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The Rise and Fall of the American Left.

John Patrick Diggins of the Graduate Center at the City University of New York distinguishes between four distinct phenomena in the story of the American Left in this century. The 'Lyrical Left' of the First World War years was the story of the 'Wobblies' and of Big Bill Haywood, of Debs and Bryan; its enemies were Puritanism, capitalism, nationalism, and the frontier. The 'Old Left' was the legacy of World War I and the failure of American capitalism during the Great Depression. Two of its most penetrating authors were Michael Harrington and his The Other America and the Trotskyist Irving Howe, editor of Dissent. The 'New Left' of the 1960s was the product of civil rights fervour, of the war in Vietnam and of the student demos of 1968; and now, much embattled by 12 years of Republican rule, 'the Academic Left' embraces the causes of women and minorities, but also studies and invokes post-Marxist European political philosophes -- Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and the poststructuralists. This is a useful post-Stalinist and post-Leninist lexicon and Who's Who, a guide to the views and careers of yesterday's 'heroes': Eugene Debs and John Reed, Reinhold Neibuhr and Herbert Marcuse, Eldridge Cleaver, Sidney Hook, Max Eastman, Irving Howe and Mario Savio. Whatever the influence on Leftist intellectuals of the Europeans and their linguistic 'turns' in recent years, the American Left until recently has grown from its own native roots; Diggins is almost as preoccupied with the influence of Jefferson and Whitman, of De Tocqueville and Dewey as with the fashionable contemporaries of Paris and London today. This is a fascinating analysis of the characteristics of the recent generations, and of the hothouse atmosphere of American universities and/or think tanks -- mainly on the Hudson or in Berkeley or -- to a lesser degree -- in Chicago today. Now, it seems, the academics live on memories of the past and of what might have been. They lost -- or more accurately, never tried to win -- the battles of ideas on Capitol Hill or in the polling booths. The American Left never discovered a proletariat. The story of their failure is captured in this splendid study in intellectual history.
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Author:Wright, Esmond
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1993
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