A Conservative History of the American Left
Everything old is new again
By W. James Antle III
Daniel J. Flynn has spent more than his fair share of time around the left. Not just your average, garden-variety liberal who votes for Democratic canidates and puts a Barack Obama bumper sticker on his Volvo. As a regular on the college campus speaking circuit, Flynn has interacted with some of the most far-left radicals in the country.
The encounters haven't always been pleasant. Flynn has been shouted down by mobs of students and confronted by intolerant purveyors of tolerance. He has had his lectures canceled by university officials and made impractical by those officials' inability to keep order. The difficulty of engaging the left hasn't deterred him from seriously studying their ideas, however. Nor has it prevented him from giving them a fair and serious treatment in A Conservative History of the American Left. His new book is a lucid presentation of the personal foibles and philosophical principles of forgotten intellectuals, as well as some familiar characters.
Flynn makes two important points often overlooked by conservatives: Even the most radical ideas of the left aren't entirely new -- some of them are older than the United States itself. And the American left is truly a homegrown phenomenon, not some Marxist European import. As Flynn puts it, "Utopian and collectivist ideas are as American as Plymouth Rock."
In fact, the book opens with a discussion of the Pilgrims' failed collectivist experiments. From 1620 to 1623, the residents of Plymouth colony pooled their resources in defiance of such notions as private property or individual profit. Predictably, they nearly starved before Gov. William Bradford parceled land to families for their own use and therefore "made all hands very industrious."
If the misery that attended proto-communism was as predictable as the relative prosperity that followed its abandonment, the reasons the Pilgrims decided to try their hand at collectivism are less so. The colony's investors didn't want the colonists' personal greed to erode their profits, pitting -- not for the last time -- capitalists against capitalism. And like many religious settlers who came after them, some of their radical beliefs were derived from their interpretations of the Bible.
More than most conservative discussions of the American left, Flynn focuses on the religious dimensions of its utopianism. From Shakers and the Harmonists to Victoria Woodhull's "religion of humanity," forms of Christianity could coexist with what Whittaker Chambers called "man's second oldest faith": "Ye shall be as gods."
"With rhetoric invoked both Genesis and Revelation," writes Flynn, "the religious and non-religious utopian dreamers displayed the intellectual debt owed to the Bible -- even by ideologues who hated the Bible." It should therefore not be surprising to hear a progressive presidential candidate talking about the transformative power of faith while also apparently regarding it as the opiate of the masses.
As early as the 1820s, Robert Owen, founder of a utopian community in Indiana that Flynn discusses at length, was test driving ideas that many radicals in the 1960s would later believe were their own. Marriage was "the sole cause of all prostitution," religion was turning the world into "one great lunatic asylum." Most problems were attributable to “private, or individual property -- absurd and irrational systems of religion -- and marriage," something that can still be heard today in countless late-night dormitory bull sessions by so-called original thinkers.
It is Flynn's willingness to dredge up such unpleasant truths that separates his book from similar works produced by the left itself. According to contemporary liberals, the left has always been racially and religiously tolerant. The left's Bible-thumpers, prohibitionists, and racists have all been airbrushed out of history. Flynn recovers them. But what makes bigots and civil-rights crusaders, Christian socialists and militant secularists, freedom-lovers and communists a coherent movement that can be called "the left" in the first place?
To Flynn, the common thread is contempt for the values and lifestyle of the American middle class combined with a desire to smash social conventions that can get in the way of utopia. Sometimes the smashing can be done through limiting government action (like the pre-Roe campaign to repeal abortion laws), sometimes through increased government action (like income redistribution and efforts to turn family obligations into collective ones), and even occasionally through violent private means (the literal bomb-throwers of the Weathermen).
A Conservative History of the American Left is perhaps most of all a story about the failure and resilience of utopian schemes. The new and radical ideas aren't new after all. Flynn has seen the future, and it is the past.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.
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