Politics

A New History of the American Left

June 05, 2008

A New History of the American Left

Daniel J. Flynn has written a book for Crown Press, A Conservative History of the American Left, which is intended to be a “€œconservative”€ interpretation of the Left in our country. Although Dan could have presented his study of the American Left and its nineteenth-century models without identifying himself or his work politically, he may have appended “€œconservative”€ in order to capture a “€œmovement conservative”€ market. Despite this awkward packaging, Dan has given us the fruits of true research; and while he has approached his subject as a journalist with partisan inclinations, his book is full of scholarly perceptions.

One particularly illuminating aspect of his work is the attempt to uncover old leftist ideas in their most recent incarnations. Flynn’s investigation yields multiple results, especially in the cases of the New Left and hippie communes of the 1960s, whose creators and devotees made no secret of their borrowings from older leftist and communitarian movements. By the time these self-styled social radicals and radical communitarians came on the scene, Flynn demonstrates, there was already a century of indigenous American revolutionary and back-to-nature causes on which they could build their own plans for revolutionary change.

One of the most fruitful areas of study in this book are the American Abolitionists, a group that Flynn looks at partly through the extensive scholarship of a former editorial colleague of mine, Aileen S. Kraditor, who wrote amply on the women suffragists and the Abolitionists. Both groups pursued goals that in our far more leftist age would seem modest and even self-evidently moral. But what these activists usually desired and what their rhetoric intimated pointed beyond their bourgeois Protestant age, to our own socially disintegrated modernity.

The most critical insight that I extracted from Flynn’s book is the recognition that radical social ideas travel well in American society, if they are made to look and smell American. Flynn notes the sedulous care with which the American Communist Party made itself over into a super-patriotic organization, as soon as the Soviets and Americans found themselves on the same side against “€œfascism”€ in World War Two. Moreover, the anti-Americanism that the neoconservatives identify with the “€œantiwar Left”€ has been present only intermittently on the American Left. The “€œhate-America”€ attitude that was once associated with radical social reformers may have been peculiar to the student protests of the Vietnam War-era. One can easily find appeals to the “€œAmerican tradition”€ on the American Left as well as elsewhere on the political spectrum.  Although I wish Dan had consulted my book The Strange Death of Marxism, a work that makes much the same point, he does manage to bring in enough of his own documentation to prove the compatibility between sounding “€œpro-American”€ and favoring radical and even revolutionary leftist projects.

Book Cover

Flynn also relates this tendency to the association of the “€œAmerican tradition”€ with the advocacy of what are seen as “€œdemocratic”€ and “€œegalitarian”€ reforms. Although it may be an exaggeration that Martin Luther King’s “€œmessage was quite conservative even if the messenger was not,”€   it is undoubtedly true that “€œKing’s biblically laced rhetoric would have meshed seamlessly with the fabric of the larger Left,”€ “€œhad he emerged in the 1850s instead of the 1950s.”€  Flynn is also right that “€œunderlying the swerves and ironies that mark her [Hillary Clinton’s] journey is a religious grounding that informs and inspires her politics.”€ Her “€œmission to provide health care to every American, to make child-rearing a collective rather than familial obligation, to redistribute wealth, to ban cigarettes, to elevate “€˜public sector”€™ work to the status of military service is a religious crusade.”€ Hillary’s language and fury “€œhearken back to the zealotry and moral indignation of the abolitionists, the do-gooder spirit of the Social Gospel, and the paternalism of the progressives.”€ In her moral earnestness, though certainly not in her post-Christian theology, Hillary is an unmistakable American Methodist. She is Carry A. Nation and other nineteenth-century prohibitionists in modern designer’s clothing and freed of any concern with traditional Protestant doctrines.

One shortcoming in Dan’s otherwise comprehensive study of the pedigree of the American Left is any recognition of how seamlessly the neoconservatives fit into the subject of his book. If there is any group in the world that both consciously and unconsciously represents American leftist thinking, it is the editors of the Weekly Standard and the Wall Street Journal. From McCain’s blah-blah about the need for a League of Democracies to the unending appeals to Lincoln the Emancipator, Wilson the German-slayer and global democrat, and the Christ-like antiracist Martin Luther King, neoconservatives have mined unceasingly the radical democratic and world missionary strains in the American national character. In fact it is hard to think of any group in American history, with the possible exception of the Abolitionists, that more fully embodies tendencies that Dan investigates. It is of course possible to read his book without noticing this fit, but his argument takes on new credibility if one looks at the neoconservatives as a striking example of his theme.

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