An Old Recipe for a New Left

Michael Kazin is one of the most recognized historians of the United States, as an author of six acclaimed books, and a professor of history at Georgetown University. He is also a former editor of Dissent magazine, the social-democratic journal founded by the late literary critic Irving Howe in the 1950s. 

A man of the Left, Kazin has proven his integrity and seriousness by taking on the most influential left-wing historian in the United States: the late Howard Zinn, author of the international bestseller, A People’s History of the United States. If any on the Left have changed their minds about Zinn’s credibility, that is partly due to Michael Kazin, not to Zinn’s critics on the Right.

What It Took to Win is his new history of the Democratic Party, combining historical analysis with prescriptions for revitalizing a flagging political left. It is well-timed. As I write, it seems extremely likely that the party Kazin favors is on its way to losing the House and perhaps also the Senate in the 2022 mid-term elections. He clearly means his book to serve as a message to Democratic Party activists and members. 

The party’s base used to be the American working class and the trade union movement, both composed of voters who now increasingly support Republican candidates, as their predecessors did when Ronald Reagan was running. We have seen a new arrival of what the political pundits of the Reagan era dubbed “Reagan Democrats.” A new generation of working-class Americans, including many who had voted for Barack Obama, are now abandoning the party which in years past was their political home. 

Underlying Kazin’s approach is a belief in what he terms “moral capitalism.” He wants an America with a thick network of social-democratic programs, which support an extensive welfare state that guarantees basic needs such as universal health care. He wants the state to ensure, through minimum wage and social programs, that working-class Americans will be able to pay their rent or mortgage, and feed their family. The “moral capitalism” that Kazin hopes will guide his party, is what the late American socialist leader Michael Harrington called an “invisible social democratic movement.” Harrington saw the trade union movement playing that role; today Kazin hopes a successful emerging Democratic Party can be its standard-bearer. 

Kazin writes that the Democratic Party at its best, from the Jacksonian era through the New and Fair Deals, “always insisted that the economy should benefit the ordinary working person, whether farmer or wage earner, and that governments should institute policies to make that possible.” The problem is that the party was and is made up of groups with conflicting interests. For instance, the decision of the Biden administration to close the Keystone X Pipeline from Canada was strongly opposed by the labor movement, which wanted the jobs it would provide for American workers. Who is engaging in “moral capitalism” in this case: the trade union movement that wanted the Pipeline, or the environmentalist groups that fought it?

The Democratic Party, even in the 19th century, always represented ordinary working Americans, though this mostly excluded America’s black and Native American population.

It is not surprising that the early 20th-century political humorist Will Rogers famously said “I don’t belong to any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” His description is certainly accepted by Kazin, who at one point notes that both Walt Whitman and Jefferson Davis were Democrats, just as in the 20th century the party included Gov. George Wallace of Alabama and the black preacher and civil rights activist Rev. Adam Clayton Powell. But the unity of opposites is precisely why the party won office and obtained a majority, and eventually the White House. What works for power, therefore, strongly stands in the way of Kazin’s goal of obtaining “moral capitalism.”

Today’s Democrats easily win the backing of wealthier liberal elements and activists on both Coasts, but somehow get little support from quarters they claim to represent. Kazin himself gives a major example–the campaign for the presidency waged in 1896 by the Democrats’ presidential candidate, populist leader William Jennings Bryan, whose “Cross of Gold” speech at the nominating convention mesmerized the audience. The members of the Populist Party thereafter supported Bryan and gave up their own independent third party. They “shared the grievances Bryan voiced and agreed with the solutions he offered,” he writes, and also wanted to “topple the reign of big capital.” Whether those shared beliefs would create an electoral majority that governed, however, was quite a different question. Standing in the way was the Republican Party. Although it had the votes of the few African Americans who could vote, the reality was that the GOP was run by “the money and influence of the chieftains of industry,” and had become “the respectable choice.”

One thing was consistent in all the years the Democrats controlled Congress and the White House. The Democratic Party, even in the 19th century, always represented ordinary working Americans, though this mostly excluded America’s black and Native American population. As Kazin explains, it was a party that “brought together working-class radicals from Manhattan and Dixie planters whose ownership of hundreds of slaves and acres of land made them the richest Americans of the era.”

Race became the albatross that would through the 1940s and 50s stop the party from being what today we would call a unified working-class party. During Reconstruction and the entire postbellum period, it was the Democrats who in the South kept the black population of the region in chains, leaving economic advances to the white population only. Its elected Senators and Congressmen were all white and believed in maintaining segregation of the races, as well as preventing black citizens of the United States from voting. Kazin writes, obviously in sorrow, that this reality bedeviled “Democrats until the final decades of the twentieth century.” 

The party claiming to represent the people in the era of Andrew Jackson and later during the New Deal and Fair Deal period, from the late 30s through the early 50s, could gain national votes and govern “only if it acquiesced to a realm of unfreedom south of the Mason-Dixon line.” Later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt opposed strong civil rights legislation because he needed the segregationist Democrats in the South to keep supporting New Deal programs.

The earliest success of a party whose candidate represented the average citizen came with Andrew Jackson. The man of the people went to war against the Bank of the United States by removing all federal funds from it. He saw the bank as representing only the wealthy North of the nation, while it oppressed the common man. In the 1850s the Democrats appealed to both artisans and shopkeepers in the North, as well as Midwestern frontiersmen, who dominated national politics and had gained the White House for years, controlling both houses of Congress from 1828 until 1856.

The Democrats of that era were quite different from the ones that emerged in the late 19th and then the 20th century. Here, my own interpretation differs from Kazin’s. Woodrow Wilson’s administration–except of course, in his fierce commitment to segregation–instituted social reforms friendly to the urban workingman who began to swell to its ranks. In Kazin’s view, the new national state Wilson created from 1913 through 1916 moved “to restrain and regulate corporate power,” although it did not seek to redistribute wealth. He argues that the Progressive era with its new agencies like the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Reserve, along with new government aid to working farmers, “struck blows for the kind of moral capitalism that [William Jennings] Bryan, the People’s Party and their fellow anti-monopolists had long demanded.” Not surprisingly, he writes, “conservative critics,” mostly Republicans, opposed them as “socialistic,” while Bryan created a new populism that swept through the ranks of the Democratic Party. The Southern Democrats supported the new reforms, limited of course by their racism. They were committed to, in their own words, “egalitarian whiteness.” 

Kazin writes that the Wilson administration also instituted pro-labor policies, which were truly a new form of welfare capitalism. There are many examples of this, especially given the many government agencies created to run the war, which columnist Walter Lippman at the time praised as socialist in character. He writes that even labor intellectuals were won over, praising the Commission on Industrial Relations, an investigatory body formed by the administration to understand the roots of labor and farmer unrest. Chaired by Frank Walsh, who Kazin calls a “left-wing Democrat,” it was staffed by “investigators known for their sympathy with the grievances of wage earners.” He concludes that the Commission’s majority report called for “drastic action to redistribute wealth and protect the right of workers to organize unions.” That would indeed have been a radical reform, that might have gone beyond social democracy and towards socialism. 

The truth is, as historian James Weinstein proved in his own book, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, 1890-1916, the Commission’s final report had the opposite effect. It reassured workers that the government was responding to industrial horrors, and established goodwill for large industry by condemning men like the anti-union John D. Rockefeller. The report supported collective bargaining between labor and capital, instead of recommending the socialist alternative advocated by radicals like Eugene V. Debs. Walsh’s goal was to help labor through the institution of programs to stabilize and strengthen the entire corporate system. Its result was, as Weinstein writes, “to win the support of workers and radicals to the Wilson administration,” and to show that Wilson had given workers real power to affect social policy.

The large corporations all sought to end industrial unrest and create a responsible society that would lead to accommodation and cooperation between the social classes.

Wilson’s reforms included not only the Industrial Relations commission, but also the Federal Trade Act that reduced tariffs, and the Clayton Anti-Trust Act, which specified illegal business practices and exempted unions from anti-trust suits, making strikes, boycotting, and picketing by unions legal. The Federal Farm Loan Act gave aid to farmers, and the Federal Trade Commission served as a watchdog over business. Democrats of this era also saw the passage of a child labor bill, and the institution of workers’ compensation. 

These reforms worked to modernize the new corporate capitalist system, made unions an accepted part of the new system, and neutralized the ability of radical and socialist groups to get the nation to accept their agenda for revolution. There is an entire body of literature Kazin does not cite or include in his bibliography–ironically written by socialist and radical historians–that explores these developments in more depth. Gabriel Kolko’s book, The Triumph of Conservatism and the magisterial study by Martin J. Sklar, The Corporate Reconstruction of American Capitalism, also bolster my argument here. The large corporations all sought to end industrial unrest and create a responsible society that would lead to accommodation and cooperation between the social classes. Later on, Kazin ironically reaches the same conclusion, writing that despite its own agenda, the labor movement “helped make corporate capitalism seem as imperishable as the two-party system itself.” It is indeed, as Kazin writes, “an ironic consequence.”

Kazin argues that to produce change, social movements fighting on their own must become strong enough to influence politicians and representatives in the national and state legislatures. Struggle from below leads to changes that are ultimately instituted by those in power. He ignores clear evidence that many of these changes were originally instituted and suggested by major corporate leaders, for the purpose of stifling any socialistic sentiment among workers and avoiding unnecessary strikes.

Kazin offers a profile of Sidney Hillman, longtime leader of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, who played a major role in Democratic Party politics and in motivating much of its immigrant Jewish and Italian membership to leave the ranks of the Socialist Party, and offer their support and votes to Roosevelt and the Democrats. By the 1936 election, the Democrats had become an American version of the British Labor Party, giving the New Deal what Richard Hofstadter called a “social-democratic tinge.” Big labor now had a huge spurt in membership, with the federal government on its side.

When Hillman and others broke with the old craft-union-based American Federation of Labor, creating an industrial union named the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the new federation became the Democrats’ electoral base. Teaming up with New York’s Senator Robert F. Wagner, the two worked together to make the labor movement take “its rightful place as a partner of management in the common cause of industrial efficiency, national unity and national defense.”

Later, Hillman created the very first Political Action Committee, called the CIO-PAC, which started by raising money to give to primary candidates who supported organized labor. It was led, Kazin writes, by a radical board, some of whose members were sympathetic to communism. Hence, they advocated programs “similar to those that British labour and other social-democratic parties in Europe had long advocated.”  

Other sophisticated businessmen in the garment trade ignored the socialist programs Hillman advocated and the rhetoric he used. “It was essential,” one union leader said, “not to confuse phrases with the reality.” If business owners who signed with Hillman’s union became concerned about his revolutionary socialist rhetoric, that labor official said, “then friendly relations with their employees might have been broken off a hundred times.” 

The labor movement, in the long run, was no threat to corporate capitalism, even though radical Communists led the most militant actions. The Communists, Kazin writes, “were among the CIO’s most dedicated and skillful organizers.” That truth was recognized early on by the United Mine Workers leader, John L. Lewis, although he was an ardent anti-Communist.

Communist Party activists led both the ILWU, the powerful Pacific Coast longshore union, and the United Electrical Workers, whose members made appliances for Westinghouse and General Electric. Their goals coincided with those of a Democratic Party seeking to represent the wishes of “labor in a capitalist society.” He approvingly quotes Hillman, who said that a new alignment would be built, in which liberal forces would be on one side opposing “the forces of reaction,” and in which “labor would take its place.”

Had Carter signed a strong Humphrey-Hawkins bill that guaranteed a job to every working American, he might have won the loyalty of working-class voters.

The truth was that key corporation leaders, like GE’s head, Gerard P. Swope, had favored an industrial union in his industry since the mid-20s. Swope believed that a union at GE would be “the difference between an organization with which we could work on a business-like basis and one that would be a source of endless difficulties.” Swope told a vice-president that if he couldn’t get along with the Communists who led the UEW “and settle matters, there’s something wrong with you.” He even praised the union as “well led, the discipline good.” The CP union chief at the plant replied with his own compliment, calling Swope “an enlightened employer” who personally had told him that “industry would have to recognize” that a union representative would eventually be sitting on the board of directors of GE. Swope also favored a minimum wage and an act of Congress guaranteeing union representation of workers in his factories.  

When Jimmy Carter came to the White House, Kazin argues that he did not advocate “policies that might win the support of poor and working-class Americans buffeted by job insecurity and high inflation.” Had he signed a strong Humphrey-Hawkins bill that guaranteed a job to every working American, Kazin implies that Carter might have won the loyalty of working-class voters, effectively preventing working-class Democrats from supporting Ronald Reagan’s bid for the presidency.

Kazin concludes that a “rush to the right thus paled before Carter’s failures at home and abroad.” Not surprisingly, Kazin disdains the Democrats’ attempts in the 1980s to steer the party to the center/right, favoring the more radical programs proposed by Jesse Jackson. The Democrats, he believes, were filled with Democratic Leadership Council figures who were “friendly to big business and the wealthy.”

Today Kazin hopes for a resurgence of a real and powerful left, that can lead a “robust progressive insurgency” to awaken once more after decades of what he calls “a long spell of insularity and division.” If that is his hope, it may already have been shattered. There are already strong indications that voters, especially in the Midwestern states Democrats hope to win, are alienated by the far-left rhetoric and programs advocated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders.

Kazin knows that the 21st century left “shared no unified identity, constituency, or set demands.” An old-fashioned moderate social democrat, he wants his party to emphasize working-class concerns over identity politics and culture war issues. He notes that the Democratic Socialists of America have grown from a group with 5,000 members to one with over 100,000 in chapters across the country. This gives him some hope. Yet, he acknowledges that the candidates they backed largely lost, as centrist voters in the heartland rejected what they had to offer. He also ignores the new socialists’ growing sectarianism, and their old-fashioned, left-wing isolationist foreign policy views.

Kazin notes that Joe Biden was elected in 2020 as “the safer, more familiar, more electable choice,” over Sanders who favored Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. The Democrats are still facing the quandary that Roosevelt’s 1932 victory was meant to solve, struggling to unite further-left progressives with a moderate and right-leaning working-class base. Rather than move left, when Barack Obama’s two terms in office ended, the country slowly moved to the new populist-nationalist right, whose leaders co-opted much of the economic program of the left and combined it with conservative cultural policies.

It is hard to say what Kazin’s readers will take from his book, since they come from different corners of the Democratic coalition. Progressives will feel their side has been slighted, especially since Kazin urges all sides to respect each other and avoid supporting purges. It would be surprising if his readers succeeded in following his advice. To paraphrase Will Rogers again, the Democratic Party remains a group of factional interests, each refusing to attempt the hard work of building a winning coalition.