The Historian We Need

Michael Kazin

Early in the 70s, I read a book by James Weinstein, and my political outlook changed utterly, and for good. Its title, The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912 – 1925, doesn’t sound like a catalyst of hope and personal transformation. But the book was precisely what a recent refugee from the Weathermanic, Che-adoring province of the New Left needed. 

Radical democrats, Jimmy revealed, had, for two delicious decades, been a force to be reckoned with in American public life. From 1901 to 1920, there were 323 different Socialist newspapers with a combined readership in the millions. In hundreds of cities and towns, the Socialist Party (SP) elected mayors, councilmen and tax assessors. Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan pilfered chunks of the SP’s platform, and such prominent thinkers as John Dewey, W.E.B. DuBois and Walter Lippmann sang its praises. It was a revelation to learn that avowed Marxists had once gained a plurality of votes in such hamlets as St. Mary’s, Ohio, and Grand Junction, Col., and that the Rebel, published in the small town of Halletsville, Texas, could sustain a weekly circulation of 25,000.

Clearly, unlike the left that I knew, this was a movement rooted in the American heartland. Jimmy had set out to explain why, at the end of World War I, the Socialist Party entered a crisis from which it never recovered. But he sparked a new fascination with how the party had become the broadest, most popular organization of its kind in U.S. history.

Not that the causes of the SP’s failure didn’t matter. In Jimmy’s sober view, it was the rise of Bolshevism that had split the radical movement in 1919 and then stymied the reconstruction of a mass party rooted in the concerns of ordinary Americans. Only an ex-Communist like he could truly grasp the fatal appeal of Lenin’s worldview. Thus began the left’s long, mostly fruitless romance with authoritarian revolutionaries who created a new order in which freedom,” democracy,” and workers’ power” blared from official banners but all but vanished as lived realities. 

From that point on, Jimmy took on the mission of reviving the vision of Eugene V. Debs and his comrades. In two subsequent books and in the pages of In These Times, he labored to link the dream of a cooperative commonwealth with the exigencies of doing politics in the most thoroughly capitalist republic on earth. It was and remains a noble task, even if not enough Americans cared to listen.

But as a historian of and for the left, Jimmy pioneered in writing the kind of empathetic studies of common folk that have transformed the field, even as our nation slid into the clutches of the Reagans and the Bushes. Henceforth, most scholars have rejected the kind of historians who, to quote Mr. Dooley – the fictional Irish-American bartender who delighted newspaper readers a century ago – are like some physicians who are always lookin’ f’r symptoms” and making a post-mortem examination.” 

It tells ye what a countrhy died iv,” commented Mr. Dooley But I’d like to know what it lived iv.”

Thanks to Jimmy, we’re still trying to figure that out.

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Michael Kazins biography of William Jennings Bryan will be published in January. He teaches history at Georgetown University.
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