If you wonder why your professors cannot let go of their pet theories no matter how badly they work out when practiced in the real world, you will find part of the answer in A Conservative history of the American Left by my predecessor, Daniel J. Flynn.
“From persuasion to politics, politics to revolution, and revolution to a long march through the institutions, the Left’s methods for transforming society have evolved,” Flynn writes. “The ends, though, have remained more or less the same.”
“A brotherhood of man, human perfection, complete equality, needs provided without cost, wants pursued without consequence, heaven on earth—ideas too impractical to live in practice, ideas too beautiful to die as ideas.” Three ideas that old, new and middle-aged Left were all hostile to were private property, religion and marriage, Flynn shows.
Before the Civil War, Leftists with bankrolls tried attraction and promotion in socialistic communities such as New Harmony, Indiana. Shortages, outward migration and depleted bankrolls were the inevitable results of these experiments.
“Marx coined neither ‘socialism’ nor ‘communism,’” Flynn informs us. “He expropriated them just as he urged his followers to expropriate the bougeoisie’s property.”
“In particular, he latched on to ‘communism’ because ‘socialism’ had been so closely associated with Robert Owen.” Owen was the Scottish industrialist who created New Harmony.
“Like so many leftists who came after him, Marx refused to acknowledge his debt to the leftists who came before him,” Flynn observes. “Gods can’t have ancestors.”
Flynn’s last book was Intellectual Morons: How Ideology Makes Smart People Fall for Stupid Ideas. As he shows in his latest, when leading by example didn’t entice America to move in its direction, the Left in America tried another approach—force.
“The Spanish-American War would be the first of many such conquests for liberation,” Flynn recounts. “Foreign wars, marketed as redemptive crusades, followed each of the four great attempts at redemptive reform in American history—Populism, Progressivism, the New Deal, and the Great Society.”
“That the foreign wars effectively ended the domestic crusades is widely understood,” Flynn notes. “That they were extensions of those crusades is not.”
Indeed, in significant ways, Lyndon Johnson approached the Vietnam War as a chance to export his domestic welfare programs. He groused very famously at North Vietnamese communist dictator Ho Chi Minh’s rejection of a particularly munificient offer that AFL-CIO president George Meany would have snapped up such a gift.
In our own time, spending on the war in Iraq is increasingly being directed to New Deal-style public works projects. Flynn is careful to avoid partisanship: Both the Republican Roosevelt (Teddy) and the Democratic one (Franklin D.) come in for equal scrutiny.
Similarly, although the title of the book may indicate otherwise, he gives some space to the accomplishments of individual progressives. The role of liberal activists in liberating slaves and, later, desegregating America, is shown in Flynn’s history.
Flynn’s research for this tome was fairly exhaustive: He read more than 400 books, conducted numerous interviews and drew on some vintage official reports. He traces the American Left all the way back to Plymouth Rock.
Flynn tries to, as noted before, show both the successes and failures of leading figures of the Left. Critics might argue that the book is overwhelmingly tilted towards the latter.
Arguably, so is the historical record. For example, “Under the Constitution, the original dollar inflated less than 10 percent in the 125 years leading to the establishment of the Federal Reserve,” Flynn points out. “Since 1914, the currency has been inflated more than 2000 percent.”
“The same year that Congress inaugurated the backdoor tax of inflation through the Federal Reserve, it legalized a more blunt method of confiscation: the income tax.” Tariffs had been the primary source of revenue hitherto.
Then there’s the inability of the New Deal to bring down employment while, at the same time, blowing a hole in the federal budget. And don’t forget the hemorrhage of American security, not to mention enslavement and death abroad, due to communist spies toiling away unmolested in the Roosevelt Administration.
As in his other books, Flynn gives us some choice historical tidbits that illustrate how wide the gulf is between perception and reality. For example, in Intellectual Morons we learned that long-out-of-the-closet cultural icon Gore Vidal was one of the “regular Americans” surveyed by trend-setting sex researcher Alfred Kinsey.
In this volume, we discover that Sixties radical Tom Hayden was a parishioner of Father Charles Coughlin, the fiery radio priest known for his anti-Semitic broadsides in 1930s broadcasts aimed first for, then against, the New Deal.
Although viewed as a conservative because of his anti-communism, Father Coughlin’s economic views made the Bishops 1980s pastoral letter on welfare look free market by comparison. Actually, his main criticism of Roosevelt’s policies was that they weren’t left-wing enough.