By Sean Wilentz, New York Review of Books, August 16, 2012
Review of Michael Kazin's American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation; excerpt:
[....] Occasionally—as with the abolition of slavery, the rise of the New Deal, and the victories of the civil rights movement—momentous changes supported by radicals have indeed come to pass. Yet Kazin argues that the liberal components of the governing elite have supported major reforms strictly in order to advance purposes of their own. Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans, he writes, embraced emancipation only halfway through the Civil War, when it became clear that doing so “could speed victory for the North” and save the Union, their true goal. Franklin D. Roosevelt endorsed labor’s rights only when he needed to court labor’s votes.
Even when they are successful, Kazin writes, the radicals—“decidedly junior partners in a coalition driven by establishment reformers”—end up shoved aside as the liberals enact their more limited programs and take all of the credit. Prophets without honor, the leftists return to the margins where they and later radicals dream new and bigger dreams until another social movement jars the establishment.
Some radical historians—most famously the late Howard Zinn—have described this pattern as a chronicle of thoroughgoing oppression. In their view, the reforms initiated by radicals have practically always turned into swindles, orchestrated by clever rulers to preserve and even reinforce their power. Kazin, who also despairs about the current state of the left, has a more positive view of liberal reformers and their reforms: the Emancipation Proclamation and the Voting Rights Act, he insists, were important political advances and not establishment ruses. But a basic pattern still holds for Kazin as it does for Zinn: radicals challenge the privileged; liberals co-opt them, claiming the glory. In effect liberals are the enemies of fundamental political change.
Most of American Dreamers consists of crisp and useful summaries of nearly four decades’ worth of historical research about American radicals and radical movements, including Kazin’s own work on the amorphous populist strain in American politics [....]