In contemplating the history of the American Left, it sometimes seems that the more things change the more, well, they do not really. Past is not only prologue, but prophecy. At the start of any given decade, assemble hopeful initiatives, new faces, stirring manifestos, and the like—and it will all, eventually and inevitably, end badly, usually by decade’s end.
Consider the fate of the Socialist Party (SP), one of the more admirable and (for a time) successful endeavors in the radical past, blessed in early years by the towering presence of that quintessentially American dissenter, Eugene Debs. The SP peaked in strength shortly before the First World War, when its principled but doomed opposition to American intervention resulted in the jailing of its leaders (including Debs), the banning of its publications from the mails, and the refusal to seat its elected representatives by the New York state legislature and Congress. In the early 1930s, with the onset of the Great Depression, the party was slowly beginning to rebuild, with a new, fresh, and appealing leader, Norman Thomas, and a cadre of young, talented organizers (among them, the Reuther brothers, who would play a key role in spreading industrial unionism to the auto industry.) The socialist cause, for a moment, appeared to have a renewed and promising future. So it seemed, in any case, to a bright teenager named Daniel Bell, who joined the SP’s youth affiliate, the Young People’s Socialist League (YPSL), in 1932.
But then it all went to pieces. Many of Bell’s YPSL comrades were not content to build on the modest political success they were enjoying under Thomas’s leadership, drawn instead to more daring and militant alternatives, some joining the Communist Party, others enlisting in various Trotskyist groupings. As a result, the SP spent most of the 1930s consumed in internal factionalism that, by decade’s end, destroyed it as a meaningful presence in American politics. In 1952 Daniel Bell, by then a skeptical ex-socialist (and on the cusp of a distinguished career as a sociologist), offered a shrewd description of the appeal of left-wing sectarianism to his youthful contemporaries in the 1930s. The perennial squabble over the finer points of arcane revolutionary doctrine, he wrote in Marxian Socialism in the United States, was the American Left’s consolation for its marginality, offering participants “the illusions of settling the fate of history, the mimetic combat on the plains of destiny, and the vicarious sense of power in demolishing opponents.”
Our greatest change-makers, celebrated long afterwards as noble freedom fighters, were generally held in contempt and persecuted by their contemporaries as dangerous radicals (think William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King, Jr.) To understand this dynamic is to see American history through the lens of paradox; not, as some might prefer, as pageantry.
Fast forward six decades or so to the current student Left, and you will find young people who are rightly concerned with increasing racial and ethnic diversity on the nation’s campuses, and whose “politically correct” demands in the service of that cause are sometimes distorted by hostile commentators. Sometimes. In several recent instances, however, campus activists have provided fodder for Marx’s observation that history repeats itself, “the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” That some Oberlin College students in the fall of 2015 could work themselves into a state of high dudgeon over the college cafeteria’s “cultural appropriation” of such “subaltern cuisine” as General Tso’s chicken (a dish, for what it is worth, as American as apple pie), prompted a youthful instructor of composition at Purdue University, Frederik DeBoer, himself a self-identified leftist, to compose a very Bell-ian analysis of new (old) trends in left-sectarianism. In a widely circulated blog posting (at least widely circulated in the Facebook circles in which I travel), DeBoer complained that too many young radicals shared the expectation that “everyone should know how to speak and act in perfect congruence with obscure and elitist conceptions of righteous behavior …” In DeBoer’s astringent judgment, they were displaying a “total and complete indifference towards actually reaching out and building a bigger movement by meeting people halfway and trying to adapt to them as you ask them to adapt to you,” resulting in the “replacement of a mass political movement with an exclusive social circle.”
And yet for all the foolishness on display at any given moment on the radical Left (and not exclusively among young activists, by any means), it still needs to be noted that much of the history of the expansion of freedom in the history of the United States has been spearheaded by left-wing dissenters challenging the status quo. Our greatest change-makers, celebrated long afterwards as noble freedom fighters, were generally held in contempt and persecuted by their contemporaries as dangerous radicals (think William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Martin Luther King, Jr.) To understand this dynamic is to see American history through the lens of paradox; not, as some might prefer, as pageantry.
Both the follies and the achievements of the Left are considered in a new book by two knowledgeable historians, Howard Brick (professor of history at the University of Michigan and author of the 1986 study Daniel Bell and the Decline of Intellectual Radicalism) and Christopher Phelps (professor of history at the University of Nottingham in England, and author of a 1997 biography, Young Sidney Hook: Marxist and Pragmatist). In striking a balance between the drearier and more inspirational aspects of their tale, the co-authors of Radicals in America: The U.S. Left Since the Second World War, tend, on balance, to emphasize the positive. As they argue in their introduction, although the “radical left has always been a minority current” in the United States, it has “propelled major changes and frequently given shape to what Americans broadly take as the nation’s core traditions.” Still, they chronicle some of those moments “when radicals have formed the proverbial circular firing squad,” sectarian episodes characterized by “rhetorical excesses, tactical errors, moral deficiencies, and foolish delusions sending the whole lot straight back to the margins …”
Brick and Phelps’ book is the first attempt at a comprehensive account of American radicalism from mid-20th century to the present, starting 70-odd years ago with protests against Jim Crow in the U.S. military during the Second World War, and ending the day before yesterday, with Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. Theirs is an inclusive account of this history, defining “radicalism” in the broadest sense, from traditional labor, peace, civil liberties, and civil rights-oriented groups, to feminists, environmental activists, gay rights advocates, religious radicals, and a host of others.
Radicals in America should prove useful to future historians of the U.S. Left as a basic sourcebook. But its comprehensiveness is also a defect, for narrative detail comes at the expense of any systematic analysis of why some radical movements succeed, and so many others fail. It is as if they are writing a history of radicalism in, but not especially of, the United States.
But let us begin with a consideration of some of the virtues of Radicals in America. For one thing, the authors make a consistent effort to bring fresh faces into what otherwise could be a too-often-told tale. Each chapter opens with a portrait of an obscure but representative American radical of the period. The first of these, Winfred Lynn, was a black GI in the Second World War who brought suit against the Selective Service System for drafting him into a racially-segregated military. While Lynn was shipped overseas, and served in the Pacific, the Supreme Court ultimately refused to consider the case. But only a few years later President Harry Truman, under continued pressure from socialist and pacifist activists, including Lynn, issued the executive order that, over the next half decade, brought about the desegregation of the US armed forces, a victory in its own way as significant as the better known Montgomery Bus Boycott a few years later. The recovery of Lynn’s story is a valuable contribution to radical history.
Another virtue of the book is that its authors display little patience for advocates of revolutionary violence (or those who, decades later, look back on the embrace of violence by some elements of the Sixties Left, as being anything but insane and self-destructive.) They offer a withering critique of “Weatherman,” the faction that in 1969 gained control of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the largest leftwing student movement in American history, and in a “test of new extremes in radical marginality” converted an organization with a hundred thousand campus members into an underground terrorist circle of a few dozen, all in a matter of months. “What would have happened,” they ask, “had SDS, with its tens of thousands of members, kept intact and organized against war and racism”? Of the charismatic, photogenic, and even more romanticized Black Panther Party, they note the “chaos swirling beneath the surface” of the organization. “Many of their members were former gang members or convicts, which added to the Panther view of violence as a legitimate means of freeing colonial subjects from oppression,” and, less abstractly, “resulted in physical intimidation within their ranks and against rivals.”
Despite its merits, taken as a whole Radicals in America suffers from a lack of focus and sustained argument, particularly evident in the post-’60s chapters. Of course, as the authors observe, with the collapse of the New Left, “the story of the radical left since 1973 has inescapably been one of diffusion of the common thread or common platform.” Since SDS’s demise in 1969, there have been several attempts at recreating a multi-issue, nationally-organized radical student organization, but none have come close to success—instead campus radicalism consists of a myriad of local efforts focusing on issues from climate change to “take back the night,” worthy efforts to be sure, but with little sense of shared purpose. Much the same can be said of the Left as a whole, adult as well as student (which raises the question of whether it continues to make sense even to speak of the existence of a Left, in the traditional universalist sense, in the 21st century.)
That necessarily makes for a more complicated narrative—but what we get in the later chapters of Radicals in America, alas, is an incoherent one. Movements, organizations, publications, individuals, all pass by in rapid succession, with little more than an approving or disapproving nod from the authors. They write, for example, that by the 1980s the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the main Trotskyist organization in the U.S. since the 1930s, “succumbed to cultish weirdness.” True enough, although why that happened after a period when SWP activists played a generally productive role within the anti-war movement and the party grew to an all-time high in membership, goes unexplored. On the other hand, in the 1980s the International Socialists and related groupings, descended from a splinter Trotskyist tradition known as the third camp (a tradition with which the authors are apparently sympathetic), represented “plausible efforts to uphold revolutionary vision and politics during times of profound rightward drift.” Fair enough, possibly, but plausible to whom? As measured by what? The authors do not say, beyond the assumption that activism on the part of those groups they approve of is valuable in and of itself in preserving a sort of prophetic, quasi-Leninist saving remnant of a seasoned cadre positioned to seize the opportunities provided by “spontaneous breakthroughs that no one can anticipate” in better days to come.
… as the authors observe, with the collapse of the New Left, “the story of the radical left since 1973 has inescapably been one of diffusion of the common thread or common platform.” Since SDS’s demise in 1969, there have been several attempts at recreating a multi-issue, nationally-organized radical student organization, but none have come close to success—instead campus radicalism consists of a myriad of local efforts focusing on issues from climate change to “take back the night,” worthy efforts to be sure, but with little sense of shared purpose. Much the same can be said of the Left as a whole, adult as well as student …
The latter chapters of the book are also marred by a hint of sectarian score-settling. Brick and Phelps are consistently dismissive of any enterprise involving such social democrats as the late Irving Howe or Michael Harrington, including Dissent magazine (a publication marred, in their view, by Howe’s “archly anti-communist reformism”), as well as the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), and its successor organization, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). And, in the process, they garble some of the history of that tendency on the Left, writing, for example, “DSOC endorsed South Dakota’s liberal George McGovern’s Democratic candidacy of 1972.” Actually, Harrington founded DSOC in February 1973, precisely because the previous year the ruling (and ferociously anti-communist) faction of the Socialist Party had implicitly endorsed Richard Nixon’s re-election bid.
The authors are entitled to their own opinions, of course, but the point is that in the latter chapters of Radicals in America opinion is all we get—that and an encyclopedic and increasingly tedious parade of organizational acronyms and sectarian trivia (Sample: “RU morphed into the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) … while the OL … became the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist).”) In short, Brick and Phelps fail to step back as historians and consider what all the sound and fury among small and apparently inconsequential groups adds up to—if anything.
“This little light of mine,” civil rights activists sang in jail cells across the south in the early 1960s, “I’m gonna let it shine.” The lyrics shine a little light on what a genuinely original and provocative history of radicalism might look like. For one thing, such a history would pay a lot more attention to that subversive doctrine known as Protestantism. Radicals in America occasionally notes the Quaker background of this or that left-wing activist (Bayard Rustin, for instance), but, never discusses Quaker beliefs, or the broader antinomian (literally “against or without the law”) religious tradition within Protestantism out of which Quakerism emerged. But that tradition, one that in the New World can be traced back to the radical schismatic Anne Hutchinson’s defiance of Church authorities in 17th-century Massachusetts, is equally, perhaps even more important, than Marxism, Marxism-Leninism, Trotskyism, and all the other left-wing “isms” in understanding the particular contours of the history of American radicalism. It is a tradition deeply rooted in American culture and belief in the individual ownership of self (soul, labor, body). If God speaks directly to individual believers, as Mrs. Hutchinson told the court that tried her for heresy (and for being a feisty, opinionated woman), how can external authority (the state, the church, a husband) demand obedience to that which is unholy, untrue, or unjust? The continuing strength of the antinomian impulse in the centuries that followed helps explain why radicalisms built around the idea of expanding and extending individual “rights”—to own property (including property in oneself), to vote, to marry, in sum to enjoy equal protection before the law—have succeeded, time and again in this country. An alternative radicalism—built around a secular and sometimes socialist vision of “fraternity”—has also known success at times and places (the labor movement of the 1930s up to the 1970s), but has far shallower roots in American political culture.
So, here is hoping that in the not so distant future, someone will publish a truly radical retelling of the history of American radicalism, a history both in and of the American experience. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine …