American Dreamers

  • By Michael Kazin
  • Knopf
  • 352 pp.

A penetrating look at the influences behind the leftist agitation that brought us the 1960s counterculture.

The Cat in the Hat as a left-wing tract?

Michael Kazin notes at the outset of his new book, American Dreamers, that Theodore Geisel was a cartoonist for the left-wing New York City newspaper PM in the 1940s before adopting the persona known to millions of American children: Dr. Seuss. “Seuss made great children’s literature out of the essential critique and vision of the left,” Kazin writes. “His most famous book, The Cat in the Hat, while less overtly political, introduced a sublimely destructive feline who did his bit to inspire the counter-culture of the 1960s.”

The Seuss analysis is emblematic of a theme that courses through this highly informed history of the American left over the past two centuries: Even as various left-wing movements failed to take control through violent upheaval or the ballot box, these efforts — and some of the better known individuals who participated in them — made a large imprint not only on popular culture but also on individual political and social sensibilities of the public at large.

By his own admission, Kazin is not a dispassionate bystander. His in-laws and many of their siblings joined the American Communist Party at its height in the years leading up to World War II. The author himself spent several months living in a left-wing collective in the Northwest at the peak of the ’60s counter-culture. “We raised an organic garden, shared a single battered Volkswagen bus, and published a radical weekly that both cheered on armed revolution abroad, and condemned Weyerhauser [sic], the giant paper company, for destroying the nation’s forests,” he recalls.

But Kazin — in his present role as a history professor at Georgetown University and the author of books related to the historical role of the American left wing — brings an intellectual rigor to this study. He systematically dissects the strategic and tactical errors made by such political movements throughout U.S. history, to say nothing of cataloguing their omnipresent ideological rifts. “During just one period — from the late 1870s to the end of World War I — could radicals authentically claim to represent more than a tiny number of Americans who belong to what was, and remains, the majority of the population: white Christians from the working and lower-middle classes,” he writes.

Little, if any, writing today possess Kazin’s grasp of left-wing history, which saturates his book with interesting detail. (How many know that Oklahoma, today one of the country’s most reliably Republican and conservative states, was a hotbed of radicalism in the 1890s?) At the same time, American Dreamers is not an easy read in the mold of historical narratives by non-academics such as David McCullough, whose The Greater Journey is currently on the best-seller list.

While Kazin contends that his book is not intended to be a “comprehensive or inclusive account of a radical tradition” throughout American history, this relatively short work packs an abundance of historical information into its broader conceptual framework. The result is a deceptively dense volume in which the reader may first feel compelled to re-read parts written earlier, and then enjoy only a limited opportunity to absorb the historical detail and accompanying analysis before the author hurries on to the next radical campaign or initiative.

Kazin is his best when he focuses on individuals and movements that have been largely overlooked, and sometimes all but ignored, in recent historical treatments. His opening chapter focuses on three significant characters who rarely appear in accounts of U.S. history: Thomas Skidmore, David Walker and Frances Wright. They respectively represent three strains — redistribution of wealth, racial equality and feminism — that were to become the mainstays of future left-wing agitation. There’s also a discussion of early manifestations of what became the gay-rights movement and of the utopian communities that foreshadowed the “free love” communes a century later.

While the parts exploring the Civil War era cover frequently plowed ground, the ensuing three chapters — covering the period from the 1870s through the 1950s — are among the volume’s strongest, because they again focus on individuals and movements that have received limited attention in recent years. Many students of history and economics are familiar with Henry George’s Progress and Poverty (1879) — a best-seller that advocated a redistribution of wealth through a tax on land — but George’s political career is less well known.

Kazin argues that George’s 1886 race for mayor of New York City represented a critical missed opportunity for a viable political party grounded in the American labor movement. George did well at the polls but lost a competitive election when a 28-year-old Republican candidate named Theodore Roosevelt played the role of spoiler. That era also produced another book less familiar to modern-day readers than George’s classic: Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), a futuristic vision of a socialist-style utopian society in the year 2000. At the time, Bellamy’s book was the best selling American novel since the pre-Civil War Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Kazin later details the three dominant varieties of socialist thought and practice that flourished in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He then deals with the rise and fall of the American Communist Party — and the internal strains that accompanied the revelation of the Stalinist purges in the late 1930s. He highlights cultural as well as political aspects of that period that have been often overlooked in the recent historical emphasis on the 1950s McCarthy era congressional hearings.

American Dreamers runs out of steam in its final two chapters. Kazin’s account of the 1960s “New Left” movement provides few insights to those — Baby Boomers and older — who lived through that era. And the final chapter, “Rebels Without a Movement,” grasps at illustrating the left wing’s influence since the 1960s, even as Kazin concedes the movement has largely been moribund in recent decades.

Kazin’s critique of A People’s History of the United States (1980) by left-wing historian Howard Zinn says as much about Kazin’s book as it does about Zinn’s. Kazin complains that Zinn “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?”

Kazin’s book suffers from the same fault. It does little more than sprinkle familiar explanations throughout its various chapters, focusing on the ethnic, racial and regional tensions of a new, heterogeneous society. A concluding chapter containing a more comprehensive, in-depth look at why today’s Socialist parties, commonplace in Europe, never took root here would have provided a more satisfying ending to this largely thoughtful and valuable work — particularly when it is the populism of the right, in the form of the “tea party,” rather than the left, that dominates present-day U.S. politics.

A Washington-based journalist for three decades, Louis M. Peck was the founding editor of National Journal’s “CongressDaily” and earlier reported on Congress and national politics for Gannett Newspapers. A graduate of Brown University with a degree in American history, he currently teaches at Boston University’s Washington Journalism Center and is a contributing writer to The Fiscal Times.

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