Daniel J. Flynn is one of the Right’s rising stars. Still under 40, he has produced three books, each more perspicacious than the last. There are conservative journalists who write for a mass audience and conservative scholars who write for a narrow one. But Flynn writes for both: his books combine original research — on the streets interviewing leftist protestors as well as in libraries combing through archives — with stylistic flair and common sense. A Conservative History of the American Left is his best book yet.
Histories of the Left as a whole, as opposed to volumes tackling one or another subgenre of the sinister side of politics, have been in short supply. In part, as Flynn shows, that’s because the Left itself prefers to forget its past. Today’s secular liberals are embarrassed to discover that they are descended from believers: apocalypse-awaiting religious sects, Bible-thumping Temperance nags, and even Christian communists. The Left has not always been racially progressive, either: antebellum utopian communities often banned blacks, while later socialists insisted that the struggle for racial equality was a distraction from the really important fight against the freedom to buy and sell.
A left that did remember its past might avoid making the same mistakes over and over again — which could be a dangerous thing. Thankfully, not too many liberals will read A Conservative History of the American Left. Those who do will be surprised: Flynn has written this book in as fair a spirit as his enemies could ask. There are traitors (Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, to name a few), murderers, and hucksters aplenty in the history of the American Left, yet “the story contains heroes” too, says Flynn: “Eugene Debs running for president from an Atlanta jail; William Jennings Bryan dramatically sermonizing easterners not to crucify their countrymen on a cross of gold; Martin Luther King Jr. laying down his life for the better world possible.” Flynn separates the free-loving, hard-drinking, sometimes street-fighting “Freedom Left” of Wobblies, hippies, and Yippies from the killjoy and coercive “Force Left” of Prohibitionists, Communists, and other statists.
BY FORCE OR BY FREEDOM, however, leftists pursue the same ends: the abolition of private property, marriage, and traditional religion. There’s some irony there, since the Left, both in its historical roots and its often Puritanical attitudes, is deeply religious. “The Religious Left” is the subject of Flynn’s first chapter. Small-c communism came to America early, with the Pilgrims of Plymouth colony in the 1620s. They didn’t practice communism for theological reasons — perversely enough, the colony’s capital investors back in the mother country imposed that policy, thinking it would protect profits. But other religious settlers who followed the Pilgrims often did embrace collectivism as an article of faith: these sects, explored in colorful detail by Flynn, included Labadists, Ephratans, and “the Woman in the Wilderness” — which unfortunately had nothing to do with nymphs or dryads but was an all-male Christian community. Later came Rappites, Zoarites, and Shakers, the last of whom hailed an actual woman, one Ann Lee, as Christ’s second coming.
On the banks of the Wabash in 1814, the Rappites founded a commune they called Harmony. The turn to the irreligious Left would be marked there a decade later, when the Indiana town was bought wholesale by British industrialist and secular socialist Robert Owen, who in a dazzling display of creativity rechristened the town “New Harmony.”
Owen’s July 4, 1826 “Declaration of Mental Independence” encapsulated the Left’s worldview. “Man up to this hour has been in all parts of the earth a slave to a trinity of the most monstrous evils,” he averred, namely, “private property, absurd and irrational systems of religion and marriage founded upon individual property, combined with some of these irrational systems of religion.” New Harmony would have none of that. Indeed, Flynn recounts, the New Harmonists even “separated children from their parents at an early age,” lest familial bonds corrupt the egalitarian experiment.
The settlement had everything going for it: arable land in a bucolic setting; ready-made houses and buildings; and Owen’s vast personal fortune to subsidize the venture. Still it failed. With Owen’s wealth providing whatever was needed, nobody farmed. Free housing at New Harmony, like public housing today, turned into a slum. Why look after property that you don’t own? Even Owen soon lost interest, disappearing on sabbatical from June 1825 to January 1826 before bringing the ill-fated project to an end in June 1827.
OWEN’S FAILURE DID NOT END the dream of building heaven on earth. French socialist Charles Fourier, who imagined a secular millennium of friendly lions and oceans made of lemonade, inspired further experiments. The most famous Fourierite effort in the U.S. was Brook Farm, fictionalized and immortalized by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Blithedale Romance. The most successful, however, was the “North American Phalanx,” which lasted an impressive — by voluntary commune standards — twelve years from 1843 to 1855, largely thanks to rigorous selection criteria that turned away 70 percent of applicants.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online