Ambiguous Legacy

James B. Gilbert

The biding theme in the books, articles and editorials of James Weinstein is the need for the American left to know and to act from an understanding of its own history. This notion is elaborated most fully in his five books – four of them published between 1967 and 1975, in the midst of the rise and decline of the optimistic and fatally flawed New Left. The left’s failure was, as he wrote in Ambiguous Legacy, a destiny repeated three times by American radicals in the Twentieth Century, beginning with the decline of the American Socialist Party after World War I, the demise of the Communist Party in 1956 and the collapse of the New Left after 1968.

Weinstein’s version of American socialism was based upon two broad premises. First, American capitalists recognized that they needed to incorporate elements of social reform in their system of rule in order to control the excesses of the laissez faire market and soften the impact of inequality and class difference. This strategy, he maintained, was devised in the tumultuous Progressive Era from 1890 to 1914. Second, the best way to oppose this system was to present an alternative and comprehensive vision of a socialist society. This meant avoiding the pitfalls of special interest politics and sectarianism – something all three American radical movements of the 20th Century fell prey to. For Weinstein, unlike many of his fellow historians, this usable past was the necessary first step in activism. For him, understanding the ambiguous legacy of the past was the best and only way to claim the future.

James B. Gilbert teaches U.S. and Cultural history at the University of Maryland.
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