The Populist Moment , Lawrence Goodwyn (1978)
Lawrence Goodwyn’s book restored the Populist movement to its place as one of the country’s most important radical moments, after generations of historians had dismissed it as little more than an irrational rural outburst.
The Socialist Party
The American Socialist Movement, Ira Kipnis (1952)
A half-century after its publication, Ira Kipnis’s The American Socialist Movement is still the best guide to the politics of the Socialist Party. Though it unfortunately stops its narrative in 1912, it’s a great exploration of the debates that shaped the party.
The Communist Party
The Roots of American Communism , Theodore Draper (1957)
While dated and marred by Draper’s undisguised hostility to the CP, this is still the definitive account of the rise of American communism, from its origins in the 1910s through the 1920s.
Communists in Harlem during the Depression, Mark Naison (1983)
A now classic work on the 1930s rise of the Communist Party in America’s most famous black neighborhood. Though a dense read, Naison provides a look at the far left’s efforts to spearhead struggles against capitalism and racism.
The Romance of American Communism, Vivian Gornick (1977)
Vivian Gornick captures the vibrancy and spirit that animated the thousands of workers who devoted their lives to the pursuit of a better world. They weren’t faceless servants of a foreign bureaucracy and though they were wrong about Stalinism, history will judge many of their efforts in the United States well.
The Left in Labor
Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, Nelson Lichtenstein (1995)
A classic study of the most important postwar American labor leader. Lichtenstein explores Reuther’s rise to the top of the United Auto Workers, which he led for more than two decades until his death in 1970. In Reuther we find a figure that embodied the power and tragedy of “Golden Age” American unionism.
Labor’s Giant Step: The First Twenty Years of the CIO, Art Preis (1972)
An excellent overview of militant industrial unionism in the United States. Forged in the crucible of titanic class struggles during the Great Depression, the CIO represented an enormous advance from the narrow craft unionism of the AFL. Preiss traces the union’s evolution, from its founding amid the 1930s labor upsurge, to the increasing conservatism and bureaucratism of the postwar years and McCarthy period.
Striking Flint, Susan Rosenthal and Genora Dollinger (1996)
Genora (Johnson) Dollinger’s account of her role during the 1936–37 General Motors sit-down strike, which eventually led to the unionization of the entire auto industry.
The New Left Era
Race, Reform, and Rebellion, Manning Marable (1984)
The best book on the Civil Rights Movement — deserves to be reintroduced to a new generation.
SDS: The Rise and Development of the Students for a Democratic Society, Kirkpatrick Sale (1973)
This is still the most comprehensive overview of Students for a Democratic Society available. At over seven hundred pages, Sale’s research was exhaustive, spanning from the Student League of Industrial Democracy days to the movement’s slide into ultra-leftism. An important study of a crucial period.
Black Against Empire: The History and Politics of the Black Panther Party, Joshua Bloom and Waldo E. Martin Jr (2012)
Clear and well-researched, this book represents the first full-length account of the rise and fall of the Black Panthers.
Soldiers in Revolt: GI Resistance During the Vietnam War, David Cortright (2005)
Essential reading on a little known episode in American history, this book details the spectacular rebellion of American GIs in Vietnam and the role it played ending a brutal war.