Has the U.S. Left Made a Difference?

Has the U.S. Left Made a Difference?

The Left has been a complete, if noble, failure: it’s one of the oldest clichés of American history. “Radicalism in the United States has no great triumphs to record,” asserted Christopher Lasch, and “…the sooner we begin to understand why this should be so, the sooner we will be able to change it.” Ironically, Lasch wrote this in 1969, when the New Left was large and militant, if not exactly triumphant.

Indeed, radicals in the United States have seldom mounted a serious challenge to those who held power in either the government or the economy. Only one third party on the Left—the People’s Party in the 1890s—had much electoral success, and that lasted for less than a decade. Radical activists did help build movements that resulted in the passage of antitrust laws, black and women’s suffrage, the Wagner Act, and civil rights laws. But our anemic and perpetually embattled welfare state bears witness to the failing of socialist and social democratic ideas.

However, the Left does have one great and enduring victory: in a variety of ways, it has helped 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 British 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.”

Without political power or honor as prophets, leftists still helped to make the United States a more humane society. By setting forth bold visions of a different future, they did much to initiate what became common, if seldom uncontroversial, features of American life. These included the advocacy of equal opportunity and equal treatment for women, ethnic and racial minorities, and homosexuals; the enjoyment of sexual pleasure unconnected to reproduction; a media and educational system sensitive to racial and gender oppression and that celebrates what we now call multiculturalism; and the popularity of novels and films with a strongly altruistic and anti-authoritarian point of view.

Some cultural radicals were famous, or infamous, in their own time and remain staples of college 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.

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 1970s 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 Civil 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, 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 never 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 the First World War—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 class. At the time, this group included Americans from various trades and regions who condemned growing corporations for controlling the marketplace, corrupting politicians, and degrading civic morality.

But this period ended after the First World War—due partly to the 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.

Both before and after this period, 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 was also 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 often found one.

Arts created to serve political ends are always vulnerable to criticism. Indeed, some radicals deliberately gave up their search for the sublime to concentrate on the merely persuasive. But as George Orwell, no aesthetic slouch, observed, “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

IN A SENSE, the radicals who made the most difference in U.S. history were not that radical at all. What most demanded, in essence, was the fulfillment of two ideals their fellow Americans already cherished: individual freedom and communal responsibility. In 1875, Robert Schilling, a German immigrant who was an official in the coopers, or cask-makers, union, reflected on why socialists were making so little headway among the hard-working citizenry:

….everything that smacks in the least of a curtailment of personal or individual liberty is most obnoxious to [Americans]. They believe that every individual should be permitted to do what and how it pleases, as long as the rights and liberties of others are not injured or infringed upon. [But] this personal liberty must be surrendered and placed under the control of the State, under a government such as proposed by the social Democracy.

Most American radicals grasped this simple truth. They demanded that the promise of individual rights be realized in everyday life and encouraged suspicion of the words and power of all manner of authorities—political, economic, and religious. Abolitionists, feminists, savvy Marxists all quoted the words of the Declaration of Independence, the most popular document in the national canon. Of course, leftists did not champion self-reliance, the notion that an individual is entirely responsible for his or her own fortunes. But they did uphold the modernist vision that Americans should be free to pursue happiness unfettered by inherited hierarchies and identities.

At the same time, the U.S. Left—like its counterparts around the world—struggled to establish a new order animated by a desire for social fraternity. The labor motto “An injury to one is an injury to all” rippled far beyond picket lines and marches of the unemployed.

But American leftists who articulated this credo successfully did so in a patriotic and often religious key, rather than by preaching the grim inevitability of class struggle. Such radical social gospelers as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edward Bellamy, and Martin Luther King, Jr., gained more influence than did those organizers who espoused secular, Marxian views. Particularly during times of economic hardship and war, radicals promoted collectivist ends by appealing to the wisdom of “the people” at large. To gain a sympathetic hearing, the Left always had to demand that the national faith apply equally to everyone and oppose those who wanted to reserve its use for privileged groups and undemocratic causes.

But it was not always possible to wrap a movement’s destiny in the flag. “America is a trap,” writes the critic Greil Marcus, “its promises and dreams…are too much to live up to and too much to escape.” In a political culture that valued liberty above all, the Left had more difficulty arguing for the collective good than for an expansion of individual rights. Advocates of the former could slide into apologizing for totalitarian rule in the Soviet Union and elsewhere. But to give primacy to individual freedom could deprive the Left of its very reason to exist.

In trying to advance both ideals, radicals confronted a yawning contradiction: in life as opposed to rhetoric, the desire for individual liberty routinely conflicts with the yearning for social equality and altruistic justice. The right of property holders and corporations to do what they wish with their assets clashes with environmentalists’ desire to preserve the natural habitat, with the desire of labor unionists to restrict an employer’s right to hire and fire, and with the freedom of consumers of any race to buy any house they can afford. Leftists who claimed to favor both liberty and equality could not resolve such conflicts. Neither could major-party politicians. But Whigs, Republicans, and Democrats basked in the glow of legitimacy, which often shielded them from charges of hypocrisy that bedeviled the Left.

THE STORY OF the U.S. Communist Party (CP) illustrates both the Left’s political marginality and its cultural influence. On the one hand, the apostles of Lenin and Stalin yoked themselves to one of the bloodiest, most repressive regimes in history—and the first one whose dictatorial nature mocked its vision of a world run by working people. Millions died or were unjustly imprisoned in the name of “building socialism” in the Soviet Union and the client states it erected in the wake of the Second World War. But for decades, Communists in the United States—along with their counterparts everywhere else—consistently denied that their patrons in Moscow had done anything wrong.

The party’s fealty to a foreign power helped make it anathema to U.S. voters. In contrast to the Socialist Party in the era of Eugene Debs, the Communists elected no member to Congress and just two to any significant local office—both as members of the New York City Council.

Yet the despised CP had a striking influence on American culture, although seldom in its own name. Around the party’s small but disciplined core grew a Popular Front culture—a vigorously democratic and multiracial movement in the arts and daily life. Its themes endured long after the party had been banished to the crumbling margins of American politics.

The number of renowned writers, film-makers, entertainers, and artists who traveled with the Communists during the 1930s and often into the 1940s was remarkable, given the party’s modest size and electoral inconsequence. CP members wrote “Ballad for Americans,” “Strange Fruit,” The Little Foxes, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Artists who, while not members, had spent many evenings in the party’s milieu created Citizen Kane, Death of a Salesman, “This Land Is Your Land,” Native Son, “Anthem for the Common Man,” For Whom the Bell Tolls, Yertle the Turtle, Invisible Man, and wrote the screenplay for Casablanca and the lyrics for The Wizard of Oz. Less celebrated, pro-Communist authors popularized the “ethnic pastoral” in novels and films that led directly to The Godfather. Novelists in or close to the party had nine books at or near the top of the best-seller list from 1929 to 1945.

The popularity of Popular Front culture owed much to a tradition of democratic radicalism that flowered long before the 1930s. Walt Whitman and Mark Twain celebrated the wisdom and art of working people, and Twain warned against the temptations of empire; Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth preached that “to understand, one must stand under”; Randolph Bourne and W.E.B. DuBois argued that, to realize its democratic promise, the United States had to celebrate its multi-ethnic character.

But spurred by the outrageous misery of the Great Depression, figures like Richard Wright, Orson Welles, Arthur Miller, Pete Seeger, and Lillian Hellman refreshed familiar tropes of virtuous common folk beset by the greedy, intolerant few with a sensitivity to ethnic differences and international context. Their realistic narratives made the Victorian pieties espoused by such earlier radicals as Edward Bellamy and Upton Sinclair seem stiff and superficial. In their candor and racial variety, their delight in rebelling against “bourgeois” authority, younger Popular Frontists took after the Village modernists of the previous generation. But in their paeans to the wisdom of workers and dreams of a collectivist future, they owed more to the likes of Big Bill Haywood, the IWW leader who jumped bail to Moscow and was buried in the Kremlin wall.

Later, such critics as Irving Howe and James Baldwin scorned most of the output of the Popular Front as bathetic and simplistic. But, whatever its flaws, this unashamedly demotic art did much to reinfuse the national culture with an anti-authoritarian, pluralist spirit that soon became ubiquitous.

Think of the ways Americans remember the Great Depression, eighty years after the long slump began. “Once I built a railroad/Made it run/Made it race against time/Once I built a railroad/Now it’s done/Brother, can you spare a dime?”: In Yip Harburg’s lyric, set to a Russian-Jewish lullaby, a beggar talks back to the system that stole his job. And the man seeking a handout is everyman—once a farmer and a combat veteran, as well as a construction worker. Then there is Dorothea Lange’s “migrant mother” (a Cherokee named Florence Owens Thompson). Framed by two shy children, she reflects while she suffers, hinting that poverty can ennoble, even strengthen, one who bears no responsibility for her plight. In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck crafted an epic about such figures, documenting the same dialectic between oppression and fighting back. “We’re the people that live. They can’t wipe us out,” asserts Ma Joad in the prizewinning film John Ford made from Steinbeck’s best-selling book. “They can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, Pa, ‘cause we’re the people.” All these works were created by individuals who were active in the culture of the Popular Front.

To become icons of Americana, their creators had to work in venues where the largest numbers of Americans could be found. Talented left-wing artists usually began their careers writing and performing for fellow radicals. But many soon moved on to Hollywood studios, major publishing houses, big-city orchestras, and the Broadway stage. Their radical predecessors had generally regarded the emerging mass culture with ambivalence. In a land ruled by dollars, they suspected the guardians of the profit-making status quo would always be hostile to the arts of the Left; at best, a strong message would get diluted in an apolitical broth.

HOWEVER, THE CP cast a wide aura at a time when mass culture was both more powerful and more ideologically diverse than ever before. Increasingly, decisions about what millions of people could see, hear, and read were being made by urban entrepreneurs and managers who, either from conviction or calculation, were eager to sell what bright young, engaged minds were producing and who viewed political censorship as the vestige of a provincial, rural order. There were limits of doctrine as well as taste; only during the Second World War, when the Soviet Union and the United States were allies, did Hollywood studios make films about the “heroic” Russian people. But certain leftists who understood what the market would welcome attained an audience larger than any previous Marxist had found. The fact that Stalin was, at the same time, sending free-thinking artists in his country to the Gulag or to death added harsh irony to this episode in the history of the American Left.

The little CP was able to wield so large a cultural influence, in part, because of where and among whom it found its main strength. The party’s biggest and most loyal contingent lived in and near New York City; at least half that number were Jews. By the mid-1930s, the Yiddish-speaking immigrants who had created the Daily Forward were aging in body and losing their ardor for transforming the world. But their children, raised in the United States and fluent in its language and customs, were not about to confine their ambitions within an ethnic enclave. By the Great Depression, many were flocking to public colleges, writing for major newspapers and radio programs and such left-leaning magazines as the New Republic and the Nation, and publishing books with established Manhattan houses. They were struggling into the middle class and taking their radical ideas with them.

The ideas and style they expressed in the capital of culture rippled out to the borders of the nation. Jews in or close to the CP were more effective as producers than performers: gentiles like Woody Guthrie and the scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo could convey the same messages without awakening the fitfully sleeping hounds of anti-Semitism. But what was popular about the Popular Front owed a great deal to Jews who were beginning to gain acceptance in a nation whose political and economic structures the party eventually hoped to destroy.

At the same time, an organization whose membership differed greatly from the demographic norm was unlikely to have much political success—even apart from its blind loyalty to a foreign dictator. To avoid the alien taint, Jewish leaders in the CPUSA often changed their names to ones that harked back to colonial Boston instead of to modern Bialystok: Solomon (Israel) Regenstreif became Johnny Gates, longtime editor of the Daily Worker, while Sol Auerbach became James S. Allen, one of the party’s leading authorities on race and U.S. history. But they did not disguise their looks or lose their accents. The CP never ran a Jewish candidate for president or vice president or, in its heyday, chose a Jewish general secretary to lead it. From 1930 to 1956, the highest offices in the party were occupied by Earl Browder from Protestant Kansas, William Z. Foster from Irish-Catholic Philadelphia, and Eugene Dennis, a lapsed Catholic from polyethnic Seattle.

Of course, Communists were not the only Americans who sought to nudge the nation further leftward than Franklin Roosevelt and his fellow liberals were willing to go. The Socialist Party, led by Norman Thomas, an eloquent former Presbyterian minister, continued to stump for a collectively owned and run economy and retained its old base in the garment workers’ unions. In the Midwest and Rocky Mountain states, shifting groups of left-wing but non-Marxist politicians and intellectuals sought to establish a new farmer-labor party or one rooted among consumers. In some of the nation’s worst slums, the pious anarchists of the Catholic Worker movement doled out pacifist homilies along with free soup and a bed for the night. Yet none of these groups rivaled the CP’s influence in social movements or its ability to inspire thousands of creative men and women to envision an America run by and for all its common people.

Without political power, American Communists never had the opportunity to become tyrants like their mentors in the Kremlin. But, like their counterparts from every era of U.S. history, they fought to expand the “politics of the possible” without losing their utopian edge. And in that effort, the makers of words, music, and images were as essential as minor-party officials and grassroots organizers.

Like other leftists, those in the Popular Front were American dreamers in three senses of that oft-used phrase. They dreamed about a different kind of society and culture; their visions were the extensions of a larger, far more consensual dream; and, like most dreams, theirs came true only in part and usually not in ways they would have preferred. Such are the ironies of history.


Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent. This article is adapted from his book American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, forthcoming from Knopf in August.


Wurgraft | University of California Press Lima