This course examines the history of the political and intellectual movement that is now at the heights of American culture.
Though the great majority of Americans do not identify as radical or left-wing, what is called “the left” has taken commanding positions in many parts of American society.
Since the 1930s, socialists, communists, and social democrats have controlled many of the major labor unions in the United States, and with that power have continued to exert influence over American electoral politics. Since the 1960s, the left has dominated academia, and few college graduates have not been exposed to the ideas of Marxism, radical feminism, or critical race theory.
In recent years, for the first time, the previously liberal mainstream media has propounded political ideas that previously were voiced only by a small number of radical intellectuals. A rising faction of the Democratic Party openly embraces or is sympathetic to some version of socialism, and virtually every self-identified progressive speaks of left-wing concepts like systemic racism and patriarchy and calls for a radical redistribution of wealth and power.
We begin the course with an analysis of the intellectual origins of the modern American left, including Rousseau and the French revolution, Marx and “scientific socialism,” Eugene Debs and Christian socialism, “2nd-wave” radical feminism, and the anti-racism of the abolitionist, civil rights, and Black Lives Matter movements.
We then focus on the major left-wing movements in the history of the United States:
- Radical abolitionism, which sought not just to end slavery but to revolutionize the Southern states
- Agrarian populism, a mass movement in the last half of the 19th century that transformed the politics of midwestern and southern states and became the basis for the nationalist populism of the Make America Great Again movement
- Progressivism, which emerged at the turn of the 20th century and became the dominant political ideology in the U.S.
- The Socialist Party of America, whose candidate for president, Eugene Debs, received a million votes in the 1920 election while campaigning from a prison cell
- The Communist Party USA, the largest radical organization in American history, which in the 1930s enjoyed the support of an estimated one million members and allies
- The Civil Rights Movement, which was intertwined with various left-wing movements and created an ideology of race that remains at the heart of American political culture
- Black Power, a political and cultural movement led by the Nation of Islam and the Black Panther Party, which informs many of the “social justice” movements of today
- Radical feminism, which began in the 1960s and helped define much of American thinking on gender and sexuality
- Gay Liberation, a movement that exploded with the Stonewall riots of 1969, radically changed the lives of gays and lesbians, and permanently altered Americans’ thinking on sex and sexuality