There are a number of fine books by conservatives about the history of the conservative movement, including Lee Edwards’ The Conservative Revolution, George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, and Upstream by Alfred Regnery. However, conservatives have given the history of the political movement on the left scant attention. Granted, conservatives have written a number of critical books about various left-of-center political groups and figures but, up until recently, no one has written a comprehensive history of the left from a conservative perspective. This void has been neatly filled by Dan Flynn’s recent A Conservative History of the American Left.
Flynn’s book is a real tour de force in providing a very detailed overview of leftist movements in U.S. history. The book starts with Robert Owen and his experiments in communitarian living in the 1840s and concludes with the post-September 11 protests over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Socialist Party, the Progressives, the Weathermen, Students for Democratic Society, and the Black Panthers are among the numerous topics that Flynn manages to cover in his book.
In addition to providing a history of various leftist political movements in the United States, Flynn perceptively details trends in leftist activism. In the early days, those on the left preached voluntarism. They were interested less in enacting legislation or changing policy than in trying their ideas out in practice. This led to the rise of experiments in communal living in the 1840s launched by Robert Owen and countless others. Nearly all of these experiments were failures and the only communal living experiments that enjoyed any longevity were those that encouraged work through extremely coercive practices.
However, after the Civil War, the left became more politically minded and took an interest in electoral politics. This led to the creation of various Socialist and Communist political parties. Unable to make progress through the ballot box, the left moved to a new strategy: They attempted to influence policy by obtaining control of influential institutions. For instance, many leftists became more involved in the Democratic Party. While Democrats often nominate fairly mainstream liberals for state and national office, the left has succeeded in making the Democratic Party significantly more liberal on social and foreign policy issues.
Perhaps more importantly, the left has gained an exceptionally strong foothold in a number of other institutions, including the academy, the entertainment industry, the media, and the judiciary. This strategy has paid significant dividends. Most of the left’s important political gains in recent years have been achieved, not at the ballot box, but instead by administrative or judicial fiat.
Because of Flynn’s thorough research, his book contains a treasure trove of information of interest to conservatives. For instance, Flynn demonstrates that the left’s origins are not as noble as many would like to think. Many members of the old left actually advocated racial separation. Many of the groups promoting women’s suffrage did not allow blacks to serve as members. And as Flynn documents, many leftists, including Owen and Margaret Sanger, were aggressive advocates of eugenics.
In addition, Flynn ably debunks some of the liberal mythology about events in U.S. history. For instance, most history textbooks uncritically cheer the increases in regulation, intervention, and spending that accompanied the New Deal. However, Flynn shows that Franklin Roosevelt’s manipulation of gold prices resulted in economic instability that made businesses less likely to borrow and banks less likely to lend.
However, the most important lesson that conservatives can draw from this book is the resiliency of the left. Flynn says that the left is an ideology that, through natural selection, should have faded a long time ago, but, even though issues and strategies have changed, the left continues on to this day — demonstrating hostility to family, property, religion and free enterprise.
Furthermore, by abandoning electoral politics in favor of shaping institutions, the left has become considerably more adept at achieving its policy goals. In fact, the left has made greater gains both in terms of policy and in the court of public opinion than many conservatives would like to admit. Obtaining more influence in the academy, the judiciary, and the media certainly will not be easy for conservatives. However, as Flynn’s book makes it clear, these are important battles for them to continue to fight.
Even though Flynn is very critical of the left, he acknowledges that the left’s vision is often idealistic. And despite the negative consequences of many leftist ideas, the left’s vision will continue to appeal to a number of influential people for that very reason. Therefore, as Flynn makes clear, conservatives need to continue to be vigilant because the left has quietly become much more influential and effective than mostconservatives realize.