The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 21, 2019

The Regionalist: Right on Left
Bill Kauffman - 05/05/08

A review of Daniel J. Flynn’s A Conservative History of the American Left (New York: Crown Forum, 2008), 464 pages, $27.50.

I must confess that I opened this book with trepidation. Daniel J. Flynn’s previous books were Why the Left Hates America (2002) and Intellectual Morons (2004), titles beside which Rush Limbaugh looks like George Santayana. I’m in for it, I thought: four hundred pages of USA! chest-thumping and ridiculous depictions of nonentities such as Michael Dukakis and John Kerry as the spawn of Satan.

But I was pleasantly surprised. Flynn has produced a well-written, pugnaciously argued, and consistently interesting account of the American Left. I disagree with significant portions of it, but hey, unlike in the vast majority of “political” books today, at least there is something to disagree with.

The Left is most attractive to Flynn—and to me—when it is most “firmly rooted in American tradition.” He’s willing to sing a song for the dreamers, and in doing so he offers an entertaining survey of antebellum utopian settlements. Some commanded celibacy and others free love, while Charles Fourier, aiming at that perfect mean, suggested a “Court of Love,” which has a nice doo-wop ring to it. Of the Court, Flynn indelicately says, “A guaranteed minimum of sexual experiences leveled the erotic playing field for the ugly, shy, and awkward.” If you’re gonna have a redistributive state, one supposes, better Charlize Theron for the lonely than food stamps for Doritos-eaters.

The most pernicious aspect of these communities was their denigration of core family functions. Conjugal variations aside, many prescribed group kitchens, communal responsibility for the raising of children, and a denial of privacy that even an exhibitionist would find intrusive. Home, and homely tasks and talents, were derogated. Children were often separated from parents and delivered into the chill hands of experts. (Upper-class Americans later turned this into a ritual with their boarding schools.)

Robert Owen, founder of the New Harmony settlement in Indiana, declared that “every child born within any state is the child of that state,” a proto-Hillary “it takes a village” conception of the young as the joint property of parents, busybodies, and a meddlesome bureaucracy that is always making plans for Nigel.

Flynn has taken an elephant gun on this safari through Yankee kingdom and he does enjoy bagging his prey, who are usually ragged Johnny Appleseeds of eccentric Protestantism aiming at the perfectibility of man. He has a talent for the savage tag, as when he piquantly pegs John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida Perfectionists, as a “wife-swapping communist” who “nominated Jesus Christ for president.” (Christ, a prolife extremist who would not support the troops, was a longshot in 1840 and a sure loser today.)

The Oneidans turned their small fry over to a “Children’s House,” where they were raised by well-meaning strangers, and while this strikes us as monstrous I am not sure how it really differs from the system of daycare that politicians and policymakers of all stripes laud and subsidize today.

The treatment of Noyes—“a creepy senior citizen,” to Flynn—hints at a later flaw in the book. When Noyes urges his followers to avoid the Civil War draft, an act consistent with the principles of 1776, Flynn finds in this draft-dodging counsel a foreshadowing of the 1960s, when “hippie gurus” advised the young to disobey Robert McNamara and Lyndon B. Johnson. Just how this is “left” is not clear. Eloquent voices on the 1960s Right—for instance, former Nebraska Republican Congressman Howard Buffett and ISI founder Frank Chodorov—maligned the draft with equal if not greater force than Noyes. Moreover, as Flynn concedes, these nineteenth-century colonies were examples of voluntary communism, and voluntarism was once considered a central principle of the American Right. (Flynn notes, “nineteenth-century communists possessed a crucial freedom unknown to their twentieth-century counterparts: they could leave.”)

Flynn has a nose for the pungent and an eye for the goofy. I loved this paragraph about Stedman Whitewell, Robert Owen’s architect, who “found the frequency of such city names as ‘Concord,’ ‘Springfield,’ and ‘Watertown’ troubling. At New Harmony, he launched a plan to rename cities and towns in a more ordered, scientific, and rational manner. . . . Whitewell assigned each number from 0 to 9 a consonant and a vowel and then determined new names based on the letters that corresponded to a location’s longitude and latitude grid. Thus, Boston becomes ‘Odda Natvu,’ Indianapolis ‘Fieky Pyvat,’ and Chicago ‘Einin Kalou.’ It didn’t catch on.”

But I think Flynn is unfair to certain sublime New Englanders. Flynn makes sport of Brook Farm (memorably fictionalized in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance), but the holy fools resident thereon were at least dimly aware of something fine beyond the countinghouse. He is much too hard on the Transcendentalists, who for all the loftiness implicit in their name were placed and anchored. As Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote: “Behind all the catchwords, and even cant, if you please, of the Transcendentalists, lay the fact that they looked immediately around them for their stimulus, their scenery, their illustrations, and their properties. After fifty years of national life, the skylark and the nightingale were dethroned from our literature, and in the very first volume of the ‘Dial’ the blue-bird and the woodthrush took their place.”

Of Brook Farm’s failure, Flynn writes, “Here were Boston Brahmins, Harvard graduates, descendants of the Pilgrims failing at subsistence farming, auctioning off their most prized possessions, and eating Thanksgiving dinner by the grace of charity.” I find this poignant, not contemptible.

“The appeal of communal life for a religious theorist unwilling to earn his daily bread is not so hard to figure out,” writes Flynn, and while the Main Streeter in me snickers, the romantic protests. There are dreamy Rotarians, after all, and poetic insurance agents. This is the genius of America.

Any cultural movement or political cause is going to attract its share of fruits and nuts. Heck, they add savor to the mix. They’re easy to mock but belittling them is as unfair, in its way, as the faux-bohemian sneering at the nine-to-fiver. Consider Bronson Alcott, Louisa May’s fey father and founder of the failed “Fruitlands” colony. Flynn chides Alcott for “laziness,” but is that really the best way to describe him? The author of Little Women wrote an affectionate and very funny spoof of Fruitlands titled Transcendental Wild Oats. Describing her father and his even flightier partner Charles Lane, Louisa wrote, “Money was abjured, as the root of all evil. . . . On one of [their] penniless pilgrimages they took passage on a boat, and, when fare was demanded, artlessly offered to talk, instead of pay. As the boat was well under way and they actually had not a cent, there was no help for it. So Brother Lion and Brother Lamb held forth to the assembled passengers in their most eloquent style. There must have been something effective in this conversation, for the listeners were moved to take up a contribution for these inspired lunatics, who preached peace on earth and goodwill to man so earnestly, with empty pockets. A goodly sum was collected; but when the captain presented it the reformers proved that they were consistent even in their madness, for not a penny would they accept, saying, with a look at the group about them, whose indifference or contempt had changed to interest and respect, ‘You see how well we get on without money;’ and so went serenely on their way, with their linen blouses flapping airily in the cold October wind.”

Now, Alcott certainly was a New England eccentric, and he may have been a sore trial to his friends, but a leftist? There’s no way to flatten out a character like his and fit it into a left or right pocket.

After the Civil War—which was “problematic for the Left,” says Flynn, not to mention for the republic—his subjects become less ebullient, less delightfully kooky. So did the country. Writes Flynn: “Local instead of national, persuasion instead of compulsion, agriculture instead of industry—all of this seemed passé after the example of the Civil War.”

I think he gets the Populists dead wrong. “From the populists comes the modern American state,” Flynn asserts, which is only true if the modern American state is a militant promoter of agrarian values. He mocks the typical populist orator as “part revivalist preacher, part snake-oil salesman, part conspiracy theorist”—a bloviating hypocrite—but methinks Flynn has bought the Hofstadterian libel of populism. For the populists were old American types who took seriously their Jefferson and picked up any weapon at hand to fight off the plutocrats and predators who were dispossessing rural America and making a go at oligarchy. Novelist Hamlin Garland explained the Populist creed in The Arena: “We are individualists, mainly, let that be understood at the start. We stand unalterably opposed to the paternal idea in government. We believe in fewer laws and the juster interpretation thereof.” Yes, some—not all—sought to bring monopolists to heel using the same levers of government earlier pushed by those same monopolists, but William Jennings Bryan was not a forerunner of FDR, no matter what Vital Center historiography might claim.

Après-populism, the deluge. In Flynn’s telling, the American Left, whose inspiration had been Jesus Christ, was overwhelmed by “the influx of immigrant masses, who brought Old World ideas such as Marxism.” Critically, these newcomers gave the American Left a foreign accent when what it needed most was the populist twang of the midcountry. Flynn cites Morris Hillquit’s report that two-thirds of socialist newspapers founded in 1876–77 America were in foreign languages, although the most influential socialist paper was the “unapologetically American” Appeal to Reason, which came straight out of Girard, Kansas. Like the great patriot of Terre Haute, Indiana, Eugene V. Debs, Appeal to Reason editor J. A. Wayland was a socialist dyed in American colors. These were honorable men, who, even when wrong-headed, behaved decently; what a contrast they make with such totalitarian socialists as Daniel De Leon, the diabolical sectarian leader of the Socialist Labor Party, who with his cold-blooded purges and vilifications of dissenters resembled nothing so much as an intellectual version of a neoconservative.

After that low blow, allow me to say a word for De Leon. The Socialist Labor platform called for abolishing the presidency, and party electors were instructed to vote “no president” in the comet-striking-earth chance that the SLP carried a state. Finally: a good idea from Socialist Labor! (Flynn also mentions an early Socialist Party attempt to abolish the Pennsylvania State Police. In this the SP was behaving perfectly American: the State Police, especially in Pennsylvania, was a paramilitary strike-breaking force created because local law enforcement refused to do big business’s bidding in dealing with strikers. So mercenaries from places distant—a state police—were called in to override the locals. A “conservative,” as I understand the term, would condemn the very idea of a state police.)

Flynn relates several tales of perfidious European Marxists gulling or bullying idealistic Yankee reformers, who believed in fair play and decency and all that rot. The defiant response of American leftists was typified by the swinging sisters Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin, whose Woodhull & Claflin’s Weekly declared that “it cannot be expected that Americans, with American ideas, either can or will submit to any foreign systems of arbitrary control.”

By the 1920s, they did. The Communist Party USA took its orders from Moscow, as even the most addled Gus Hall voter now concedes. American communism was wholly un-American: all eight of the Communist Party dailies published in 1921 were in foreign languages. Writes Flynn: “Such American originals as J. A. Wayland, Big Bill Haywood, and Eugene Debs passed the baton to conformists directed in thought and deed by overlords halfway round the planet.”

The noncommunist American Left pushed back. The freeswinging and disorderly Wobblies and farmer-labor parties, with their “the star-spangled anarchism,” in Flynn’s felicitous phrase, were a poor fit for European regimentation.

Flynn is relentless, pounding away at the foreignness of the twentieth-century Left like Joe Louis thumping Max Schmeling. To some it may appear overkill, but I say: Swing away, Flynn. He quotes Max Eastman scoffing at Greenwich Village communists, “Before these young men ever become revolutionists they will have to learn to be rebels.” To which Flynn adds, “American Communists were anything but rebels. They did what they were told by men thousands of miles away.” (The CPUSA, Flynn usefully reminds us, was grimly prowar in 1941, advocating the draft, persecution of Japanese-Americans, and the subordination of American labor—and everything else in America, really—to the wartime juggernaut state.)

Unfortunately, the poisonous ideology of communism provoked an almost equally unpalatable ideology of anticommunism, which came to dominate the American Right by the mid-1950s. Huge chunks of the intelligentsia became preoccupied with an argument that had nothing to do with the life and culture of Americans in all their multifarious glory. America became an afterthought. The Warsaw Pact mattered; Warsaw, New York, did not. The consequences to American politics—and to all the Warsaws of the Old 48—were disastrous. (Many anticommunists despised the real America. Flynn quotes Whittaker Chambers sniffing that CPUSA head honcho Earl Browder was “the former typewriter repairman from Kansas”—leave it to Chambers to find the sole praiseworthy quality in Browder and mock him for it! As if being a typewriter repairman from Kansas wasn’t superior to being a flunky in the Luce empire!)

Here in the book I lose Flynn. He throws in with, or at least excuses, the obsessive red hunters. Elevating anticommunism to a central principle of the American Right wrecked the Right by crushing its most decent and humane aspects: respect for home, for place, for decentralized liberty, for local tradition. All had to be sacrificed to make war upon the god that failed the ex-communists—and all was sacrificed.

Yes, agit-prop bullies like the novelist Mike Gold, a Flynn villain, smeared noncommunists or left deviationists, but the trashing of dissidents is even more pronounced in our day: the biggest difference between Gold and today’s yipping poodles of CorrectThink (on right and left) is that Gold was a better writer.

Flynn excuses the “rough methods” of Tailgunner Joe McCarthy, though he might consider what Frank Chodorov said when asked what to do about communists in federal government jobs: “Abolish the jobs.”

The air in postwar America was so much less free that I get a dull headache reading about it. Flynn slips in his discussion of the ’50s, failing to differentiate between complacent corporate liberals (Richard Hofstadter) and radicals dismayed by modernist conformity (Paul Goodman, C. Wright Mills). Goodman, in fact, called himself a “conservative anarchist” and despite his, ah, personal peccadilloes, he speaks more clearly to today’s traditionalists than do a whole closetful of J. Edgar Hoovers. Norman Mailer, also disparaged by Flynn, called himself a “left conservative,” and his alternately blustering and blistering essays on contemporary life are more “conservative” than anything produced by his critics. And while we’re at it, where does Flynn get off lumping the Beats in with the left? He ridicules “[s]ickly men wearing turtlenecks, goatees, and sunglasses day and night and homely women hiding under dark stockings, darker sweaters, and darkest eyeliner.” Oh please! Jack Kerouac—a Taft Republican—explained it all in his 1959 essay “The Origins of the Beat Generation”: “So you people don’t believe in God. So you’re all big smart know-it-all Marxists and Freudians, hey? Why don’t you come back in a million years and tell me all about it, angels?”

Even the “liberal” Beat Allen Ginsberg insisted upon his ancestry in the open old America. And while I hold no brief for William S. Burroughs, uxoricide and junkie pervert, he was an admirer of the bellicose right-wing columnist Westbrook Pegler. In a 1949 letter to Ginsberg, Burroughs predicted that the United States were “heading in the direction of a Socialistic police state similar to England, and not too different from Russia.”

What, really, do left and right mean in postwar America? Flynn’s examples drive home the uselessness of such terms. For instance:

—Is the libertarian novelist Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) really “left”? His second-best-known work, Sometimes a Great Notion, is lauded as the great anti–labor union novel.
—Is Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, who lived the gospels as an anarchist and pacifist and who wholeheartedly accepted the Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion and sexuality, on the “left”?
—Isn’t the Port Huron Statement, founding document of Students for a Democratic Society, more “conservative” than the 2008 Republican platform will be, as for instance in its declaration that “We oppose the depersonalization that reduces human beings to the status of things”?

Flynn goes off the rails when he reaches the 1960s, but then so did the American Right, which adopted the catastrophic strategy of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and wound up defending a liberal Democrat war in Vietnam and the whole “do not bend, fold, spindle, or mutilate” corporate culture against which the kids quite justifiably rebelled. Flynn’s previous affection for bits and pieces of the American Left transmogrifies into a blanket condemnation of the ’60s student movement. He is left, it seems to me, with a de facto defense of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon, big business, and Behemoth University, as Russell Kirk called it.

Flynn, like many conservatives of the ’60s, lets his revulsion against the less hygienic aspects of the New Left push him into quoting approvingly from such grey defenders of the bureaucratic state as the New Republic, whose sclerotic liberalism was precisely what the most articulate New Leftists (Carl Oglesby, Karl Hess) deplored. (The Weathermen, Flynn avers, “were the people within SDS who actually believed the Left’s rhetoric and were willing to act on it.” This is unfair. For a memoir by a leader of the humane wing of SDS, see Oglesby’s recent Ravens in the Storm.)

The book sputters out once it reaches the 1990s and we get the familiar tales of political correctness run amok, the Democratic Party’s alleged “marriage to radical environmentalism,” and head-shaking over “leftist” criticism of nuclear power, the Nicaraguan contras, and Wall Street. What, I wonder, does this last trio have to do with home, hearth, place, and family?

In an unfortunate final chapter, Flynn, quoting a few nutty protesters, claims that the Left was either indifferent to or actually welcomed the 9/11 attacks. Flynn is well worth reading so I’m disappointed when he plays the College Republican, laughing at the hippies and pushing over strawmen.

I don’t mean to end on a downer. The Daniel Flynn who locates Hillary Clinton’s ominous remark “There is no such thing as other people’s children” in antebellum utopian thought is valuable and fun to read. I much appreciate the distinction he draws between a “Freedom Left” and a “Force Left”: between “Robert Owen’s communists versus Karl Marx’s Communists,” or “Yankee do-your-own-thing anarchists versus foreign do-our-thing anarchists.”

“World savers,” writes Flynn, “generally harbor greater ambitions than saving a farm, redeeming a city block, giving jobs to the jobless, or providing medical care to the sick. World savers want to save the world.” And in doing so, they pursue a policy of centralizing power that makes it ever so less possible to save a particular farm or redeem a specific block.

Flynn several times charges the American Left with ignoring its past, but it seems to me that such a charge is more potently leveled against the American Right. Every third-rate Manhattan labor organizer or second lieutenant in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade of the Spanish Civil War seems to have a shelf in his or her honor at the university library, but try to find even a monograph on Vivien Kellems, Frank Chodorov, or T. Coleman Andrews, to mention only three forgotten figures of the not-so-distant “Right.”

“The zealot has no time for the past when there’s a future to be made,” aphorizes Flynn. Ain’t that the truth. Evade security and walk into the office of any of the architects of the occupation of Iraq. Search, vainly, for a work of “conservative” American history on their bookshelves. All but a few of the leaders of what passes for today’s American Right wouldn’t know Robert A. Taft from Earl Browder. Or if they did, they’d probably prefer Browder. At least he liked war.

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