American History’s Forbidden Truths
At the risk of oversimplifying, we could divide American leftist historical scholarship into two basic strains. Both have historiographical origins in progressivism and attempt to speak for the downtrodden and for the common people, to amplify the voice of those allegedly silenced by conservative institutions. But they part ways in their interpretation of where this voice is to be found.
For the more boring, dominant and conventional leftists, the savior of mankind, the equalizer of social disparities, is in formal leftist institutions – unions, left-leaning political parties, mass political movements directed by great leaders who sought to integrate minorities into mainstream culture, and especially the federal government. Thus Lincoln addressed America’s original sin of slavery; Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, while imperfect, took working conditions seriously; the suffragettes and official Civil Rights movement are history’s great engines of political, racial and gender equality – a yet-to-be-won battle, but a much fairer fight thanks to marches on Washington and federal legislation. Franklin Roosevelt, despite some flaws, gave “economic democracy” a real chance for once. The Great Society brought the United States a step closer to the bare standard of modern civilization, to be found in the administration of democratic socialism. Obama represents the last of this narrative, which is why even most antiwar leftist intellectuals can’t bring themselves to despise him as they did George W. Bush.
But then there is the more interesting, the less typical, and the more illuminating strain of American leftist scholarship – the tradition that goes back to progressives who had some classical liberal impulses, like Henry Elmer Barnes, and that came of age in the 1960s through such refreshing New Leftist historians as Gabriel Kolko. While he dabbled in both schools of thought, the late Howard Zinn, venerated hero of college and high school students nationwide, was, at his best, an example of this more radical interpretive impulse: to see large institutions, especially the state and most particularly its warfare organs, as enemies of the common good. Militarism and imperialism should not be given a free pass, even if sold in the name of globalizing human rights. Economic regulation should be seen, not as egalitarian blessings, but more often as tools of the corporate establishment to consolidate its own power. Just as important, in the realm of cultural history, progress is not made for the disenfranchised mainly by unions, bureaucracies, do-gooder social workers and agitators, much less the federal government – but by individuals themselves, working within their communities, defending their rights, asserting their dignity, pursuing their interests, and creating alternative networks of economic and social progress that lie outside of Washington’s accepted avenues. This is a tradition of leftist scholarship that is most fascinating, and certainly of most use to those of us who aim to defend individual liberty.