American Radicals, Between Margin and Mainstream

American Radicals, Between Margin and Mainstream

An interview with Christopher Phelps, co-author with Howard Brick of Radicals in America: The U.S. Left since the Second World War.

Bayard Rustin speaking in New York, 1965 (Library of Congress)

How do you write the history of the American left? Some interpreters emphasize the failure of radicals to forge popular majorities or conquer state power. Others tell a story of subterranean success, in which leftists—however maligned in their day—appear as prescient and pivotal catalysts in every episode of progress from abolition to gay marriage. In Radicals in America: The U.S. Left since the Second World War (2015), Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps suggest that the story of American radicalism is best understood as a dialectic between “the willingness to hold fast for a minority view and the struggle to imagine and help fashion a new majority.” Tilting too far towards either pole leads to impotence and failure, but at their best leftists have managed to hold both commitments in a dynamic tension.

The book, which appears as part of a series aimed at undergraduates, could be profitably assigned to those with no prior knowledge of the American left. But its analytic bite and well-chosen illustrations recommend it to seasoned students. I spoke with Christopher Phelps, a leading historian of American radicalism based at the University of Nottingham, about Radicals in America and its lessons for contemporary readers.

Tim Barker: Radicals in America covers a wide range of people and organizations; what unites them all as the “radical left”? Does identifying someone as leftist involve a normative judgment or is it a neutral descriptive category? What is the relation between a “history of the left” and a history of social movements?

Christopher Phelps: You’re right that we strove to be inclusive of a panorama of radicalisms, including not just the usual suspects—socialists, communists, and anarchists—but ecoradicals, feminists, pacifists, black nationalists, advocates for sexual freedom, and various others. Colloquially, the word “radical” is usually taken to mean “extremist” these days, but we employ the original Latin meaning: going to the root.

Radicals, in other words, are unwilling to be content with mere pruning. They think in systemic terms and seek to go all the way down. For instance, rather than ameliorate poverty, as do charity and philanthropy, radicals have sought to replace the private ownership and capital accumulation that they believe generates poverty. Radical pacifists, to offer another example, haven’t just sought to end specific wars but to root out militarism, empire, even violence and aggression in themselves.

As for “the left,” that spatial metaphor for politics originated with the French Revolution, whose revolutionary ideals of liberté, egalité, fraternité we recast slightly as “freedom, equality, solidarity.” This might be said to be the commonality among different kinds of radicals: that they all seek, admittedly in a tremendous variety of ways, a society that much more consistently manifests freedom, equality, and solidarity.

Because radicals seek very far-reaching transformations of self and society, they are often ostracized as unrealistic and utopian—or, worse, irresponsible, deranged, and dangerous. Given all of these charged associations with the subject, both positive and negative, it’s probably not possible to have a neutral discussion of it, but we strive for objectivity insofar as we can achieve it. I would describe the book as generally affirming of the radical tradition but unblinking when it comes to setting down radicalism’s crimes, errors, and failings. It’s not a cheerleading book.

Barker: Your book is subtitled “the U.S. Left since the Second World War,” yet the first chapter begins in 1939. This cuts across the conventional division between the Old Left and the New Left, revealing fairly thick continuities between the two. It also emphasizes the Second World War as a crucial part of the history of American radicalism, one that evades simple identification with either the Old or New Left. But you still find it useful to distinguish between an old left which saw labor and programmatic socialist parties as the agents of change from the more diffuse radicalism that came afterward. I wondered if you could say a little about how you thought about periodization when composing Radicals in America?

Phelps: The date 1939 reflects that the Second World War was fully underway in Europe by then. I grant that this dating might reflect one of us living in England now, where no one would think it remarkable, but we believe it also marked a new phase of the American left. The Nazi-Soviet pact of that year compelled the American Communist Party to reverse its prior line of a Popular Front against fascism. Then after 1941 the Party pivoted again to all-out support for the Allies.

The war saw the apex of American Communist Party membership, given the congruence of patriotism and anti-fascism, but from that point on—particularly with the Party’s quick turn after the war back to hard-line politics—the trajectory was downhill, culminating in the great crisis of 1956. Its severe zig-zags in line had diminished the Communist Party’s moral credibility in liberal circles, despite its often-admirable Depression-era campaigns for social justice and racial equality. So closely was the Party identified with Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship in the Soviet Union that by the early Cold War its periphery thinned and members began dropping away.

All the while, a small and principled, though too-often divided and sectarian, anti-Stalinist socialist left existed, joined during the Second World War by a new American radical pacifist left typified by Dwight Macdonald’s politics. These democratic radicals saw the war as not only against fascism but ominous given the growth of bureaucratic statism and newly threatened nuclear annihilation. They began to practice nonviolent civil disobedience against racial segregation, as in the first freedom ride.

So both in the sheen coming off Communism and in the first tendrils of a new left, the origins of the 1960s were discernible already in the 1940s. This makes the Second World War gestational, even if the Great Depression and McCarthyism remain much more familiar periods of study.

Barker: The example of the 1940s, where the Communists were prominent but fatally compromised, while the pacifists were obscure but ultimately influential, brings us to one of the book’s central ideas, “the dialectic of margin and mainstream.” It seems to me that there are at least two ways of interpreting this. First, it might be a permanent tension in the very idea of radical politics: leftists will always be on the margins, but their failed aspirations to majority status have productive effects, especially by pushing mainstream liberals slightly leftward. A second interpretation is that the dialectic is historically specific: so far in U.S. history, leftists have been marginal but in the right circumstances they might successfully become mainstream, succeeding as leftists and not just as gadflies pushing the center slightly left. Does either of these make sense of you as a reading of the history, or would you offer a better way of thinking about the dialectic?

Phelps: I think you’re perceptive to see both possibilities in the concept and I wouldn’t want to foreclose on either. We were trying to capture the existential condition in the life of the particular radical agitator, whose objection to the society root and branch inevitably means a life spent on the margins, subjected to ostracism, scorn, fear, and attack. To break free of that condition demands engagement, outreach, organizing, and creative provocation to build democratic coalitions and majorities, precisely in order to achieve the envisioned ambitious social transformation.

You’re correct that in turn this extends to the project of the American left as a whole, which has often seemed exotic and ineffectual, if not futile, in its quest to replace a society patterned on the profit motive and racial stratification, and a state devoted to global military supremacy. Since there have been since the 1960s a proliferation of radical objectives—gender equality and fluidity, ecological sustainability, sexual freedom—the left itself is plural, further complicating things. Yet the margin-mainstream duality does hold out the possibility of this set of visions cohering into a new pattern of culture and society by achieving some comprehensive revolutionary alteration beyond current comprehension. Were that to happen, the radical would become the mainstream, as occurred with the movement to abolish slavery in the nineteenth century.

There’s a direct connection between these two processes, by the way, in that isolated clusters of radicals—maroons, we call them—sustain themselves only by positing a futurity, an imagining of democratic approval resulting in a new society, achieved through the medium of mass movements.

Barker: Sidney Hook, the subject of your first book, was part of a tiny group of anti-Stalinist revolutionary socialists. But he was close to the most famous philosopher in America, John Dewey, and labored to prove that Marxism was compatible with American thought and culture. Likewise, your co-author Howard Brick has traced the unexpected echoes of radical thought in mainstream social science in books like Transcending Capitalism. Did the margin-mainstream framing grow out of this earlier work?

Phelps: I’m sure it did, although I would have to give the nod to Howard as deserving the most credit for this formulation. I was a master’s student of his in the very early 1990s at the University of Oregon, when he was young and I was younger still. It is under him then that I began researching Hook, and I was his teaching assistant in a class on American radicalism. A few years after that, I used margin and mainstream to frame an encyclopedia article I wrote on radicalism, which may be the first time either of us used it in print, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I absorbed it from him. Certainly the almost-philosophical quality to the specific expression of it in our book reflects his gifts for social theory.

I came up with the title Radicals in America to try to encapsulate the margin-mainstream duality. There’s a wonderful old turn of phrase by Daniel Bell, who called American socialists “in but not of this world.” That contained a great degree of insight but is ultimately one-sided and dismissive, condemning the left to permanent irrelevance and estrangement from American life. Although we never overtly put it this way between ourselves, I think of our margin-mainstream analysis as our riposte: Yes, radicalism stands apart. By definition it must lie outside the political consensus of its day. It often seems unrealistic. It often is belittled, dismissed, or punished harshly. None of that renders radicalism impotent or infertile. Not in the least.

So radicals have both been in America and of America. America would not be what it is without its radicals, from Thomas Paine to the abolitionists to the black freedom movement.

Barker: Each chapter of Radicals in America begins with a vignette of a particular American radical. Only two of them are white men, and the exceptions, Emil Mazey and Ben Linder, were Hungarian-Canadian and Jewish American. In light of recent debates over Bernie Sanders’s ability to speak to gender and racial oppression, how would you characterize the postwar American left’s relationship to what we now call “intersectionality”?

Phelps: Both the strength and weakness of the left on issues of identity and politics are on display in the Bernie phenomenon. His boldly left-wing program of single-payer health care, free university tuition, guaranteed Social Security, and the like, all paid for by taxing the very richest, is resonating beyond anyone’s expectation precisely because it offers solutions to matters that trouble everyone. It’s the kind of unifying program that the left has often advanced in hopes of forging solidarity and equality.

On the other hand, Bernie has shown a painful awkwardness—though it has gotten better across the campaign—in his ability to weave in other matters and issues without reducing them, in classic economistic fashion, to class. This inadequate and sometimes clueless approach is what explains, along with African Americans’ strategic concern for defeating the GOP first and foremost, why he has faced difficulty in winning support from people of color who would most benefit from his social and economic policies. His Hawaii victory and support among young African Americans shows that not whites alone support him, but he has tended to do best in the whitest states.

We saw this problem as well in Occupy, which was overwhelmingly white in composition. Black Lives Matter provided a bracing counterpoint, and I think that at least in intentions the left has come a fair distance on this score. It certainly goes without saying that the left is infinitely better than the right, particularly in this qualitatively new reversion to vulgar xenophobia and bigotry as exemplified by the Donald Trump surge.

Achieving a solidarity of causes that gets all the proportions right is obviously an ongoing challenge the left has to continue to work on. Somehow universal programs to address inequality and precariousness must be combined with recognition of the value of self-determination, freedom, and autonomy for various cultural groups, something the old one-size-fits-all welfare-state social democracy doesn’t quite achieve.

Barker: In your book’s conclusion, you urge leftists to “cultivate a respect for organization,” in part because institutional continuity allows perspective and historical lessons to be transmitted between generations. If you could have young readers take one lesson from your history, what would it be?

Phelps: Hope! Our society generates a great deal of cynicism posing as sophistication and realism. Cynicism can feel radical but is actually profoundly disabling. To sustain a lifetime of commitment the challenge is to preserve hope. Sometimes this is called “optimism” or “idealism,” although I’m not comfortable with either term, since one implies that good outcomes are inevitable and the other that aspirations or ideas in themselves create change. In fact organizing is the crux, as you say.

Whatever we call a forward-looking, positive disposition committed to projection of brighter future arrangements, we need to preserve the view that humanity is capable of the attainment of structures and patterns yielding much more justice than present-day society—and that it is possible to bring that about by organizing, mobilizing, and action.

This is not easy to do, because the obstacles are not purely external to our movements. Friends we admire can let us down. Comrades can turn opponents. We ourselves can make mistakes that violate our own aspirations and lead to regret and introspection. So keeping to a moral vision without succumbing to bitterness can be challenging. Humor and forbearance can help, though sometimes even they fail us too. For me, those moments are the hardest ones.

It helps to be forgiving toward ourselves and others. It also helps to bear in mind that others on the margins have succeeded despite being tiny in numbers at the outset of their quests, which is why reading history can be a sustaining pursuit. Just consider the women’s movement and how much it has wrought in fifty years. That alone should illustrate that the view that things never change is deeply wrong. Various pearls of organizing wisdom dot our book, often espoused by quieter voices, the perspectives ignored in the tumult of the left’s more passionate moments, who had insight and substance and should have been heeded. These are rich resources and they tell us a lot about how we ought to keep our ears open to others in our own time.

If there’s one aspiration I have for the book it’s that it will provide a vibrant sense that while there’s no one way to go about things, radicals who have managed to persevere, intervene creatively in their times, and sustain themselves without burning out have often been able to change both themselves and the world for the better.


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