Thursday, November 17, 2011

Occupying Wall Street and what the Left has done for the American dream, (Books - American Dreamers by Michael Kazin)

A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. - Oscar Wilde, 1891

Given the recent developments in the Occupy Wall Street movement, Michael Kazin's book American Dreamers is a timely one. It recounts the history of the influence that radical, leftist movements have had upon United States history. He allows that the very definition of the left has been historically muddied, as both Barack Obama and Noam Chomsky, who hold polarized views on many aspects of U.S. policy, would be said to be on it. Kazin's definition:

The left is that social movement, or congeries of mutually sympathetic movements, that are dedicated to a radically egalitarian transformation of society. There is, of course, a broad spectrum of ways to attempt such a transformation - from quietly distributing anti-capitalist leaflets on street corners to organizing a revolutionary army to smash the state...but the egalitarian dreamers who form an unbroken chain from the 1820s to the present need a common name, "Left" is what their counterparts in other nations would call themselves, and there is something to be said for adhering to international custom.
These radicals have been abolitionists, feminists, and labor organizers, socialists, communists, and anarchists, they have been evangelical christians, jews, and atheists, they have been black, white, and hispanic. As a political movement they have been plagued by
internal conflicts, a penchant for dogmatism, and hostility toward both nationalism and organized religion
and for this reason, Kazin writes, they have rarely posed a serious challenge to the ruling elite in either a government or economic sphere. However, what Kazin claims the left has been able to do is "articulate big dreams." They have given voice to those who felt alienated from authority and have given voice to their outrage, helping to accomplish (though usually as a catalyst or a "junior partner in a coalition driven by the establishment") the end of slavery, the passage of Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, eight-hour work days and the minimum wage, and a gradual expansion of our culture's acceptance of equal opportunity and equal treatment for women, people of color, and gay and lesbian people, even if these are practiced irregularly, opposed by some, and still have a way to go.

It is interesting, in light of recent politics, to watch the patterns in history repeat themselves in Kazin's book, since most of the news media reports on the obstinance of our ruling parties, behind doors dealing, the establishment of third parties, and the involvement of race and religion in politics as if they had never happened before. For instance, I learned in American Dreamers that in 1840, leftist activists founded the Liberty Party as a mean of opposing the agreement Whigs and Democrats fashioned to keep abolition from interfering with their competition for white voters. The party's slogan was "Vote as you pray and pray as you vote." In other words, they used evangelism to support a liberal position - quite a switch from its current use. But the new party would not stand outright for the federal abolition of slavery, eventually causing a splitting of the movement. Kazin observes:
...the schism of 1840 did reveal an inescapable aspect of left tradition, and that of any other ideological movement: the ongoing clash between self-righteous purists and anxious opportunists.
Indeed, the clash of idealists and pragmatists is replayed again and again in his book, as a seemingly natural outgrowth of the personalities of the players. Kazin's chronicles those activists in the latter half of the 19th century, for example, whose brand of religious idealism led them to preach against the exploitation of the poor by supporting the labor movement, a very different manifestation of the non-sectarian socialist movement that swept through Europe around the same time. The preachers of this "social gospel" included Edward Bellamy, whose novel Looking Backward might be considered early science fiction or future fantasy, as his wealthy protagonist falls asleep during his own age of class warfare to awaken in the year 2000
to a marvelous new America whose inhabitants live an idyll both efficient and harmonious. Every man and woman between the ages of twenty-one and forty-five is a member of an industrial army. As in any well-run military force, they receive instruction in "habits of obedience, subordination, and devotion to duty [I wonder where Stalin got it?]. Whether retired or active, all Americans now live in blissful dependence on one another. They do their wash in communal laundries, eat in communal restaurants, and shop with debit cards at vast communal stores. When it rains, they stroll along sidewalks sheltered by an unbroken covering that replaces the ridiculous single-person umbrellas of old.

Bellamy understood that most Americans mistrusted the very idea of socialism and sought to persuade them of its merits in other ingenious ways. He called his good society nationlist...Edward knew he had to rebut those who worried that incentive would wither in a society where everyone earned the same income. So the new America depicted in Looking Backward features abundant opportunities for workers to rise to higher ranks, where they practice advanced skills and compete for medals and other types of (non-pecuniary) prizes. Talented writers and artists in this imagined future easily find readers and audiences, free of censorship. And all citizens have a standard of living that, during the Gilded Age, was enjoyed only by the comfortable and well-educated. In Looking Backward, everyone dresses for dinner.
Kazin's look at a 200-years swathe of a variety of related political movements makes the choice to be broad. I think his best chapters the ones on labor and socialism. It is not included in typical looks at American history, for example, that when granted statehood, Oklahomans elected to their legislature six Socialists. Between 1908 and 1916 the party won an average of 12% of the vote. Certainly not the picture of the American West 100 years later. Kazin is good at explaining the appeal of socialism in various manifestations in the U.S., how it arose from its historical and economic context, and how the movement differed from its European counterparts. I find Kazin less clear-headed in the chapter on communism. True, communists were virulent foes of fascism early on, except for that little slip-up when they signed a pact with the Nazis.
Knowing that the tyrants in the Kremlin approved all these activities does not diminish their positive impact on American society. Rank-and-file Communists helped make the U.S. a more tolerant, more democratic society - and put pressure on Franklin D. Roosevelt and other New Deal liberals to dismantle barriers between people who were deemed worthy of government help and those who were not.
Kazin makes a structural writing choice in this book that does him no favors. The first five to ten pages of every chapters devotes itself to a broad overview of what the chapter will then get into in detail. The above excerpt is from one of those introductory paragraphs. However, he ends up making poorly supported blanket statements and covering huge tracts of time for which his reader may have little or not context. Although the chapter on communism covers the 1920s to the 1950s, he begins in 1939, skipping the period between the first and second world which includes the Great Depression, major motivator for those motivated to make choices on the right or the left. The above sentence struck me because, although Roosevelt is distinguished from the Socialists as an establishment Liberal (which he was), today there are probably many who would spin him and his heir Lyndon Johnson as practically socialists because they believed in using government to help the poor by employing them. Two pages later, still in his introduction, Kazin's best case for the Communist influence on American culture is listing writers, filmmakers and other artists who were in (or near) the party, who created in such works as The Little Foxes, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Citizen Kane.
...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 freethinking artists in his country to the Gulag or to death added a harsh irony to this episode in the history of the American left.
Now hang on a minute there, buddy. I can see referring to O'Henry's famous story about the woman cutting off all of her hair to buy her husband a watch fob which he sells his watch to get her combs as irony, this qualifies as something closer to tragic self-delusion. Once Kazin gets into the meat of his chapter, he offers a more nuanced understanding. The American CP made serious contributions to advancing democracy in the workplace, they were better at putting their money where their mouths were when it concerns the involvement of black Americans in politics than either of the ruling parties (this included putting a black man up for office in the 1936 federal election), and there is a legacy of valuable literature from people like John dos Passos, Richard Wright, and John Reed, and critical scholarship from writers like Irving Howe, Edmund Wilson that adds much to the body of work that helps us understand our recent past.

Kazin's covers 1950s - 2010 in his last two chapters, both periods of decreased structure for leftist movements in America, or at least, that is his analysis given the lack of perspective afforded by our proximity to these events. Kazin characterizes this period as one during which our culture's idea of whose voice counts broadened. He sees both strengths and weaknesses to the resulting identity politics that emerged in this time. The book makes a good attempt to cover recent events, such as the protests against the International Monetary Fund, but I feel its energy petered out at the end. Kazin's final two chapters had a wandering feel to them, but I found myself supplying my own coda. I was reading them amidst the ever-growing Occupy Wall Street movement which, although some criticize it for taking no positions, is doing exactly what Kazin said the left is best at - being a voice for the outrage of the disenfranchised - which has historically led to some of the most influential social-political shifts this country has undergone.

The book makes a strong case for American as a project of utopianists. This has had its costs but explains, for example, why our democratic system is forever pitting two extremes against each other instead of negotiating coalitions with influential minorities as European parliamentary systems do. On trips through the U.S. over the years, I've made a few stops at communities founded by idealists, like the Amana Colony in Iowa. It's an influential legacy for us and they are not all religious. I think I'd like to do some more reading about other utopian movements in the U.S. to understand this influence better. Do you know of any good ones to visit?

3 comments:

C.B. James said...

Fascinating review. I'm not sure if I want to read the book now or not. I think I do. I'm also thinking about joining in on the Occupy Davis protests tomorrow. If I do either, I'll be sure to post something about it.

Ted said...

CB - The early chapters were very informative on aspects of American history I knew little or nothing about, and I liked the chapter on socialism too; it still has a lot to recommend.

The occupy Davis protests made NPR this morning!

Celestial Elf said...

Great Post,
thought you might like my Occupy themed version of A Christmas Carol
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S9SBebs3A5I