Radicals in America: The U.S. Left Since the Second World War

Reviewed by Wade A.
Bell Jr.

Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps, Radicals in America: The U.S. Left Since the Second World War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 355 pp., $24.99.

With the resurgence of radical activism in post-9/11 America, Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps’ Radicals in America: The U.S. Left Since the Second World War comes at a pivotal moment.  The country—having survived under a president that Fox News pundits describe as a Muslim socialist with “radical” ties—came close to nominating a candidate even more radical than Barack Obama. With the enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders, and the ongoing presence of movements such as Occupy and Black Lives Matter, it seems that what would have been considered too radical a decade ago is slowly gaining mainstream acceptance. But the seeds of discontent were planted long ago, often by marginalized voices omitted from the canons of mainstream American history. For this reason, Radicals in America is a timely and refreshing chronicle of leftist activism, rarely straying away from the theme of bringing the margins to the mainstream.

Written in lucid, jargon-free prose, Radicals allows its actual content and quality of scholarship to take center stage. The result is a narrative that is challenging and informative for scholars, yet still accessible to the legions of young radicals far from the ivory tower.  The book’s dominant theme is established at the outset, then maintained throughout its seven chronologically ordered chapters:

The task of maintaining ardent opposition to the status quo, as outsiders if need be, while also seeking solidarity with strong social forces, here and now, that might be capable of changing it root and branch poses a dialectic of margin and mainstream. That dialectic entails a tension between two commitments: the willingness to hold fast for a minority view and the struggle to imagine and help fashion a new majority …. Margin and mainstream, together, provide the fulcrum of our analysis of the history of American radicalism. (8)

Negotiating this dichotomy between margin and mainstream is no easy task, but Brick and Phelps manage to create a dialectic that treats both sides with equal respect, never losing sight of how often the seeds of social and economic justice originate with marginalized groups who later influence the dominant social discourse. For example, Black militant and communist sympathizer Winfred Lynn, whose radicalism was too extreme for the NAACP, would join forces with radical members of the first African American labor union, eventually pressuring President Truman to issue a directive to desegregate the military in 1948. What gets lost as this story is told in the mainstream narrative is how the desegregation of the US military—a notion that few Americans would argue against today—was initiated by Trotskyists, Socialists and revolutionary pacifists that were deemed too radical by Black liberation groups. In much the way punk bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s would go on to influence the mainstream alternative rock of the ‘90s, paradigm shifts seem almost always to originate in the margins deemed too extreme by the establishment.

With this basic theme at its heart, each chapter of Radicals in America begins by focusing on one relatively unknown figure who acted either as a catalyst for a larger reform, or embodied some radical ideal that would later become synonymous with the time-period in question. The first chapter, covering 1939-48, begins with the story of Emil Mazey, a member of the Proletarian Party who organized a 10,000-troop protest against a US-led campaign in the Philippines that targeted former wartime allies with communist sympathies. Mazey’s story, according to Brick and Phelps, is emblematic of an entire left-wing generation’s experience with the excesses of capitalism in regard to labor, US occupations, and Western imperialism (19). This was a period when socialism was less of a dirty word, and few activists could imagine positive social transformation without it.

The chapter on the volatile 1949-59 period is perhaps the most intersectional in the book, covering issues such as civil rights, gender equality, class struggle and anti-colonialism, as well as the conflicts between different factions of the Communist party. The chapter opens with the stories of Claudia Jones and C.L.R. James -- “Black Trinidadians, longtime residents of the United States, leaders of organized radical formations, and Marxists attuned to black resistance: James and Jones were virtually the same, yet they were wholly at odds” (50). Both figures were well informed as to the complex nature of social inequality, but they differed greatly in their approach to praxis. Jones admired Stalin, and was under the impression that the Soviet Union was an egalitarian utopia, while James, a follower of Leon Trotsky, saw the complete opposite. The ideological tensions between Jones and James were common among leftist groups of their era, eventually leading to the disillusionment of many activists while also paving the way for a new type of radicalism in the sixties.

The third chapter addresses the “new left” of the early sixties, which would distance itself from the radicalism of the fifties by emphasizing peace and equality within the specific context of a democratic, anti-totalitarian society. One noteworthy figure of this era was Gloria Richardson, an African American single mother who led the Cambridge, Maryland chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Chapter four takes a look at the watershed Vietnam era, focusing on what Brick and Phelps characterize as the “profusion of many radicalisms” (123). Emblematic of this era were figures such as Steven Kiyoshi Kuromiya, a Japanese American born in a World War II relocation camp and founder of the Gay Liberation Front in Philadelphia. Kuromiya, like many leftists of his time, saw himself as being part of many revolutions within “The Revolution” (123).

The last three chapters, while highlighting some key figures and notable accomplishments, also discuss the decline of radicalism after 1973. The authors attribute this decline to a lack of unifying principles, but I feel that this observation could have been developed more to include other potential factors, such as neoliberal globalization. Despite the marked decline of radicalism, the final chapters share the stories of some important individual activists, most notably radical filmmaker Julia Reichert; engineer and Sandinista supporter Benjamin Linder; and Native American activist and 1996 vice-presidential candidate Winona LaDuke.

Unfortunately, Radicals in America ends on something of a sour note. Instead of an inspiring call to action, Brook and Phelps conclude their survey with mostly criticisms and warnings: “Above all, the left of our times suffers from a lack of conviction in the kinds of positive visions that once enabled radicals to keep the perspectives of margin and mainstream together … negative futurity, dystopian and apocalyptic, threatens to overwhelm the radical imagination” (318-19). Nonetheless, the concluding chapter of Radicals is still of great value, for it takes into account the positive lessons of the narrative while also emphasizing that we now face new problems and complexities, requiring new strategies.

Brooks and Phelps make an important distinction between liberalizing social relations and truly democratizing and equalizing them. They emphasize that the social progress of the past four decades must be accompanied by further economic change if it is to remain intact. What I ultimately take away from their discussion is the notion that capitalism will find a way to undermine positive social reforms if its excesses are not kept at bay. With right-wing populism on the rise in both Europe and the United States, such a notion does not seem entirely out of line.

Reviewed by Wade A. Bell Jr. University of Gothenburg Gothenburg, Sweden wade.bell@sprak.gu.se