American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, by Michael Kazin (Knopf, 352 pp., $27.95)

The mere prospect of Barack Obama’s election in 2008 generated effusions about how the senator, once in the White House, might create a second New Deal. His victory by the largest margin achieved by any Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt produced jubilant books and essays by such prominent journalists as Jonathan Alter, then of Newsweek, George Packer of the New Yorker, and Tom Friedman of the New York Times, in which they all but reserved a place on Mount Rushmore for the new FDR.

To judge by its argument, Michael Kazin’s new book American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation seems to have been inspired by the same impulse—but with a difference. Kazin sees the unification of left and liberal factions around the 2008 Obama campaign as “the second coming of the Popular Front.” The original Popular Front saw its peak from 1935 to 1939, a period when the American Communist Party was instructed by Moscow to join forces with New Dealers and create a supposedly anti-fascist alliance. It was the moment when FDR stood as the almost undisputed leader of the entire Left and Communism was hailed as “twentieth-century Americanism.”

There is something to be said for Kazin’s argument. According to a February 2010 Gallup survey, 53 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of liberals held a positive image of socialism. The Gallup findings were backed up by a December 2010 Rasmussen survey that found that 42 percent of Democrats—perhaps the people whom former presidential candidate Howard Dean described as “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party”—thought that the government should manage the economy completely. What’s meant by socialism in these surveys is not the old ideal of public ownership of industry, but rather that government direct as much of the economy as possible.

Kazin, a distinguished historian, is the author of a thoughtful biography of three-time Democratic Party presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan as well as a history of American populism. With American Dreamers, Kazin joins a number of recent historians who have attempted to redeem the history of the American Communists by distinguishing their support of African-American civil rights from Stalinism. Running through this ill-organized book is another unspoken, albeit related, thread: Kazin is the son of the left-wing but anti-Communist literary critic Alfred Kazin, who, along with the intellectuals surrounding Partisan Review, dismissed Popular Front culture as Stalinoid kitsch. Here the son, with some success, undercuts the assumptions of the father.

This may seem like inside baseball to many readers. But Kazin’s cultural politics bear directly on the future of an increasingly statist Democratic Party. Historian Arthur Schlesinger described FDR as the culmination of American history since Andrew Jackson. In a similar vein as other Popular Front histories, including the recently reissued Rebel America: The Story of Social Revolt in the United States by Lillian Symes and Travers Clement, We the People by Leo Huberman, and The Rise of the American Nation by Francis Franklin, Kazin tries to show that left-wing statism was the fulfillment of long-standing American ideals—those expressed by, among others, the founders of nineteenth-century utopian communities, abolitionists, and suffragists.

But the original Popular Front writers at least could avail themselves of a master narrative organized around the growth of a supposedly left-wing American identity. Kazin has no such storyline to organize his argument. Instead he’s reduced to profiling historic left-wing figures such as the abolitionist Wendell Phillips, writer and advocate of the “single tax” Henry George, and the socialist labor leader Eugene Debs. He criticizes Phillips for placing abolition ahead of feminism, George for his hostility to low-wage Chinese labor, and Debs for his anti-Catholicism (though he never explains why the Protestant Debs describes the Catholic Church as the “the rottenest political machine that ever stole the livery of heaven”). Kazin also admires the wealthy and well-connected nineteenth-century utopian John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida Community that influenced H. G. Wells and other twentieth-century socialists. But he makes no effort to explain Noyes’s concept of “sexual apprenticeship,” whereby he availed himself of desirable women in order to advance the “superior variety of the human race” by “the practice of [planned] breeding.” The upshot is that instead of an understanding of the complexities of our past, Kazin gives readers a pamphleteering version of history all too common on campuses today.

This is an idiosyncratic book, in which signal events in leftism’s twentieth-century history—including the 1919 Palmer Raids, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti, the Hiss and Rosenberg cases, and Henry Wallace’s 1948 Communist Party–supported presidential run—go virtually unmentioned. But, in a book in which Kazin tells us he was inspired by famed children’s book author Dr. Seuss (a product of the Popular Front), we get a great deal on Horton Hears a Who—sometimes seen as a veiled apology to the Japanese for Hiroshima—and on Yertle the Turtle, an allegorical critique of the rich and powerful.

Defenders of Popular Front culture, with considerable justification, argue that not only did it help shift sentiments on issues such as race and political fairness; it also elevated the quality of American popular culture. Kazin cites a wealth of examples, but sticking just to music, we’re reminded of the lyrics of Yip Harburg, author of the Depression-era anthem “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”; of Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit,” a beautiful, haunting song about white racism; and of Aaron Copland’s stirring symphony “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Back then, the Left was unambiguously attached to America, as reflected in Copland’s compositions “Billy the Kid” and “Appalachian Spring.”

When it comes to the Popular Front’s relationship with the Communist Party, however, Kazin wants to have it both ways. He seems to defend the CP’s relationship with Moscow: “If the American Reds had declared their independence from Moscow, they would have been just another group of immigrant radicals with little to offer the great majority of American workers.” By associating themselves with the Comintern, he writes, “they were part of a worldwide movement.” According to Kazin, their “loyalty to Stalin gave American Communists the confidence to stand at the barricades until reinforcements arrived—or until their attacks on the capitalist system began to sound like common sense.” But then he approvingly quotes Gary Cooper’s testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, in which the actor said that he “didn’t like” Communism because it was “not on the level.”

Kazin’s father’s generation of left-wing anti-Communists got Stalin right, but they no longer have many heirs among the new Popular Front, of sorts, that elected Obama. What the father got wrong was the attempt to reduce Popular Front culture to merely an efflux of Moscow’s manipulations. As Michael Walzer explained it in his heralded post-9/11 essay, “Can There Be a Decent Left?,” the Popular Front “provides at least a sense of what an unalienated American radicalism might be like.”

Where both father and son hit the wall is in their attempt, common to anti-Communist leftists and 1960s radicals alike, to meld economic solidarity and cultural modernism. It fails as completely now as when first attempted by the editors and writers of Partisan Review. The radical individualism of cultural modernism—in which every man or woman is the artist of his or her life—is incompatible with the strong sense of mutuality required of economic egalitarianism. Instead, the combination of statism and cultural modernism produces the political marriage of multiculturalism and crony capitalism, whose lawless offspring is separate rules for separate identities. But Kazin seems uninterested in addressing this tension, much less resolving it.

Kazin is certain that the 1960s Left was an unambiguous success that made America a better and more equal society. He’s right that the democratization of personhood is an achievement to be celebrated. But he ignores the underside. Referring to the movement against the Vietnam War, he chortles that “no previous anti-war movement endured long enough to celebrate the victory of the enemy in what became the most humiliating defeat the U.S. had ever suffered.” Not a word about the 1 million or more Vietnamese who headed into the sea to escape their “liberators.” Kazin celebrates black nationalism, too, without asking how it is that the decline of white racism and the rise of black political power helped leave the United States with something new and unequivocally appalling: the creation of a black underclass impervious to economic opportunity. He similarly celebrates feminism as having freed us from the tyranny of Ozzie and Harriet mores. Yet today roughly 40 percent of all births in the United States are out of wedlock. That figure rises to 50 percent for Hispanic and 70 percent for African-American children. This is an unmitigated tragedy that Kazin cannot or will not see through his sixties-tinted spectacles.

It’s only conjecture on my part, but Kazin’s book reads as if its conclusion was originally meant to celebrate President Obama’s expected achievements. But with Obama’s repeated pratfalls, Kazin’s book dribbles off into a maundering close, honoring such problematic figures as Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky. The book’s collapse, like that of the candidate associated with such New Left–inspired organizations as ACORN and the SEIU, is rooted in its inability to examine past failures. Neither Kazin nor Obama has challenged the traditions of which they’re both a part. Success requires the willingness to rethink policies and choices, especially those that have in some measure gone awry. What defines Michael Kazin’s Left is that, with the exception of a few hedges—admitting that Stalin was a bad man—it would rather demonize Republicans as racists and fascists than reconsider its own assumptions.


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