Daniel J. Flynn has written a book for Crown Press, A Conservative History of the American Left, which is intended to be a “conservative” interpretation of the Left in our country. Although Dan could have presented his study of the American Left and its nineteenth-century models without identifying himself or his work politically, he may have appended “conservative” in order to capture a “movement conservative” market. Despite this awkward packaging, Dan has given us the fruits of true research; and while he has approached his subject as a journalist with partisan inclinations, his book is full of scholarly perceptions.
One particularly illuminating aspect of his work is the attempt to uncover old leftist ideas in their most recent incarnations. Flynn’s investigation yields multiple results, especially in the cases of the New Left and hippie communes of the 1960s, whose creators and devotees made no secret of their borrowings from older leftist and communitarian movements. By the time these self-styled social radicals and radical communitarians came on the scene, Flynn demonstrates, there was already a century of indigenous American revolutionary and back-to-nature causes on which they could build their own plans for revolutionary change.
One of the most fruitful areas of study in this book are the American Abolitionists, a group that Flynn looks at partly through the extensive scholarship of a former editorial colleague of mine, Aileen S. Kraditor, who wrote amply on the women suffragists and the Abolitionists. Both groups pursued goals that in our far more leftist age would seem modest and even self-evidently moral. But what these activists usually desired and what their rhetoric intimated pointed beyond their bourgeois Protestant age, to our own socially disintegrated modernity.
The most critical insight that I extracted from Flynn’s book is the recognition that radical social ideas travel well in American society, if they are made to look and smell American. Flynn notes the sedulous care with which the American Communist Party made itself over into a super-patriotic organization, as soon as the Soviets and Americans found themselves on the same side against “fascism” in World War Two. Moreover, the anti-Americanism that the neoconservatives identify with the “antiwar Left” has been present only intermittently on the American Left. The “hate-America” attitude that was once associated with radical social reformers may have been peculiar to the student protests of the Vietnam War-era. One can easily find appeals to the “American tradition” on the American Left as well as elsewhere on the political spectrum. Although I wish Dan had consulted my book The Strange Death of Marxism, a work that makes much the same point, he does manage to bring in enough of his own documentation to prove the compatibility between sounding “pro-American” and favoring radical and even revolutionary leftist projects.