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  • 34


     
    Audacity's Children
    Reviews; Posted on: 2008-04-06 00:58:04 [ Printer friendly / Instant flyer ]
    The American Left has a long history of utopianism.

    A Conservative History of the American Left, by Daniel J. Flynn (Crown Forum, 436 pp., $27.50)

    In 1969, the Theater for Ideas organized a symposium to discuss whether acting should be “theater or therapy.” The event was prompted in part by the antics of the Living Theater, which had become famous for asking members of the audience to shed their clothes onstage along with the cast. In an emblematic moment, the distinguished critic Robert Brustein, one of the symposium’s panelists, spoke of the importance of “supremely gifted individuals” such as Chekhov to the theater—and was met with shouts of “F*** Chekhov!” Eventually that command would extend to “F*** Shakespeare” and “F*** Euripides.”

    Another panelist was Paul Goodman, who had come of age in the 1930s and was now a guru to the sixties generation. His 1960 book, Growing Up Absurd, had taught baby boomers that winos offered “a wise philosophical resignation plus an informed and radical critique of society.” But Goodman became uneasy about what he had helped create. First, he compared the Living Theater and the symposium’s audience with the Anabaptists, a fanatical sixteenth-century antinomian religious cult that anticipated twentieth-century totalitarianism by promising its followers a transformation that would break with the world’s wicked ways. Then he told the enraged audience: “I’ve lived through moments like this before, and I’m always struck by the poverty of ideas. In the last 2,000 years, there hasn’t been a single new revolutionary idea.”

    Goodman was overstating the case, but his point holds and is a kind of leitmotif of Daniel Flynn’s engaging new book, A Conservative History of the American Left. Flynn’s well-written narrative describes how the history of the American Left is marked, with some exceptions, by utopianism and a recurring hostility to middle-class American life. For the Left, a bright new future has always beckoned—if we can only break with our outmoded conventions.

    This notion goes back a long way. In 1826, the British socialist Robert Owen, founder of a utopian community in New Harmony, Indiana, issued a Declaration of Mental Independence that condemned “private, or individual property—absurd and irrational systems of religion—and marriage.” Owen met privately with many American presidents, twice addressed joint sessions of Congress, and became an important influence on Friedrich Engels. In the document, which Flynn calls a mix “of Ross Perot, Harold Hill, Karl Marx and Jimmy Swaggart,” Owen argued that marriage was “the sole cause of all prostitution,” while religion “has made the world [into] one great lunatic asylum.”

    Owen anticipated both Marx’s concept of “false consciousness” and Herbert Marcuse’s of “repressive tolerance.” He insisted that men, because of the way “they have been hitherto educated . . . are incompetent to form a correct or sound judgment.” Creatures of their environment, they “have been rendered irrational by the absurd doctrine of free will and responsibility.” All could be put right if “such subjects. . . . be instructed in better habits, and made rationally intelligent.” But until then, Owen didn’t want “the opinions of the ill-trained and uninformed on measures intended for their relief and amelioration. No! . . . their advice can be of no value.”

    Owen’s sentiments were exemplified by the most famous of the utopian communes, Brook Farm in Massachusetts. Influenced by the ideas of French social reformer Charles Fourier, Flynn writes, Brook Farm was stocked with “Boston Brahmins, Harvard graduates, [and] descendants of the Pilgrims” who “retained the Puritan conviction that they were the elect” but had little common sense. Failures at subsistence farming, “dependent on charity for their Thanksgiving dinner,” they needed to hire unskilled laborers in order to feed themselves. Writing about the plebes, one of Brook Farm’s members, Charles Dana, insisted: “We are in fact the only men who can really point out their course for them and they can hardly help looking to us for their advisors.” But the laborers chafed under their supervisors’ feckless paternalism, openly mocking Dana and his fellows as “aristocrats.”

    Like Dana, the communards at the Oneida Community in New York, founded by John Humphrey Noyes, were the best and brightest of their day. Noyes, who renounced “active cooperation with the oppressor on whose territories I live,” pursued what he described as “complex marriage”—what today we would call open marriage. In order to break the chains of convention, all the women of Oneida had to be sexually available to Noyes. He had quite a pedigree: his father and grandfather were congressmen, his father-in-law was a lieutenant governor of Vermont, and his first cousin was the 19th president, Rutherford B. Hayes. (The next president, James A. Garfield, was killed by a troubled former follower of Noyes’s.)

    Then as now, the authoritarian strand in leftism sometimes crisscrossed with its libertarian and egalitarian tendencies. Owen also insisted, in anticipation of today’s progressive education failures, that in schooling there should be “no distinction of teacher and pupil.” The double game—so common in American universities today—that joins claims about the radical unintelligibility of “truth” to authoritative pronouncements on matters social and political was already well developed at New Harmony. But one of the New Harmonyites, Sarah Pears, rebelled against Owen’s claim that he possessed superior knowledge while all others were equal before him in their ignorance. “Mr. Owen says we have been speaking falsehoods all our lives, and that only here shall we be enabled to speak the truth. I am sure that I cannot in sincerity look upon these as my equals, and if I must appear to do it, I cannot act or speak the truth.” Here is an early nineteenth-century reaction to what 1930s Communists called “political correctness.”

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