The Magazine

Radical Revision

Reclaiming the history of the left from leftist historians.

May 12, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 33 • By RONALD RADOSH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A Conservative History of the American Left

by Daniel J. Flynn

Crown-Forum, 464 pp. $27.50

This title does Daniel J. Flynn's fine new history a disservice. Some readers seeking a thorough and critical history of the left in America are likely to ignore it because of its claim to be a "conservative history." Flynn is certainly a conservative, as some of his candid and pithy judgments indicate, but what he gives readers is a well-rounded history of the left that should be read by anyone interested in the subject--and that includes those who call themselves left or liberal.

Flynn understands what any good historian knows: "To project our ideological needs upon the past," he writes, "makes the past more the present than the past." This perspective allows him to acknowledge that "the Left has a rich, vibrant, exciting history." Its problem, as he reveals, is its inability to learn from its own past, its excesses, and its tortured history.

The left may have had European roots but, as Flynn puts it, "much of the American Left is firmly rooted in the American tradition." Those on the left who honored and worked through American democratic institutions, and who spoke the language of America, were the most successful. Think Eugene V. Debs. But very quickly others on the left condemned their brethren for not being real leftists. They invoked doctrinal purity, and pounced upon those who respected religion and considered themselves patriots.

Flynn begins his book by taking readers through a breezy and fascinating look at the early so-called Communists, builders of utopian communities such as the Englishman Robert Owen, whose American followers built New Harmony, Indiana. He moves to the Transcendentalist renegades from Unitarianism, who created Brook Farm in Massachusetts and other communities inspired by the writings of Charles Fourier. Flynn gives them credit when credit is due: The communities the abolitionist Grimke sisters created in Northampton, Nashoba, and Raritan, "stood in contrast to the racism, and indifference to it, exhibited at many other communes." Unlike revolutionaries, these socialist abolitionists "saw themselves as the conservators of the American tradition" and slavery the evil that "contradicted American values." They formed part of what Flynn calls the patriotic left, who were easily distinguished from those abolitionists, led by William Lloyd Garrison, who advocated secession and publicly burned the Constitution on the Fourth of July in 1854.

From 1848 to 1880, John Humphrey Noyes touted the creation by his Bible Communists of the Oneida Community in upstate New York. He preached collectivism, free love, pacifism--the communal over the private. Ironically, as his community failed (just as its predecessors had), its remnants embraced the free market. They transformed the community into a corporation and made a fortune selling flatware all over the world. By World War I they were making military goods and sending their sons off to fight. The onetime Communists were now wage employers and global capitalists. They forecast socialism's collapse a century before the fall of the Soviet Union.

When the left enjoyed success, its leaders deferred to American institutions; they were religious, patriotic, and showed an entrepreneurial spirit. As Flynn points out, the Pledge of Allegiance was written by one of these mid-19th-century socialists, the brother of Edward Bellamy, whose Looking Backward (1888) sold an unprecedented half-million copies over 10 years. The story moves through the growth of the prairie populists, who gave voice to the plight of the farmer; and on to the emerging labor movement as industrial workers sought advances like the eight-hour day and living wages. Flynn glides through the Social Gospel to the birth of middle-class Progressivism in the 1900s.

As he gets to the early 20th century we learn of dramatic and colorful socialist leaders, like J.A. Wayland, editor of The Appeal to Reason, the nation's premier socialist newspaper. Wayland and Eugene Debs became the two most successful socialist leaders in American history: Their Marxism spoke in "an American voice" and, as Flynn puts it, was "unapologetically American." The socialism they preached had its spurt of growth not in the industrial East but in Oklahoma, Nevada, and Montana. A movement whose theorists posited the growth of a new society based on industrial labor soon found that the workers who they thought were the engine of history wanted nothing to do with them. The Socialist party's opposition to World War I led to repression and the departure from its ranks of influential pro-war socialists. With the Bolshevik revolution, and the demand by Lenin that American socialists follow him into the new Communist International, the Socialist party's growth in America collapsed, as many of its militants joined with Lenin to form a new Communist party loyal to Lenin's new International.

Undoubtedly, the American Communists became, from the 1930s through the late 1940s, the nation's largest and, for a time, most influential leftist movement. But they would have to wait for Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, of which they formed the far left wing, to arrive at their heyday. Under the chairmanship of Earl Browder, they preached that "Communism is 20th Century Americanism."

"Though an instrument of the Soviet Union," Flynn observes, "Browder supplied an American face and a Kansas twang to a Russian party courting the people of the United States." Their influence grew until the Cold War. Then Americans saw the truth about the would-be patriotism of American Communists: The Soviets called the shots for those who, during World War II, invoked Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln as their ideological spokesmen.

Flynn ends with the birth of the postwar New Left. The left that mattered was that of the civil rights revolution led by Martin Luther King Jr., who appealed to American tradition and to the Bible, and who compared the nonviolence he espoused with the violence of his adversaries. King may have welcomed some Communists into his movement, but he brought a majority of his countrymen to his side, in a way that the radicals such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael never could.

Flynn shows how the New Left quickly transmogrified into the Old Left which it supposedly had transcended. Starting out as a movement pledged to create a new "participatory democracy" based on consensus, its leaders slowly moved to adopt variants of Leninism. Tom Hayden, principal author of the Port Huron Statement (1962), the manifesto of Students for a Democratic Society, called for creation of a new "beloved community." Yet a short time later, in 1965, Hayden traveled to North Vietnam under the auspices of the American Communist party and returned to the United States praising the Vietnamese Communists for building a new "rice-roots democracy." From an opponent of the war, Hayden transformed himself into a leader of the forces who demanded victory for America's enemy, spreading the myth that Ho Chi Minh was Vietnam's George Washington. Street criminals like Huey Newton of the Black Panthers were treated as revolutionary idols, and the idealistic SDS soon became a fringe movement of radical terrorists in the Weather Underground.

Unlike other historians who have written about, and heralded, the New Left, Flynn correctly notes that the Americanism of the Port Huron Statement had been replaced by the "Marxoid jargon" of the Weathermen. And while it is true that the first generation of SDS sought to distinguish itself from both Marxism and the Old Left, Flynn shows how the SDS made the new radical terrorism possible. "Old Guard SDS," he writes, "had adopted anti-anti-Communism from the start and soon welcomed Communist members."

A Conservative History of the American Left could not have come at a better moment. Steven Spielberg recently announced the production of a motion picture about the Chicago Seven, in which Borat himself, Sasha Baron Cohen, will play Abbie Hoffman. It is the season, once again, to depict a discredited New Left as role models for today's generation of activists.

Dreams die hard, and the imperfections of our American Republic will always produce reformers and radicals, some of whom will make contributions to a better society while others will follow their predecessors in trying to bring it down. The radical can never be satisfied, Flynn argues, and will continually seek to build an unattainable paradise on earth. They are, Flynn concludes, would-be "perfectors of society" who make "an imperfect society even less perfect." The left, never learning from its own history, continually "condemns itself to replicating its mistakes, its tragedies, its failures." Or as Carl Oglesby, SDS president, tells Flynn: "Nobody learns anything from anybody."

Ronald Radosh, adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, is the author of Commies:
A Journey Through the Old Left,
the New Left, and the Leftover Left.