Governors curtail workers’ rights. President Obama’s second term is in question. The divide between the nation’s top 1% and the rest threatens to swallow us all. It’s not easy being on the Left today.
At this dispiriting moment, the historian and editor of Dissent, Michael Kazin, parachutes with American Dreamers. How the Left Changed a Nation. To the disenchanted radicals of today, Kazin enumerates a host of victories from the past two hundred years: the epic struggle for the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century and for the inclusion of African Americans into white society; the effort to create gender equity and for the recognition of gays and lesbians as members of American polity; and the project to alert us to the dangers of environmental pollution and global warming.
Yet Kazin addresses a contradiction in the radical movement of the last two centuries, successes in the cultural realm with setbacks in the ballot box. The American Left, he says, especially in the twentieth century, has dedicated itself “to changing how people thought as much as the structures that employed and governed them.”
To make his point, Kazin looks at the impact of novels such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin but also of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. He also points to the work of the Depression-era photographer, Dorothea Lange, as well as to Woody Guthrie’s ballad “This Land is Your Land” that almost has become an alternative national anthem. He considers Allen Ginsberg, Jane Fonda, James Baldwin, Bob Dylan, Betty Friedan, all of whom made an impact in the way people saw society around them.
At the same time, while giving the Left credit for “helping to create a more humane society” without itself attaining political power, he seems to undercut these efforts. He says, for instance, that the “cultural influences of the post-1960’s Left became a background melody to a political narrative written largely by conservatives.”
This is a common refrain, often used by conservatives to undermine the Left. Consider the column in the New York Times by David Brooks that appeared soon after the publication of Kazin’s book. Trying to limit the potential reverberations of Occupy Wall Street, Brooks writes that looking at the youth protest movement of the 60’s, “you wouldn’t have been able to predict that Republicans would go on to win four of the next five presidential elections.”
Brooks has a point. But this type of argument continues to portray culture as a secondary factor in social life, being acted upon rather than acting as its own agent, the ineffectual cousin of politics and the economy. In other words, this traditional formulation defines politics and the economy as a priori structures and culture as an epiphenomenon.
But how could the broad acceptance of the idea of racial and gender equality be considered subordinate to the election of presidents? Is it not a spectacular development in human social relations? From the perch of history, you wonder which appears as more consequential. I don’t mean to be trivial here. Obviously elections have devastating consequences. Consider the Iraq War.
Nor am I proposing a sour-grapes argument: conservatives have the presidency while radicals have won the struggle over identity, substituting in this way cultural for political power. Rather I wish to highlight the deep and wide reach of cultural forces that we often forget.
Very empirical, Kazin’s book does not really explain how he understands culture as a theoretical construct. From my understanding, he seems to employ the term in two ways: in the anthropological sense of a way of life and in the aesthetic sense of art and literature. In this way, he demonstrates the involvement of radicals both in identity and the arts.
Although he does not, I would like to propose that culture has always been Left, devoted to transforming modes of thought and discourse. Preoccupied with the realm of the imaginary and the possible, culture has concerned itself with ways of doing and thinking that are not limited by the here and now. I cite here a few lines from Richard Wright’s 1937 autobiography Black Boy. The “imaginative constructions” of literary works that were “critical of the straitened American environment,” he writes, enabled him to take practical action. “It had been my accidental reading of fiction and literary criticism that had evoked in me vague glimpses of life’s possibilities.” If anything, culture is about offering us possibilities.
Focused very much on American developments, Kazin does not look at the transformative role culture has played in societies all over the world. So let’s look at a couple of examples outside of the United States. In a previous post I argued that intellectuals in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Germany, locked out of power by court society, sought to create a unified nation in the imaginary realm of culture. From their positions at universities, journals, newspapers, coffee-houses, concert halls, they created the language, metaphors, and the vision of a new entity. When a politically and administratively unified Germany was finally declared in 1871, it could count on more than a century of cultural work, carried on by poets, artists, teachers, professors, students, and preachers.
Turning towards southern Europe for a moment, we could say that the very language the Greeks speak today and the way they see their relationship to antiquity and to Europe was largely fashioned by a group of intellectuals, novelists, and poets called demoticists. While they did not create Greece as a structural entity, they shaped the way it has identified itself over the decades.
When we look at post-colonial societies around the world, we see intellectuals—more often than not literary and cultural figures—taking key roles in liberation movements. Indeed, the history of nationalist struggle against imperial domination shows the primary role culture can play. The issue of recognition—the deliverance from national shame and humiliation—goes hand in hand with freedom from economic exploitation.
Of course, it is important not to reify culture, give it some essence and have it float above us, beaming rays of influence. We should not, in other words, substitute one for the other, freedom to fashion identity for freedom from economic subservience. At the same time, we should not paint the enterprise to transform our thinking and behavior as just dream-work.