American Lefties


Two books published in 2012 opened new windows on the history of the American left. Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers looked at social change movements and left parties from the abolitionists to the New Left and concluded that their most significant and enduring contributions came in changing the nation’s social and cultural attitudes. The left in America measurably diminished institutional racism and sexism. What it wasn’t so good at was building a lasting left movement in the United States akin to the social democratic parties of Europe – which has meant that American capitalism has less of a social character than its European counterpart.

A less celebrated but eminently valuable book was Peter Dreier’s The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame. An extension of Dreier’s Nation magazine cover story on the 20th century’s 50 leading American leftists, his book is an outstanding reference work that provides portraits of movement activists, exceptional legislators, dissident artists and prophetic voices from the era of Eugene Debs through the time of Tony Kushner. Dreier’s is not a work of hagiography: A number of leading American progressives shared the biases of their times—the most common and damaging, I suppose, being the pro-Soviet bias of the generation that came of age in the Thirties—and Dreier calls them out for it. But more of them—in the great tradition of the 19th-century abolitionist, labor and women’s suffrage advocate Wendell Phillips—were tribunes for the rights and interests of a panoply of out-groups, well before their causes became fashionable.

What makes the book of particular interest are the profiles of the relatively obscure founders of movements and mentors of activists that rose to prominence one or two generations later: Ella Baker and Myles Horton, who trained future civil rights leaders in the Forties and Fifties; Harry Hay, who championed of gay and lesbian rights in the years immediately following World War II; Alice Hamilton, the early 20th-century physician who, partly inspired by Jane Addams, became the nation’s leading advocate for public health and occupational health and safety laws. The interconnections across generations and different movements of the various figures whom Dreier profiles make The 100 Greatest Americans more than just a collective biography; it is a work of social history as well.

To the perennial question of who’s responsible for social reform, the outside militants promoting their causes or the inside politicos steering historic bills to passage, Dreier’s answer is an unequivocal: Both. His book pays due homage to the legislative skills of a Robert Wagner and Ted Kennedy, and the political leadership of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, while highlighting the role that activists played in placing their causes on the nation’s agenda. He recounts a meeting between Lyndon Johnson, then struggling to pass the Civil Rights bill, and Martin Luther King in which LBJ initially asked King to tamp down the demonstrations while the bill was wending its way through Congress, but who, after King convinced him of the moral impossibility of stopping the protests, reversed his position and encouraged King to persist. “Make it possible for me to do the right thing,” Johnson told King. Dreier sees both roles, the insider and the outsider, as the twin indispensable elements in achieving social change in America – particularly in the uniquely American absence of a left party that could at times blur the distinction between inside and outside. He is critical of some on the left—Noam Chomsky in particular—who dismiss the role of progressive elected officials as simply providing cover for an immutable economic order.

Dreier’s work is a deeply researched and highly readable complement to Kazin’s study of the American left. Both works advance liberals’ understanding of where we came from. 

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