Challenge, Confrontation and Change: The Radical Left in American History
W 2019


What exactly do you know about the left in America?  Certainly its music!  You may also know about the violent, bloody history of labor organizing in the US, the scapegoating of “reds” since the earliest days of the Bolshevik Revolution to the Hollywood 10, and the bombing of the LA Times.

 But do you know who was Joe Hill?  Who led the Lawrence Textile Strike (that inspired the writing of “Bread and Roses”)?  What event in American history led to the celebration of May Day around the world, but not here?

This SDG will answer those questions while considering three themes in our history—race, economic inequality and women’s rights—and the radical left thinkers and activists that pushed and prodded the country to expand democracy and confront inequality…from abolition to the 20th century achievement of Civil Rights and Voting Rights (unbelievably under attack in the 21st century); from women’s struggles for suffrage to the all-out assault on sexism and the debate between equality and liberation;  from the Whiskey Rebellion and utopian socialist communities to the occupation of Wall Street—the continuous confrontation of economic liberty and inequality.

To help us in our explorations we will utilize not only our core book (see below), but a primary source reader, your research, and the schema developed by Michael Walzer in his book Exodus and Revolution, which claims that the Exodus experience described in the Hebrew Bible is the prototype for ever y revolution that has occurred since. 

What, exactly, did and does the left stand for?   Who, and what succeeded?  Failed? Who went to jail?  What does the future bode?  Lots of stimulating discussion.  Join us.


Weekly Topics

1.  Developing a common vocabulary, introducing key concepts:  the meaning of "the right" and 

the left;" capitalism and its critics; social movements; Michael Walzer's model of revolution.

 2-4 Kazin, American Dreamers, Ch 1,2  American Revolution to Civil War

         Race—abolition, Dred Scott, Civil War, 13,14 Amendments

         Economic Issues—early socialists, utopian communities

Women’s  Rights--relationship to slavery; Seneca Falls,


 Among the major figures:  Tom Paine, Wm Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Edw. Bellamy, John Brown, Robert Owen…

 5-8  1870-1928—

Race—Kazin, ch 2,3--15th Amendment; Radical Reconstruction; Jim

         Crow, NAACP

Economic Issues—Kazin, ch 3    

            Henry George & the single tax; Social Gospel vs

 Marxism; Anarchism (Haymarket, what price violence?)

Knights of Labor vs AFL; Debs and the ARU; Populist Party


Three socialisms:  Kazin ch 4—Farmer/Labor alliances; urban

Jews; modern left (The Masses; cultural revolution).  The IWW;

Espionage Age of 1917, Hillquit campaign for mayor of NYC 1917; ACLU; Upton Sinclair


            Women’s Rights—opposition to 15th amendment; split in suffrage movement;

 temperance; The Women’s Bible; Margaret Sanger; 19th amendment


Among the major figures:  Albert and Lucy Parsons, Terence Powderly, Samuel Gompers, Bill Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Emma Goldman, Rose Schneiderman, Roger Baldwin

9-1O:  1920-1950.  Kazin, Ch 5

Race & Women’s rights:   Scottsboro Boys; impact of war on both race and women.  Communism and American culture; influence through the arts;

       Economic Issues:  American Communist Party:  Popular Front; union organizing, CIO, changing     legal environment—impact of Depression.  

     Major Figures:  Clarence Darrow, Max Eastman, Norman Thomas, Carey

         McWilliams, Henry Wallace, Walter Reuther


11-13.  1950’s-1980’s  Kazin, Ch 6.

             Race:  Montgomery Bus Boycott; Civil Rights Movement—MLK, Bayard Rustin, Stokely Carmichael                     and SNCC; Black Power (Panthers) vs SCLC & King; Nation of Islam.

Economic Issues:  Michael Harrington and The Other America; The New Left; C Wright Mills

Women’s Rights:  the personal is political; analysis of sexism throughout the culture; liberals (NOW) vs liberationists (WITCH)


Among the major figures:  Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Michael Harrington, Tom Hayden, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Paul Robeson,…


14.  What’s Left of the Left?  Kazin, Ch. 7; Assessment

         Rebels without a movement?  Who are the voices now?

         Economics and Class Injustice Issues Resurface:  growing awareness of inequality;

         of the role of capitalism; of climate issues; and gender issues.  How is the rise of populism around the 

world related to the fortunes of the left.


Core Book:  Michael Kazin. American Dreamers.  How the Left Changed a Nation.   Vintage Books. 2012

 The core book contains extensive bibliography.


       Timothy McCarthy & John McMillan. The Radical Reader:  A Documentary History of the American Radical Tradition.   Oxford Books, 2003.  This book will be on reserve in the Plato library.