Ours is an era of ideological illiteracy. Many Americans literally have no idea what terms such as "left" and "right" mean. Conceptual confusion definitely plagues the left half of the political spectrum. Conservative commentators describe centrists, such as former President Bill Clinton, as "liberal" and liberals as "far left." When Ralph Nader ran for president in 2000 and 2004 he was treated by many liberals and conservatives alike as a wild-eyed radical, even though his views were little changed since the 1960s, when he was known as a liberal consumer-protection activist. Those, such as Nader, who stand to the left of the Democratic party, denounce Democrats and many liberals as sell-outs to big business. Liberal Democrats themselves have felt like political outsiders for decades. Clintonite centrists, anti-imperialist peace agitators and labor-union activists alike call themselves progressives, and no one can say definitely that any of them is wrong.
Any Americans of the early twenty-first century who wish to revive something they call liberalism or progressivism, or who think substantial change, regardless of its name, is needed in our society—and such ambitions have been stated in some quarters for many years now—better had know something about the fate of similar hopes in the past. Yet Americans' knowledge of political history often goes back no further than the 1950s and the 1960s—the childhood years of the "baby-boom" generation. The conflicts of these cold war decades formed images of liberalism and left-wing radicalism that remain powerful today. In contrast, the earlier era of the 1930s, featuring the triumph of New Deal liberalism and the vitality of a Communist movement, has become a dim and rapidly fading tableau, while the politics of the 1940s, the days of world war and postwar regrouping, have been blotted out by sentimental newsreel visions of sacrifice and social cohesion.
The images of liberalism and the left bequeathed to us by the cold war era are those of mutual antagonism. In the 1950s, the days of the "red scare" and Senator Joseph McCarthy—the most famous leader of the hunt for subversives in and out of government—many liberals joined in the anticommunist, anti-radical chorus. In the 1960s, a new generation of leftists (known as the "new left") believed that the crusading anticommunism of the 1950s had helped make America a repressive place, closed to new and critical perspectives on society; in their view, liberals shared responsibility for that setback. Sixties radicals routinely denounced a "liberal establishment," led by men such as Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, as in fact far too conservative, too close to the "power elite" and insensitive to the plight of the socially excluded. Liberals, who flocked to Kennedy's slogan of a "New Frontier" and Johnson's program of a "Great Society," returned the radicals' scorn, calling them irresponsible and unreasonable. In the late 1960s, the militancy of African Americans, on the heels of the civil rights movement's triumphs and frustrations, and the Vietnam War, escalated and prolonged by Kennedy and Johnson, drove liberals and the left ever farther apart.
Against this backdrop of '60s antagonism, almost no one has written specifically on the subject of left-liberal relations in America. This makes sense, since people who came of age in the 1960s thought the American left and American liberalism had separate histories, linked mainly by animosity. Historians at times gave the impression that rebellions in U.S. history—whether agrarian populist or urban and working-class, whether black or white—were authentic and inspiring only to the extent that they were free from any taint of liberal ideology. Some asserted the existence of an American "radical tradition" whose members fought for racial justice, economic fairness and women's equality, and who reflected an impressive integrity and independence.
At the same time, scholars influenced by the radicalism of the 1960s surveyed American history and found liberals whose reform efforts aimed to quell discord and smooth the path of capitalist advances, not to achieve justice. They saw liberals who formed partnerships with business concerns and sought to control or repress radicals and the restive lower orders—in other words, liberals who committed the same sins that new left radicals charged to Great Society leaders. A leading concept of such scholarship was "cooptation," according to which liberals did the work of powerful interests, pacifying disruptive elements with empty promises of egalitarian change.
Deep in American history, however, there lies a neglected middle ground of ambitious reform politics, forgotten amid the stark divisions of the cold war. This left-liberal tradition includes liberals who were deeply critical of American capitalism as well as leftists who saw great value in social reform, as opposed to revolutionary upheaval. During a roughly sixty-year period, between the 1880s and the 1940s, this vital political alliance constructed bridges of cooperation—not cooptation—between the worlds of liberal reform and radical rebellion. Reformers who adopted a deeply critical stance toward their society engaged in a series of extended, productive collaborations with radicals who saw in social reform a way toward a more acceptable society. In the 1940s this distinctive tradition of left-liberal politics fell apart. Leftists and liberals largely went their separate ways after that time, although they sometimes had more in common than was apparent.
Much of what was most creative and constructive in American politics in the twentieth century issued from this left-liberal tradition—from the work of radicals drawn to liberal principles and liberals who made deep criticisms of American society. Residents of the political zone where liberalism and radicalism overlapped championed, for example, the validation of free speech and free conscience and the imperative of racial equality in a diverse society whose origins lay in race slavery—causes that, by any reckoning, advanced dramatically in the course of the twentieth century. In the 1940s, this distinctive tradition of left-liberal politics fell apart. Leftists and liberals largely went their separate ways after that time, although they sometimes had more in common than was apparent.
This is not to say that the "real" history of left-liberal relations in America was simply an harmonious affair, the opposite of what it appeared to be when the baby-boomers were young adults. There has been plenty of both conflict and cooperation between radicals and reformers, leftists and liberals, in the American past, and no single "natural" relationship exists between them. Neither periods of strategic collaboration nor those of mutual contempt have represented deviations from a norm. Almost two decades past the end of the cold war, a post-cold war history of left-liberal politics, one freed of the analytical blinders that we all have inherited from the 1950s and 1960s, is due.
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Starting in the 1880s, middle-class reformers—most of them white, Protestant inhabitants of northern cities—rebelled against the doctrines of unregulated capitalism and sought to transcend class conflict by forming a political movement that would help forge a new society, a society newly harmonious and fair. Americans of the late-nineteenth-century Gilded Age were aware that momentous economic and social change, characterized by heavy industrialization, rapid urbanization, the production of enormous wealth and new extremes of wealth and poverty, was taking place all around them, and many believed that Americans could use political means to steer the ship of social change toward a desirable destination. Individuals such as the writer Henry Demarest Lloyd and the famous social reformer Jane Addams favored an activist government that would pursue humane and egalitarian policies, backed by a democratic mobilization—a mobilization based in Christian ethics and empowering both the industrial working class and middle-class reformers such as themselves. Such middle-class reformers wanted American workers to have a seat in the councils of power, but they definitely did not want to live under working-class rule.
These reformers pioneered the twentieth century's "new liberalism," which was associated with economic regulation and the rise of a welfare state, which represented a dramatic break from the doctrines of laissez-faire individualism that had been associated with political and intellectual liberalism in the nineteenth century. Political champions of new liberal proposals appeared not only among urban politicians—such as Cleveland mayor Tom Johnson and Detroit's Hazen Pingree—but also in the southern countryside and the Great Plains, where white agrarian leaders such as Nebraska's William Jennings Bryan and Tom Watson of Georgia sought a farm-labor alliance to protect "the plain people" from capitalist abuses. African Americans were largely excluded from these alliances either through vicious demagoguery and violence or simply by means of reformers declining to discuss the issue of white supremacy. Women, predominantly but not exclusively white, organized in groups ranging from the Women's Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) to the National Consumers' League (NCL), were pervasive in the political mobilizations of the new liberalism, even though they were excluded from office-holding and, for the most part, from voting before 1920. New liberals also included in their reform coterie relatively assimilated representatives of the enormous wave of immigrants, most of them Roman Catholic or Jewish, who furnished many of the workers for the mushrooming industrial centers. Yet even as such rising elements in the nation's populace shaped the agenda of twentieth-century liberalism, they joined a political framework of reform that had been shaped decisively by white Protestants in the late Gilded Age.
Many among these reformers embraced a transformative concept of social progress, a concept that opened a door between liberal reformers and left-wing radicals. From the 1880s to the 1940s, the efforts of many reformers and radicals were linked by a widespread conviction that American society was advancing from one stage of historical development to the next. Most Americans, including most conservatives, believed that the country was becoming continually wealthier and more powerful. Various ideas of progress were commonplace in the United States. For their part, grassroots farm-belt agitators who advocated an enhanced State role in the economy to protect small landowners and workers saw society's transformation in a rather negative light and sometimes framed their proposals as a "counterrevolution," designed to stop or reverse that change. In contrast, many urban new liberals believed that the country was in the midst of a fundamental transformation into a new society that held the potential to become more democratic, egalitarian and united than the world of Gilded Age capitalism. They embraced an especially robust concept of ongoing historical progress, one that asserted a tumultuous and—again, at least potentially—forward change that would be qualitative, not merely quantitative. In this perception, they agreed with many who called themselves socialists, whether or not they joined the Socialist party, formed in 1901.
This developmental, transformative vision of progress lent coherence during the period between the 1880s and the 1940s to a reform politics located where the new liberalism overlapped with the left. Those seized with this vision of change anticipated the eclipse of capitalism as they knew it in favor of a more united, fair and democratic form of society. In 1888 the activist Florence Kelley derided efforts "to piece and cobble at the worn and rotten fabric of a perishing society," and called on her fellow Americans instead "to make an end of such a system." She called for a political movement that could shape an ongoing social transformation; the existing society was "perishing," its fabric "rotten." It could not be maintained. In 1902, the philosopher John Dewey stated that he was "scientifically convinced of the transitional character of the existing capitalistic control of industrial affairs and its reflected influences upon political life." In the 1930s, the Communist Joseph Freeman wrote of his "belief that mankind is passing through a major transformation. The dissolution of capitalism compares in scope and significance with the origins of private property, the beginnings of Christianity, the ascendancy of the bourgeoisie." Views similar in some respects to Freeman's were not confined to the far left and they had been current for a long time when he wrote these words. Whether the anticipated new society, waiting on the far side of social and political transformation, would represent a new stage of capitalism or a society beyond capitalism was a question to which liberals and radicals gave a wide range of answers.
From the 1880s to the 1940s, many liberals joined forces with leftists or debated the future with them amicably. The politics of transformation facilitated the construction of a broad political front whose politics often rendered moot distinctions commonly drawn between liberals and leftists, and even between evolution and revolution. Some liberals, including political leaders from President Woodrow Wilson to President Franklin Roosevelt and less famous strategists such as the journalist Walter Lippmann or the economist Adolf Berle, saw it as the liberal mission to stabilize the social structure of American capitalism and the political structure of the democratic republic. Others, mainly activists ranging from Florence Kelley to the clergyman Harry Ward to the scholar W. E. B. DuBois and the writer Betty Friedan, at least during some phases of their careers, viewed American society as deeply flawed and saw it as their duty to express the perspective of the socially excluded. The latter type of liberals figures large in this book. Such liberals seemed to flirt with the idea of socialism, but generally they resisted it. Some might classify them as leftists rather than liberals. In many individual cases that distinction is of little use. Before the 1940s, liberal politics as such was not defined by a defense of America's political-economic system against those who made fundamental criticisms of "the American way." That came afterward.
After making considerable headway on their political and policy agenda during the Progressive Era, which stretched from 1900 to 1917, the broad front of left-liberal reformers experienced a traumatic disruption during World War I and the subsequent anti-radical red scare. As president, Wilson backed regulatory and welfare-state measures associated with the broad and diverse ranks of "progressive" reformers. The early-twentieth-century progressives, as that term was understood by contemporaries and later historians, included not only the social workers, labor activists and religious reformers who are the focus of this study in its early chapters, but also businessmen and others who desired a more efficient and highly organized society. The former congeries of activists—whom I call the new liberals—were relatively pro-labor and embraced sharp criticisms of contemporary capitalism. Their sympathies with radical and militant labor organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), their tendency to oppose U.S. entry into the European war and their support for the Bolshevik revolution in Russia brought them a world of trouble at the end of the 1910s, as they were sucked into the attack mounted by Wilson and conservatives alike against antiwar activists, labor agitators and the left.
That attack, combined with the determination of some on the left to separate reformers from revolutionaries decisively, threatened to end forever the phenomenon of a broad liberal-left alliance. Women's gender-based political activism, as embodied in groups such as the National Consumers' League and the Women's Peace party, was linked closely to left-liberal politics during the Progressive Era, but the postwar feminist movement turned away from such damaging associations, taking on a more independent political profile in response to red-baiting in the late 1910s and early 1920s. Yet many women and men continued to believe in the left-liberal alliance, and they picked up its pieces and carried it forward. A politically disparate set of key activists who kept their faith in the broad front, including Ward, law professor Felix Frankfurter and labor radical Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, worked together in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), founded in 1920, which became the linchpin of left-liberal politics in the following years.
During the years between World War I and World War II, left-liberal activists mounted two significant strategic efforts to revitalize their broad front and to expand its agenda. The first such effort was the farmer-labor movement of the 1920s and 1930s, which involved third-party organizing activities and drew on the legacy of earlier agrarian movements. Its most important single champion was Senator Robert LaFollette, Sr. of Wisconsin, whose independent presidential campaign of 1924 gave hope to left-liberals that an updated version of farmer-laborism—William Jennings Bryan's old dream of a winning national coalition of "commoners"—might yet be realized, albeit outside the confines of Bryan's Democratic party. Into the mid-1930s, Midwestern and western agitators roamed the Plains, the Rockies and beyond, preaching the gospel of a third party. They found success in Minnesota, under the leadership of Governor Floyd Olson, and, to a lesser degree, in Wisconsin, with LaFollette's sons, Philip and Robert, Jr., at the helm, but they were unable to break out of this Upper Midwest ghetto, and in general their agenda was usurped by President Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. When Roosevelt revitalized the Democratic party as a reform vehicle and offered tangible benefits to farmers and workers, he cut the ground out from under interwar farmer-laborism.
The second effort, more innovative and more consequential for American politics, was the "Popular Front" of the 1935-1948 years. The Popular Front brought together Communists and liberals. It united old-stock reformers with African Americans and members of the newer industrial labor unions—which in 1935 formed the Congress of Industrial Unions (CIO) under the leadership of John Lewis and others—in support of a pluralistic, social-democratic vision that embraced Roosevelt's New Deal program but sought to push the Democratic party beyond it. The industrial unions and the Popular Front spoke for a political-economic agenda intended to expand economic security and opportunity for American workers, but its success in advancing that agenda was partial at best. The frustration of social-democratic ambitions in the 1940s did much to dissipate hopes for social transformation in America and to channel the energies of those who had populated the broad front for transformation into new frontiers.
Faltering in their hopes to transform American capitalism, the activists of the Popular Front left their deepest mark in the pursuit of racial equality and the embrace of ethnic diversity. In the 1930s and 1940s, political liberals for the first time embraced at least a moderate form of racial egalitarianism, and they reached a consensus in favor of mild version of cultural pluralism. Before about 1935, there was no such thing as racial liberalism, and political liberalism up to that time was a white political tendency. Occasionally an African American, most notably W. E. B. DuBois, had sought to involve himself in liberal politics in earlier times, but such efforts had met with frustration over the unwillingness of (white) liberals to extend their stated values to questions of race. In the 1910s and 1920s, Catholics and Jews had begun to link their own agendas of empowerment and security to the programs then becoming associated with liberal reform, and in the process they had altered the content of liberal politics. In the 1930s and 1940s African American activists, as well as Communists of all races, changed liberal politics perhaps more fatefully, insisting that the liberal movement could not be true to itself if it did not move to a position favoring civil rights and opportunity for black Americans and opposing "jim-crow" segregation in the South, a particularly difficult task for liberals since their main vehicle by that time was the Democratic party, which was still committed to southern apartheid. Of the Popular Front's entire agenda, its racial egalitarianism was the element that, by far, was absorbed most fully and durably into the American political mainstream.
The left-liberal alliance was disrupted for a second time, and this time more definitely, during the 1940s, by the conflicts among American liberals over Communism. The broad alliance did not survive this trauma, as it had survived the shocks it received during the period during and just after World War I. American liberalism and radicalism both were redefined. Liberals in the 1940s shelved their longtime dreams of reshaping America's political economy through direct political action and began to strengthen their belief in the vitality and social promise of American capitalism. By 1950, with the U.S. at an unprecedented peak of global power and the cold war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union having begun in earnest, anticommunist liberals vanquished their left-leaning rivals within liberal precincts and succeeded in redefining liberalism against the left, as an anti-revolutionary doctrine plain and simple. The left—or "radicalism," the term favored during the cold war—became a political identity defined in large measure by its differences with liberalism. In 1948, Henry Wallace, a former vice-president, ran for president as a left-liberal who wished to preserve the Popular Front, taking a militant pro-civil rights stance and advocating peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union. But he found himself excommunicated from the evolving politics of liberalism. The memory of liberalism's anti-capitalist heritage, of the fierce critique of American capitalism that long had animated one large wing of American liberalism, quickly faded, a memory that liberals had reason to wish gone during the era of McCarthyism. The earlier compatibility of liberalism with a supportive view of social transformation was erased from the nation's political rule-book.
The years between the late 1940s and the late 1960s, the heart of the cold war, formed the classic era of estrangement between liberals and radicals. During this era, liberals generally supported the cold war abroad and some form of red-hunting at home. Self-proclaimed radicals often sympathized with third-world revolutionaries, expressed great suspicion of the U.S. government and championed the rights of African Americans and other downtrodden minorities. Liberals gradually embraced the cause of civil rights and racial inclusion as well, but they did not welcome insurgencies against the American social and political system, either domestically or internationally, as cold-war radicals did—and as some earlier liberals had. Liberals during the cold war maintained an attenuated belief in social progress, one that was basically quantitative. The question of capitalism's moral virtues and defects continuously faded from liberal politics, to the point where, in the post-Great Society years, political actors identified all around as liberals gave fulsome praise to the beneficence of America's economic genius and shrunk from any fundamental criticism of the capitalist system. Programmatically, cold war liberals developed new initiatives, most dramatically during the 1960s, adding ardent civil rights advocacy, an opening of opportunities for women, environmental protection and a celebration of diversity to their agenda. Yet, fundamentally, the cry of the cold war liberal was the same as that of the American labor movement, as the labor leader Samuel Gompers had expressed it long before: "More."
Leftists during the cold war period worked doggedly to extend the benefits of America's political and economic systems to social groups that had been excluded from these benefits. In other words, in the context of domestic politics, they did the work of liberalism. Leftists simply showed less hesitancy and more passion than most liberals showed and paid no heed to mass opinion. Breaking with liberals, leftists also opposed the cold war with the Soviets and defended a series of revolutionary socialist governments abroad, beginning with Fidel Castro's Cuban regime. But even leftists during the cold war advocated socialism in the United States only tentatively and sporadically and far from unanimously. Leftists continued to malign American capitalism as immoral and exploitative, but they found it difficult to pose coherent alternatives to that system. They often consoled themselves in the role of prophets without honor, despairing of America's afflictions of the soul and disdaining strategies of power and change.
The thirty years after the Vietnam War ended, in 1975, were an era of scant optimism and ideological uncertainty for liberals and leftists. Ideas of transformative progress in an egalitarian direction faded rapidly from American political life, even as, ironically, the term "progressive" came into use as a euphemism, alternately, for liberal and left. Liberals swam, within the two-party system, against a resurgent tide of laissez-faire doctrine. Some liberals and leftists joined forces, either within the Democratic party or in issue-based activist mobilizations, to do battle against the political right, but with almost no explicit discussion of ideologies or long-range social and political goals. Many leftists found positions of substantial status and comfort in the cultural apparatus of post-1960s America, in some ways estranged from mass culture and, in others, absorbed in the culture of the professional class. They became awkward tribunes for downtrodden minorities and often appeared uninterested in championing the majority. Perhaps most ironically, in light of the fervency with which earlier generations of leftists had embraced a doctrine of social progress in America, leftists in the post-World War II era developed grave doubts about any such doctrine, sometimes gravitating toward ideas of cultural renewal and spiritual enchantment and losing faith in the vision of knowledge-driven upward historical movement that had constituted the intellectual patrimony of the western left since the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Those who might have been, in the light of history, the most forceful advocates for a robust idea of progress in America became confused and ambivalent about it, their trumpets uncertain if not stilled.
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Liberalism and the left, for all their differences, sprang from common Enlightenment sources, and this insured that conflicts between liberal reformers and leftist radicals tended to take on a distinctively intimate quality. In fact, from the nineteenth century up to the present, although American radicals and reformers criticized each other harshly, their disputes were often—although not always—bounded by bedrock liberal assumptions about the nature of a good society. Left-wing radicals were those who placed extremely high value on equality and who subjected capitalism to severe moral criticism over its allegedly exploitative and dehumanizing aspect. A leftist was not necessarily a socialist. Liberals' essential commitments were to individual freedom, natural rights, Constitutional government and the sovereignty of "the people"—concepts that, not only in the United States but also in world history, linked the anti-government liberalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the welfare-state liberalism of the twentieth century and beyond. As these definitions suggest, the line separating leftists from liberals often was smudged or downright invisible, no matter how often people to either side tried to mark it clearly and impassably.
As already noted, radicals frequently did the work of liberalism, fighting for a thorough application of liberal principles in society, and they often castigated self-identified liberals for failing to fulfill liberal principles. It is not hard to find exceptions to this rule: radicals who disdained liberal principle as well as practice. Nonetheless, it is striking how far the radical critics in our past were influenced by liberal ideology. American leftists generally championed individual liberties even as they pursued communal harmony. They sought new bases for individual freedom while extolling collective action. For their own reasons, leftists often shared with libertarians a distrust of the State, while nonetheless projecting visions of an expanded government that would tame capitalist power, express the will of "the people" and aid the oppressed. These multiple commitments may have entailed contradictions, but if so, these were contradictions shaped by the persistence of liberal themes in radical politics. Many of the dissenting forces in American politics were inhabitants of a deep liberal near-consensus—one also broad enough to include many conservative opponents of twentieth-century liberalism and the left.
If radicals very often were liberals in ideology and militant liberals in program, then is there no role for socialism in a history of left-liberal politics? In the context considered in this study, the idea of socialism functioned as a kind of enabling myth for radical egalitarians in America. To call socialism a myth is not to say it is merely a falsehood or a delusion. Instead, the idea of socialism served continually to push back the horizon of reform, to maintain a space for prophetic moral criticism of society and to furnish a practically endless series of demands for the redefinition of liberal reform beyond what each receding generation had imagined. Socialism was the most striking formulation of the broader idea of transformative progress in America, describing the cleanest break between today and tomorrow. That clean break, that leap forward, never arrived and it likely never will. Radicals and liberals alike pushed for piecemeal improvements, but the idea of transformation, including the doctrinaire idea of socialism, prodded them onward in this path. In the absence of believers in a socialist alternative, one has to wonder if any similar spur to society's moral improvement will be felt. The term "progressive" returned to American politics at the turn of the twenty-first century, but this was a euphemism for any among a wide range of political positions, not a signal that a coherent vision of progress had returned to American reform or radicalism. Leftists continue to claim a morally transcendent, prophetic vantage point from which they denounce the evils of contemporary society. Yet their vision of change is hazy. They are prophets without a promised land to which they might direct the people. Prophecy may be emotionally stirring, but prophecy without a coherent belief in progress may prove more disabling than inspiring.
In the early twenty-first century, liberalism—whether ambitious or cautious, whether establishmentarian or critical of American society's central tendencies—sometimes appears as the politics that dares not speak its name. Those who pine for a return of New Deal or Great Society designs for social equity often call themselves progressives because the political right has cast liberals into disrepute, defining liberals as cultural elitists and little more. Others, who lean to the left, also call themselves progressives rather than liberals, but they mean that they side with society's outsiders and dissenters and liberals don't. Because of the success of cold war liberals in capturing the mantle of liberalism for themselves—in reading Popular Front liberalism out of what most Americans understood as "liberalism"—for a half-century or more, those who have adopted a militant pro-civil rights, pro-labor and anti-imperialist stance have tended to see themselves as "radicals"—or progressives—rather than liberals. Those who stand on the left flank of the reform tradition, whether they are particularly concerned with racial oppression, with the evils of capitalism, with the subordination of women or with anything else, may think of liberals as timorous reformers who are hostile to protest and overly concerned with maintaining social order. Yet many protesters against such injustices themselves have laid claim to liberal politics, and American radicalism, as already noted, has been shot through with liberal values. Historians tend to assume that knowledge of the past will dissipate contemporary confusion. If that assumption is to find any validation here, the story has to begin rather far back, in the era that gave birth to both liberal and left politics as they were understood in twentieth-century America.