Listing Left

The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century:
A Social Justice Hall of Fame

by Peter Dreier
Nation Books, 2012, 480 pp.

Who doesn’t love a list? From the “begat” lists of the Bible to the autobiographical lists of modern memoirist Joe Brainard, from the cuneiform inventory tablets of Babylon to a January full of “ten bests,” the list is a venerable, flexible, intriguing literary form. It immediately poses questions: Who or what’s on and off? Does the order matter? What’s the significance of this grouping? And those questions provoke debate.

Peter Dreier, the E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics at Occidental College and an equally distinguished policy wonk, journalist, and activist, has produced a list that is guaranteed to agitate many potential readers: The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century. The book has been greatly expanded from an earlier article in the Nation.

To give a clue about who qualifies as a “great American,” Dreier’s catalogue of 100 outstanding figures does not include John Wayne or Ronald Reagan, not even Dwight Eisenhower. But it does include some widely recognized names—such as Walter Reuther, both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Helen Keller, and Ralph Nader—and some more obscure—such as Myles Horton, Rose Schneiderman, Virginia Durr, Harry Hay, and Victor Berger (respectively, the founder of the Highlander School that trained civil rights and other movement organizers; an immigrant socialist organizer of garment workers; an influential southern white advocate of civil rights; the founder of the modern gay rights movement; and the first socialist elected to Congress).

If Dreier had titled his book “100 of the Most Influential or Noteworthy Progressive Voices of the 20th Century,” he would have been accurate but less provocative. But he wants to make a point: much of what we now take for granted as common sense was once espoused by people who were widely considered left-wing radicals. And their greatness—as Americans, among other identities—consists in large part of how they helped change this country and the world for the better.

Much of what we now take for granted as common sense was once espoused by people who were widely considered left-wing radicals.

It’s a theme recently developed, over a longer time span, by historian Michael Kazin (American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation) and journalist John Nichols (The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition…Socialism). Dreier’s compendium of short, sprightly, and informative biographies would be a valuable complement to either book (or any American history of the last century). But it stands on its own as a book that is both highly readable and scholarly in its careful use of primarily an abundance of biographies and other secondary sources. Even though Dreier has not written a conventional historical narrative, his list is chronological, and he links varied individuals and movements in ways that add a narrative flow. It’s a pleasure to read front to back, or to dip in for individual biographies of special interest.

One advantage—and disadvantage—of the list of biographies is that it develops personal stories, such as how Eugene V. Debs gradually became a socialist as a result of the efforts he made to organize railroad workers. But a focus on the individual tips the balance somewhat away from the influence of social circumstances and popular movements. These larger social forces can make the great man or woman, just as leaders can play a significant role in the development of movements—but Dreier takes pains to avoid the old “great man” explanation of history.

Indirectly, the list does reveal some important characteristics of the Left over the course of the twentieth century. For example, for roughly the first two-thirds of the list and the century, men and women associated with the labor movement in some way dominate. I include in this not only union organizers and leaders, like Big Bill Haywood or John L. Lewis, but also a wide range of politicians, intellectuals, and reformers who identified closely with the labor movement—Florence Kelley of Hull House, Roger Baldwin of the ACLU, muckraker Upton Sinclair, community organizer Saul Alinsky, and Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement, to name a few.

But many of the more recent figures—Bruce Springsteen, Billie Jean King, Harvey Milk, or even Noam Chomsky—seem more distant from the union movement than non-union progressives earlier in the century, even if their hearts are with workers. This trend reflects the emergence of a more diverse and fragmented radicalism, some of it based in the “middle class,” as well as a decline in both the size and vitality of organized labor. But surprisingly, a very large share of the most important new campaigns and organizers of the early twenty-first century, in Dreier’s judgment, focus on labor issues and organizing, even if sometimes apart from unions. Could that be a harbinger of a labor-left revival?

One big question is whether Dreier made bad choices for his list, which seems less dependable the closer he gets to the present day and lacks the hindsight of history. Any other compiler would have a slightly different list, but with large overlap: I might have had fewer athletes than Dreier, but his call is perfectly defensible.

Although he personally leans towards the politics of European social democracy, Dreier uses a definition of “progressive” broad enough to include anarchists like Emma Goldman; communists like W.E.B. DuBois (at the end of his life); and black nationalists like Malcolm X. But he includes as well a president with a very mixed record—Lyndon Johnson, responsible for a big expansion of the New Deal at home and a big expansion of imperial war in Vietnam. The list includes political enemies or rivals, like Teddy Roosevelt, who ran against Debs for president. And like most people, his great Americans often had their political lapses (like Theodore Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, drawing unpleasant caricatures of Japanese during the Second World War) or may make the list mainly for one part of their career (as with Bob Dylan). While Dreier wants to make the case for the greatness of his selections, he draws generally balanced, unvarnished pictures of them.

Many teachers will find The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century a great choice for both high school and college course reading lists. And even well-informed Dissent readers will enjoy arguing privately with Dreier about his choices while learning much about progressive figures of the past century, familiar and unfamiliar. But I hope the book also gets in the hands of many Americans with ill-defined or even conservative leanings. It could change the way they think about the country’s past and future.

David Moberg is a senior editor of In These Times.

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.