From the perspective of a conservative, what is the appeal of reading an intellectual history of the American left? In the age of Obama, it would be quite like reading a history of the root canal. Yet, if some plucky publisher were to enlist Fred Siegel to put that book together, it might just be a decent read. At least when it comes to the American left, Siegel has put together an eminently readable and entertaining work with a novel and persuasive thesis.
Right off the bat, one notices with Siegel that he does not have footnotes (save a humorous aside about “foodies” toward the end of the book). This is strange, considering he is writing an intellectual history. But soon, one figures out the reason. This is a fast-paced tour through 150 or so years of history, and Siegel simply has no time to indulge in notes, nor does he have any interest in distracting your attention.
Siegel clearly has spent a lot of time reading the intellectual heavyweights of the American left. This is a canon with which he obviously and deeply disagrees, yet he never gets bogged down by anger or resentment (though at times his visceral frustration is quite apparent). He approaches his subjects with a well-attuned sense of irony, and fills the pages with plenty of asides meant to tweak the liberal sensibility. Adlai Stevenson, he correctly says without elaboration, was a “patrician” and “a Southerner in his racial sentiments.” Alger Hiss was “guilty as charged.” Herbert Croly acted as though he was “Crolier than thou.”
Such asides may give Revolt Against the Masses a seemingly shambolic quality, but as one moves along through the book, one begins to appreciate the centrality of the digressions to the project at hand. This is, at its core, a subversive work of deconstruction. Siegel is not at all interested in dealing with liberalism on its own terms. Rather, his goal is to rip apart the ideology’s self-understanding, so he can present it as he sees it. Snarky asides about Croly and Stevenson deflate the historical remains of the massive egos who have dominated the left since its beginnings. Mainstream (read: liberal) historiography takes the likes of Stevenson, Hiss, and Croly as Very Important People who preached the truth. Siegel, on the other hand, is here to tell you that these emperors have no clothes.
Progressives claim they stand for the common man against the great malefactors of wealth on the one hand and political hacks on the other. Since the beginning of the movement, progressives have presented themselves as disinterested, scientific experts who can solve virtually every ailment that plagues the country. They see themselves as the vanguard of the American experiment in self-government.
Siegel flips this self-understanding on its head. Far from being the protector of the masses, he says, the progressive actually despises the “boobs” who populate flyover country. “Critical of mass democracy and middle-class capitalism, liberals despised the individual businessman’s pursuit of profit as well as the conventional individual’s self-interested pursuit of success,” he writes. Put another way, liberals have viewed themselves as part of an intellectual aristocracy opposed in fundamental ways to the ethos of the vast American middle class.
To make this charge stick, Siegel traces the story from the rise of the Mugwump class of the 1880s to the very present. Throughout, Siegel finds that liberals have tended to view the middle class as “unenlightened objects of their enmity.” They cling to the hope that someday a “post-bourgeois, post-democratic world” might establish them at the top of the social hierarchy. From Henry Adams to Herbert Croly, to D.H. Lawrence and H.L. Mencken, to Nathaniel West and Sinclair Lewis, to Arthur Schlesinger and John Kenneth Galbraith, to Bernard James and Frantz Fanon, to Joe Conason and Paul Krugman, then finally to Barack Obama (the “incarnation of modern liberalism’s antipathy to conventional, middle-class America”), Siegel argues that there have been two unifying themes: These liberals think a great deal of themselves, and very little of you.
Portions of this thesis have been around for a while. The progressive left of the early 19th century has long been conceived of as a middle class, Northern revolt against the threats of big business, political bosses, and the immigrant masses in the cities. Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth century, these groups had supplanted the gentry class that had more or less run the country for most of the period between the Founding and the Civil War.
Yet Siegel provides two important additions to this traditional view. First, he isolates the most arrogant and anti-egalitarian strains of this thinking, exposing clearly how these early thinkers really thought of themselves relative to their fellow citizens. Second, he traces these ideas through time, showing how they continued to influence leftist thinkers through the anti-American 1920s, the pro-Communist 1930s, the mythological era of liberalism known as the “Vital Center” in the 1940s and 1950s, the New Left of the 1960s (which, as he shows, is not in fact all that new), the environmentalist and feminist movements of the 1970s, and finally to the presidency of Barack Obama. Really, what Siegel does is let the avatars of each age speak for themselves. In so doing, he proves to the reader that, though the particular problem or solution has changed over time, the liberal’s commitment to his superior social status abides.
One criticism of the work, though far from damning, is worth mentioning. In the first sentence of the introduction, Siegel warns, “This short book is not a comprehensive history of American liberalism.” This, of course, is fine, but one wishes that Siegel had been a little more precise in his definition of what exactly it means to be a liberal. For instance, he writes that liberalism grew out of an estrangement with the Wilson Administration’s management of World War I. Yet the liberals of the First New Deal were self-consciously swimming in Wilson’s wake. The National Recovery Agency was modeled around Wilson’s War Industries Board, and Hugh Johnson, its leader, was a disciple of Bernard Baruch, who ran the WIB. Siegel wishes to distinguish the liberals from the progressives, but the line is left blurry.
Relatedly, it is hard to see how industrial labor fits into the story, in particular the leaders of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. John L. Lewis is never mentioned. Nor is Sidney Hillman. Robert Wagner, labor’s champion in the United States Congress, is mentioned only once, and indirectly. These labor leaders were politically powerful, socially influential, and most assuredly quite “liberal” by their own understandings, as well as by their contemporaries, and by subsequent generations of historians. Yet their strand of liberalism seems very different from the one Siegel is investigating. Lewis and Hillman did more than any two men (save FDR) to establish liberalism as a dominant force in the Democratic Party, and by extension the country itself. Yet neither of them was a self-satisfied “limousine liberal.” Their commitment to their members was complete. The same might be said of Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers and a force for liberalism in the merged AFL-CIO. He is also never mentioned.
This results in a somewhat incomplete narrative of liberalism’s history, for it seems as though Siegel is not telling the history of the entirety of liberalism, but rather of one strain of it. It is, of course, the strain that has since come to dominate the others. The liberalism of Lewis, Hillman, and Reuther is all but gone.
How did labor liberalism lose so thoroughly to the gentry liberalism that is the focus of Siegel’s work? The answer is not obvious, and it is relevant to Siegel’s thesis. After all, labor-liberalism was rooted in the mass public, while gentry liberalism is not. How did the latter outlast the former, especially in a democratic society such as ours? What has sustained the liberal “snobs” for nearly 150 years? By overlooking the inherent tensions within the different strands of liberalism, Siegel is unable to offer purchase on this question.
These criticisms, however, do not detract from the central qualities of his work. Revolt Against the Masses is immensely readable, even for conservatives who might blanch at the thought of dedicating so much time and effort to understanding their haughty opponents. Its thesis is fresh, contrarian, and relevant to the contemporary debate. And, best of all, it is thoroughly demonstrated. Siegel’s account may be incomplete at points, but it is in the main correct. Highly recommended.