Michael Kazin on the Left's Past Victories and How It Can Reinvent Itself Again

David Austin Walsh is editor of the History News Network.

Michael Kazin is a professor of history at Georgetown University, co-editor of Dissent magazine, columnist and blogger for The New Republic, and author of the recently published American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation. Mr. Kazin wrote an extended essay related to the book for the New York Times that was published on Sunday, September 25. I spoke to him via telephone.

I wanted to thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

Sure. I just actually read Jack Ross’s book review of American Dreamers on HNN.

Oh, yes. I’m curious what you thought of it.

Well, I expected this sort of reaction—I said in the acknowledgments it is a contentious subject and I expect a lot of debate and discussion, but it can be frustrating when you’re writing a book and somebody misses the point. [Ross] sounds like he wants me to write about the part of the Left he’s interested in, which is fine, but he didn’t seem to take seriously the notion that I’m writing about the parts of the Left that were most influential, like them or not.

Why didn’t you decide to cover, as you wrote in your book, Catholic radicals, pacifists, Farmer-Laborites, and democratic socialists?

Well, I mention some of them in passing—certainly Martin Luther King, Jr. was a democratic socialist.

But I didn’t want to write a huge book.  I wanted to write, and I think I did write, a book about the main currents of the American Left. In order to write about those groups, plus many more, would’ve been a less coherent book. I tried to identify the main contributions and failures that these groups share. If I had written about groups that I found intellectually interesting but were, in fact, less politically, socially, and culturally influential, that would’ve been less coherent.

Moreover, it would’ve made a much longer book. There are books like Donald Sassoon’s One Hundred Years of Socialism, which is about 800 pages and covers almost every leftist party that ever existed anywhere in Europe, and there’s books like Geoff Ely’s Forging Democracy, which has one theme which he tries to follow throughout the book (democracy). You have to decide what kind of book you want to write, and I decided I didn’t want to write a 1,200-page history of everything on the Left.

That’s an argument I make in the book. And those who have criticized the book almost always focus on the chapter with the Communists, which isn’t surprising. All these years later, it’s still a very touchy subject.

Before going any further, I want to ask you a broad, conceptual question (something which I think a lot of activists today dance around): What is the Left today? How would you define the Left?

Good question. I would define it as its historical definition: People who are seeking much greater equality in every area of life, especially economic life but also social and cultural life. I think also it’s people who articulate the twin, and sometimes contradictory, goals of the Left historically, which are expanding individual freedom and self-expression as broadly as possible and also have a society based much more on a sense of communal responsibility and collective decency. There’s a tension between the two—liberty and equality—but the Left has historically dedicated itself to both these ideals and it’s true today as well.

You wrote in your article for the Sunday New York Times that the Right in the United States flowered after the conservatives, well, got organized in the 1970s with think-tanks and political pressure groups (and indeed, welfare-state liberalism enjoyed a similar prep hitting the big time in the 1930s).

We’re living in a time of crisis not seen since the Great Depression. There are many on the Left declaring that the Recession, and American decline generally, are the result of bankrupt conservative and neoliberal ideologies that no longer work. Is there a new ideology on the Left (not the New Left) that’s been waiting for its moment?

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? [Laughs] I wish there were. The magazine I co-edit, Dissent, has been moving towards redefining social democracy for a new era, but we certainly aren’t there yet. I think that, in many ways, the lack of alternative is a real problem for the Left, which is one of the reasons why Obama rhetorically sounded like he was gesturing for a new progressivism, but which was actually an empty promise in the end, was because you don’t have movements making articulate arguments about what needs to be done.

There’s a bundle of things that people on the Left want—universal health care, public housing, gay marriage, environmental protection, etc.—and all that’s fine, but what ties it all together isn’t quite clear. Socialism clearly is not the answer, so it’s a problem.

Conservatives, historically, don’t really need to have as coherent an ideology as the Left does, because conservatives just oppose what they see as crazy reformer-radical ideas. They’re just trying to bring America (and other countries) back to an earlier time.

The Left isn’t able to do that. I’ve sat around with people talking about what would make up a decent society, and a big one is, to use a religious reference, people treating each other according to the Golden Rule. But that’s rather vague, at least right now.

You mentioned gay marriage—gay rights have certainly been the Left’s greatest victory in the past twenty years. Are the next battles—over economics, abortion, etc.—going to be defensive in nature?

I live in the Midwest, so I’ve been following very closely what’s been happening in Wisconsin, and I come from a union family. What I hear isn’t necessarily, “we need universal health care.” I hear the fear, even in states where state governments haven’t tried to strip public employees of collective bargain, that state workers will lose their union benefits. The fear that the “red state,” race-to-the-bottom model of low taxes, low wages, weak unions to attract corporations will win out over the “blue state” model of higher taxes, higher wages, strong unions, and a better-educated workforce.

I think that’s right. The battles, except for gay marriage, are going to be defensive in nature.

Actually, to take that a step further, are the Left’s future social battles going to be reform-oriented (gay marriage, immigration, etc.) while the economic battles will be to protect older gains?

That’s an implication I’ve made in the book and elsewhere for the past three years. Tony Judt said the Left has to be conservative. I understand that point of view, and certainly fighting to keep what people have is always an important thing to do, but that’s not going to revive the Left—instead of using rhetoric of a brighter future, talking about preventing a repeat of the horrible past.

I wrote at the end of American Dreamers that the Left needs a certain kind of utopian thinking. Not the kind of utopian thinking the communists or anarchists had, to be sure, but a kind of utopian thinking that can imagine what a better society can look like. How to get there is a different matter.

But that’s one of the things I tried to illustrate with the New York Times piece. It’s something Henry George did to a certain degree. Democratic socialists did it in the early twentieth century. Without that kind of sensible utopianism, people on the Left will continue to fight defensively and will not be able to inspire a new generation of activists.

People in their teens and twenties, the people who will build a new Left if one is to be built, are not going to be inspired by “we have to protect our pensions.”

And even then, the victories aren’t exactly rolling in. Look at Wisconsin. Despite the largest union protests since the 1930s, the controversial laws are still in effect and, even after an almost unprecedented recall election. the state senate is still controlled by the GOP. It’s hard to see that as encouraging, and it’s not being spun that way.

But how many votes would it have taken to turn around that last state senate race? I don’t know, but it was a close-run thing!

It is true, though, that there’s been a backlash amongst voters against the people in power, and rightly or wrongly (I think wrongly), those people have been identified as union liberals. Even when the Republicans took over, there were people in the middle who weren’t quite sure what was going on.

There isn’t a domininant analysis amongst most Americans as to what cause the economic crisis. Someone could do a wonderful piece by going out and talking to a lot of people about what they think caused it. It was much more coherent in the 1930s.

So when you have a strong leader like Walker in Wisconsin, or Kasich in Ohio, or Christie in New Jersey, then people who aren’t quite sure what happened are swayed by them. And of course public workers are out front and on the firing line, but they’re vunerable. Voters feel like state employees are their employees, and of course there’s truth to that.

In the Times and in your book, you focus on the working class and the organization of working-class interests that sparked unionization. Right now, youth unemployment is around 20 percent across the board. And this is also often true of recipients of a college degree, the supposed ticket to the middle class.

When you look at the Occupy Wall Street protesters, yes, a lot of them are anarchists and hippies and weirdoes, but there are also young men and women who have bachelors or masters’ degrees in graphic design or whatever and they’re pissed off.  Is there an organization or institution that can harness that disaffection?

You’re seeing this globally in developed countries, in Europe and now even in Japan. As you know, there’s been a very good piece in the New York Times recently about the anti-political politics of young people around the world. I was in Barcelona in June and I wrote a piece about the Spanish indignados for The New Republic.

They say, “Oh, we don’t believe in parties. We’ll make our own future (though we’re not sure what it’s going to be like yet).” And I get the sense that the Wall Street protests are in the same vein, though smaller and less organized. On the one hand, I’d much rather have people be active and try to solve their problems than not being active. On the other hand, these people often don’t have much sense of history and not much sense of strategy. And that’s not their fault. It’s the fault of the collapse of those institutions since the 1960s that would be able to support this kind of activism.

In some ways, it’s a repeat of what the New Left was doing in the early ‘60s, when they rejected the Democratic Party and a lot of the union leadership—even rejecting the Urban League. On the other hand, those New Leftists—rightly or wrongly—had a sense of intellectual heritage and a sense of libertarian socialism that they wanted to work towards.

That’s a long of way of saying that youth unemployment has to be addressed, but it has to be addressed in a more coherent way than it has so far. Look at Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s book Empire

Right. I read it as an undergrad.

And it’s a failure! It’s incoherent, it’s jargonized, it’s a postmodernist satire of a political manifesto.

What can academics do to clarify Leftist issues without falling into … what’s the word I’m looking for … deliberate obfuscation?


Well, I’d hope so! There are certainly very challenging economists out there on the Left who are writing about the economic side of it—Krugman, Galbraith, Stiglitz. They’re not radicals, but they have a pretty coherent analysis. In terms of everything else—working class politics, culture, etc.—we’re still waiting for another grand interpretation, and I’m not sure we’re going to get one.

We’ve been waiting a long time for another Marx. I’d prefer people try to chop off parts of it.

But this next grand analysis is as likely to come from outside the U.S. as from inside, and who knows? It might be written in Chinese.

comments powered by Disqus
History News Network