PreCirculated Recasting Radical Politics: Oppositional Movements at Their Local Roots

AHA Session 116
Saturday, January 7, 2012: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Chicago Ballroom H (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Kathleen G. Donohue, Central Michigan University
Kathleen G. Donohue, Central Michigan University

Session Abstract

     By examining national oppositional political movements at their local roots, this session transforms our understanding of leftist and progressive politics in the 20th Century United States.  The presentations contribute to scholarship that complicates the history of the American left, situating it within the tensions between radicalism and liberalism, localism and national politics.   Each paper constructs a “local” in time and place:  the Popular Front in Minnesota, the Progressive Party (1948) in Los Angeles, and second wave feminism within the halls of Capitol Hill.  Through social histories of these grassroots political networks, the presentations investigate how spacial/geographical specificity influenced politics, revealing a comparative analysis between radicalism in rural and urban America and bridging the gaps between marginal, oppositional movements and high politics. 

     The first paper recasts the history of 1930s radicalism.  In “Making a Popular Front:  The Farmer-Labor Movement and the Geneology of the U.S. Popular Front,” Joseph Fronzcak disputes conventional interpretations of the Popular Front as top-down Comintern strategy.  His paper studies the turbulent social history of the Minnesota Farmer-Laborite movement in the mid 1930s.   Fronzcak places his local history in conversation with Popular Fronters nationally, who imbued the movement in Minnesota with global meaning.  His paper argues that local activists became an inspirational source for collective re-imagining of the Popular Front in localities internationally.

     The Progressive Party of 1948 both built upon and departed from 1930s radicalism.  In “Holding to Social Justice:  the Progressive Party’s Response to Cold War Liberalism,” Anne Rapp redefines this third party movement by examining its local foundations in Los Angeles and demonstrating the complexities within the progressive liberal opposition to the post-war consensus.   Rapp argues that the Progressives’ response to the cold war embodied more than a critique of United States foreign policy; it constituted a broad agenda for social, economic, and political change. 

     Rachel Pierce’s work brings the history of social movements into the halls of power.  “From Feminine to Feminism:  Work, Gender and Politics on Capitol Hill” examines an overlooked, local source of support for feminist legislation in Congress, 1960-1975.  She refutes current literature which attributes the success of feminist legislation to women’s rights lobbies, arguing that these external power networks were at their weakest during this time.  Pierce’s presentation demonstrates that policy was fundamentally shaped by “local,” internal networks of feminists who intermixed daily within the halls of congressional buildings.  As an oppositional yet internal force within Capitol Hill, she argues that these women played a critical role in the formulation, passage, and implementation of feminist legislation.  

     As social histories of local political networks, the papers complicate historical scholarship about power and influence within oppositional movements.  Each reveals intra-movement conversations that demonstrate how local organizers shaped national movements, their core political agendas, and legacies.  They therefore question scholarship that has studied national leaders as proxies for movement politics.  Above all, the session will demonstrate the rich and complex roots of American radicalism in the twentieth century, illustrating the intersections between movements for economic equality, racial justice, and women’s liberation. 


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