Kirkus Reviews QR Code


How the Left Changed a Nation

by Michael Kazin

Pub Date: Aug. 24th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-26628-6
Publisher: Knopf

A spirited defense of the positive role played by left-wing radicals in shaping American society.

Beginning with an analysis of the anti-slavery movement of the 1820s, Kazin (History/Georgetown Univ.; A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, 2006, etc.) suggests that the effectiveness of radical social protests should not be judged by their failure to achieve significant political power but by their ability to catalyze mass movements that affect mainstream politics. The author writes that reformers in the centers of power depend upon the existence of a radical movement from below. In his view, the actions of “radical social gospelers” such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Martin Luther King Jr. far outweighed the influence of socialists and communists. Kazin describes the International Workers of the World, founded in 1905, as “an organizer of beautiful losers.” Their agitation for “One Big Union” that would include all working people and “run the economy for the benefit of all” inspired broad-based popular support but no lasting victories, at least in contrast to the more narrowly defined trade-union objectives of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, formed during the same period. Both, however, played a part in laying the groundwork for the emergence of the CIO in the 1930s, as well as other significant movements in the following decades.

A coherent, wide-ranging analysis of a century of political and social activism in America.