A Conservative History of the American Left
by Daniel J. Flynn
(Crown Forum, 480 pages, $27.50)
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.
Enduring even longer was the Oneida Community, a throwback to the religious socialism of an earlier era. Oneida persisted for 32 years under founder John Humphrey Noyes’s system of “Bible Communism.” Life at Oneida previewed much of the Marxist totalitarianism to come in the next century. Noyes established the practice of “mutual criticism” — later adopted by Chinese Maoists — a “formal, public procedure involv[ing] a single community member facing a gauntlet of criticism,” Flynn reports. “Everything from reading novels excessively to spending too much time on artistic pursuits to wearing hair beyond acceptable lengths was fair game.” And although Noyes coined the term “free love,” even sex at Oneida was “obligatory, directed, monitored — everything but free.”
Flynn’s chapters on these antebellum communards are his most enjoyable, in part because this is little-reviewed history and in part because, noxious as these sects may have been, they did little harm to themselves or their country. The Lefts that arose in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were another matter. In Europe, Karl Marx displaced Charles Fourier as the leading socialist theorist, while his intellectual followers seized the First International Workingmen’s Association from actual workingmen. In the U.S., labor unions, Prohibitionists, populists, and Progressives demanded concessions from society at large rather than retreating into communities of their own. The Left was getting into politics. Taxes and bloodshed would follow.
A CONSERVATIVE HISTORY of the American Left is a book of admirably concise chapters and pithy prose. Suffragettes, Single-Taxers, labor-union agitators, and Temperance “hatchetators” like Carry Nation all receive just enough space and not a line more. Only Flynn’s penultimate chapter bites off too much, trying to cover every left-wing fad from the Vietnam War to 9/11 in under 20 pages. Otherwise, Flynn’s volume is as well planned as it is well written.
Four chapters on Communist subversion in the United States from the time of the Russian Revolution to the 1950s drive home one of Flynn’s key themes, that the American Left only prospers when it grounds itself in American history and identity. The Communists enjoyed much success with their espionage programs, but as agents of an alien ideology, they never captured the hearts and minds of the American people.
Neither did the 1960s New Left, though it had greater success transforming American culture. Rage against the Vietnam conflict fueled the New Left, though until Nixon the war had only been prosecuted by liberals. “The original commitment in Vietnam was made by President Truman, a mainstream liberal,” Flynn quotes Students for a Democratic Society president Carl Oglesby reminding an antiwar march in 1965. “It was seconded by President Eisenhower, a moderate liberal. It was intensified by the late President Kennedy, a flaming liberal. Think of the men who now engineer that war…Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Lodge, Goldberg, the President himself….They are all liberals.” The Vietnam era might well be considered the Left’s civil war.
The period abounded with ironies. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee segued into the very violent Black Panthers. Students for a Democratic Society increasingly admired nondemocratic societies in North Vietnam, Cuba, and Communist China. Radicals who started out opposing the Vietnam War ended the decade by convening a “War Council” in Flint, Michigan and launching a terror-bombing campaign against their own countrymen — though the inept Weathermen, a violent offshoot of SDS, wound up detonating three of their own comrades instead.
COMING DOWN FROM the 1960s was a nightmare for the Left. Black Panthers Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton became addicted to crack, with Newton getting blown away by a dealer in 1989. Depressed and irrelevant, Abbie Hoffman, “the New Left’s clown prince,” killed himself with an overdose of barbiturates that same year. Not that all the ’60s radicals met with such fates, though: “Mark Rudd, Bernardine Dohrn, and Bill Ayers, three of the most visible Weathermen, landed faculty positions,” Flynn reminds us. Thousands of other ’60s leftists, and society at large, were not so lucky. “Only the most sentimental ex-hippie could fail to recognize the prices paid on the road to the new freedoms,” Flynn quotes ex-SDS president Todd Gitlin as saying. “The booming teenage pregnancy rate; the dread diseases that accompanied the surge in promiscuity; the damage done by drugs; the undermining of family commitment…” Those lessons went unlearned well into the 1980s, as homosexual-rights activists responded to the AIDS crisis by demanding that gay bathhouses not be shut down and the Lambda Defense Fund and National Gay Task Force sued to prevent the release of the first AIDS test in 1985.
“Nobody learns,” an older and disillusioned Carl Oglesby tells Flynn. “Nobody learns anything from anybody. All the mistakes that are made have to be made all over again, in a new key, in a new tempo. What can I say?” As elegantly written and compelling as it is, the greatest virtue of A Conservative History of the American Life is that it may prove Oglesby wrong by allowing the Right to learn from the Left’s mistakes, so that the country does not have to repeat them.