I’ve been reading The American Left in the Twentieth Century by the historian John P. Diggins. Published in 1973, the book covers the three main leftist movements in America from 1900 to 1973: the “Lyrical Left” of the teens, the “Old Left” of the thirties, and the “New Left” of the sixties. Each of these movements ended badly: the Lyrical Left was crushed upon America’s entry into the First World War; the Old Left began to die during the Second World War, and then was destroyed by the McCarthy witch-hunts of the late forties and fifties; and the New Left fell apart after 1968 due to internal factionalism and ineffectiveness, and external repression. Here’s a depressing thought: since there hasn’t been an American Left movement since 1968 (sorry, folks, but Barack Obama is Center-Right), you wouldn’t have to add much to make The American Left in the Twentieth Century cover the rest of the century.
My favorite American leftist movement has to be the Lyrical Left of the teens. They actually had a sense of humor. The only leftist movement that I knew personally was the remains of the New Left, and Lord knows they were mostly a humorless bunch. I guess that’s why I’ve always assumed that to be a Leftist, you had to be overly serious and inflexible, which would explain my extreme unwillingness to join any American Leftist organization, even though I’m a Leftist myself. But one of the primary publications of the Lyrical Left, a periodical called The Masses, said this on its masthead: “A magazine with a sense of humor and no respect for the respectable: frank, arrogant, impertinent, searching for the true causes: a magazine directed against rigidity and dogma wherever it is found…” Historian Diggins writes, “Free from doctrinal strains, The Masses gave radicalism a well-needed lift of laughter.”
Like American religion, most American leftist politics is rigid and humorless. So imagine that, if you can: an American Left with an actual sense of humor. Those were the days.