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.