BOOK REVIEW / Left a bit, right a bit . . . the American way: 'The Rise and Fall of the American Left' - John Patrick Diggins: Norton, 15.95

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The American left began in a burst of lyrical idealism and violent action. In the 25 years before 1906, workers mounted some 30,000 strikes and walk-outs. The socialist Eugene V Debs collected 900,000 votes in his 1912 presidential campaign conducted from a prison cell. President William McKinley, assassinated by anarchists, is all but forgotten today, but the anarcho- syndicalist martyr Joe Hill is still loved for his dying words: 'Don't mourn for me. Organise]'

'Intellectuals of upper-class sensibilities and lower-class sympathies' theorised this early phase of American leftism. John Reed learned Russian and was on the spot to chronicle Ten Days That Shook the World. Max Eastman, 'a child of Walt Whitman reared by Karl Marx', hoped leftism would finally allow him to bridge the gap between the active and the contemplative life. 'Our eyes trained for every seeing,' he wrote in 1913, 'our ears catching the first murmur of a new experience, we ran after the world in our eagerness, not to learn about it, but to taste the flavor of its being.'

Today, after many vicissitudes, the American left is cloistered in universities, trapped in the very contemplative life it sought to overcome. It has job security, learned journals, post-structuralism and political correctness. Politics has changed from action in the world to subject matter - for art, scholarship, and instruction. As John Patrick Diggins writes: 'The New Left is an idea whose time has passed and whose power has come.'

In his book, Diggins sets out to chronicle this demise and explain it. The title turns out to be a misnomer. 'The Rises and Falls of the American Left' would be more appropriate, for Diggins finds four distinct leftist movements in this century, corresponding roughly to changes in generations. The first, or 'Lyrical Left', was a romanticism that ended in desultory middle age with the Lost Generation's return from war and the shift of artistic energies to Paris. Shocked by the execution of Bacco and Venzetti, the Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, the Old Left arose in the 1930s, dismissing Eastman and his lot as dreamers. In this decade, membership in the Communist Party increased sixfold. The New York intellectuals - the Trillings, Irving Howe, Hannah Arendt, Alfred Kazin, Edmund Wilson and the rest of the brilliant figures who created the model for an American intelligentsia - grimly set to work squaring Marx with modernism, until Hitler and Stalin undermined them from abroad, and patriotism and anti-communism did them in at home.

Disgusted at what they considered the compromises of their elders, a third movement appeared in the 1960s - the New Left. 'The historical context of the Old Left was the abundance of poverty,' writes Diggins, 'that of the New Left, the poverty of abundance.' After seeking to redeem that poverty with protests and revolutions in life style, the New Left was in disarray by 1970, abandoned by feminists and blacks, embarrassed by yippie freakiness and Black Panther machismo. Nixon was elected on a 'law and order' ticket, the Weathermen blew themselves up in a Greenwich Village basement, and the young radicals headed off to graduate school, whence they emerged as the Academic Left of the 1980s and 1990s.

Why has American leftism seemed more like an Oedipal than a political drama? Diggins outlines the various theories of American 'exceptionalism' - the claim that models of class struggle in Europe do not fit the United States. Lacking a common aristocratic enemy, the working and middle classes blend in their striving for 'equality of condition'. Class solidarity has never existed in America, where everyone is united in a 'democracy of cupidity' in which 'the acquisition of property (is) tantamount to the pursuit of happiness'. With their institutions intact even after depression and world war, it is hard for Americans to agree with Marxists that economic conflict is the key to history.

Diggins acknowledges the achievements of the New Left - helping end Vietnam, improving the lot of women and blacks - but he treats these as incidental developments. He describes the feminist revolution as a few burnt bras and a lot of evening consciousness-raising sessions with husbands left home to babysit. Poor Diggins] His simplistic captions below photos of Marxists, his forced witticisms at the end of every other paragraph and his ill- judged generalisations outside his field contrast oddly with the detailed historical argument of the book.

'My position is to the right of the Left and to the left of the Right,' he asserts, and indeed, this book is not so much trying to bring us to a political position as effecting a recovery from 'the nightmare of post-structuralist thought'. Its non-scholarly tone - written on the level of an introductory history course - is a sign of a new compact between the academy and the public, a new intelligibility extended like an olive branch to an increasingly anti-academic populace. Diggins indicts Foucault and his post-structuralist followers for propounding a notion of power without agent or cause, and for announcing the demise of the acting subject. 'Having failed to transform society, the Academic Left now felt that its task was . . . to explore the subtle modes of domination.' Its preoccupation with hegemony and deconstruction grew from 'the need to rationalise failure'.

But reality, according to Diggins, can bring us to other conclusions. He wants us to learn from Mikhail Gorbachev and the students of Tiananmen Square, who transformed the world, proving that knowledge can make a difference. We might note that those very acting subjects who give Diggins such hope have driven leftism all over the world into disarray. But in America perhaps even the dream of knowledge and power seems better at this point than the actuality of academic scepticism and isolation.