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.