[This article appeared in the August 1990 issue of Conservative Review, pp. 26, 27 and 29.]
The American Left in Yet Another “Yearning Phase”
Dwight D. Murphey
I have never been one to give much credit to facile “phase theories” of history. To speak in terms of a “pendulum,” say, without grasping the underlying forces that would cause the movement, has seemed too superficial.
Accordingly, I wasn’t quick to jump to the conclusion that the American Left swings impulsively through successive moods, forming a cycle that is repeated again and again. The conclusion was forced on me by the facts. It is difficult to review the intellectual history of “liberalism” (so-called) and the American Left during the past 170 years in depth without seeing a repetitive pattern.
It is a pattern that follows successively the steps of quiescence, of yearning-for-activity, of frenzied activism, of frustration and exhaustion, of turning inward, and then again of quiescence, of yearning-for-activity and so on.
Right now in
, we have passed through several years of evident yearning-for-activity on the part of the American Left. With no major catalysts to work with, would-be activists have used every possible pretext recently to get out into the streets, carry banners and picket signs, or to seize a college administration building. They are lost souls seeking a cause, people who cannot be happy unless they find grounds for unhappiness. In Emerson’s phrase, they pursue “a fertility of projects for the salvation of the world.” America
The First Cycle…
It’s fitting that I should quote from Emerson, because his 1844 lecture on “The New England Reformers” provides excellent commentary on the first such cycle. The
New Englandintellectual culture did not, like most Americans, accept the early years of the as a time of invigoration and optimism. Instead, its mood was formed by what it received from American Republic Europe’s increasingly alienated intellectual culture. Beginning in about 1820, it came to accept the Romantic Movement’s heated repudiation of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and the bourgeois tradesman. This was the beginning of the “alienation of the intellectual” against our predominant culture—arguably the single most fateful fact in American history.
Lacking a catalyst (until it settled in earnest on the slavery issue) and not yet sharing a common theoretical critique of just what it was that “made America sick,” the alienation tossed and turned fitfully, striking out now at one thing and now at another. “One apostle thought all men should go to farming, and another that no man should buy or sell, that the use of money was the cardinal evil,” Emerson said; “others attacked the system of agriculture, the use of animal manures… others attacked the institution of marriage as the fountain of social evil.” (Sounds contemporary, doesn’t it?)
The yearning for activity was clearly there; and, as the Civil War approached, so also was the stridency of radical action. (See Otto Scott’s excellent history The Secret Six: John Brown and the Abolitionist Movement, which tells of Emerson’s own involvement in the stridency.) In all, the yearning and ferment parts of this cycle lasted for 40 years, culminating in the Civil War.
Immediately following the Civil War, the mood among this same intellectual culture was one of ennui, lostness, and (as the ingredient that’s always there) continued alienation against the mainstream American culture. The Education of Henry Adams, voted by readers of the
in the 1920s as the book that had influenced them most, describes this period. A letter that New Republic Adamssent to his brother Charles as early as 1862 expressed the yearning for a new school of his own generation to start “new influences… throughout the whole social organism of the country.” But, he said in characteristic despair, “that is what has no power to create….” America
The intellectual void that had reflected a lack of theoretical critique was remedied as the century went on. Not only were socialist theories of assorted kinds growing like topsy in Europe, with their inevitable influence here, but toward the end of the century thousands of American graduate students made pilgrimages to German universities to study under the Historical School—“the socialists of the professorial chair.” Thus was American alienation given its “liberal” ideological form.
Start of the Second Cycle…
The study in
provided the intellectual underpinnings for the intense ferment of activity that preceded World War I: Populism, the Muckraking Era, and Progressivism. Joined by others who didn’t necessarily share their alienation, the intellectual Left again enjoyed several years of frenetic activity. Germany
Frustration and exhaustion set in during and after World War I, leading to the eerie quiescence of the 1920s. Herbert Croly, editor of the
, turned inward into mysticism; liberalism (as it was calling itself by then) had no program; and the “lost generation” expatriates took off on their sojourns to the New Republic Left Bank. The “Soviet experiment” offered the only ray of solace and hope, but seemed to be occurring as if in a world apart.
And, Quickly, a Third Cycle…
One can sense again, however, the yearning-for-activity setting in within the pages of the
in the late ‘20s. And, lo!—the Great Depression, proving “the bankruptcy of capitalism!,” came along at just the right time, lifting the intelligentsia on the wings of ecstatic hatred. For the alienated intellectual culture, the 1930s were a glorious decade. Eugene Lyons, after his conversion to conservatism, called it “The Red Decade.” It was a time when American liberals threw off their pose and became unabashedly socialist. It was a time when they ran, not walked, to sign up for whatever was most recent among the countless Communist front organizations. Looking back, we can enjoy with hearty laughter the hapless (though prominent) 400 who in 1939 signed the proclamation praising the New Republic Soviet Unionjust two weeks before the Hitler-Stalin Pact was announced.
It seems that war has most often marked the transition from activity to quiescence, because again after the Second World War, just as after the Civil War and World War I, things quieted down. Once more, it was a time for rest. And, as before, some turned inward into mysticism.
The Most Vicious of the Cycles…
By 1956, though, the yearning set in again. Most Americans were unaware of it, except for feeling some amazement over a new phenomenon: the Beatniks. But within the Left there were renewed expressions of yearning-for-activity. This gave rise to the New Left several years before most of us knew it existed. It came into being, by the way, before any of the catalysts of the 1960s—Civil Rights, the Vietnam War and radicalized Ecology—had taken any prominence. These later gave the New Left its windows to mass support, but the New Left itself was well under way among the intelligentsia before the ’50s were over.
I need not rehearse the barbarities of the ’60s to remind readers of the “time of ferment” that followed. It was the age when treason was made the fashion and loyal Americans had to speak diffidently and with apology. Far from being the “good old days,” as our pop-culture likes to proclaim it nostalgically, it was a time when the spiritual descendants of Jonathan Swift’s stinky “Yahoos” were ubiquitous.
Well, with the exception of a few bombings (hardly noticed other than by those who lost their lives to them), the ferment all pretty much quieted down over the summer of 1970. It seems the “students” hadn’t really been all that serious about revolution, after all; the Left discovered to its disgust that draft dodgers don’t make ideal revolutionaries. From its ferment stage, the movement again turned inward—into assorted exotic mystical cults too numerous to mention and, for the likes of Jerry Rubin, into a time of self-confessed masturbatory introspection. (See Rubin’s book Growing (Up) at 37.)
Now, the Latest Cycle…
At last, though, one could sense all during the ’80s that the animal spirits of radicalism were becoming unbearably restless. The media kept up a drumbeat about one ridiculous fad after another, as though the natural human condition is for everyone simultaneously to be Muckraker and Muckrakee. Miraculous, we are all Befouled (the “them”), but yet Crusaders (the “us”). Lost children, abused wives, men who had been raped, the homeless, animals whose rights came to be asserted for the first time—all these and much more besides were presented seriatim in faddish, hysterical exaggeration.
This is not to say, of course, that many of the issues these movements address are not real, and need addressing in serious ways; but when the world’s problems serve as vehicles for alienation and hysteria the resulting ideology detracts from rather than contributes toward realistic solutions.
All of this activity indicates that we are either in the time of yearning-for-activity or of ferment itself. It’s hard to say for sure, since the catalysts just aren’t there. If only we had a good Depression for them really to get their teeth into, there is no doubt but that the present time would be one of high ferment.
It will be interesting to see whether several years of an unrequited dribbling-out of frivolous grievances will itself be enough to satiate and exhaust those among our contemporaries who feel so intensely the itch toward agitation. If not, it will be a while before the next period of frustration, inward-turning and quiescence.
I hope it’s not too long.