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Audacity’s Children
The American Left has a long history of utopianism.
4 April 2008

A Conservative History of the American Left, by Daniel J. Flynn (Crown Forum, 436 pp., $27.50)

In 1969, the Theater for Ideas organized a symposium to discuss whether acting should be “theater or therapy.” The event was prompted in part by the antics of the Living Theater, which had become famous for asking members of the audience to shed their clothes onstage along with the cast. In an emblematic moment, the distinguished critic Robert Brustein, one of the symposium’s panelists, spoke of the importance of “supremely gifted individuals” such as Chekhov to the theater—and was met with shouts of “Fuck Chekhov!” Eventually that command would extend to “Fuck Shakespeare” and “Fuck Euripides.”

Another panelist was Paul Goodman, who had come of age in the 1930s and was now a guru to the sixties generation. His 1960 book, Growing Up Absurd, had taught baby boomers that winos offered “a wise philosophical resignation plus an informed and radical critique of society.” But Goodman became uneasy about what he had helped create. First, he compared the Living Theater and the symposium’s audience with the Anabaptists, a fanatical sixteenth-century antinomian religious cult that anticipated twentieth-century totalitarianism by promising its followers a transformation that would break with the world’s wicked ways. Then he told the enraged audience: “I’ve lived through moments like this before, and I’m always struck by the poverty of ideas. In the last 2,000 years, there hasn’t been a single new revolutionary idea.”

Goodman was overstating the case, but his point holds and is a kind of leitmotif of Daniel Flynn’s engaging new book, A Conservative History of the American Left. Flynn’s well-written narrative describes how the history of the American Left is marked, with some exceptions, by utopianism and a recurring hostility to middle-class American life. For the Left, a bright new future has always beckoned—if we can only break with our outmoded conventions.

This notion goes back a long way. In 1826, the British socialist Robert Owen, founder of a utopian community in New Harmony, Indiana, issued a Declaration of Mental Independence that condemned “private, or individual property—absurd and irrational systems of religion—and marriage.” Owen met privately with many American presidents, twice addressed joint sessions of Congress, and became an important influence on Friedrich Engels. In the document, which Flynn calls a mix “of Ross Perot, Harold Hill, Karl Marx and Jimmy Swaggart,” Owen argued that marriage was “the sole cause of all prostitution,” while religion “has made the world [into] one great lunatic asylum.”

Owen anticipated both Marx’s concept of “false consciousness” and Herbert Marcuse’s of “repressive tolerance.” He insisted that men, because of the way “they have been hitherto educated . . . are incompetent to form a correct or sound judgment.” Creatures of their environment, they “have been rendered irrational by the absurd doctrine of free will and responsibility.” All could be put right if “such subjects. . . . be instructed in better habits, and made rationally intelligent.” But until then, Owen didn’t want “the opinions of the ill-trained and uninformed on measures intended for their relief and amelioration. No! . . . their advice can be of no value.”

Owen’s sentiments were exemplified by the most famous of the utopian communes, Brook Farm in Massachusetts. Influenced by the ideas of French social reformer Charles Fourier, Flynn writes, Brook Farm was stocked with “Boston Brahmins, Harvard graduates, [and] descendants of the Pilgrims” who “retained the Puritan conviction that they were the elect” but had little common sense. Failures at subsistence farming, “dependent on charity for their Thanksgiving dinner,” they needed to hire unskilled laborers in order to feed themselves. Writing about the plebes, one of Brook Farm’s members, Charles Dana, insisted: “We are in fact the only men who can really point out their course for them and they can hardly help looking to us for their advisors.” But the laborers chafed under their supervisors’ feckless paternalism, openly mocking Dana and his fellows as “aristocrats.”

Like Dana, the communards at the Oneida Community in New York, founded by John Humphrey Noyes, were the best and brightest of their day. Noyes, who renounced “active cooperation with the oppressor on whose territories I live,” pursued what he described as “complex marriage”—what today we would call open marriage. In order to break the chains of convention, all the women of Oneida had to be sexually available to Noyes. He had quite a pedigree: his father and grandfather were congressmen, his father-in-law was a lieutenant governor of Vermont, and his first cousin was the 19th president, Rutherford B. Hayes. (The next president, James A. Garfield, was killed by a troubled former follower of Noyes’s.)

Then as now, the authoritarian strand in leftism sometimes crisscrossed with its libertarian and egalitarian tendencies. Owen also insisted, in anticipation of today’s progressive education failures, that in schooling there should be “no distinction of teacher and pupil.” The double game—so common in American universities today—that joins claims about the radical unintelligibility of “truth” to authoritative pronouncements on matters social and political was already well developed at New Harmony. But one of the New Harmonyites, Sarah Pears, rebelled against Owen’s claim that he possessed superior knowledge while all others were equal before him in their ignorance. “Mr. Owen says we have been speaking falsehoods all our lives, and that only here shall we be enabled to speak the truth. I am sure that I cannot in sincerity look upon these as my equals, and if I must appear to do it, I cannot act or speak the truth.” Here is an early nineteenth-century reaction to what 1930s Communists called “political correctness.”

While the utopian Left saw a potentially shining future rising out of a dark, repressive bourgeois past, another strain of the movement saw that bleak past leading only to an even bleaker future. The father of this current of leftism was none other than Henry Adams. Born to wealth and an august lineage—his grandfather and great-grandfather had been American presidents—the refined Adams found the hustle and bustle of American life so dismaying that he once said that he “should have been a Marxist.” But he could indulge in nothing so vulgar. His famous book, The Education of Henry Adams, described his disappointment with an American society that did not pay him his due deference and helped create the model for much of what became left-wing intellectual life—or is it right-wing intellectual life? Certainly Adams’s cultural critique was sourly conservative. But it included, too, a radical call to give power over the masses to men of culture.

Flynn leavens his book with character sketches of some of the wilder figures of the nineteenth-century left, such as Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin. The free-spirited sisters were crusaders for women’s rights at a time when such proselytizing required considerable daring. Rejecting the separation of religion and politics, Tennessee insisted, in the manner of the European utopian August Comte (who would, through Herbert Croly, become an influence on twentieth-century liberalism), that religion and politics needed to be melded into “the religion of humanity,” which would be “a religion based not on conjecture but fact.” But in this new faith, veridical truth meshed, postmodern-style, with an absolute relativism. The sisters explained that “to the cannibal the taste of human flesh is very good; while to us the mere thought of it is horrible. And yet with us, he is the offspring of the Great Creative Power, and as rightfully and legitimately possessed of his taste for human flesh, as we are of a predisposition against it.”

Feminists though they were, the sisters pursued rich men along with social reform. For a while, Cornelius Vanderbilt provided financial backing for their magazine, and he reportedly greatly enjoyed their charms. Victoria blackmailed Henry Ward Beecher, a leading minister of the day, for not preaching free love from his pulpit after the two had been lovers. Flynn notes that after exposing the affair she wound up in England, where she “blackmailed a rich suitor into marrying her and inherited his fortune.”

The book falters somewhat when it gets to the twentieth century, where Flynn has the difficult task of distinguishing between modern statist liberalism and leftism. From Flynn’s own Christian and libertarian perspective, FDR was a leftist. But taken in the context of the times, Roosevelt’s willingness repeatedly to try out ideas and then drop them made him a chameleon rather than an ideologue. FDR’s inaugural address, for instance, calls for both a balanced budget and national planning. But Flynn is on firmer ground in describing how much of what we associate with the Aquarian sixties was in fact old hat. We aren’t too surprised when we read that David Dellinger, the far-left leader of the anti-Vietnam War movement, used to belong to a commune.

But if the pattern was visible to those with a sense of history, it wasn’t to the New Left, which, writes Flynn, “imagined itself radical pioneers, discovering a new world of ideas that had eluded all who had lived until the present.” Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) founder Tom Hayden, like many of the members of MoveOn.org today, exulted in his dismissal of all that had come before. “In formulating our vision and ideas,” explained Hayden, “it was most important to draw lessons from that same experience instead of relying on the textbooks of others.” There was no past, just a glorious future. In short order, the New Left had created its own version of the Nazi-Stalin pact by embracing both the leather-clad fascist thuggery of the Black Panthers and the Maoist version of Stalinism.

The sixties ended with SDS’s morphing into the violent Weathermen, leftists with wealthy backgrounds who tried to “smash monogamy” through group sex and “smash capitalism” with pipe bombs. It was all very nineteenth-century, as was their Charles Danaesque sense of themselves as the “ruling class,” in the words of New Left founding father Carl Oglesby. New Leftists had “a deeply inbred assumption that they knew what the country needed, and they knew how to deliver it,” Oglesby explained.

A Conservative History of the American Left is highly readable and informative, if somewhat misnamed. It might have been better titled The Utopian Politics of Hope. With messianic hopes now being invested in the candidacy of Democrat Barack Obama, Flynn’s history is a timely demonstration of some disturbing continuities in left-wing thought.

Fred Siegel is a contributing editor of City Journal and a professor of history at the Cooper Union for Science and Art.

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