U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Socialism is the Name of Our Desire

Last week I presented to about 60 secondary history teachers, alongside two of my colleagues at our lab school, University High, on the topic: “Teaching Socialism in American History.” I argued that including the history of socialism in the secondary U.S. history survey was important because, in the all important quest to make history more interesting for young students—since polls regularly show that high school students consider history the most boring subject—the history of socialism would give students space to imagine a different world. Counterfactual thinking is important to the development of historical imagination. It helps students think about the differences between history, in its constructedness, and the past, in its finiteness. Counterfactuals highlight historical contingency in ways that make the study of history more compelling than the Whiggish, even teleological narratives spun by textbooks. Werner Sombert’s crucial question—“Why no socialism in America?”— which has helped shaped a century of American historiography, is just the type of counterfactual question that we should ask our young history students.

Lest you dyed-in-the-wool empiricists out there object, I should point out that I also argued that including socialism as part of the U.S. history curriculum paints a more accurate picture of U.S. history. In making this case, I relied heavily on Michael Kazin’s indispensable new book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (which Mike O’Connor reviewed for USIH here.) Kazin contends that the left, defined as “that social movement, or congeries of mutually sympathetic movements, that are dedicated to a radically egalitarian transformation of society”—has transformed the moral culture, or “common sense” of the nation, even though it has never been a serious threat to the concentrations of political and economic power. He writes: “Leftists who articulated big dreams of a different future did much to initiate what became common, if still controversial, features of American life. These included the advocacy of equal opportunity and equal treatment for women, ethnic and racial minorities, and homosexuals; the celebration of sexual pleasure unconnected to reproduction, media and educational system sensitive to racial and gender oppression and which celebrates what we now call multiculturalism, and the popularity of novels and films with a strongly altruistic and anti-authoritarian point of view.” In short, Kazin argues that the cultural left, from Harriet Beecher Stowe, to Max Eastman, to Toni Morrison, to Matt Groening, “articulated outrage about the state of the world and the longing for a different one in ways the political left was unable to do.”

Kazin’s thesis is exciting for intellectual historians because, insofar as the left has been influential in American life, such influence is best assessed by taking stock of how its ideas have been incorporated into mainstream cultural frameworks. This is not to say that American Dreamers is a work of intellectual history. Kazin takes ideas seriously, and intellectuals seriously, but usually as tangential to the larger social history of political movements. That is to say, he rarely pauses to analyze intellectual sources with any rigor. Which is fine. Like I said, the book is indispensable as a synthetic historical overview of the American left. I definitely plan to assign it to undergraduate students.

American Dreamers is also a good place for intellectual historians to begin rethinking the paradoxes of radical thought. For instance, in an obscure footnote Kazin quotes a stunning passage from Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform: “The dialectic of history is full of odd and cunningly contrived ironies, and among these are rebellion waged only that the rebels might in the end be converted into their opposites.” Kazin relates Hofstadter’s point about the populists in order to make his case that many New Left dissidents, those who staged dramatic sit-ins at universities across the country, ended up controlling the reigns of cultural power as represented by humanities departments. Although this paradoxical development sends shivers down the spines of conservatives such as Pat Buchanan—whose pithy quote, “Culture is the Ho Chi Minh Trail of power; you surrender that province and you lose America,” became a rallying cry for conservative culture warriors—Kazin qualifies the effect of tenured radicals.

On the one hand, Kazin recognizes, along with Richard Rorty, that New Leftists have reshaped American culture to be far less sadistic. Concomitantly, they changed the way millions of young Americans have learned about their nation. Kazin writes: “Gradually, their ideas about history, literature, and a just society percolated down to secondary schools across the land. Black studies, Chicano studies, women’s studies, queer studies, and cultural studies; history which examined America as a nation dominated by white people bent on empire, the so-called ‘holy trinity’ of ‘race-class-and-gender’ and the virtues of multicultural identity—all were norms of pedagogy and scholarship by the end of the twentieth century.” Although this is more than a touch overstated—more secondary students continue to learn from traditional curriculums than from those inflected with New Left ideas, and even most college surveys avoid using the “E word” (Empire) when describing the role of America in the world, apart from the era of the Spanish-American War—Kazin is basically correct about this remarkable cultural transformation.

But on the other hand, Kazin’s analysis of the cultural left is tempered by his pessimism that such success matters little in the face of conservative economic and political power. “The cultural influence of the post-1960s left thus became a background melody to a political narrative written largely by conservatives. It softened the tone and created some striking ironies”—such that Fox broadcast sixties radical Matt Groening’s satirically subversive The Simpsons for over two decades at the same time its news station became an effective mouthpiece of the Republican Party’s right-wing—“but it did not rewrite the script.” The trajectory of this analysis is similar to a line of thought I’ve been exploring: to what degree has New Left thought been sopped up by neoliberalism (cultural liberalism mixed with economic conservatism)? Kazin’s analysis that, “as respect for the individual rights of everyone advanced, the advocacy of collective uplift and economic equality receded further,” begs the following question: was the advance of the former the precondition for the recession of the latter? The answers to this question might determine whether the left has a future.

Kazin is a careful and fair scholar. But he gets caught up in his own brand of polemics when analyzing contemporary left public intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Michael Moore, and Howard Zinn. Although he is quick to point out that such intellectuals are handicapped by the fact that their ideas are disconnected from a movement—since a left political movement is mostly non-existent—he is even quicker to dismiss their ideas as grim and unrealistic. Kazin is especially harsh in rehashing his dour assessment of the late historian and activist Howard Zinn. Me thinks he doth protest too much.

Kazin begrudgingly recognizes that Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which has sold over two million copies, has “became the most popular work of history an American leftist has ever written.” “Unfortunately,” Kazin writes, “Zinn’s big book was stronger on polemical passion than historical insight. For all his virtuous intentions, he essentially reduced the past to a Manichean fable and made no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist should ask about U.S. history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?” This is a weird point of criticism given that a few paragraphs prior Kazin addresses the ways in which Zinn sought to answer “the biggest question.” “The American elite,” Kazin paraphrases Zinn, “used its wealth to pit ‘the 99 percent’ of the people ‘against one another’ and employed war, patriotism, and the military to ‘absorb and divert’ the occasional rebellion.” So the real problem is not that Zinn fails to address “the biggest question,” but rather that Kazin dislikes Zinn’s answers.

For Kazin, the American people cannot be reduced to either heroes or dupes. Fair enough. A professional historian should recognize nuance, complexity, irony, blah, blah, blah. But should A People’s History of the United States be judged by these standards? Or should it be assessed as a primary document of the left, similarly to how Kazin analyzes the Port Huron Statement? In other words, is accuracy or effect the barometer? Kazin assesses most of his primary sources according to the latter. What good did it do? Did it help the left? Did it make America better? I would argue Zinn’s book, and his legacy, should be analyzed as such. Kazin’s glib assessment of Zinn the lousy scholar—he didn’t even cite his sources!—is really beside the point.

Kazin has always been open about recognizing his personal position relative to his subject matter. He was the son of anti-Stalinist leftists. He was a New Leftist. He was a Maoist who cut sugarcane in Cuba. He was also, as the reader of American Dreamers discovers, a hippie communard who sought to get closer to nature while living in a group house and growing his own food in Oregon in the early 70s. Kazin has since gone out of his way to renounce some of his earlier positions as flawed. But, unlike someone like David Horowitz, he remains a man of the left, evident in that he’s the current editor of Dissent. I could compare his trajectory to Todd Gitlin’s. Gitlin was a renowned SDS member who has since worked hard to convince leftists that loving America—the flag!—is necessary and good. Similarly, Kazin was the only panelist on the American Exceptionalism plenary (that concluded last year’s USIH conference) who seemed to think American Exceptionalism something the left could embrace.

Given Kazin’s reflective self-positioning, I find it strange that he fails to see the ironies that plague his analysis of Zinn. For example, Kazin charges Zinn with, essentially, being a lumper, or, gasp, an uber-lumper. In contrast, Kazin carefully splits the left throughout his book. For example, one of my favorite chapters is titled, “The Tale of Three Socialism”: the prairie socialism from Wisconsin to Milwaukee, the secular-Jewish socialism of the needle unions, and the radical modernism of bohemian New York. Kazin also expertly delineates the differences between Old and New Lefts. And yet, in writing a book about the American left, from the 1830s to the present, he can’t help but also do some lumping of his own. Mike O’Connor expertly clarifies this problem in his review of American Dreamers:

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?

Ironically, again, Zinn is perhaps the most influential chronicler of those radicals in American history whom Kazin would deem worthy of lumping together. Most contemporary radicals understand the history of the American left through Zinn. David Walker, Big Bill Haywood, Jane Addams, Eugene Debs, Tom Hayden, and many more, continue to be imagined as part of an unbroken chain of leftists. Such an imagination is thanks due in no small part to Zinn. Had a public intellectual from an earlier era achieved something of this magnitude, Kazin would not have heaped so much scorn. Zinn certainly did more than Dissent to keep Kazin’s beloved left—my beloved left—alive during its nadir! (Kazin is only recently the editor of Dissent!)

Nitpicking aside, read American Dreamers. Learning about the history of those Americans who dreamed of a better world is a good antidote to cynics who decry the Occupy Movement’s lack of achievable goals. As Kazin writes in his conclusion: “the utopian impulse should not be smothered under a patchwork quilt of policy prescriptions.” For Kazin, and for me, socialism is the name of this utopia. Or, as Lewis Coser and Irving Howe wrote in a 1954 Dissent essay: “Socialism is the name of our desire.” “Socialism,” Kazin writes, “has never been the name most Americans would choose for their dream society; today, many doubt such a society is either feasible or desirable. Without such an ideal, however, whatever we name it, the real world will be ever harder to change.”

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew- Thanks for the generous words — and the smart critique! But I was never a Maoist…Cuba, as I imagined it, was more my idea of the good society, forty years ago, that is.

    Michael (Kazin)

  2. This essay was good, but I felt somewhat teased. When I mentally reviewed your past posts, your interests as reflected in your posts, I found myself getting agitated. Since you began this essay with a short discussion of a presentation to future social sciences teachers, I kept waiting for you to mention Henry Giroux. Once my synapses came up with Giroux, I had an epiphany and was able to see your eclectic interests as being “unified in a common interest.” If I am wrong, I shall quote you and “assure you it’s not an insult.” I apologize for criticizing you for what you did not write. I was eager to tie in the deskilling of teachers, the commodification of the educational product and the disposability of teachers and students, alienation, etc.

    Your comment concerning assessing Zinn’s People’s History as a primary source document, I found extremely enlightening. I had first encountered Zinn via The Southern Mystique, and I have always felt that People’s History didn’t quite measure up. I still don’t put Zinn in the top tier of radical scholars, but I can look upon People’s History in a new light.

    Since you consciously used the term “uber-lumper” and quoted the O’Connor view asking the question of whether their is a “common project” on the Left, shall I be expecting a week long roundtable on Corey Robin’s book very soon?

    Lastly, if I may, I would like to offer up a monograph which examines many of the themes which have been addressed in this forum but from an earlier era. I heartily recommend Seth Cotlar’s Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism in the Early Republic which is a revision of his dissertation.

    Is their a connection among the various incarnations of the left across time? I was convinced when I reread this book over break and noticed a 1790’s “pigeon parable” where conservatives and Painite intellectuals were arguing over the ethics of an economic and social system where 99 percent of the pigeons gather corn for the other one percent. Occupy Wall St, indeed.

  3. I would call Kazin a liberal, not a leftist. Indeed, he has attacked folks to his left for a long time. Note his comments on the work of historians like Mike Davis, David Montgomery, and Bryan Palmer. I also recall that he was rather critical of the Seattle protesters in 1999 in a NY Times editorial. I recommend a couple of posts from Louis Proyect



  4. So Kazin thinks the Left “has never been a serious threat to the concentrations of political and economic power” in the USA? That sounds like extreme hindsight bias to me. When I was on the far Right, none of us ever felt we could afford to be complacent about the potential of the Left. I agree about the importance of counterfactual reasoning; it’s the main source of history’s meaningful connections with the present and the future. Kazin’s implausible dismissal of the counterfactual potential of the Left vitiates all of the conclusions he draws from it.

  5. Douglas: You may be right, and this may be why Kazin is so dismissive of Howard Zinn, who offered the most influential counterfactual history of an America that ought to be.

Comments are closed.