- Left Out
Since the 1960s, the best historical scholarship on the American left has endeavored to discover an authentic American radical tradition ignored by an earlier generation of historians who presumed the ideological dominance of American liberalism and who had accepted the premise of German sociologist Werner Sombart’s famous 1906 question, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” In recent decades, a host of historians have recovered the activities not only of American socialists but also of labor militants, radical feminists, passionate advocates for racial equality, and anti-imperialists. By revealing a rich history of American radicalism that was often slighted during the early Cold War years they contributed to a growing sense of the complex diversity of past American political movements and ideologies. This discovery, however, has often come at a cost. In their desire to uncover an authentically radical tradition, historians have sharply distinguished between leftists, who sought wholesale social transformation, and reformist liberals, who worked within the system. Accordingly, they often stereotyped liberalism as a corporate liberalism that propped up the establishment and thus missed the very broad middle that existed on the continuum from the far left to mainstream liberalism, drawing sharper lines between radicalism and reform than had many American leftists themselves. In Visions of Progress, Doug Rossinow—the author previously of The Politics of Authenticity, an excellent social history of the New Left—surveys the extensive borderland between mainstream liberalism and the far left, discovering a left-liberal tradition that many previous scholars have neglected.1
“Deep in American history,” Rossinow argues, “there lies a neglected middle ground of ambitious reform politics” (p. 2). He contends that this “left-liberal tradition” flourished from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century as radicals and reformers collaborated along a “broad front.” It was responsible for “[m]uch of what was most creative and constructive in American politics in the twentieth century” (p. 3). Crucially, leftists and liberals shared [End Page 85] a “transformative notion of social progress, a concept that opened a door between liberal reformers and left-wing radicals”; liberals and leftists could see themselves going down the same path, albeit at different speeds (p.4). Rossinow recognizes that many key figures did not fall clearly into the radical or reformer camp. Rather, they were left-liberals whose self-descriptions indicated the middle ground on which they stood: “Progressive, radical, reformer: the terms were used promiscuously” (p. 107). Visions of Progress aims to analyze the important but understudied topic of the relationship between leftists and liberals in modern American history. According to Rossinow, a left-liberal alliance factored as a key force in American politics from roughly 1880 to 1940. Torn asunder during the divisive Cold War politics of the 1940s, the alliance failed to reappear during the 1960s, despite the values and goals the two groups shared. Rossinow concludes that the prior existence of a leftliberal tradition has accordingly been neglected by historians who continue to live in an era marked by left-liberal acrimony rather than cooperation.
Visions of Progress traces the rise and fall of this American left-liberal tradition. Its narrative begins in the 1880s, as middle-class reformers transformed Victorian liberalism, retaining its commitment to civil liberties and individual rights while jettisoning its advocacy of free trade economics and laissez-faire politics. They thereby aligned themselves with growing labor and socialist movements to their left; together they challenged an increasingly corporate capitalism and stressed ideals of social justice and economic equality. Following a large body of recent scholarship, Rossinow highlights the leading roles played by female reformers such as Jane Addams and Florence Kelley. He notes the tension between liberals’ “laborism” (their solidarity work with unions) and their “fabianism” (their desire to resolve economic inequalities through the application of knowledge by allegedly disinterested middle-class experts). Yet, his overall evaluation of the new liberals is positive: they formed the more egalitarian wing of the progressive movement, “more likely than other progressives to endow the empowerment of labor with...