The Left vs. the Liberals

3 posts


I'm not going to repost the entire article, though it's worth a read.

I'm more interested in the passages I've highlighted below because they pretty much confirm what the Nouvelle Droite and other right-wing Gramscians had long suspected about the role of culture and the necessity of winning over a segment of the elite. Crude populism will never effect any real change unless the elites, the educated classes, are to some extent sympathetic to the claims being advanced, and the most effective tool through which to inveigle them is culture. Anti-intellectualism makes this task much more difficult. Older right-wing critiques of intellectuals were more subtle and qualified, but too often an anti-intellectual stance slides into a generalized hatred of book-learning and the mentally gifted. Among twentieth century dictators, Mussolini understood best how to lure first-rate talent to his side, and we would do well to learn from his example. It's amazing how many people nominally on our side are so stupid and pig-headed that such simple and obvious points need to be reiterated time and time again.

The Left vs. the Liberals

AUGUST 16, 2012

Sean Wilentz

American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation
by Michael Kazin
Knopf, 329 pp., $27.95

Michael Kazin’s new book about American leftists and their impact on the nation over the last two centuries presupposes, as its subtitle suggests, that this impact has been enormous. But Kazin is a judicious scholar without bluster, a professor of history at Georgetown, and coeditor of Dissent , and his assessments are carefully measured. Kazin concedes that radical leftists have often been out of touch with prevailing values, including those of the people they wish to liberate. He concludes that American radicals have done more to change what he calls the nation’s “moral culture” than to change its politics.

And yet, even as Kazin tries to avoid romanticizing the left, his book leaves unchallenged some conventional leftist conceptions about American politics and how change happens. These conventions begin with a presumption about who controls American political life, what C. Wright Mills called the “power elite,” an interlocking directorate of wealth and bureaucracy at the top. Kazin refers to this directorate interchangeably as the “establishment” or the “governing elite.” Unless challenged by radicals, this elite, in his view, is slow to right social wrongs; but without the support of the elite’s more enlightened elements, the radicals remain in the political wilderness.

Occasionally—as with the abolition of slavery, the rise of the New Deal, and the victories of the civil rights movement—momentous changes supported by radicals have indeed come to pass. Yet Kazin argues that the liberal components of the governing elite have supported major reforms strictly in order to advance purposes of their own. Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans, he writes, embraced emancipation only halfway through the Civil War, when it became clear that doing so “could speed victory for the North” and save the Union, their true goal. Franklin D. Roosevelt endorsed labor’s rights only when he needed to court labor’s votes.

Even when they are successful, Kazin writes, the radicals—“decidedly junior partners in a coalition driven by establishment reformers”—end up shoved aside as the liberals enact their more limited programs and take all of the credit. Prophets without honor, the leftists return to the margins where they and later radicals dream new and bigger dreams until another social movement jars the establishment.

Some radical historians—most famously the late Howard Zinn—have described this pattern as a chronicle of thoroughgoing oppression. In their view, the reforms initiated by radicals have practically always turned into swindles, orchestrated by clever rulers to preserve and even reinforce their power. Kazin, who also despairs about the current state of the left, has a more positive view of liberal reformers and their reforms: the Emancipation Proclamation and the Voting Rights Act, he insists, were important political advances and not establishment ruses. But a basic pattern still holds for Kazin as it does for Zinn: radicals challenge the privileged; liberals co-opt them, claiming the glory. In effect liberals are the enemies of fundamental political change.

Most of American Dreamers consists of crisp and useful summaries of nearly four decades’ worth of historical research about American radicals and radical movements, including Kazin’s own work on the amorphous populist strain in American politics. For Kazin, the left consists of anyone who has sought to achieve, in his words, “a radically egalitarian transformation of society.” The definition embraces an enormous array of spokesmen and causes, and Kazin’s account runs from the abolitionists and workingmen radicals of the Jacksonian era through a succession of socialists, women’s suffragists, Greenwich Village bohemians, and civil rights protesters, down to today’s left-wing professoriat.

Even at the zenith of its popularity, during the decade before World War I, the Socialist Party, led by the charismatic Eugene V. Debs, failed to turn itself into an enduring mass movement. Something about America—especially its overarching ideals of classless individualism—blunted the Socialists’ appeal and led workers to support the so-called “bread-and-butter” unionism of Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor that would fight for maximum gain within the system. And some things about American radicals, including the Socialists—their inability to handle what Daniel Bell called America’s “give-and-take, political world,” their chronic penchant for self-righteous dogmatism and sectarian squabbling—have repeatedly undermined left-wing campaigns.

“And yet…,” Kazin seems to say. The familiar explanations for radicalism’s political failures proposed decades ago by Bell and Irving Howe still have merit, but, Kazin believes, they cannot tell the entire story. “Without political power or honor as prophets,” he insists, “leftists still helped to make the United States a more humane society.” They have done so largely outside of conventional politics, building what he calls an evolving “culture of rebellion.”

Alienated novelists, poets, playwrights, filmmakers, and songwriters, Kazin argues, as well as muckraking journalists and left-wing historians, have influenced many more Americans than would ever embrace a radical political movement. From Harriet Beecher Stowe to Bruce Springsteen, he finds a persistent radical artistic imagination that he believes has been the left’s mightiest weapon. To understand American radicalism’s humanizing power, and how the left changed the nation, it is less important, in Kazin’s view, to consider how Americans voted than to consider what books and magazines they read, what plays and movies they attended, and what songs they heard and sang.

The point is perceptive even if it is not especially novel: recall Abraham Lincoln’s famous if apocryphal remark to Stowe calling her the little woman who wrote the book that started the great Civil War. Kazin is at his most effective when he discusses the impact of novels like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath or, more ironically, Frank Capra’s populist films of the 1930s and 1940s. Without question, fictional archetypes like Tom Joad or Jefferson Smith have left stronger and more lasting impressions on American perceptions than any radical tract.

As Kazin himself remarks, though, some of the artists promoted by the left—he mentions Richard Wright and could have included Bob Dylan—did eventually find the constraints of what Dylan called “finger pointing” oppressive. Kazin has much to say about the ways left-wing political impulses have inspired American artists, but too little to say about how leftism can reduce art to agitprop or smothering political kitsch, telling in its day but lasting only as artifact, like Clifford Odets’s play Waiting for Lefty .

More troubling is how, despite its recognition of the left’s shortcomings, American Dreamers still inflates the radicals’ political influence at crucial moments by slighting the politics of liberal reformers who actually had power. The familiar distinction between idealistic if sometimes wrongheaded radicals and craven or opportunistic establishment liberals drains liberal politics of intellectual potency as well as political integrity. Kazin understands that liberal reformism has existed independently of radical agitation—he cursorily calls the New Deal reforms “liberal achievements,” and mentions a stillborn liberal “new age of reform” in the 1960s—but his book chiefly makes liberalism’s ideas seem like weaker versions of the radicals’ ideals, advanced as responses to the radicals’ protests.

Kazin’s oddly brief discussion of the Civil War and emancipation is a case in point. Few if any historians would dispute the enormous importance of the abolitionists in provoking the sectional conflict over slavery. Yet Kazin thinks that the abolitionists had more to do with achieving emancipation than they actually did. As early as 1859, he writes, John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry persuaded abolitionist leaders, although not the cautious moderate Abraham Lincoln, “that war was now the only solution.” Kazin neglects to mention that when the Southern states actually began seceding in 1860 and 1861, most radical abolitionists were eager to let them depart and regarded all efforts to save the Union as, in William Lloyd Garrison’s words, “simply idiotic.” 1 In fact, Lincoln’s election, his refusal to compromise over barring the expansion of slavery, and his determination to crush secession if necessary—and nothing the radical abolitionists said or did—set off the war.

Kazin’s treatment of the left since the 1960s is particularly incomplete. He astutely appraises the antiwar New Left and its revival of older radical conceptions of ethical responsibility. Kazin’s argument about the left’s cultural impact helps explain the lasting effects of the feminist and gay rights movements, with their insistence on “the expansion of individual liberty into every sphere of private life”—an insistence that, as in the case of Roe v. Wade , he observes, led to more than cultural changes. But here, too, his thesis that the advancement of women’s and gay rights demonstrates the cultural reach of a politically thwarted left neglects the indispensable legal efforts of liberals. (He makes no mention, for example, of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union before President Bill Clinton appointed her to the Supreme Court.)

Kazin then describes how the New Left degenerated into ferocious and abiding contempt for liberals and liberalism, which sent some of its adherents spiraling into the violence and neo-Leninist sectarianism of the Weather Underground. And with the New Left’s demise, Kazin avers, “for the first time in 150 years, no American radical movement survived that was worthy of the name”—an amnesia attack that forgets modern feminism after 1973.
Bob Dylan Roof

Too often the government-worship of the mainstream right and left in America conceals the important role of culture, as opposed to elections and institutions like the Supreme Court, in radical political change.

Anti-intellectualism does indeed harm the right, but reading over the article, I couldn't help but think that money is ultimately the most important impetus behind a rebellious cultural force in the 21st century. The majority of the poisonous artists mentioned in the article did not miraculously invade the consciousness of Americans. They were propelled into the public eye by extremely rich and powerful fellow-travelers.

Despite itself, the American right has slowly started to do this by rewriting the history of the American government so as to incorporate elements of Austrian libertarianism (starting with the work of Hayek through the Reagan administration). Along with the dying frontier spirit of more rural Americans, this trend has created a few bastions of opposition. However these groups are largely independent and lack the elite backing that left-wing counterculture groups enjoy.
Bronze Age Pervert

Leftism is an "organic" or "inevitable" trend of the modern world and there is no way that the so-called intellectual elite will ever pick up rightist ideas. Mussolini also said that twenty years of fascism did nothing at all to change the character of the Italian people. Right wing movements that seek political or cultural change, populist or not, don't work. The only thing that right wing people can hope for is eventual catastrophe or collapse, and the only cure for modern elites is extermination.