Beyond the Whack-a-Mole Left

Though often condemned to the fringes of American political life, the radical left has changed the course of US history.

Claudia Jones in London in the 1960s. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Divisions

In 1923, Claudia Jones and her parents emigrated from Port of Spain, Trinidad to New York City. As a teenager in Harlem during the 1930s, she joined the international movement to free the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers accused of raping two white women on a train in Alabama.

This activism compelled her to join the Communist Party USA (CPUSA), which had worked tirelessly on the Scottsboro defendants’ behalf, and she spent the rest of her life as a committed Communist, serving the party in several roles, including editor of the Daily Worker.

In 1955, after being hounded by the federal government for nearly a decade, Jones was deported. She lived out the rest of her life in London, where she continued her work as a left-wing activist and journalist. She now rests in Highgate Cemetery, next to Karl Marx.

Jones’s biography appears in Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps’s excellent book, Radicals in America: The US Left Since the Second World War, because it — as well as the stories of other American radicals like mid-century unionist Emil Mazey and contemporary environmentalist Winona LaDuke — illustrates their theory that the American left must exist both at the margins and in the mainstream.

As a black, immigrant, working-class woman, Jones could hardly have been more marginalized. Joining the CPUSA — as an open admirer of Stalin’s Soviet Union no less — was probably not the best path to the American mainstream.

Yet Jones committed to the Communist Party not because she relished alienation, but because she believed it was the correct vehicle to fashion a more just world. Her objective was to take her fringe vision of the future and make it a reality.

Brick and Phelps argue that, like Jones, radicals must be estranged from the mainstream — lest they become liberals committed to its defense — while simultaneously shaping it to reflect their political visions.

The Left’s mission is to maintain “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.”

This task “poses a dialectic of margin and mainstream” through which Brick and Phelps analyze the American left’s history since World War II.

Radical Roots

Although Radicals in America is a book about the last seventy years, it is impossible to make sense of its story without looking to the antebellum abolitionist movement from which the modern American left emerged.

Brick and Phelps begin here because abolitionism epitomizes a movement that went from the margins — from religious fanatics, eccentric nonconformists, and maroon communities of runaway slaves — to the mainstream, with the Union Army transformed into an army of slave liberation.

Not satisfied with ending race-based chattel slavery, many abolitionists turned their righteous anger against wage slavery. Wendell Phillips declared in response to the 1871 Paris Commune: “There is no hope for France but in the Reds.”

His fellow abolitionist Theodore Tilton said: “The same logic and sympathy — the same conviction and ardor — which made us an Abolitionist twenty years ago, makes us a Communist now.”

The “labor question” preoccupied the radical imagination between the Civil War and World War II. In the nation where industrialization revved hottest, American radicals grappled with the fact that more and more workers toiled in miserable and often dangerous conditions for exploitative wages.

Some embraced anarchism, since anti-statism seemed to offer a solution to the collusion between the state and capital — best exemplified when President Grover Cleveland ordered federal troops to crush the 1894 Pullman Strike.

But many more radicals turned to Marxism, believing that its mass politics of were better suited to achieving mainstream labor power than the anarchist fetishization of the margins that, taken to its extreme, turned violent. As Brick and Phelps write:

By the dawn of the twentieth century, most American radicals had concluded this debate [between anarchists and Marxists] in favor of Marx’s resolution of the problem of margin and mainstream. As the development of capitalism expanded the ranks of wage earners, workers would be pressed to take collective action against their employers and develop a commitment to shared ownership.

In the 1930s, American radicals gained relevance in large part because they aligned with an increasingly militant labor movement. Hundreds of thousands of workers joined the Congress of Industrial Organizations’ (CIO) mass labor unions in response to the Great Depression.

Even the Communist Party enjoyed a surge in its American ranks during the 1930s. This was because many believed that the Great Depression sounded capitalism’s death knell and Communist leaders wisely attached their party to the labor movement.

Organized labor took a hiatus from its militancy during World War II, prioritizing the war against fascism over the war against capitalism. But when the Allies won, unionists and other radicals renewed their commitment to full employment and social democracy.

Alas, the Left would not achieve either of these goals. As Brick and Phelps write, they “faced mounting headwinds as manufacturers launched a counteroffensive against labor, Republicans retook Congress in 1946 for the first time since the 1929 stock market crash, and the Cold War began.”

The postwar red scare decimated the labor movement’s radicalism, which had profound long-term consequences. Unions fully joined the mainstream, where, as Democratic Party constituents, they supported American Cold War efforts, even helping the CIA crush communist-led unions in developing countries.

This alliance ironically sowed the labor movement’s demise: by the 1970s American corporations were shipping unionized jobs to overseas workers whose low pay and exploitative conditions the unionists had unwittingly help maintain.

What’s more, by pushing radicals to the margins the labor movement lost those activists most committed to racial and gender justice.

The New Left

But other leftists carried the mantle of social justice. As the labor question faded from view, radicals took up W.E.B. Du Bois’s powerful declaration that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”

The Civil Rights Movement breathed new life into an American left that had spent much of the early Cold War in “desolation and isolation.” The same month Claudia Jones was deported, Rosa Parks kickstarted the civil rights movement, “allowing margin to approach mainstream through the medium of Montgomery.”

In addition to hitching its wagon to the Civil Rights Movement, a New Left overcame moribund Cold War shibboleths about the moral necessity of American interventions overseas that had even infected some social democrats, such as Irving Howe’s Dissent milieu. The New Left embraced the Cuban Revolution in its infancy and harshly criticized American attempts to squash it.

Their anti-imperialist sensibility exploded when the United States escalated its long-brewing war against Vietnamese liberation in 1964. As more and more Americans were shipped off to the jungles of Southeast Asia, a growing left-wing antiwar movement jumped into the maelstrom of national politics.

The antiwar movement wanted to go mainstream, which meant they had to convert liberals — many of whom, including labor leaders, supported the Vietnam War because its architects (President Johnson included) were also liberals.

As a result, American radicals came to see liberalism as the real problem. New Left intellectuals called it “corporate liberalism,” a phrase coined by radical historian William Appleman Williams to describe the close collaboration between the liberal state and corporate America.

Whereas the Old Left fostered a Popular Front alliance with liberals, the New Left believed that building a bridge to liberalism was the same as building a bridge to imperialism.

The New Left is best known for its efforts to end the Vietnam War. But its most lasting legacy is cultural liberation.

In expanding its concerns to include ethnic and racial identity, feminism, gay rights, sexual freedom, countercultural expression, and more, the New Left fostered, according to Brick and Phelps, “the deepest, broadest radicalization of the twentieth century in the United States.”

A thousand leftist flowers bloomed, and as a result the nation became more secular, more feminist, and in many ways less sadistic. But the Left also grew less equipped to address the ravages of capitalism.


In the shadow of Richard Nixon’s convincing 1968 electoral victory, the New Left’s favorite intellectual, Herbert Marcuse, wrote that the white working class was a “counterrevolutionary force,” but that “the transformation of the social system” still depended on it.

By the 1970s, many leftists sensed that re-prioritizing labor would move them away from the nihilistic embrace of violent extremism by groups like the Weather Underground.

Radicals once again recognized that winning over working-class Americans, including the much-lamented white working class, was necessary if they were to achieve their broader aims.

Many New Left intellectuals returned to an old logic by contending that socialism was the best way to bring radicalism to the masses. Most notable among them were James Weinsten and Martin Sklar, who in 1959 founded the influential New Left publication Studies on the Left.

In 1970 they started another journal, Socialist Revolution, on the premise that Marx was right: socialism’s collective control of the means of production would extend the personal freedoms enjoyed by the privileged few to the toiling masses.

This was paradoxical: in an effort to connect with more Americans, left-wing intellectuals returned to Marx, the ultimate taboo in American politics.

Much of this history is familiar to students of the Left. But Radicals in America also constructs a narrative of the American left since the 1970s, which is less familiar to today’s radicals. In this, Brick and Phelps bring an encyclopedic cacophony of left voices into focus.

But in terms of analysis, only one takeaway from this recent history is worth emphasizing. In the wake of Ronald Reagan’s right-wing counterrevolution and Bill Clinton’s corporate centrism, the Left retreated, remaining viable only by abandoning the mainstream and appealing to the marginalized.

Radicals took their cue from Subcomandante Marcos, the masked voice of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, Mexico: “Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, Asian in Europe, Chicano in San Isidro, Anarchist in Spain, Palestinian in Israel.”

The Marcos approach is what counts as solidarity in the age of identity politics. Brick and Phelps aptly call it “a left episodic,” but I prefer “the whack-a-mole left.” Protest a lumber company here, a trade organization there, police brutality here, Israeli settlements there.

Meanwhile capitalism does what it does — mostly unabated — and inequality once again becomes the scourge of our times.

Even the ten million protesters who marched on February 15, 2003 against George W. Bush’s plans to invade Iraq ultimately made no difference. As Perry Anderson wrote in 2000: “The only starting-point for a realistic left today is a lucid registration of historical defeat.”

But Brick and Phelps are not entirely without hope. They point to “green shoots,” including the millennial embrace of socialism, which since their book was published has gained political force through the Sanders campaign.

But grizzled historians that they are, Brick and Phelps remain skeptical that a movement capable of a mainstream left-wing revival is visible:

If new layers of youth had come to see capitalism as unstable, destructive, and inequitable, how to connect that observation to imaginative political practice, how to challenge the established order and offer plausible visions of a better future that popular movements can bring into being — in other words, how to move from margin to mainstream — remained opaque.

In spite of their pessimism, Radicals in America highlights some left-wing successes — with the qualification that “radicalism becomes invisible, paradoxically, in its victories.” One such invisible victory — the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which protects the rights of a previously excluded group of Americans — occurred due to radical organizing and protest.

But one of the reasons left-wing successes like the ADA feel so fleeting is because their effects seem far removed from the labor question that informed a more cohesive American left before 1945.

When it comes to the question of labor — or, more accurately, when it comes to class struggle — the Right is winning. The Left’s invisible victories need to be understood alongside this perplexing fact. As Brick and Phelps write in their shrewd conclusion:

Following the high point of the cascading radicalizations that ran from the 1950s through the 1970s, American political history shows two seemingly antithetical trends: one conservative, toward growing inequality, weakened unions, and an emphasis on private, market relations as a way of life; the other liberalizing, toward greater participation by women and people of color in most aspects of social, economic, and political leadership and a dramatic easing of sexual proscription to make gay and lesbian identities more legitimate.

There is an enormous difference between “liberalizing social relations,” which radicals can chalk up as a victory, and “democratizing and equalizing social relations,” which the Left has failed miserably at achieving. As Brick and Phelps rhetorically ask:

What does it mean that anyone of color can sit in the front of the bus, for example, or that it contains a wheelchair lift, if buses, heavily used by the working poor and elderly, now come with much less frequency and at greater cost to riders because of privatizations and cuts to public transit budgets?

Radicals in America offers a powerful history of how the Left has both succeeded and failed to bring its views into the center of American political life. The fight for gay marriage is a prime example of how once-radical ideas can become widely accepted.

But to make victories like these more substantive and widely shared, we need a broad socialist movement in the United States. Our task is to bring that marginalized idea into the mainstream.