The Magazine

Radical Revision

Reclaiming the history of the left from leftist historians.

May 12, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 33 • By RONALD RADOSH
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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.