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“American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation,” by Michael Kazin

By Howard Brick,

Today the term “left” usually refers only to the Democratic Party, one half of the political establishment. In “American Dreamers,” Michael Kazin provides a more robust definition. His book is a history of the radical left in the United States from abolitionists to communists to “anti-globalization” protesters. The dissenters usually operated outside the standard political structure. Yet Kazin’s message is clear: However much these “dreamers” stood at the margins, they “changed a nation.” That’s the paradox he explores in this lively, panoramic account.

The terminology of left and right came from the French Revolution of 1789 (the radical republicans sat on the left side of the National Assembly). But in the modern United States, the left became visible only in the second quarter of the 19th century. Kazin marks its debut in 1829 with the publication of three radical blasts: black abolitionist David Walker’s fiery “Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World”; early labor leader Thomas Skidmore’s call for wealth distribution, “The Rights of Man to Property!”; and free-thinking Fanny Wright’s “Course of Popular Lectures,” which challenged women’s subordination, religious dogma and the conservative opinion of her day. From these beginnings, Kazin expertly traces the evolution of the left through radical abolitionism; the “halfway revolution” of emancipation and Reconstruction; the long struggle for women’s suffrage; the rise of militant workers movements such as the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World; the Socialist and Communist Parties in their heyday in the 1910s and ’30s; and the New Left of the 1960s, the last time most Americans can remember radicals among us.

Over its long history, the U.S. left ran into considerable opposition in fighting white supremacy, male chauvinism and heterosexual conformity, but Kazin argues that it “did much to re-infuse the national culture with an anti-authoritarian, pluralist spirit that soon became ubiquitous.” Thus, the left helped paved the way for today’s fairly broad acceptance, in principle, of equality for people of color, women and gays.

But American political culture often stood in the way. The left made little progress in promoting its visions of a cooperative commonwealth or democratic collectivism, described as socialism or communism in the early 20th century. Most Americans were antagonistic to these goals and committed instead to individualism, personal success and property rights, while always being wary of social revolution. While other historians have tried to show that American culture indeed included some space for cooperative and collective ideals and practices, Kazin in effect leans toward an older view: that American society was “born capitalist” and that private property and individualism were always its bottom line.

In other ways, however, Kazin argues, the left was able to succeed on the cultural front when it stressed the expansion of freedom and equality. In fact, he writes, every radical movement since the early 19th century had its own “counterculture” — not only the nonconformists of the late 1960s popularly called “hippies.”

Viewed as a counterculture, the Popular Front, built around a core of Communist Party activists in the 1930s and ’40s, had perhaps the most profound cultural influence. It led Woody Guthrie to compose an alternative national anthem (“This Land is Your Land”); helped popularize jazz; inspired John Steinbeck’s populist novel “The Grapes of Wrath”; and gave us Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel), a Popular Front newspaper cartoonist whose books conveyed anti-authoritarian, egalitarian and anti-corporate messages. Kazin admires these results but condemns the communists’ dogged, delusory embrace of Stalin’s Soviet dictatorship.

Cultural victories in widening the scope of equality and personal autonomy, however, were not matched by lasting political triumphs. The radical movements of the 1960s, including the massive anti-war mobilization, were decentralized and largely indifferent to building political institutions — and thus left no electoral force ready to combat the political gains won by conservatives since the 1970s.

Kazin ends his book with an appeal to revive socialism as a utopian ideal to counter the inequalities of today’s crisis-ridden capitalist society. But radical readers might yearn for something more: a social vision that’s not just utopian but ready to organize — against the odds — in favor of large, practical reforms that can carve out a transition to a different society, one made truly democratic by its commitment to collective action and common well-being.

Howard Brick is a professor of history at the University of Michigan and author of “Transcending Capitalism: Visions of a New Society in Modern American Thought.”

AMERICAN DREAMERS : How the Left Changed a Nation” by Michael Kazin . Knopf. 329 pp. $27.95

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