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Why America Needs a Left

Historian Eli Zaretsky explains the special role of the American left across the country's history in his new book.

The following is an excerpt from " Why America Needs a Left: A Historical Argument" (Polity Books, 2012) by Eli Zaretsky.

From the beginning of the republic, most of America’s thinkers and political leaders have argued that the country neither had nor needs a significant left. The so-called liberal consensus school, including Louis Hartz and Richard Hofstadter, has argued that country has always enjoyed agreement on such matters as private property, individualism, popular sovereignty, and natural rights. Others claimed that it did not have a leftist working class or peasantry as other nations had, a claim often termed American exceptionalism. Still others claimed that the country didn’t need a left because it already believed in, or had even achieved, such goals as democracy and equality, goals that other nations were still striving to achieve. This view has been associated with cold-war liberalism, and with neo-conservatism.

I believe that these are all false and misleading ways to understand America. The country has not only always needed, but has typically had, a powerful, independent radical left. While this left has been marginalized (as it is today), and scape-goated (especially during periods of emergency or “states of exception”) the country’s history cannot be understood without assigning a central place to the left. The indispensable role of the left has come during periods of long-term crisis, periods in which the country’s identity is in question. I argue that the country has gone through three such crises: the slavery crisis culminating in the Civil War, the crisis precipitated by the rise of large-scale corporate capitalism, culminating in the New Deal, and the present crisis, the crisis of “affluence” and global power, which began in the nineteen sixties. Each crisis generated a left—first the abolitionists, then the socialists and finally the New Left—and together, these lefts constitute a tradition.

At the core of each left was a challenge to the liberal understanding of equality—the formal equality of all citizens before the law. In place of that understanding, each left sought to install a deeper, more substantive idea of equality as a continuing project. In the first case, the abolitionists, the issue was political equality, specifically the abolitionist belief that a republic had to be founded on racial equality. In the second case, the socialists and communists, the issue was social equality, specifically the insistence that democracy required a minimum level of security in regard to basic necessities. In the third case, the New Left, the issue was equal participation in civil society, the public sphere, the family and personal life. Central to our history, then, is a struggle between liberalism and the left over the meaning of equality. More even than the struggle between left and right, the struggle between liberalism and the left is at the core of U.S. history. Without a left, liberalism has become spineless and vapid; without liberalism, the left becomes sectarian, authoritarian, and marginal.

To make this argument I first need to clarify two concepts: the left, and crisis. What is the left? Derived from the spatial situation of the body in nature, the distinction between left and right was originally used to ground social power in nature. In every society, the right symbolizes dominance, authority, and God; the left symbolizes rebellion, danger, discontent, and the plebeian status.f The words themselves often suggest this: recht, and droit vs. maladroit, gauche and sinistra. In this sense, the existence of a left is a universal characteristic of all societies. Nonetheless, there is a difference between earlier forms of rebellion, based on cyclical time, and the modern left, based on the idea of progress. In earlier societies rebellion took the form of “anger at the failure of authority to live up to its obligations, to keep its word and faith with the subjects.” Essentially, writes Barrington Moore, this type of protest “accepts the existence of hierarchy and authority while attempting to make it conform to an idealized pattern.” The modern left, by contrast, has questioned whether we need particular forms of hierarchy or authority, such as kings, or capitalists, or “experts,” at all. It doesn’t seek to return to an idealized past, but rather to move toward a utopian but nonetheless ultimately realizable future.

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