Book Review

Book Review: O’Connor on Kazin’s *American Dreamers*

Review of Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011). ISBN: 978-0-307-26628-6. 352 pages.

Reviewed by Mike O’Connor
Georgia State University

The U.S. history survey course is typically a rather liberal affair. It frequently offers a Whiggish narrative in which the evils of the American past—British imperialism, slavery, robber baronism, U.S. imperialism, the Red Scare(s), economic depression, Jim Crow, gender inequality, Cold War paranoia—are consistently, if often belatedly, overcome by the words and actions of those who are dedicated to an expanding vision of freedom. Despite Gordon Wood’s attempt to highlight the radical nature of the American Revolution, or Eric Foner’s insistence that freedom hasn’t always meant what it does today, the typical introduction to U.S. history seems an object lesson in Hartzianism. To the longstanding consternation of conservatives, it is very difficult to fit into this story the ideals of those who “[stand] athwart history, yelling Stop.”[1] Yet, as Michael Kazin points out in his new book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, the left resists, just as strongly, assimilation into this version of the national narrative.

Perhaps this is because radicals (a word Kazin uses interchangeably with “leftists”) are not merely liberals with greater dedication or purity, but a different beast altogether. In Kazin’s “classical” formulation, the left is “that social movement…that [is] dedicated to a radically egalitarian transformation of society” (xiv n.). While radicals who are dedicated to equality will find much in common with liberals who prioritize their own specific conception of freedom, the two groups will also differ on many key issues. When these philosophies have come into conflict, the much smaller left has typically found itself marginalized. On the other hand, when the two movements have found common cause, it is the liberal groups that have gotten the credit. To the extent that radicals have affected policy at all, Kazin writes, “they generally did so as decidedly junior partners in a coalition driven by establishment reformers” (xiv). Whatever victories that the left has managed to achieve, then, “never occurred under its own name” (xv). This pattern has resulted in an underappreciation of the contributions of the left, one that is perpetuated in many classroom narratives.

American Dreamers provides a welcome corrective to this tendency. Perfect for use with undergrads, it is a compact, readable overview of the history of the American left. Perhaps the book’s greatest achievement lies in imposing order on an otherwise unruly subject. Its seven chapters do not merely move forward in time, but instead concentrate on the movements that most clearly embodied leftist aspirations at a given moment. In successive chapters, Kazin explains, analyzes and criticizes abolitionism, suffragism, the trade union movement, Populism, socialism, communism and the New Left, concluding with the fragments of a contemporary left represented by such disparate figures as Naomi Klein, Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky.

Some of these movements are more easily summarized than are others. The Communist Party of the USA, for example, is comprehensible within an institutional framework, and much ink has already been spilled interpreting the New Left. (Kazin himself is one who has extensively covered the latter ground.) For the general reader, however, the most helpful features of American Dreamers will be its author’s interpretive frameworks, which corral otherwise sprawling subjects into comprehensible stories. The initial chapter, for example, uses three significant primary documents from U.S. intellectual history to situate the origin of the American left. The three pamphlets—Frances Wright’s Course of Popular Lectures, Thomas Skidmore’s The Rights of Man to Property, and David Walker’s Appeal…to the Colored Citizens of the World—each appeared in the fall of 1829, and together they defined the central issues for future generations of American radicals: gender, labor and race, respectively. From this rather narrow focus, Kazin is able to generalize outward about the role of religion in antebellum protest movements. “Radicals made no apologies for using language that drew a sharp line between the sinful and the righteous…Their approach was proudly illiberal” (10). This point allows him to segue to the abolitionism’s religious roots, a subject that sets up the two following chapters, which cover that movement before and after, respectively, the Civil War. In less certain hands this barrage of topics could be quite disorienting, but Kazin’s structure imposes a discipline on them that renders the shifts quite manageable.

Another example of this successful scaffolding is the treatment of American socialism. This subject can range from the Shakers to Robert Owen to hippie communes, but Kazin reasonably focuses on the period of the movement’s greatest influence: 1890-1920. He frames his treatment around the notion that “three different kinds of socialisms existed, somewhat uneasily, during the Progressive Era, and they suffered different fates” (113). The first of these groups were the Midwestern laborers and farmers, perhaps best exemplified by the Milwaukee “sewer socialists” who elected the nation’s first socialist mayor and Congressperson. The secular Jews who worked in New York City’s garment district and published the Daily Forward make up the second group, while avant garde cultural modernists comprised the third. Such a taxonomy allows Kazin to explain how socialism could cast such a long shadow during this period while leaving a legacy that boasts of few tangible accomplishments.

Similar fates were met by most, if not all, of the movements chronicled in American Dreamers. This unavoidable observation has led many to conclude that leftism in the United States has been a failed project. The thesis that rests somewhat lightly over the book takes issue with this perception. Kazin is the first to admit that no specific political victories are notched in the left’s column, but that does not mean, he argues, that radicalism has not significantly influenced American history. He claims for the left a much greater effect than success in any political campaign: it has “transform[ed] the moral culture, the ‘common sense’ of society” (xiii). Its willingness to take extreme and unpopular positions has made such stances familiar over time, so that more broad-based liberal movements could, essentially, turn them into actual political changes. Additionally, the expression of leftist views through cultural vehicles such as literature, art, film and music has had the greatest effect in transforming once-radical ideas into mainstream ones. “The cultural left articulated outrage about the state of the world and the longing for a different one in ways that political left was unable to do” (xiv).

Such an argument recalls, of course, Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front, and Kazin’s chapter on twentieth-century communism, with its biographical portraits of Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson, and treatment of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, echoes the themes of the earlier book. American Dreamers breaks new ground, however, in applying a similar concept consistently to all periods of American history. The Hutchinson Family Singers, for instance, toured the antebellum nation performing abolitionist songs such as “The Bereaved Slave Mother” and “The Fugitive Slave.” Kazin argues that their great popularity suggests that “[t]he music of abolitionism may have reached as many Americans as turned out to hear anti-slavery speakers” (23). Henry George and Edward Bellamy were instrumental figures in spreading the word about socialism in the late nineteenth century, and the cause of the New Left was communicated most effectively not by “traditional kinds of leaders” (such as union officials or elected politicians), but by “celebrities.” Figures such as Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Abbie Hoffman, Robin Morgan, Eldridge Cleaver and Martin Luther King, Jr. possessed a cultural clout that was as important as their political thinking or activism. While William Lloyd Garrison or Eugene V. Debs might also have been considered earlier leftist celebrities, their relationship with the movement was different: the unstructured nature of the New Left meant that what the celebrities “said and did often steered the activist core, instead of vice versa” (217).

American Dreamers is filled with similarly interesting observations, and the book makes for an easy and compelling read. Yet one of the very trends that Kazin laments—the recurring dynamic by which the left is put in the position of “handing off” its momentum to liberals at crucial moments—must have presented him with a difficult narrative problem. Since American Dreamers concerns leftism rather than liberalism, Kazin repeatedly abandons particular concerns just at the moment in which they finally arrive on the national stage. Without the liberal or mainstream perspective, and the possibility of narrative climax, the book is reminiscent of eavesdropping on one side of a telephone conversation. Early on, for example, one learns much of early abolitionism but comparatively less of the rise of the Republican Party and the Civil War. The pattern continues when the book covers Populism but says little about Progressivism, treats early twentieth century labor radicalism in some detail but glosses over the New Deal, and highlights the campaigns against racism by the Communist Party USA but sends the reader elsewhere for the gains of the Civil Rights Movement.

It is difficult to know how Kazin might have addressed this problem short of writing an entirely different book. A deeper issue raised by American Dreamers, however, is whether “the left” qualifies as a tradition in the sense that Kazin intends. Without a core tenet, text or history, do the disparate struggles for justice in the name of race, gender and labor constitute a single movement? Moreover, to what extent does the work of later radical activists derive from that of earlier ones? To cite Kazin’s earliest examples, can we draw direct lines from David Walker to Malcolm X, Frances Wright to Robin Morgan, or Thomas Skidmore to Occupy Wall Street? Kazin suggests that all of these figures and groups are committed to the ideal of equality and therefore such connections are justified. But have these leftists seen themselves as unified in a common project? Is such self-conscious identification necessary to be designated a tradition in this sense? American Dreamers will likely raise these provocative questions for many readers, though a through consideration of them lies outside of its scope.

The structure and overarching thesis of American Dreamers provide a framework that allows the reader easy entry into the wide-ranging topic of American leftism. At the same time, Michael Kazin’s insight and depth of knowledge continually challenge received notions about the subject. While the book is unlikely to upend the primacy of liberal Whiggery in the nation’s classrooms, placing it in dialogue with this vision could serve to foster new thinking on the subject, for teachers and students alike.

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[1] William F. Buckley, Jr., “Publisher’s Statement,” National Review, November 19, 1955, 5. Available here.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Mike, thanks for this excellent review. It confirms what I have already concluded about Kazin: I would read *anything* he writes — survey, monograph, grocery list, you name it.

    I’m intrigued by the distinction that you find him drawing between “celebrity” radicals/leftists of the 19th century and today. Not to hop on my Garrisonian horse yet again, but I think what he said and did eventually steered the activist core. I think he *was* the activist core.

    You say that Kazin uses “radicals” interchangeably with “leftists.” How does he define “liberals,” and what change does he see in that group over the course of the book? It seems to me that “radicals” would change significantly, depending on where the “center” is. But does Kazin see much change at the center? Who are some of the liberals against which he contrasts, say, Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky?

  2. I think one of the essential failures of Kazin’s approach – whether inadvertent or otherwise – is to ignore the post-1972 developments.

    Repudiated so utterly in the national elections of that year, the demographically desperate Democrats were driven to embrace a Gramscian Method even more than a socialist-Marxist Content. Catharine MacKinnon describes this in her 1989 summa “Toward A Feminist Theory of the State”.

    But that embrace – while it was perhaps intended to create a new electoral coalition to replace the New Deal alliance shattered by the civil rights movement – contained awful seeds and profound Questions: Was Gramsci’s political vision, born out of a 19th-century Southern Italian milieu, applicable to an America of the mid-20th? Was Gramsci’s essentially antagonistic and hostile ‘war’ strategy against a functioning democracy and polity going to be deployable in this country without profoundly deranging its Constitutional basis and undermining the Framing Vision itself?

    Kazin skirts all this.

    I’ve always felt that the phenomenon of ‘backlash’ and the ‘silent majority’ of the Nixon years and the 1970s was not merely a Marxist-Gramscian counterrevolutionary refusal of the status-quo forces to share or yield political power. Rather, such resistance reflected profound (if inchoately conceived) doubts on the part of many Americans that the post-72 Democratic course was somehow very dangerous to the common-weal and to the polity itself. Like a horse that somehow senses the instability of a bridge that its rider wishes to cross without delay, a substantial quantum of American voters and Citizens sensed danger that the Beltway chose to wish-away.

    If I might use a nautical image: the Left (‘liberal’ or ‘radical’) is the sail, providing the motive forward force; the Right is the keel that balances the ship so that she won’t be blown over by overexposure to the wind. The People – ideally speaking through their elected representatives – are the rudder that steers the ship as best sail, keel, and winds will allow.

    I discuss such matters on my own site, Chez Odysseus at Blogspot.

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