Why America Needs a Left

In Why America Needs Left: A Historical Argument (2012), Eli Zaretsky, Professor of History at New School for Social Research, restores a much needed legitimacy to left-wing politics in America. But he does far more than that, looking back at American history  to explain not only where the left originated but its role in three crises:  abolition, the rise of large-scale corporate capitalism, culminating in the New Deal, and “the present crisis” as he terms it, “the crisis of ‘affluence’ and global power, which began in the 1960s.”

Critically, he looks to the challenge posed by the left to liberalism – to the liberal understanding of equality. “Without a left,” he writes, “liberalism becomes spineless and vapid; without liberalism, the left becomes sectarian, authoritarian, and marginal.” It is his contention that “In great eras of reform” (the three named above), “the struggle between them strengthens both. Only when the liberal/left dynamic is weak does a strong right emerge.”

And Zaretsky, when he says left, is not talking about the progressive movement, which he calls a “complex amalgam” that “In principle” accepted “accepted the corporate order, opposing only corrupt variants of the corporations”  but “did not accept the political influence of the black, immigrant and working classes that the corporations brought in their wake.” Rather than egalitarianism the Progressive Movement insisted rather, “that the elites of these classes…adopt middle-class, Protestant norms of respectability, domesticity and sexual propriety.” Women’s suffrage, one of their causes, had an ulterior motive: strengthening the middle class vote. Progressives, he says, were “not only antisocialist but culturally conservative.”

He begins by tracing the origins of “leftist ideas” back to the Reformation, but focuses more closely on its association and popularization due to the French Revolution, when those who sat on the left (the Jacobins, the Montagnard) “came to represent the egalitarian social revolution, while those who sat on the right (the Gironde) stood for the liberal political revolution.” Napoleon’s wars enabled the spread of these ideas, which, he quotes Jean Laponce as saying, were “immediately understandable, and easily translatable across cultures.”

Despite this, the term “left” was not widely used in the United States (we do not have left, right and center parties) until after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. He informs us that the first American book to use the term (that he can find) is David Saposs’ Left-Wing Unionism, which was published in 1926. This does not mean, he reminds us, that America did not have a left before that time; only that the term was not in use.

The liberal tradition, he concludes, “stands for formal equality, the equality of all citizens before the law, whereas the left probes the social and cultural conditions that lie behind formal equality, and may serve either to eviscerate it or to realize it.” But he points out that the left seeks emancipation from entrenched forms of domination, forms liberals might tolerate or ignore. For Zaretsky, the left stands for “an enhanced conception of freedom.”

One weakness of Zaretsky’s thesis is his definition of crisis. He points to the Greek origins of the word as  ”not simply an economic breakdown or a war, from which one needs to recover,” but a turning point which requires fundamental decisions to be made about the nation’s “future direction”. Significantly, a crisis is not about its objective character but the “subjective self-awareness” of those undergoing it – in this case, the American people.

Fair enough. But he limits our national crises to the three named above, excluding the Revolution. The Revolution, he claims, does not qualify because it was not concerned with “epochal transformations in the deep structure of American capitalism.” And it was not about equality, he argues, because “most of the ‘founding fathers’ envisioned a relatively hierarchical society.” This is true; they did. But they were not the only ones fighting the revolution, and they were shocked by the sense of egalitarianism produced by the revolution. To many, it was indeed about equality, and the Constitution, which put a punctuation on what the Declaration of Independence had begun, made all Americans equal before the law.

Certainly there are other types of crises. And certainly, if, as Zaretsky argues, a crisis is to be judged by the “subjective self-awareness” of those affected (Americans in this instance), then the Revolution unequivocally counts a crisis. Zaretsky himself mentions Thomas Paine as evidence that the Revolution is important to the American left, but in so doing ignores one of Paine’s works, titled, as it happens, The American Crisis, written in the winter of 1776. And also, as it happens, Paine’s work is concerned with the decisions which must be made about America’s future:

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman…

America, in 1776, faced an out-and-out crisis, as its participants recognized, whether Americans were fighting for equality or not. Decisions, important decisions about America’s future direction, had to be taken. Independence was declared. The Declaration of Independence, explaining the reason s for that act, was published. The Constitution, which shook the political foundations of thousands of years of history, grew out of this crisis.

And Thomas Paine, importantly, was a radical liberal, about as far left on the political spectrum as one could go in 1776, in the days before the French Revolution; in the days before Karl Marx developed a blue-print for a new type of revolution, one centered on economics.

Zaretsky argues that the “actual founding of the United States…should be seen to lie in its commitment to equality and justice, not simply to independence.”

But the Revolution was not just about independence as the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence makes clear:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

That sounds like talk of equality and justice to me – a novel idea, that governments derive their powers from the consent of the governed – a complete reversal of what was, at the time, the entire Christian era. No longer did governments govern at the consent of God (the Divine Right of Kings) but at the consent of the people.

For Zaretsky, each crisis refounded the country yet somehow a crisis did not found the country and this exclusion of the Revolution weakens his thesis at the outset. That it seems entirely arbitrary and artificial is troubling, smacking entirely too much of the right’s practice of excluding facts uncongenial to its argument. The presence of an abundant spirit of egalitarianism following the Revolution cannot be dismissed simply to hand it over to folks farther left than the 18th century’s liberals. It is not a prize to be awarded but a historical fact.

That the American Revolution did not go far enough, most liberals would agree, but it went as far as it could in 1776, as Rip Van Winkle recognized when he woke up from his long nap and heard a new “bustling, disputatious tone” and a new language having to do with the “rights of citizens – elections – members of Congress – liberty…and other words which were a perfect babylonish jargon to the bewildered Van Winkle.”

Rip Van Winkle recognized that “every thing’s changed” – why can’t Zaretsky? (Zaretsky objects that Jefferson’s was an “abstract proclamation” but if it was abstract, Rip Van Winkle would not have had the problems he had when he woke up from his nap.

Zaretsky calls the abolitionists “the first American left” without paying tribute to Jefferson and others who, while they certainly owned slaves, recognized the need for the eventual abolition of slavery. People must move in the context of their times – they cannot tread far beyond that. Jefferson recognized that to fight the battle over slavery in his time would be to tear the country apart before it had got built up. People were not ready for it then; they were not ready for it later. That’s why it took the most costly war in American history to settle the issue, the war Jefferson dreaded.

Zaretsky sees the call for equality originating not from the self-evident truths seen by  but with “social movements, such as the labor movement, the various African-American freedom movements, and he women’s movement.” That Jefferson and others could not get that equality in 1776 or even in 1787 did not mean the idea (or the hope) did not exist, as it patently did. Abolition did not get us equality. The labor movements did not get us equality; the Equal Rights Movement did not get us equality; Feminism did not get us equality. The Gay Rights movement has not gotten us equality. We still do not have the equality looked for.

Failure to obtain that equality cannot be a determinant. An idea exists whether it is realized or not – that’s why we call them ideas. Zaretsky quotes Marx as saying “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age” are what the left aims at. If so, then in some semblance the left was present in 1776 as well, for they were certainly struggling over the wishes of the age, as everyone at the time recognized.

Zaretsky argues that “the really vital relationship in twentieth-century history – the one that drives its political dynamic – is not the relationship between left and right, but rather between the left and the classical liberal doctrines that emerged during the seedbed of modern, democratic politics.”

But in seeking to expand on the role and importance of the left as compared to liberalism, Zaretsky gives the left too much credit and liberalism too little. There is no doubting the importance of the left. But Lincoln’s words, quoted by Zaretsky, do not detract from their subject; if ‘all men are created equal’ “was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain…it was placed in the Declaration not for that, but for future use,” nevertheless the idea took form in the minds of men from the moment they were written. As Zaretsky admits, even Lincoln recognized that it applied to the freeing of the slaves, a freedom Jefferson also saw must eventually come, if not in his time.

Zaretsky credits the left with saving the New Deal – from being “more nationalistic, intolerant, racist, anti-Semitic, and, in a word, fascistic…” Considering how a left in Russia led to a Soviet Union that embodied all these negative traits, it is difficult to see how Zaretsky’s left functioned as a moderating influence.

But these quibbles side, Zaretsky is on to something. Rather than arguing that America needs to become more conservative to save itself, to apply to old-fashioned ideas about God, Zaretsky believes that in order to “pull itself out of its much-touted ‘long-term decline'”  it needs to go left. America’s moral decline is not due to turning away from God but from “its abandonment of the project of equality.” The path to salvation lies not in further pampering the rich but in reviving our egalitarian traditions – “racial equality, social equality, cultural and sexual equality.”

None of these criticisms are meant to suggest that Zaretsky is wrong about America needing a left: it does. Badly. But as always, much depends upon perspective and relative positions of ideology. For a Tea Partier of today, anything left of them, including Ronald Reagan (whether they admit it or not) is “left” and a moderate centrist like Barack Obama is a radical socialist.

Clearly, the right-wing perspective is horribly skewed by their own extremism. But most liberals today would agree with Republicans that they are to the left of the political spectrum and might even think of themselves as being “the left.” Zaretsky would not have it so. Definitions will remain problematic for as long as humans exist. Absolute consensus will always evade us. So while most on the left will likely agree that America needs a left, they will differ with Zaretsky on who comprises that left. I am a liberal. I am the left; likely, you as liberals or progressives are the left. So, too, are socialists. We are all of us, together, the left America needs.

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