The New York Times Book Review
American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nationby Michael Kazin
Michael Kazin—one of the most respected
A panoramic yet intimate history of the American left—of the reformers, radicals, and idealists who have fought for a more just and humane society, from the abolitionists to Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky—that gives us a revelatory new way of looking at two centuries of American politics and culture.
Michael Kazin—one of the most respected historians of the American left working today—takes us from abolitionism and early feminism to the labor struggles of the industrial age, through the emergence of anarchists, socialists, and communists, right up to the New Left in the 1960s and ’70s. While the history of the left is a long story of idealism and determination, it has also been, in the traditional view, a story of movements that failed to gain support from mainstream America. In American Dreamers, Kazin tells a new history: one in which many of these movements, although they did not fully succeed on their own terms, nonetheless made lasting contributions to American society that led to equal opportunity for women, racial minorities, and homosexuals; the celebration of sexual pleasure; multiculturalism in the media and the schools; and the popularity of books and films with altruistic and antiauthoritarian messages.
Deeply informed, at once judicious and impassioned, and superbly written, American Dreamers is an essential book for our times and for anyone seeking to understand our political history and the people who made it.
The New York Times Book Review
The Washington Post
Newsweek/The Daily Beast
The New Republic
“Illuminating. . . . Kazin's ambition is to illustrate and argue, and he does both with exemplary skill. . . . A work of honest rigor. . . . Kazin understands the limitations of the left, its self-destructive divisions, its difficulty in establishing an American presence within an international movement. . . . It is, to say the least, timely.”
—Los Angeles Times
“Robust. . . . A lively, panoramic account.”
—The Washington Post
“A heartfelt and searingly honest assessment of the history of the social movements and individuals who challenged the established order of their day.”
“Compendious and erudite. . . . For the political junkie as well as those simply curious about the saga of the left, his book is helpfully crammed with numerous informative portraits of famous as well as more neglected figures. . . . A careful and nuanced view of the saga of the American left.”
—The Washington Monthly
“American Dreamers is Kazin's bid to reclaim the left's utopian spirit for an age of diminished expectations. An editor at Dissent magazine and one of the left's most eloquent spokesmen, Kazin presents his book as an unapologetic attempt to give the left a history it can celebrate. . . . American Dreamers is not a prescriptive book, offering instructions based on the past. Lessons nonetheless have a way of creeping into its text.”
—The New York Times
“Kazin, a distinguished historian, provides an entertaining journey through some of the fascinating byways of American radicalism. . . . His writing is fluid, avoids professional jargon, and is often witty. Unlike many of his colleagues in history, with whom he shares a left-wing orientation, Kazin is fair to conservative critics of radicalism.”
“Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University and an editor at Dissent magazine, tells this story clearly and with some muscle in his prose. He's not afraid to tarnish the halos of social democracy's secular saints.”
—Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Kazin argues, in this lively and informative account of radicalism in the United States, American dreamers had a substantial impact on culture, society and politics, expanding the meaning of equal opportunity, equal rights and personal liberty and pushing their fellow citizens to re-evaluate the nation's role in the world.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“A spirited defense of the positive role played by left-wing radicals in shaping American society. . . . A coherent, wide-ranging analysis of a century of political and social activism in America.”
“[A] perceptive history of the radical left . . . a lively and lucid synthesis of a vital political tradition.”
“Kazin, of Georgetown, is one of the great historians of American social movements, and though he is on the broad left, he has written sympathetically about figures not always associated with the left like William Jennings Bryan. This history deftly and honestly describes the victories and failures of the various left-wing movements in U.S. history and, even in a body of work as formidable as Kazin's, really stands out for its erudition and intelligence.”
—Newsweek/The Daily Beast
“A history of the American left that manages to be both sweeping in scope and granular in capturing the people, known and less so, who figured in abolitionism, feminism, and labor rights, among others. Kazin’s final assessment strikes a delicate balance, arguing that the left has succeeded in shaping the nation’s culture in ways that are not fully appreciated even as it has so often fallen short in its institutional aims, particularly when it comes to matters of economic justice and equality.”
—The New Republic
“Young progressives owe themselves the pleasure of reading American Dreamers to understand the tradition in which they’re engaged and how the historical successes and failures of the American Left shape the choices they face now. Kazin has shown through the years that asking questions relevant to current struggles does not distort history. On the contrary, in the hands of a relentlessly honest historian, this approach sheds new light on the past and unearths truths that eluded others. Kazin will be read many years from now as one the most productive, graceful, provocative and intelligent historians of our era, and American Dreams is his masterwork.”
—E. J. Dionne, author of Why Americans Hate Politics and Souled Out
“Michael Kazin writes about politics at its most romantic and reckless, with a rare empathy for history’s protagonists, great and humble. American Dreamers will stir those who share the left’s dreams and fascinate those who do not.”
—Christopher Caldwell, senior editor, The Weekly Standard
“Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers could not be more timely. At a moment when ‘the left’ is a term of glib dismissal, Kazin resurrects a vital American radical traditioneveryone from Frederick Douglass and Emma Goldman to Betty Friedan and Doctor Seuss. With deft biographical portraits and telling historical detail, he shows how abolitionists, feminists, socialists, and even anarchists challenged Americans to embrace a larger life. Inspiring and engaging but also judiciously critical, American Dreamers reminds us that visions of utopiawhatever their flawsremain an essential resource for creating a more humane society.”
—Jackson Lears, Board of Governors Professor of History, Rutgers University
“With American Dreamers, Michael Kazin assumes his place in the tradition of Richard Hofstadter, Arthur Schlesinger, and Christopher Lasch as an invaluable interpreter of the American past as it applies to its present. This book is a tour de force of solid scholarship, stolid good sense, and remarkably precise and fluid prose. Simultaneously sympathetic and critical, it will be a pleasure for anyone interested in the left to read and a necessary challenge for its partisans to ponder.”
—Eric Alterman, author of Why We’re Liberals
“Michael Kazin has distilled years of his deeply informed thinking into a eminently readable book full of astute judgments, bringing generations of radicals and reformers out of the shadows, restoring them to the honored place they deserve in the history of an America that serves ‘the better angels of our nature.’”
—Todd Gitlin, author of The Sixties
A spirited defense of the positive role played by left-wing radicals in shaping American society.
Beginning with an analysis of the anti-slavery movement of the 1820s, Kazin (History/Georgetown Univ.; A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, 2006, etc.) suggests that the effectiveness of radical social protests should not be judged by their failure to achieve significant political power but by their ability to catalyze mass movements that affect mainstream politics. The author writes that reformers in the centers of power depend upon the existence of a radical movement from below. In his view, the actions of "radical social gospelers" such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Luther King Jr. far outweighed the influence of socialists and communists. Kazin describes the International Workers of the World, founded in 1905, as "an organizer of beautiful losers." Their agitation for "One Big Union" that would include all working people and "run the economy for the benefit of all" inspired broad-based popular support but no lasting victories, at least in contrast to the more narrowly defined trade-union objectives of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, formed during the same period. Both, however, played a part in laying the groundwork for the emergence of the CIO in the 1930s, as well as other significant movements in the following decades.
A coherent, wide-ranging analysis of a century of political and social activism in America.
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Read an Excerpt
American DreamersHow the Left Changed a Nation
By Michael Kazin
VintageCopyright © 2012 Michael Kazin
All right reserved.
Excerpted from the Introduction
What Difference Did It Make?
The free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
—Marx and Engels
You have to describe the country in terms of what you passionately hope it will become, as well as in terms of what you know it to be now. You have to be loyal to a dream country rather than one to which you wake up every morning.
In dreams begin responsibility.
—William Butler Yeats
This book was inspired by Dr. Seuss. Around the time the Supreme Court helped elect George W. Bush in 2000, I took refuge from political despair by thinking about the books my mother had read to me in the 1950s, several of which I also read to my children forty years later. Seuss, whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel and who had neither an M.D. nor a PhD, got his start in the cartoon business illustrating ads for an insecticide company, but he soon turned his talent to political purposes. Although he never seems to have joined a left organization, Seuss was a man of the Popular Front, that broad left vessel anchored by the Communist Party. For two years in the early 1940s, he was a regular cartoonist for the left-wing New York City daily PM, contributing hundreds of drawings that skewered such figures as Charles Lindbergh for warming up to Hitler and flagrant racists like Governor Eugene Talmadge of Georgia.
After the war, Seuss began to produce children’s books that used witty rhymes and fluid, fanciful drawings to convey the best principles and some of the fondest aspirations of the left. He kept this up until his death in 1989. The books, which have sold millions of copies, include The Sneetches, a brief for racial equality; Yertle the Turtle, a satire of fascist tyranny; The Lorax, a plea to save nature from corporate greed; The Butter Battle Book, a fable in support of nuclear disarmament; and Horton Hears a Who!, a parable about the need to act against genocide. His most famous book, The Cat in the Hat, while less overtly political, introduced a sublimely destructive feline who did his bit to inspire the counterculture of the 1960s.
Seuss made great children’s literature out of the essential critique and vision of the left. He married the ideal of social equality to the principle of personal freedom. As the journalist E. J. Kahn Jr. put it: “In his books, might never makes right, the meek inherit the earth, and pride frequently goeth before a fall, usually a pratfall.” Seuss crafted “messages” with more wit, hipness, and color than any movement activist I have ever known. But he rarely took part in protests or campaigns, and few of his readers appreciated that he was illustrating a coherent and quite political worldview.3
Seuss’s work was an underappreciated accomplishment in the long, if often difficult, history of the American left. Radicals in the U.S. have seldom mounted a serious challenge to those who held power in either the government or the economy. But they have done far better at helping to transform the moral culture, the “common sense” of society—how Americans understand what is just and what is unjust in the conduct of public affairs. And that is no small thing. “The most enduring aspects of a social movement,” writes the historian J. F. C. Harrison, “are not always its institutions but the mental attitudes which inspire it and which are in turn generated by it.”
Leftists who articulated big dreams of a different future did much to initiate what became common, if still controversial, features of American life. These included the advocacy of equal opportunity and equal treatment for women, ethnic and racial minorities, and homosexuals; the celebration of sexual pleasure unconnected to reproduction; a media and educational system sensitive to racial and gender oppression and which celebrates what we now call multiculturalism; and the popularity of novels and films with a strongly altruistic and anti-authoritarian point of view.
Some of these cultural radicals were famous, or infamous, in their own time and remain staples of classroom lectures today: the abolitionists Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass, the class-conscious utopians Edward Bellamy and Henry George, the sexual radicals Margaret Sanger and Emma Goldman, the pro-Communist entertainers Paul Robeson and Woody Guthrie, the feminist writer Betty Friedan, and the black power orator Stokely Carmichael. Others, like Max Eastman, editor of The Masses, are familiar mainly to academics who understand how critical that magazine was to the rise of a modernist sensibility in the early twentieth century.
A focus on what the left did to alter American culture can provide a partial answer to the most important question one can raise about any movement in history: What difference did it make to the nation and the world?
The ability of radicals to develop a culture of rebellion, of alienation from domestic authorities, and to expand the meaning of equality appealed to many Americans who gave little or no thought to actually voting for a left candidate or joining a radical party. The cultural left articulated outrage about the state of the world and the longing for a different one in ways the political left was unable to do.
A caveat is necessary here. Culture and politics are not separate spheres; a cultural change can have important political consequences. For example, the feminist awakening of the 1960s and ’70s began a process that led to more liberal state abortion laws and then to Roe v. Wade—as well as to funding for child-care centers, laws against sexual harassment, and an increase in women running for and getting elected to public office. Conversely, a profound shift in the political sphere can alter private opinions and behavior. The Civil War did away with human bondage, which made it possible, albeit in painfully slow steps, to establish a new common sense about the moral imperative to treat individuals equally, regardless of their race.
But when political radicals made a big difference, they generally did so as decidedly junior partners in a coalition driven by establishment reformers. Abolitionists did not achieve their goal until midway through the war, when Abraham Lincoln and his fellow Republicans realized that the promise of emancipation could speed victory for the North. Militant unionists were not able to gain a measure of power in mines and factories and on the waterfront until Franklin Roosevelt needed labor votes during the New Deal. Only when Lyndon Johnson and other liberal Democrats conquered their fears of disorder and gave up on the white South could the black freedom movement celebrate passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. For a political movement to gain any major goal, it needs to win over a section of the governing elite (it doesn’t hurt to gain support from some wealthy philanthropists as well). Only on a handful of occasions has the left achieved such a victory, and it never occurred under its own name.
The divergence between political marginality and cultural influence stems, in part, from the kinds of people who have been the mainstays of the American left. During just one period of about four decades—from the late 1870s to the end of World War I—could radicals authentically claim to represent more than a tiny number of Americans who belonged to what was, and remains, the majority of the population: white Christians from the working and lower-middle classes. At the time, this group included Americans from various trades and regions who condemned the growth of corporations for controlling the marketplace, corrupting politicians, and degrading civic morality.
But this period ended after World War I—due partly to a epochal split in the international socialist movement. Radicals lost most of the constituency they had gained among ordinary white Christians and have never been able to regain it. Thus, the wage-earning masses who voted for Socialist, Communist, and Labor parties elsewhere in the industrial world were almost entirely lost to the American left—and deeply skeptical about the vision of solidarity that inspired the great welfare states of Europe.
During the rest of U.S. history, the public face and voice of the left emanated from an uneasy alliance: between men and women from elite backgrounds and those from such groups as Jewish immigrant workers and plebeian blacks whom most Americans viewed as dangerous outsiders. This was true in the abolitionist movement, when such New England brahmins as Wendell Phillips and Maria Weston Chapman fought alongside Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth. And it remained the case in the New Left of the 1960s, an unsustainable alliance of white students from elite colleges and black people like Fannie Lou Hamer and Huey Newton from the ranks of the working poor.
It has always been difficult for these top-and-bottom insurgencies to present themselves as plausible alternatives to the major parties, to convince more than a small minority of voters to embrace their program for sweeping change. Radicals did help to catalyze mass movements. But furious internal conflicts, a penchant for dogmatism, and hostility toward both nationalism and organized religion helped make the political left a taste few Americans cared to acquire.
However, some of the same qualities that alienated leftists from the electorate made them pioneers in generating an alluringly rebellious culture. Talented orators, writers, artists, and academics associated with the left put forth new ideas and lifestyles that stirred the imagination of many Americans, particularly young ones, who felt stifled by orthodox values and social hierarchies. These ideological pioneers also influenced forces around the world that adapted the culture of the U.S. left to their own purposes—from the early sprouts of socialism and feminism in the 1830s to the subcultures of black power, radical feminism, and gay liberation in the 1960s and 1970s. Radical ideas about race, gender, sexuality, and social justice did not need to win votes to become popular. They just required an audience. And leftists who were able to articulate or represent their views in creative ways were often able to find one.
Excerpted from American Dreamers by Michael Kazin Copyright © 2012 by Michael Kazin. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc.
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Meet the Author
Michael Kazin is professor of history at Georgetown University. He is the author of A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, The Populist Persuasion, and Barons of Labor and coauthor of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. He is coeditor of Dissent, a frequent contributor to numerous publications, including The New York Times, and The Nation, and the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Woodrow Wilson Center, and twice from the Fulbright Scholar Program. He lives outside Washington, D.C.
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