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Monday, July 30, 2012

Radicals And The Left

Sean Wilentz, in his review of Michael Kazin’s book American Dreamers: How The Left Changed A Nation, discusses the role of radical politics and the impact they have had on American society  http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/aug/16/left-vs-liberals/?page=2

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.

The radical Left has succeeded far less than is commonly sought in achieving these goals largely “because it has 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.  The rap on these radicals is that they were so confident of the righteousness of their ideas, that they underestimated the influence of those who were more cautious or rejected them outright.  As importantly, because these ‘American dreamers’ had little political acumen or even the desire, patience, and persistence to push their ideas into policy, they were more often than not coopted by the liberal establishment.  This liberal elite in their view watered down their vision and marginalized those who originated and proposed it.

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.

Governing elites by their very nature have the power, money, and authority to coopt what they want and take credit for it; and to reject, marginalize, or discredit what they do not; and only accept ‘radical’ ideas when their interests and the temper of the times coincide with them. 

Perhaps more importantly and what neither author nor reviewer acknowledge is that there is rarely anything radical.  More often than not, what radicals of either Left or Right propose as unique, has historical precedent.  Neither emancipation nor abolition was a new idea in 1864:

The Spanish government to enact the first European law abolishing colonial slavery in 1542.  In the 17th century English Quakers and evangelical religious groups condemned slavery as un-Christian; in the 18th century, abolition was part of the message of the First Great Awakening in the Thirteen Colonies; and in the same period, rationalist thinkers of the Enlightenment criticized it for violating the rights of man. The Somersett's case in 1772, which emancipated a slave in England, helped launch the British movement to abolish slavery.

Revolutionary France abolished slavery in 1789; Haiti achieved independence from France in 1804 and brought an end to slavery in its territory, establishing the second republic in the western hemisphere. Britain banned the importation of African slaves in its colonies in 1807, and the United States followed in 1808. Britain abolished slavery throughout the British Empire with the Slavery Abolition Act 1833. (Wikipedia)

It took so long for this ‘radical’ idea to be put into practice because of the complex cultural, social, political, and economic factors governing a divided American society.  While he believed in the rights of man and lamented the deprivation of those rights through slavery, his political position had to evolve and mature through a series of justifying arguments – Constitutional, moral, religious, and political.  More than anything else his commitment to Union deferred his Emancipation Proclamation. 

In some cases, radical ideas were neither slow in maturing or coopted by the political center, but simply idealistic, unrealistic, and disastrous expressions of zealotry. Radical Reconstruction, put in place by Congressional Republicans desirous to once and for all punish the South, disable it, and right the wrongs of a century, should have known that the suddenly disinherited plantation owners, seeing their former slaves cavort in State Legislatures, would take it lying down:

After the Civil War, for example, various radicals tried to move beyond emancipation to ensure full economic as well as political equality for ex-slaves. Most of the ex-slaves, however, hoped that Reconstruction would provide, Kazin writes, “a chance to exercise the same rights white citizens had long taken for granted”—hopes that were “hardly revolutionary,” that aimed “to fulfill the promise of liberal capitalism.” As it turned out, ensuring even basic civil and political rights for Southern blacks required extensive federal force that secured a restive interracial democracy in the South until a violent counterrevolution by Southern whites overthrew Reconstruction in the 1870s.

Even before the war, the radical Abolitionists did Lincoln more harm than good, and he, trying to balance the anti-slavery sentiments of the North, the rebellious South, and his desire for Union above all, had more fights with these Northerners than the most cantankerous Southerners.

Radical influence in the New Deal was far less important than usually thought.  The long Depression had taken its toll.  America in the early 30s was still rural, sparsely-populated, and untouched by government.  The Depression wiped out private savings and the culprits were clearly Wall Street, speculators, reliance on margin and living beyond one’s means.  Left with nothing and disillusioned with the private sector, the American public turned to Big Government – the only American institution with money or the power to print it.  Roosevelt’s ideas were not radical – they were logical, historical derivatives.  Yet Kazin insists on casting the era within the misleading framework of radicalism vs. liberalism:

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.

Perhaps as importantly, neither author nor reviewer places Leftist radicalism within the larger context of history.  While one might have lauded Roosevelt and his reformers in 1933, many of his programs have been either discredited or viewed as only temporary solutions to immediate problems.  The radical agenda – ‘creating a radically egalitarian transformation of society’ had salience in the Depression, because everyone was equal, but poor; and what better time than then to raise all boats?  While many of the programs were necessary then and are in force today (bank deposit insurance, bank regulation, Social Security, Fair Labor Standards, etc.), the encouragement of unionism, reliance on public sector social programs, and the consolidation of federal power are looked at much more circumspectly now.

There was nothing radical in the idea of civil rights either, for this, too had been a subject of debate during the Enlightenment, which in turn took its inspiration from Classical Greece and Rome; and more recently in the debate surrounding the writing of the American Constitution.  The de jure emancipation of the slaves (Constitutional Amendment) was enacted in 1865, but there were few in either North or South between then and the de facto emancipation of 1965 (Civil Rights Act) who doubted that black people were politically equal to whites.  Women’s suffrage was made the law in 1867 and debated long before that.  In the United States women were considered unequal until the passage of the 19th Amendment  in 1920; but again the idea had to mature in the general population until the 1960s. 

In both cases, the ideas behind the ‘radical’ movements were not new at all.  As importantly, current social, political, and demographic factors were far more important to the activist movements than any individuals.  Abby Hoffmann, Mario Savio, and Mark Rudd were facilitators, but the real force behind the civil rights movement of the Sixties was The Baby Boom.  There were more twenty-somethings alive at the time than ever before or since.  These Americans grew up in the repressive Fifties, by the end of which time authoritarian social rule began to weaken as the economy rapidly grew, social and geographic mobility increased, exposure to Europe and other countries became possible. Education became less a means to an end, characteristic of Depression-era parents, and more an end unto itself.  That is, students had the luxury of taking political philosophy seriously and thinking about moral and ethical principles as they applied to America.

A major omission of both Kazin and Wilentz is any reference to the radical right which has had its own share of influence.  Ronald Reagan’s challenge to big government in the early 80s certainly changed the American landscape just as profoundly as Roosevelt and the New Deal. His muscular defiance of the Soviet Union, risking nuclear confrontation, was a radical departure from the policies of co-existence and put the final nail in the coffin of Leftist love of Soviet ‘egalitarianism”.  To be sure, and consistent with my arguments about the influence of the left, both ideas were not radical and their times had come.  More and more Americans were seeing the failure of Great Society programs and their tax dollars going into the pockets of the unsupervised managers of them.  The war in Vietnam soured national faith in government, and Jimmy Carter espoused the worst negative, defeatist attitudes of Washington.   The Soviet Union by the time of Reagan’s challenge was collapsing, imploding, and near its end.  Reagan’s stance in the context of that dissolution was not radical, but inevitable and good politics.

I agree with Kazin’s conclusion that Leftist radicalism was more bark than bite, and that there were many determining factors other than the supposed visionary perception of radical reformers.  There is no doubt that individuals and ideas play a role in societal change.  In the popular democracy of America, we cannot rely on the general public to have any new or great ideas; and thus we rely on those with them to speak out.  Although all the factors enabling change may be in place, it often requires someone with charisma to ignite the fire.  Just don’t take too much credit is all.

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