Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism, which concerns the reform movement that gripped England in the 1830s and 1840s, is one of those books with the dubious distinction of being famous primarily for the reviews it provoked. When Orestes Brownson discussed it in the pages of the Boston Quarterly Review, he quickly became annoyed: with Carlyle’s style, his ideas, his American imitators. “But enough of this,” Brownson declared. “The object of the little work before us, is one of the weightiest which can engage the attention of the statesman or the philanthropist.” Wage work was replacing slave labor around the world—the British Empire had freed its slaves in the 1830s—but in practice the new system was not much better than slavery. “Our business,” Brownson explained, “is to emancipate the proletaries, as the past has emancipated the slaves. This is our work.”
Some reformers, upon whom Brownson heaped nothing but disdain, “tell us that we want not external change, but internal.” Reform a man’s soul, or lead him to repentance, and all will be well. “This theory, however, is exposed to one slight objection,” Brownson sneered, “that of being condemned by something like six thousand years’ experience.”
Brownson admitted the importance of self-culture. “But the evil we speak of is inherent in all our social arrangements, and cannot be cured without a radical change of those arrangements.” A follower of the socialist Scottish immigrants Robert Owen and Frances Wright, and a supporter of the utopian Brook Farm community outside Boston, Brownson put his politics in a religious key, just like many other antebellum reformers and radicals. The Gospel of Jesus, rightly understood, “shall secure to all men the equality of position and condition, which it is already acknowledged they possess in relation to their rights.” What would this entail? The government must “enact such laws as are necessary to enable [the laboring classes] to maintain their equality”; ultimately, it should abolish all hereditary property, “as we have abolished hereditary monarchy and hereditary nobility.” Brownson knew this would be a tough sell. “It will come, if it ever come at all, only at the conclusion of war, the like of which the world as yet has never witnessed.”
Brownson’s radical friends and their descendants are the subject of Michael Kazin’s new book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. Kazin has two aims: to trace a lineage for the American Left, and to argue that it has been a success. Defining the Left as “dedicated to a radically egalitarian transformation of society,” he dates its American incarnation to 1829, and specifically to the appearance that year of three foundational books: Thomas Skidmore’s The Rights of Man to Property!, which dreamed of a “General Division” of property into roughly equal parts; David Walker’s Appeal … to the Coloured Citizens of the World, which called for abolition and racial equality; and Frances Wright’s Course of Popular Lectures, which advocated equality for women. (Wright gained a reputation as the Great Red Harlot of Infidelity.) From there, Kazin marches through Reconstruction-era advocates of racial equality, labor radicals in the late nineteenth century, socialist movements before World War I, American Communism during its Depression-era heyday, and the New Left of the 1960s.
Kazin has all the elements of a fine history here. He is a good historian—his previous books on Progressive Era unions, populism and the 1960s have given him a solid background for writing about the American Left—and he tells a good story. The narrative moves along in large part thanks to the cast of characters he includes. Although he focuses on the leaders of the movements he covers—men like Samuel Gompers and Eugene Debs—Kazin’s emphasis on how the Left has “appealed to many Americans who gave little or no thought to actually voting for a Left candidate or joining a radical party” means he also has to support his claim with the stories of lives transformed. The Hutchinson Family Singers, a traveling band of abolitionist siblings, make an appearance, performing in 1844 for President John Tyler and writing their theme song, “Get Off the Track!”: “Church and statesmen! Hear the thunder! / Clear the track! Or you’ll fall under.” In the twentieth century, Kazin’s affection clearly lies with the group he calls “militant moderns,” Village bohemians like Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger and Max Eastman, who fought for “a revolution in daily life.” As editor of the movement’s monthly, The Masses, Eastman used solid reporting and artful illustrations to humanize the working class and satirize the middle class. The masthead of The Masses boasted, “a sense of humor and no respect for the respectable.”
For Kazin, the cultural work of people like the Hutchinson Singers and the Village bohemians constitutes the chief legacy of the American Left. The Left, he argues, has transformed the “common sense” of society—“how Americans understand what is just and what is unjust in the conduct of public affairs.” We try to treat people of different races, sexes and sexualities equally. We think workers should get a decent wage and a bit of free time. Many of us see no reason why sex should necessarily be tied to marriage or procreation. We watch movies, listen to songs and read books that celebrate strivers for social justice or anti-authoritarian rebels. To drive home the point, Kazin opens with a reflection on Dr. Seuss, who “used witty rhymes and fluid, fanciful drawings to convey the best principles and some of the fondest aspirations of the Left.”
In other words, we are all leftists now. With that (somewhat tenuously) established, Kazin confronts the problem with which the book culminates: Why, given these past triumphs, is the American Left so anemic today? There are plenty of leftists around, but they seem to be heard about far more often than seen. They didn’t figure at all, for example, in the recent debt ceiling debate, which seemed to take place entirely to the right of Ronald Reagan. Kazin presents this as the result of success and circumstance. “By the early twenty-first century most ordinary Americans enjoyed a degree of personal freedom that would have been considered ultra-radical in the 1960s,” making it easier to take those gains for granted. At the same time, no big, all-consuming cause, like abolition or Vietnam, arose after the 1970s to galvanize small-scale leftist campaigns into a concerted movement. Modern conservatives and neoliberals thus carried the day in politics even as Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States sold more than a million copies and shows like The Simpsons became cultural institutions.
The truth is that Kazin is interested less in the history of the American Left than in its future—how can it begin again after the collapse of the Soviet Union? In his final pages, Kazin calls explicitly “for rescuing the virtues of the non-Communist radical faith from the junk pile of history,” reminding us of the antebellum radicals—Skidmore, Walker, and Wright—with whom his book began. At that time, when Orestes Brownson wrote “The Laboring Classes” (1840) and before Communism took hold among leftists around the world, America seemed to be “in the vanguard of a transatlantic upheaval.” Radicals like Brownson, Skidmore, Walker and Wright pushed for change in the name of widely held American and Christian ideals, drawing attention to hypocrisy, bad faith and unfulfilled promises. They argued for freedom and equality in word and in deed, by printing pamphlets and by acting out their principles in daily life. And they made possible a variety of liberal and progressive reforms that might not have happened otherwise—the abolition of slavery chief among them. Against those who say the twentieth century proved nothing so much as the danger of utopian ideals, Kazin maintains that such dreams are the stuff that better lives are made of.
The problem with Kazin’s argument is the problem with his narrative: by beginning with the holy trinity of race, class and gender, Kazin effectively short-circuits our interest in the historical developments that fill the central chapters of American Dreamers, from the Civil War to the civil rights movement. Meanwhile, his firm conviction of the rightness of the Left’s ambitions and achievements prevents him from grappling meaningfully with competing arguments. The book is like a bubble: we never learn why someone of sound mind might have opposed the Left—or, indeed, much about the alternatives. We never learn about people who defected from the Left, nor what their reasons might have been.
We learn about how leftists enlarged the sphere of possibility for liberals, but never about what readers accustomed to equating “Left” with “liberal” might assume the book contains: an account of what liberalism was and how it has changed. In its American version, liberalism went from being a radical claim to freedom and equality in the first half of the nineteenth century (as it was for the Jacksonian Democrats) to being a conservative defense of property rights after the Civil War (as it was for the Robber Barons). After the late nineteenth-century cycle of boom and bust grew unsustainable, Progressives and New Dealers developed a new, state-friendly liberalism that critiqued the old laissez-faire individualism while maintaining its commitment to personal rights. This story is fun, frustrating and full of irony for people of all political persuasions, and it would seem to have at least some bearing on the trajectory of the American Left. Kazin does acknowledge that the Civil War quieted any serious questioning of northern-style capitalism, and that the transformations of the 1930s complicated matters for American Communists attempting to articulate an alternative to New Deal liberalism. On the whole, though, he doesn’t dwell long on large social and political transformations like the Civil War, post-World War II prosperity, and suburbanization, giving the sense that the Left has fought many of its battles in something of a vacuum.
What Kazin ends up giving us, then, is a leftist history of the American Left, in which “the ability of radicals to develop a culture of rebellion” compensates for their “political marginality.” But this story risks reducing “culture” to little more than a palliative for the poor and the powerless. They might be downtrodden, they might be persecuted, they might be defeated, but by golly, they’ve got their culture, and isn’t that swell? Doesn’t that show admirable pluck and resistance in the face of adversity? Well, yes, but one can easily exaggerate these things. Kazin says the American Left gave rise to a culture of individual freedom, egalitarianism and anti-authoritarianism that has become an integral part of our shared American culture. He has a point: America in 2011 is a more open society than it was in 1951, when uncensored editions of Lady Chatterley’s Lover were still banned, or in 1851, when only white men were recognized as free and equal. But he ignores the actual and inherent limits of culture as a substitute for politics, which Orestes Brownson saw so clearly in 1840.
The word “culture” is slippery and can operate on different levels. It indicates, on the one hand, the particular artistic productions of a society, like music, literature and painting, which are subjected to minute analysis in the back pages of magazines. Kazin’s forays into this territory tell us little. It is, after all, possible to like all a band’s pretty songs—and even to sing along—but not to know what it means. Fans of Bob Dylan or John Steinbeck or Langston Hughes need not care about anything beyond artistry or entertainment. It’s probably best if they don’t. And it need hardly be said that creative work doesn’t always or even often reproduce the political views of its maker. The best, most honest stuff will almost inevitably be agnostic, or at least ambiguous, when it comes to politics.
But culture also means something like the beliefs and practices that hum along in the background as the machine of society spins. A few hundred years ago, this might have been called a society’s customs and traditions, or its manners and mores, or perhaps even its character. These matter, and they do change, but slowly and less than we like to admit. Not only that, but culture, for all its tremendous influence on political life, nevertheless operates on a fundamentally different plane from politics properly understood. Simultaneously too personal and too all encompassing, culture vaults over the intermediate step that makes detachment and rational thought possible. American history is littered with groups who tried to change the culture and morals of their society but ended up isolated or exiled: the Pilgrims and the Puritans, to start with just two. (It is a peculiarly Protestant urge.) More recently, many New Leftists followed a similar trajectory. After trying to redeem America as a whole, they shifted in the late 1960s to the project of self-liberation in what they now saw as an unredeemable land. Hence the vogue for small, radical communes in the following decade.
Kazin seems not to consider what the historians Tony Judt and Doug Rossinow have suggested: that the Left’s emphasis on culture had something to do with its political undoing, especially in the last third of the twentieth century. He sees that the New Left “did much to discredit the old liberal order without laying the foundations for a new one.” But the personal freedom and anti-authoritarianism that he celebrates as the Left’s legacy have been taken up as the rallying cry of the right. Meanwhile, the New Left’s insistence on personal authenticity, which drove its passion for freedom and its abhorrence of authority, reduced politics, and especially leftist politics, to a matter of identity. The political became personal, full of squabbling and hurt feelings rather than debate and argument.
This is why Orestes Brownson matters. As an antebellum radical he should, in Kazin’s world, be a model for the American dreamers of today. Kazin discusses Brownson’s radical friends, but he passes over Brownson himself, perhaps because Brownson’s belief in society as an organic whole and his defense of the working class led him not to Marxism but to Roman Catholicism. The Left’s answers, it turns out, are not the only answers; the Left’s dreams are not the only dreams. Dreams are the product of a single mind, and when you wake up, they often look strange and even scary in the light. But talking about them helps. Politics is like that, or should be: a fumbling process of figuring things out, with minds potentially changing as often as mouths open.
This is a part of The Point‘s issue 5 symposium, What is the Left for? Subscribe to see the rest in print.