earliest days, Kazin suggests. Thus the abolitionist movement could never bridge the gulf between its radical interracialism and the white working class, and it was only when they joined in coalition with the new Republican party that the abolition of slavery became a political possibility. For their part, late nineteenth-century dissenters like the Populists frequently found themselves limited by their commitment to nativist or racist principals. As for Socialists or Communists, only when radicals set aside much of their revolutionism could the “disruptive potential and moral critique of the left help powerful liberals reform the nation,” with the New Deal/Popular Front years as the pre-eminent example. Kazin joins his brief against sectarian isolation to an optimistic conviction that while the left may be condemned to “political marginality” in America, it has proved adept at winning the culture wars. From abolitionist fairs, to popular nineteenth century novels like Looking Backward, to Gay Pride parades, countercultural impulses have easily invaded the precincts of mass culture and spectacle. Here too, the 1930s stand as the most telling example, when even Communists and fellow travelers made a cultural breakthrough. Like Michael Denning’s account in The Cultural Front (1998), Kazin locates the Popular Front’s widest influence in the realm of the era’s middlebrow culture, as writers, artists, photographers, filmmakers, folklorists, and musicians championed “the people” in their work. But the mainstream success of John Steinbeck, Woody Guthrie, and Richard Wright revealed a peculiar paradox; the more influence the left came to wield in the culture at large, the less radical it became.
Similarly, in the long view the New Left had a much greater impact on “how people thought as much as the structures that employed and governed them.” Indeed, Kazin’s conclusion is that the left’s greatest contribution has always been a “radical vision of personal freedom,” whether associated with transcendentalists of the 1840s, the anarchists and “modernist left” of Greenwich Village in the early twentieth-century, or post-New Left gay liberationists. The legacy of the movements of the sixties, Kazin correctly points out, is “personal freedom that would have been considered ultra-radical” at the time. Nevertheless, Kazin chalks up the political failure of the New Left, like its forebears, to the discomfort with radical modernist habits of mind felt by many Americans, including (especially?) the working class, even while anti-authoritarianism continues to seep into mass culture. “Artists can make a revolt that is liberating and joyful; they cannot make a revolution,” he ruefully concludes. As he points out, more often than not “a politics of the self drew more controversy than recruits.”
While repeatedly zeroing in on the limited political appeal of left-wing visions of grand social transformation and personal liberation even while leftists secured the commanding heights of mass culture, American Dreamers also gestures towards but never fully grapples with another troubling paradox: how the quest for self-fulfillment bequeathed by some elements of the left often runs counter to the eco-socialism and anti-materialist strains preached by others. Kazin does suggest that throughout its history the American left has struggled to simultaneous advance on the fronts of “individual freedom and communal responsibility,” which often proved at odds. Yet he never really explores how the laudable impulses of the libertarian left have all too easily been reabsorbed by the capitalist ethos of growth, progress, and consumption without limit, as mass culture critics from Christopher Lasch to the Baffler have warned. Or, to put it a different way, we continue to live in a culture eager to grant “rights” in every arena of life except the workplace and the economy.
American Dreamers went to press before the left’s most recent incarnation of this dilemma, the Occupy movement, burst onto the scene. Thus Kazin concludes by bemoaning the current state of radical dissent, driven by “campaigns” against specific, narrow injustices, rather than “movements” “able to make a moral argument about an inescapable problem” like slavery, racial segregation, or sexism. The ability of OWS to attain transformative power without diluting its message remains to be seen, but its focus on economic inequality and heedless consumption—certainly the moral problems of our day—is refreshing. At the same time, the persistent tension between the polymorphous anarchism of the movement and the working-class constituency it hopes to join hands with is evident to anyone who cares to look, most obviously in the recent failed efforts to shut down West Coast ports, an action few longshoremen actually supported. For his part, Kazin puts much of his hope for a leftist renewal in the revivification of the labor movement. As he wrote in the Daily Beast just before last Labor Day, “from the Gilded Age into the 1960s, nearly every left-wing thinker and activist placed his or her faith for far-reaching social change on the fortunes of the union movement.” If social activists can join the democratic principles championed by the Occupy movement with this faded impulse, the left might yet have a fighting chance.