Over the past two Sundays Dissent Magazine’s co-editor Michael Kazin—a 63 year old Georgetown University historian and son of “New York intellectual” literary critic Alfred Kazin—has been brought to the attention of New York Times readers as a leftist spokesman. On September 18, his “American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation” was reviewed by Yale professor Beverly Gage who offered a mixed verdict. She found Kazin “an eloquent spokesman” for a left that she described as “dead” largely because socialism “has all but collapsed”.
Yesterday, Kazin made an appearance in the Opinion section of the Times with an article titled “Whatever Happened to the American Left“ that was obviously drawn from the ideas in his new book. Like a scene from one of those movies based on H.G. Wells’s “The Time Machine”, Kazin hurdles forward at a breakneck pace as the calendar pages—1890, 1930, 1970—fly by.
Although I don’t find Kazin nearly as odious as his co-editor, the unctuous laptop bombardier Michael Walzer, I did find his nasty swipe at Howard Zinn aggravating. As for Dissent Magazine, there usually is an article or two worth reading even though the editorial slant is tepidly social democratic. It was founded in 1954 by a group of New York Intellectuals that included ex-Trotskyist Irving Howe. Setting a pattern for people like Eric Alterman and Todd Gitlin years later, Howe staked out an anti-antiwar position during the Vietnam war. You can find an excellent write-up on all this by Doug Henwood titled “Dissent Goes to War”.
The basic flaw in Kazin’s reasoning is encapsulated in these two paragraphs:
After years of preparation, welfare-state liberalism had finally become a mainstream faith. In 1939, John L. Lewis, the pugnacious labor leader, declared, “The millions of organized workers banded together in the C.I.O. are the main driving force of the progressive movement of workers, farmers, professional and small business people and of all other liberal elements in the community.” With such forces on his side, the politically adept F.D.R. became a great president.
But the meaning of liberalism gradually changed. The quarter century of growth and low unemployment that followed World War II understandably muted appeals for class justice on the left. Liberals focused on rights for minority groups and women more than addressing continuing inequalities of wealth. Meanwhile, conservatives began to build their own movement based on a loathing of “creeping socialism” and a growing perception that the federal government was oblivious or hostile to the interests and values of middle-class whites.
In the first paragraph, you find the typical misty-eyed version of the New Deal that fails to account for Roosevelt’s real agenda, which was to lay the groundwork for the destruction of the left—ironically supported by the Communist Party. In 1941 the leaders of the Socialist Workers Party were indicted under the Smith Act, thought control legislation that would become a centerpiece of the Cold War witch-hunt. FDR saw eye-to-eye with Teamsters president Dan Tobin who wanted to root the Trotskyist radicals out of local 544 based in the Twin Cities. The CP cheered Roosevelt on.
The New Deal strategy was to work closely with CIO “progressives” in drawing the unions closer to the national security state. With the CP in the driver’s seat, the big CIO unions agreed to a wage freeze during WWII. The UAW’s Walter Reuther, who Kazin likened to Eugene V. Debs in March 2011, was the first CIO chief to open up a witch-hunt in his own union not long after WWII had ended. Basically, the same circle-the-wagons hysteria that had been directed against Germany and Japan was now to be used against the CP. When the CP was purged from the unions, the left was robbed of one of its most effective voices even as it was wrong much of the time. This anti-communist crusade that was born when Roosevelt was president and that matured under Harry Truman, the author of the first loyalty clause, predated McCarthyism and had as much to do with the left’s demise as the “quarter century of growth and low unemployment” that Kazin refers to in the second paragraph.
His charge that “Liberals focused on rights for minority groups and women more than addressing continuing inequalities of wealth” is one that has been frequently heard from social democrats. Todd Gitlin, a member of Dissent’s editorial board, wrote a book in 1995 titled “The Twilight of Common Dreams” that was basically a 294 page elaboration of that single sentence. The latest version, of course, can be found in Walter Benn Michaels’s various articles that views university-based “diversity” programs as some kind of plot to keep workers in chains.
In explaining the growth of the right, Kazin has a most novel take on things:
One reason for the growth of the right was that most of those in charge of the government from the mid-1960s through the 2000s — whether Democrats or Republicans — failed to carry out their biggest promises. Lyndon Johnson failed to defeat the Viet Cong or abolish poverty; Jimmy Carter was unable to tame inflation or free the hostages in Iran; George W. Bush neither accomplished his mission in Iraq nor controlled the deficit.
I am at a loss to understand the point being made here. If Johnson had defeated the Viet Cong (a term, btw, only used by their enemies) and Bush had accomplished his mission, the likely outcome would have been an even deeper rightwing mood based on triumphalism. Since I am not very good at deciphering the muddled thinking of tenured liberals, I will leave it at that.
The conclusion to Michael Kazin’s article is rather good:
If activists on the left want to alter this reality, they will have to figure out how to redefine the old ideal of economic justice for the age of the Internet and relentless geographic mobility. During the last election, many hoped that the organizing around Barack Obama’s presidential campaign would do just that. Yet, since taking office, Mr. Obama has only rarely made an effort to move the public conversation in that direction.
Instead, the left must realize that when progressives achieved success in the past, whether at organizing unions or fighting for equal rights, they seldom bet their future on politicians. They fashioned their own institutions — unions, women’s groups, community and immigrant centers and a witty, anti-authoritarian press — in which they spoke up for themselves and for the interests of wage-earning Americans.
Today, such institutions are either absent or reeling. With unions embattled and on the decline, working people of all races lack a sturdy vehicle to articulate and fight for the vision of a more egalitarian society. Liberal universities, Web sites and non-governmental organizations cater mostly to a professional middle class and are more skillful at promoting social causes like legalizing same-sex marriage and protecting the environment than demanding millions of new jobs that pay a living wage.
A reconnection with ordinary Americans is vital not just to defeating conservatives in 2012 and in elections to come. Without it, the left will remain unable to state clearly and passionately what a better country would look like and what it will take to get there. To paraphrase the labor martyr Joe Hill, the left should stop mourning its recent past and start organizing to change the future.
To return to Beverly Gage’s rather dismissive attitude toward the left, there is another dimension to the failure of the socialist “experiment” that she missed. The USSR and its allied “socialist” states were both an inspiration to young radicals as well as a brake on the mass movement against capitalism. While a massive CP-led French trade union was powerful enough to protect the social gains that a magazine like Dissent celebrated, that very power enabled it to essentially sabotage the revolutionary movement against Gaullist rule.
Those days are gone forever. With the exception of Cuba and North Korea, there are no socialist states nor is there a powerful Communist Party that can act as the agent of corporate influence within the workers movement. On one hand, we are weaker since that movement no longer has the muscle to stop reactionary attacks on our standard of living. On the other, it removes an obstacle to revolution that has existed since the 1920s.
Additionally, social democracy—in essence no different from Stalinism except on the “Russian question”—is also a thing of the past. No matter how many times the New Deal is invoked (with Chris Matthews calling nightly for a new WPA on MSNBC), none is in the offing. The kind of liberalism that was associated with FDR’s three terms cannot be detached from its economic foundations. In the 1930s and 40s, the U.S. was a smokestack dominated economy that needed blue collar workers by the millions. Today, manufacturing is rapidly disappearing. To conceptualize what class forces and what strategy is required to defeat capitalist rule in such drastically transformed conditions requires a firm grasp of Marxism and a willingness to see things through to their conclusion. This means studying Lenin and other Marxists who were able to penetrate to the bottom of class relations in the societies that they were seeking to transform. Given our challenge against the most powerful and most deadly ruling class in history, this is the example we should aspire to.