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Who are America's Heroes? A Debate with Peter Dreier

All of the above historians argue, with convincing evidence, that the reforms that Dreier heralds as a result of response to struggles from below were actually sponsored, supported, and introduced into legislation by large corporate interests that sought state and government regulation in order to destroy small business competitors that could not afford to offer goods like safe meat. Government did the job that allowed them to triumph. As Kolko so deftly shows, they did not need Sinclair’s The Jungle to join a fight for safe food. It was, to use a term of our own era, the crony capitalism of the past. In my own essay “The Myth of the New Deal,” included in the book Rothbard and I edited, I show how the key New Deal reforms also had the strong support of the largest corporate interests.

Dreier is correct that I only concentrated on what I call the pro-communist entries. Yes, many of those he heralds were anti-communist. One such hero was Allard Lowenstein, and I agree with him that he was. (William F. Buckley, Jr., I recall, honored him and spoke at his memorial service, alongside many from the Left who attended and spoke.) Dreier talks about Lowenstein’s pivotal role in Freedom Vote and Freedom Summer, and the effort to register Mississippi’s oppressed black citizens to vote in 1963. But look at Dreier’s entry. Readers do not learn that after objecting to communist control and influence in SNCC, and the group’s decision to fire its lawyers like Joe Rauh and hire in their place the communist-led National Lawyers Guild, Lowenstein dropped out and sharply criticized SNCC for its turn to the far left.

Another profile Dreier writes is that of Michael Harrington, the successor to Debs and Norman Thomas as the titular head of America’s small socialist movement. As my readers (and Dreier) well know, I was an associate of Mike in both the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and Democratic Socialists of America for many years, and I knew him well. Dreier makes it quite clear, since Dreier’s own proclivities are pro-communist, that he thinks Harrington was wrong to criticize SDS and the Port Huron Statement for “being inadequately critical of the Soviet Union and of American communism.” But Harrington, as Paul Berman has pointed out in numerous essays, was correct to object to SDS’s willingness to include open communists in its membership, hence opening themselves up to the totalitarian takeover of the group within a few short years.

Dreier is happy that later, Harrington “apologized and got back in the student radicals’ good graces.” Indeed. And from my point of view, that is precisely the shift to the Left that led in later years to Harrington’s irrelevance, and to his growing support for totalitarian movements like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.