A few weeks ago I wrote a brief review of sorts for the latest offering by liberal commentator Bill Press. His book, Trainwreck, is a liberal take on the decline of the conservative movement via the steady erosion of its principles and the corruption of its leaders. It is a compelling book, that falls apart at the end because Press' theses does not fit with the content of the book or the arguments presented within it. Nonetheless, as I said at the time it is a worthwhile book, and one that would be of particular value to serious conservatives. I had been hoping to see something similar offered up by a conservative regarding the left, but no serious effort had been attempted at this.
Enter Daniel Flynn, and his book A Conservative History of The American Left.
I confess that when I first heard this book was coming out, I did not hold out much hope. Flynn's previous books have been rather boring broadsides against the leftist intellectual class for its anti-Americanism (a term that I literally don't understand half the time). For a while he was churning out semi-regular pieces for David Horowitz FrontPageMagazine website, and the tone of his work was very reminiscent of the sort of pulpy, red meat, fake intellectualism one finds in the work of Ann Coulter or Dinesh D'Souza.
On the other hand Flynn had been an opponent of the Iraq War from the beginning. He seemed to be a traditionalist working inside of the belly of the beast, rather then an actual sock puppet for the neocon empire-mongers. On top of that the idea of a conservative taking a serious look at the history of the American Left is something I have been waiting to see for years. How would the non-Marxists left be treated? Would distinctions be made between the various anarchist ideologies of the late 1800's? Would the left be defined? Would conservatism be defined?
As it regards those questions and many others I have, Flynn's book is a mixed bag, but it is well worth a read in large part because of this. I have linked to Bill Kauffman's review of the book before and Dan McCarthy has a good review up on the American Spectator site, but a few points made by them are worth repeating.
Flynn is at his best distinguishing between the Eurocentric "Force Left" and the America-centric "Freedom Left". Mr. Flynn is not particularly enthusiastic about either, and sees most of the Freedom Left as hopeless naive fodder for the Force Left, but he at least acknowledges that there is a large difference between the two. He is also right to note that the primary difference is the Marxists domination of the Force Left, and the relatively free-wheeling nature of the non-Marxists utopians, anarchists and syndicalists. These are points many populist leftists and anarchists have been making for years and it is nice to seem them acknowledged in a work of mainstream history, unsympathetic or not.
Conversely Flynn is at his weakest when he conflates movements and causes that have little to nothing to do with one another. For example Flynn repeats the popular myth that the Progressives were the natural offspring of the Populists. As both Clyde Wilson and Bill Kauffman have pointed out before the Populists were actually about taking power away from the state and putting it in the hands of the citizenry in order to slow down "progress". Essentially the populists were pre-Kirk Kirkians. The Progressives on the other hand were advocates of the expansion of government and corporate power and the curtailment of the "irresponsible" class of people through draconian regulations. These victims of the Progressive state were the very farmers, artisans, and businessmen that made up the Populist movement. In other words the Progressives were the sworn enemies of the Populists, and vice versa.
Flynn's take on the dangers of rationalism is something I would like to see more of from writers all over the political spectrum. Chris Hedges came out with a book earlier this year entitled I Don't Believe In Atheist, which is a decent enough discussion of the problems associated with excessive trust in rationalism and science from a liberal perspective. Reading the far superior prose of Flynn, as he documents the absurdity of the Fourier communities is one of the great joys of this book and the sort of work you would never see come from any other graduate of the Horowitzian black hole.
Flynn pointing out the thread from T.R.'s Progressivism to FDR's New Deal is another insight one wouldn't find in a "respectable" conservative journal. Neither would one expect to find an honest critical appraisal of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, a serious aversion to the warfare state (rightfully blamed on the excess of liberalism), or an acknowledgement of the "star spangled anarchism" of many anti-state patriots. For this the Left and the Right actually owe Flynn a debt of gratitude.
Unfortunately Flynn does makes some rather odd mistakes and errors in the book, and some of them seem to be the sort of "intentional errors" that I find hard to forgive. For instance Flynn labels William Jennings Bryan a lefty and an interventionist of the Wilsonian stripe. In fact if Bryan were to run today on a platform representative of his whole career as a public figure, he would be regarded as a Pat Buchanan conservative, and his opposition to empire would be a large part of why. Flynn also suggests that President McKinnley's assassin was incited to commit his act by the anarcho-communist Emma Goldman. The truth is that Goldman (who in full disclosure, I named my daughter after) had abandoned the notion of "propaganda by the deed" (something Flynn admits earlier in the same chapter), never called for the murder of the President or even violence at the speech in question, and offered to provide free medical care to the dying President herself. She also wasn't much of a "communist" at that point, but that is a post of its own waiting to happen.
The weakest part of the book though is the part that covers the modern left, from the origins of the New Left on. I could write a detailed account of why he got George McGovern wrong, but that is Bill Kauffman's hobby horse. I could point out that he doesn't spend much time at all on Eugene McCarthy and no time on the anti-globalization movement and the 2000 Nader campaign, but I suspect I know why those topics were avoided (namely I think Flynn probably finds certain segments of these causes too agreeable to throw under the bus, and not necessarily fitting with the leftism of the past). What concerns me more is Flynn's failure to note that sociologists like C. Wright Mills railing against The Power Elite, mass consumerism, and the corporate state, were really making a lot of the same arguments Flynn and his ilk have made about the New Deal and the managerial state. That unwillingness to listen to the commonality of complex arguments, is part of the reason that the two "extremes" can never coalesce into an anti-elitist alliance that would shake up the status quo. This refusal leads to smart men like Daniel Flynn loosely playing the anti-American card and a worthwhile examination of a political culture ending on a low point.
Still, this book ought to be read and done so in conjunction with the Press book and perhaps Michael Kazin's work on populism and the internal leftist divide. For all of its faults, it is a very well written and largely persuasive account that shows the dangers of centralization, utopian thinking and rationalism. One can quibble with details and omissions, but one cannot argue that this is not a serious, challenging book. As the Press book should be for modern conservatives, this book should be required reading for the modern left.
Another part of the book I found interesting, but strange, was Flynn's characterization of Henry George as a "leftist". George's Single Tax theory may not have been practical and may have been very ideological, but leftist? There are more than a few Austrian economist who would scoff at that claim.