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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.

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The existence of a left of the modern sort has been inseparable from the project of self-government from the first. In this regard, consider Christopher Hill’s observation concerning the English Civil War, out of whose refugees the original New England colonies were populated:

There were…two revolutions in mid-seventeenth century England. The one which succeeded established the sacred Rights of property (abolition of feudal tenures, no arbitrary taxation), gave political power to the propertied (sovereignty of Parliament and common law, abolition of prerogative courts), and removed all impediments to the triumph of the ideology of the men of property—the protestant ethic. There was, however, another revolution which never happened, though from time to time it threatened. This might have established communal property, a far wider democracy in political and legal institutions, might have disestablished the state church and rejected the protestant ethic.

Hill’s remarks suggest the interdependence of liberalism and the left, as well as the tense but productive relation between them. While liberals like John Locke were attacking extremist, utopian sects, a nagging radical tradition was born, concerned with enclosures (land privatizations) political democracy (voting and the army), women’s subordination (reform of the family and of sexuality) and the demand for “true and pure undefiled religion,” (the sanctity of the individual conscience) all aspects of a deepened ideal of equality.

Although we can trace many “leftist” ideas back to the Reformation, the term left (gauche) is indelibly associated with the creation of the National Assembly in France during the 1789 revolution. Over time, 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. As Napoleon’s conquests spread revolutionary ideals throughout Europe, the left/right distinction began to order seating arrangements within all parliamentary democracies. As Jean LaPonce has noted, being “visual and spatial …[the left/right dichotomy was] immediately understandable and easily translatable across cultures.”

What was the idea of a left that descended from the age of the democratic revolution?  Two major theorists who have addressed this question, Norberto Bobbio and Steven Lukes, both gave the same answer: equality. In Steven Lukes’s summary,

What unifies the left as a tradition across time and space is its very rejection of the symbolic hierarchy [i.e. the universal subordination of the left] and the inevitability of the inequalities it sanctifies. What this suggests is that the left denotes a tradition and a project, which found its first clear expression in the Enlightenment [and] which puts in question sacred principles of social order, contests unjustifiable but remediable inequalities of status, rights, powers and condition and seeks to eliminate them through political action. Its distinctive core commitment is to a demanding answer to the question of what equality means and implies. It envisions a society of equals and takes this vision to require a searching diagnosis, on the widest scale, of sources of unjustifiable discrimination and dependency and a practical program to abolish or diminish them.

As this quotation suggests, the liberal tradition 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 the difference runs deeper than that. Behind the left’s commitment to equality is a passion for emancipation from entrenched forms of domination. Criticizing forms of domination that liberals tolerate or ignore, the left stands not only for equality, but also for an enhanced conception of freedom.  

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