Chronicles of Radicalism

Against the Current, No. 33, July/August 1991

Michael Steven Smith

Encyclopedia of the American Left
Edited by Marl Jo Buhie, Paul Buhie and Dan Georgakas
Garland Publishing (New York and London), 1990, 928 pages, 95 illustrations, $95.

AS A SOCIALIST and a lawyer since the sixties, I read the Encyclopedia of the American Left with extraordinary pleasure.

When I entered the University of Wisconsin in 1960, finding a book like this would have been a fantasy. There would have been few to read it and fewer to write it. The country was emerging from the political and cultural winter of McCarthyism and the Cold War. Professors critical of current capitalist society could be counted on one hand. The college bookstore in Madison had but two books by revolutionaries, both Europeans.

Things sure are different, as the publication of this Encyclopedia proves. It was the activism of the sixties that spawned and spurred Marl Jo Buhie, Paul Buhl and Dan Georgakas, the three editors of the Encyclopedia, and the hundreds of contributors to it, to produce this magnificent 928-page collection of signed illustrated mini-essays. They have written the first comprehensive reference won on the heritage and history of the American left, its activities, organizations, personages, movements and culture of the last one hundred years. In doing so they have filled a need.

When I first opened the Encydopedia I read around in it from a personal reference point. There is a fine essay on in home town of Milwaukee, which had a socialist mayor, even through the ’50s. My professor Harvey Goldberg, the eloquent University of Wisconsin social historian and probably the most influential teacher of our generation, is written about with perfect appreciation.

I first came around the National Lawyers Guild in the summer of 1965 at a dinner at Ann Pagan Ginger’s home in front of the Mikeljohn Library she runs in Oakland, California. When I looked up the Encyclopedia article on the Guild, not surprisingly and in keeping with the editors’ choice of sympathetic contributors, it was Ann who wrote the essay.

At its end Ann lists under “see also” the International Labor Defense, which I looked up. The ILD was a sort of forerunner of the Guild, but much more effective because it sought to defend and mobilize public support behind what it termed “class struggle victims.” It organized the defense against the infamous Sacco and Vanzetti frame-up, among many others.

The person most responsible for the ILD’s establishment was James P. Cannon, a onetime Wobbly, a veteran of the IWW’s numerous free speech fights, and a founding leader of the Communist Party before his early opposition to Stalinism got him expelled in 1928. It was after Cannon visited with exiled Wobbly William D. “Big Bill” Haywood in Moscow in 1925 and discussed the need for comprehensive legal defense organization that the ILD was organized.

“The ILD’s guiding philosophy was its concept of “mass defense” or “mass protest,” the Encyclopedia states. “This concept taught that since working-class defendants inevitably faced a hostile court system, legal maneuvers alone could not win an acquittal. Instead, legal strategy had to be complemented by a mass movement that would mobilize the general public in behalf of the accused.” This strategy remains sound to this day.

From A to Z

I looked up other topics, political and cultural, with which I was personally familiar… District 65/UAW, where I was a union delegate when I was in legal services in Queens, the Socialist Workers Party from which I was expelled, the National Maritime Union, a number of whose elderly members have been my clients, even folk musk and Pete Seeger, the Weavers, the blues and Billie Holiday md on and on. What a treasure trove.

When Malcolm X was in prison doing eight years of hard time for petty theft, he was reading and radicalizing. He consumed the dictionary and later recalled in his autobiography how valuable reading it had been. Imagine, I fancied, if Malcolm would have gone from A to Z, from Abortion rights to Frank Zeidler, in the Encyclopedia of the American Left, how much quicker the evolution of this revolutionary would have proceeded.

And I was hopeful that this book, as a milepost in left scholarship and inspiration, would serve to quicken the pace of understanding of those who will join our ranks in the expected upswing of movement politics in the ’90s.

The cultural side of the radicalization of the thirties and of the sixties is extremely well covered. Moreover, the Encyclopedia features the first systematic coverage of ethnic groups: Hispanics, Irish, Greeks, Japanese, Chinese, Italians, Arabs, Armenians, Poles, Bulgarians, Puerto Ricans, Yugoslavs, Germans and others.

There is considerable treatment of Jewish groups and their Yiddish and English-language publications. Many of these entries are the first scholarly treatment of the subject. There is comprehensive coverage of the civil rights movement, including individuals and groups often omitted in accounts of the movement. In addition to literary entries, there are entries on modem dance, various forms of music, surrealism, murals, cartoons, Hollywood films and independent cinema.

There are essays on feminist organizations, women’s periodicals, and outstanding individuals. Movements with significant female participation are noted. Attention is also given to the impact of radicals on movements not always considered part of the traditional left ecology, animal rights, Native American rights and gay rights.

We owe a lot to Dan Georgakas, Marl Jo Buhle, Paul Buhle and their team of scholars (which include Dianne Feeley and Alan Wald of the ATC editorial board) for this book, so relevant to us. The Encyclopedia of the American Left is our history, it is our heritage. Reading it will inform our future task with our perspective of placing human rights over property rights, of, as the song goes, raising the earth on new foundations.

Pick up a copy now—with both hands. And get your librarian to order one.

July-August 1991, ATC 33