American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation

Michael Kazin's new history of the American Left somehow skips the violence and destruction part.

You say you want a revolution 
Well, you know
We all want to change the world
…But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know that you can count me out
Don't you know it's gonna be all right 

… You ask me for a contribution 
Well, you know
We're doing what we can
But when you want money
for people with minds that hate
All I can tell is brother you have to wait 

...But if you go carrying pictures of chairman Mao
You ain't going to make it with anyone anyhow 

“Historian” Michael Kazin, who writes for such scholarly periodicals as The Nation, has written a book purporting to tell the story of both the successes and failures of the American Left.  It is about how the Left “Changed a Nation” but failed to ever get a majority of Americans to back an all-out socialist or communist government. Kazin completely leaves out the most important point -- one crystallized by John Lennon and Paul McCartney in their 1968 song Revolution: “But when you talk about destruction/ Don't you know that you can count me out…” Indeed, the author completely ignores the violence and destruction that characterized the political Left, not only in the 1960s, but throughout the century.

E.J. Dionne loves Kazin's new book, calling it a "masterwork" that can inspire young progressives about their noble heritage.  Eric Altermann calls it a "tour de force of good scholarship." One can’t help but wonder, however, how the victims of the American Left will embrace Kazin's tactic of whitewashing the violence out of the history of American leftism. To be sure, what will the family of Betty Van Patter, who was murdered by the Black Panthers, think? Kazin only reports that the Panthers "advocated violence, but discusses none of the actual crimes of this criminal gang – spelled out powerfully by David Horowitz in his memoir Radical Son.

My guess is that the neither the family of Sgt. Brian V. McDonnell, the San Francisco police officer who was killed by a bomb set by the Weather Underground (run by Obama mentor Bill Ayers) nor Officer Robert Fogarty, who was severely wounded in the blast, would be amused by Kazin's affectionate recounting of the terrorist group as the "most inept terrorists on the planet," only mentioning the members who blew themselves up while making a bomb to plant at an upcoming Fort Dix dance to take out not only soldiers, but their families as well.

The people of Poland will also probably not consider the central tragedy of the Hitler-Stalin Pact to be the crisis of conscience and bad PR it caused for the American Communist Party.

This is not even mentioning the 150 million human beings murdered in the last century by the governments supported by the Communist Party USA, which Kazin romanticizes in "American Dreamers," and without whom we would apparently be a society of slave-holders, surfs whose women would not be allowed to vote or get a job.

Under the guise of being frank about the political failures of the Left to rule under the banner of leftism due to-- he would have us believe, romantic overreach-- Kazin whitewashes the violence that also undercut their cause at every turn.  He omits one historical fact after another. For instance, he discusses early unions and is open about their socialist roots, but there is no mention of the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building by Iron Workers Union radicals that killed 21 people that was part of a concerted conspiracy of union intimidation.

Clarence Darrow also makes an appearance as a People’s Champion.  The inconvenient truth that the labor movement united behind defending the union terrorists and that Clarence Darrow was almost disbarred for trying to bribe jurors in the case probably kept what was for a long time one of the worst terrorist incidents on American soil on Kazin’s cutting room floor.

Margaret Sanger is lauded as a pioneer who “fought for the rights of women as well as the emancipation of the working class.” The fact that prominent Nazis were allowed to write about eugenics for her publication?  The fact that she wanted to limit numbers of people of particular ethnic backgrounds? Not worthy of mention.

Alger Hiss is described by Kazin as “the former diplomat convicted for lying about his communist past.”  This is technically true, but what goes unmentioned is that Hiss’s trial occurred because he was an agent of the Soviet Union who committed treason, and declassified documents have proven this to be an undeniable historical fact.

And the list goes on… and on.

Unforgivably, for a book written in 2011 that spends a big percentage of its space on American Communism, Kazin makes no mention of newly declassified material like the famed Venona transcripts, or any or source, foreign or domestic, that proves just how active Stalin and the Comintern were in the activities of these supposed idealists.

Kazin also mentions David Horowitz in passing, as an example of a former member of the Left who is now an active opponent of his former cause—but ignores the detailed first hand accounts of the criminality of the Panthers, contained in Horowitz’s milestone book with Peter Collier, Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts about the 60s.  Read their account of the life and times of Huey P. Newton, Baddest, and then try to reconcile that with Kazin’s benign picture of anti-racist and anti-imperialist crusaders whose rhetoric went a bit too far.

Of course, Destructive Generation also shatters Kazin’s central thesis that these radical groups were merely the bad boys of social justice, of youthful enthusiasm gone slightly awry, by relating the violent plans and activities of not only the Weather Underground, but even everybody’s favorite aging 60s radical Tom Hayden, for violent revolution in the United States—and the real life death and destruction that resulted.

Kazin is right about one thing, however, and that is that the Left’s major triumph in the United States is in the culture, particularly Hollywood and universities.

When Jonah Goldberg or Daniel Flynn write about the radical or communist roots of environmentalism, feminism or multiculturalism, it’s considered an expose and someone is sure to shout “McCarthyism!”  When Kazin does it, it’s… bragging?

Maybe this book will provide a clue for fuddy-duddy conservative commentators who laud  Mr. Smith Goes to Washington because it’s sparkly clean and pretends to love America.  Kazin does a pretty fair job of outlining just how prominent CPUSA members were in writing scripts in 30s and 40s Hollywood, and how leftist populism was a huge theme for filmmakers like Frank Capra. In keeping with the rest of his MO in American Dreamers, Kazin once again leaves out the pertinent and damning fact exposed by Ron Radosh in Red Star over Hollywood among other sources, that many of these scriptwriters were paid agents of Stalin who submitted their scripts for approval to commissars before their studio employers got to see them.

But while Hollywood has never seemed more Left than today, it has suffered in going from red white and blue to just red, from Frank Capra to Michael Moore.  Movies have decreasing social relevance and increasing alienation from audiences.

Kazin covers Michael Moore (not uncritically) as an example of the New New Left.  He links him as a satirist with Simpsons creator Matt Groening.  But that’s just weird.  Groenig may have started out a leftist (though his comic strip Life in Hell is truly funny) but he achieved mega-success with The Simpsons, an equal opportunity satire which frequently takes its best shots at the Left.  But Kazin never completes the contrast, instead oddly claiming The Simpsons for the Left mainly because a few Christian fundamentalists once protested it.

Another bizarre aspect of American Dreamers is the almost complete lack of discussion about the Middle East, al Qaeda, or even The Patriot Act.  Anarchists in Seattle are spotlighted by Kazin, but the recent anti-war movement is barely given a sideways glance.

Leftist feminist Naomi Klein, who has called for Al Sadr’s killing fields to come to New York, gets plenty of kudos for her writings condemning capitalism.  Kazin is far more critical of iconic left-wing heavyweights Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky—though not for their favoring of terrorists over the U.S., or of the Arab world against Israel, but for their general conspiracy-nut frame of mind, which Kazin judges limits their broad appeal.

The issue of Israel is never raised in the book, other than the occasional mentions that so-and-so is into Palestinian rights or some similar cliché.

So whether reports that John Lennon died a Reagan fan are true or not, if you really want to know why the hard Left never captured the love of a majority of American voters, you are better off listening to a 3 minute Beatles song, then spending a week with Michael Kazin’s deliberately incomplete treatment of a destructive American movement.

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