Reading from Left to Right


Dissent has a symposium on Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers and Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind, with Bruce Robbins, James Livingston, Corey Robin, and Michael Kazin. Bruce Robbins:

As a believer in a broad-church left that wanted both to see Obama reelected and to hope that once reelected he can be prevailed upon to do things differently this time around, I feel well represented by these two excellent books, each of which finds a compelling public voice for convictions very like my own. I have certainly not thought about what the left should be as seriously as both Corey Robin and Michael Kazin clearly have. If I suspected that this panel demanded a public display of factionalism, I wouldn’t have agreed to be on it. What I assumed is, the Society for U.S. Intellectual History being an organization devoted to intellectual history and intellectual history moving more slowly than the presidential election cycle, it would make sense, even in the pre- and post-election frenzy, to talk about longer-term issues and perhaps a view of the left that’s also a view of the academy, which Lord knows also runs on slower cycles.

First, however, a couple of observations on the two books we’ve been asked to discuss.

Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation announces that it’s arguing against the idea that the American left has been a “failure.” Much as I would like to agree and moved as I am by the exemplary lives gathered in its pages, it’s hard for me to feel that the book entirely avoids the conclusion it says it’s arguing against. This seems to me a story, as Kazin puts it, of “political marginality and cultural influence.” In other words, I think it’s saying that the left has been a success in the domain of culture but a failure in the domain of politics, the domain that has always been taken to define left and right.

Assuming that the book is trying to say that this combination of success and failure ought to be thought of as less of a failure and more of a success than many of us might have thought—Michael is here to pronounce one way or the other—it seems to me that it could use a sharper polemical engagement with those on the other side of the question who are still dumbfounded by the loss of the white male working-class majority and who think cultural progressives are crazy to imagine that any progress has been made as long as drones circle overhead and economic inequality continues to be as dramatic as it is.