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Reaching for Revolution

Radicals in America: The U.S. Left Since the Second World War By Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps New York: Cambridge University Press: 2015, 355 pages, $24.99 paperback

Friday 25 December 2015, by Alan Wald

Something magical happened when Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps joined forces to craft this enthralling account of the U.S. Left from its upsurge after World War II to the near present. The two activist scholars, noted for distinguished books of their own, orchestrate stunning erudition, rigorous argumentation, lucid language, and a cohesive narrative to address a serious and taxing topic. [1]

Radicals in America is a learned volume, unsurpassed for a supreme command of the facts, yet is also a political breakthrough in the battle over memory of the postwar Left. Exemplifying what Walter Benjamin meant when he referred to “the past charged with the time of now,” [2] this account does not merely tell the old story of the Left in new clothes. Its pages embody the spirit of resistance come back from the dead to redress injustice.

A book aspiring to be comprehensive runs the risk of overwhelming the reader with a mass of narrative detail, but the style is so luminous, the design so superb, and the judgments so precisely executed that Radicals in America remains intellectually riveting throughout. Such an inspirational achievement will abet a new generation of idealistic young people in answering the call of history as we all face the unexpected and unremitting demands of this new century of war, racism, environmental catastrophe and growing inequality.

Brick and Phelps coolly present groundbreaking research into a well-kept secret: Many of the renditions of radical history that obtain the greatest popularity, or notoriety, are not necessarily those that embody the emancipatory heart of the social movement. This requires the complication of an already complicated tradition, which they achieve by nonchalantly lobbing some silent grenades into prevailing paradigms.

What is original, in addition to the coverage of the most recent seven decades, is an unabashed and respectful inclusion of many maligned radical outlaws and pariahs, as well as heterodox Marxist organizations and dicey political episodes. These are mostly hot potatoes not to be found in the recent crop of works on the subject from a moderate socialist perspective: Michael Kazin’s American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation (2011), Eli Zaretsky’s Why America Needs a Left: A Historical Argument (2012), and Rhodri Jeffrey-Jones’ The American Left: Its Impact on Politics and Society Since 1900 (2013).

All three of these are rich in arresting arguments that overlap with the volume under review. Too often, however, they defer to strategies of smartly reframing well-known material in a way that quietly deletes the more feisty, inspiring and in some cases more critical elements of the radical tradition that are unearthed and carefully explored in Radicals in America.

In this manner, Brick and Phelps implicitly contest not only these latest three books, all of which seek to vindicate liberal social democracy, but also several earlier ones idealizing the Popular Front of the 1930s-’40s or romanticizing “underground” cells of ultraleft fugitives of the 1970s.

Perhaps because they have years of first-hand experience with militant social movements, the authors seem to know exactly what they want to say and how to say it. The upshot is partisan, committed scholarship giving no quarter to the false impartiality of academic life, yet communicated through succinct, vivid prose that is contemplative, measured and carefully composed — all nicely pitched for a general audience.

Margin and Mainstream

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