Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Radical Revelries

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Radical Revelries

Article excerpt

Radical Revelries American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation BY MICHAEL KAZIN KNOPF, 329 PAGES, $27.95

Radical historians are notoriously untrustworthy analysts of the American experience because their ideological commitments so often distort their critical assessments. Frustrated by the disconnect between their vision of history's destined outcome - the egalitarian bliss of the cooperative commonwealth - and the stubborn refusal of the nation's history to realize, or even approximate, that vision, they regularly resort for explanation to improbable themes of conspiracy, oppression, or false consciousness.

Not so Michael Kazin, a professor at Georgetown University and a coeditor of the leftist magazine Dissent, as well as the author of a recent biography of William Jennings Bryan. Kazin counts himself a radical, but his politics do not dictate his history. His engaging account of the radicalleft tradition in American Dreamers presents, on the whole, a radicalism without tears and without evasions. One may quarrel with him on a number of points, but he seldom indulges in sentimental mythmaking.

Kazin has no trouble conceding that the American left - that congeries of movements "dedicated to a radically egalitarian transformation of society" - has, unlike its counterparts in Europe, failed to convert significant numbers of citizens to its collectivist views in politics and economics. But it has done rather better, he argues, "at helping to transform the moral culture," instances of which include equality for women, minorities, and homosexuals; sexual emancipation; multiculturalism; and a persistent streak of rebellious discontent and altruistic yearning in popular entertainment.

The disjunction between "political marginality and cultural influence" can be explained, he rightly notes, by a dominant political culture that "valued liberty above all" and that was therefore far more open to the infinite elaboration of individual rights than to appeals to a collective common good. Americans prefer freedom to equality, and that is why the radicalism of the free spirits in Greenwich Village has at least intermittently flourished while that of the class-conscious militants who periodically gathered for protests several blocks uptown in Union Square has consistently foundered.

Kazin begins his narrative in the late 1820s (before that, he says, America produced radical individuals but not radical social movements). Early radical impulses in abolitionism and workers' and women's rights reflected the perfectionist spirit of Charles G. Finney's Evangelical Christianity and looked to individual conversion to righteousness - "romantic individualism," in the author's terms - as the source of social transformation. Radical commitment was for the most part, he notes, an elitist affair: Even the proto-socialist communitarian movement - Brook Farm, New Harmony, the Oneida community - had little attraction for wage earners. And abolitionism had no appeal: The heavily Irish Catholic working class was not just anti-abolitionist but anti-black.

The Civil War brought emancipation, but the radical hope for economic democracy for freedmen through the confiscation and redistribution of former slaveholders' property had, Kazin recognizes, little popular support. The great majority of Americans thought the proper role of government was limited to advancement of civil and political rights, not economic equality.

In the post-Civil War industrial surge, the left abandoned its individualism for a more collective approach to radical change. Conflicts between workers and owners in the late nineteenth century were intense and often violent, and the rise of the "labor question" produced a boisterous class consciousness and visions of a new social democracy. A broad "antimonopoly" crusade elicited diverse enthusiasms: Henry George's single tax, Edward Bellamy's nationalist movement, scattered anarchist outbreaks (the "propaganda of the deed"), the Knights of Labor, the Farmers' Alliance, a Protestant social gospel. …

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