Left Americana: The Radical Heart of U.S. History

Reviewed by Paul

Paul Le Blanc, Left Americana: The Radical Heart of U.S. History (Chicago: Haymarket Press, 2017), 251 pp., $22

An old phrase of reviewers: “This is no book, this is a man,” which we naturally update to “this is a person.” The volume in question might be better titled “the radical heart of Paul Le Blanc,” so much of the text is embedded in the veteran activist’s own history, overlapping with and enveloping in his life the saga of his (and my) generation. This provides him an acute angle to look further backwards in time, to radicals of earlier days. Some readers will find such great differences, whether in personal background and experience or in the political positions he has arrived at, that the contrasts may seem at times overwhelming. Inasmuch as the overwhelming majority of Americans remain indifferent or hostile toward what are assumed to be “Marxist ideas,” such differences are not really so great after all.

Many of the essays here are “readings,” Le Blanc going from one source to another, probing their usefulness. Here, he reveals his predilections but in a fashion so dispersed that attempts to summarize or criticize his conclusions are problematic at best; any reader might make different choices, perhaps merely which texts have been more appealing in a lifetime of readings and remain on the shelves close to the computer. Le Blanc has fixed upon those he obviously admires or finds important, sometimes because they came into his life at an apt moment. Readers will need to “go with” his useful wanderings, taking up citations for themselves as if the waiter were offering selections of wine vintages (for this reviewer, the best IPAs available at the moment).

I am drawn more to his deeply personal stories. He is a red diaper baby reaching puberty around the moment of the Khrushchev Revelations, and the expression of bitter disillusionment among some of his parents’ long-term friends. He found his own way toward social movements and socialistic ideas, taking in leftish folk music, civil rights inspiration, older and newer radical texts as he went along.

At “Camp Henry,” a summer space for poor and often nonwhite kids to get mentorship and where Le Blanc himself was a counselor, he discovered, for instance, an affable but contradictory paternalism on the part of the mostly Jewish staffers. They meant well, but as loyalists of the United Federation of Teachers during the school year, their sympathies would sometimes fade into resentment, as union leader Albert Shanker espoused a sharply nationalistic tone (for both the US and Israel), most especially toward anything resembling black nationalism, something viewed as ungrateful and destructive. A few years later, in SDS, as a short-time national office employee in charge of paying bills amidst utter chaos, he learned that the emerging New Left had scarce roots in the solidity and class loyalty of the old labor and Left movements.

Whether because of his Marxist family background or not—one cannot really know these things—he finds his anchor in a very particular Old Left tradition, Trotskyism. One of the finest essays in the volume is an evocation of an older figure that he knew well, a woman in her late 50s while he was in his twenties. A local activist, unpresuming of grand ideas or national leadership aspirations, Ruth Querio was simply the salt of the earth. Her memories of meeting and corresponding with national leaders of Trotskyism, above all James P. Cannon, were high points to be remembered – letters from revered leaders to be treasured; psychological reinforcements to keep a local person going through disappointments and repression; the passage of labor activism to peace activism, and so on. Le Blanc naturally wishes he had spent more time with her and offered her a sense of what she meant to his development. But he has given her the proper place in our collective memory, and his sweetness toward her mirrors the sentiment that many collaborators have felt toward Le Blanc himself, over the decades.

He takes another tack with a Marxist personality whose work attracts him enormously but not at all uncritically: “the Black Plato,” C.L.R. James. As James’s authorized biographer, I thoroughly enjoy the nuggets dug out of research and interviews (at least one of them conducted by me) with James’s contemporaries. The native West Indian’s handsomeness, his winning personality, his verbiage that sometimes turned out to be mostly verbiage disguised as profound pronouncements—all this brings James back to me. Le Blanc’s viewpoint here is naturally a kind of Trotskyist orthodoxy, departing from James as James departed from Trotskyism and the Vanguard Party concept. Yet the judgments are fair, and the personal insights are shrewd.

He has two other unique essays here. One of them, on the 1963 March on Washington, is a rather familiar subject, but the subject of a very striking and unique book-length study by Le Blanc and Michael Yates. The co-authors dug deeper into the socialist background of the organizers than anyone had done to that point. They were kind enough to disregard the rapid shift rightward of several of the key figures, who ended up before the close of the 1960s in the arms of an American Federation Labor leadership (George Meany and others) avidly supporting the Vietnam War and moving rightward in many other ways, ecology to affirmative action. Here, in a nutshell of an essay, Le Blanc gives us a close look at the whole episode, how the March grew, what fierce opposition it faced, and how it triumphed in ways more radical than even the early organizers imagined. As it turns out, this was a high point of liberal/radical coalition. Lyndon Johnson, facing vast political and social pressure from the civil rights and other movements, did indeed usher in a higher welfare state. The War on Poverty was real. But it was as contradictory as it was brief.

Le Blanc’s essay on Brookwood Labor College also seems to me outstanding, not only because of research on the college unavailable until recent years, but because, as a socialist educator of decades-long standing himself, Le Blanc appreciates how great an accomplishment it was to bring labor education to colleges and engage the labor movement in the process. For all this, he credits Rev. A.J. Muste above all, and Le Blanc’s feeling for a kind of religious radicalism, even Christian Socialism, is palpable, never mind his own personal Marxist atheism. Muste delivered a spirit to the school, and brought that spirit into the labor upsurge of the 1930s. We who are more critical of a particular history would say that Muste’s subsequent organization, the American Workers Party, was swallowed whole in its merger with the Trotskyist movement, some of its most appealing aspects lost in the process. We would also be likely to say that the next step in creating a Trotskyist following – entry into the Socialist Party, in 1936, with the intent to “raise issues” and create a faction representing its own views, then depart, after the inevitable expulsion, into formation of a purely Trotskyist party – was badly destructive toward the flagging if still lively Socialist Party. In that sense, it was also a flawed beginning for a struggling Trotskyist movement. But never mind. This is a history that Le Blanc has made his own, with the good sense that he has added to it.

Readers of Left Americana will, in short, find so much to agree and disagree with, that the book will provoke discussion, rethinking, and, I suspect, a great deal of fondness toward the author. Paul Le Blanc is an authentic American radical voice, the enduring humane, political personage of which his Old Left parents would have been proud, and that younger readers will naturally adopt as a wise, kindly old uncle. What could be better?

Reviewed by Paul Buhle Madison, Wisconsin paul_buhle@brown.edu