Why America Needs a Left
Continued from previous page
Unlike France, America does not have a parliamentary system with left, right and center parties. In its place America developed a non-ideological two-party system. As a result, the term “left” was not widely used in a political sense in the United States until after the Bolshevik Revolution. In fact, the first American book that I have been able to locate that uses the term in its title in the political sense, David Saposs’s Left-Wing Unionism, only appeared in 1926. This did not mean, however, that America lacked a left before the Bolshevik Revolution. On the contrary, there existed powerful US counterparts to the radical democrats, utopian socialists and communist revolutionaries of the nineteenth century European left. These included the radical wing of the abolitionists, as well as many other nineteenth century reformers, labor organizers, communalists, and the so-called “lyrical left” of John Reed and Randolph Bourne.
In both Europe and America, the place of Communism within the history of left was deeply ambiguous. The reason was the Communist break with liberalism. Marx argued that the democratic revolutions were bourgeois revolutions and thus should be followed by socialist revolutions. Whereas the idea of the left before Marx presupposed the existence of a center and a right, Marxism (and especially Leninism) wanted the left to occupy the total political space. After Marxism developed, Marx’s followers tended to use the terms left, right and center to describe intra-socialist differences, as in Lenin’s 1918 polemic “’Left-wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder,” or in descriptions of the conflicts between Trotsky (left), Stalin (center) and Bukharin (right). Thus, Marxism conflated the left with socialist revolutions, whereas in many societies, such as our own, the left presupposes liberal and democratic institutions and is committed to preserving, albeit deepening them.
Nonetheless, Marx’s contribution to the history of the left is indispensable. When Marx described all of history as the history of class struggle, he gave us a conception of emancipation as a continuous struggle, a project with a deep past, and an extended future. In this way, he countered the notion, central to the liberal tradition, that we are already free, or that we live in “free societies.” Equally central, Marx is the only thinker who has provided a clear and lucid theory of capitalism, a social system organized through the division between capital and labor, and utterly distinct from a market or exchange society, as described, for example, in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, or in the works of contemporary economists such as Joseph Stiglitz or Paul Krugman. Such a theory lies behind he second term I promised to clarify, crisis.
Marx’s theory of capitalism, like his refusal to accept capitalism as an historical end point was inseparable from his insistence on seeing it as intrinsically crisis-prone. The American left inherited the idea of a crisis from Marx, not just the kind of “economic crisis” that characterized the Great Depression and that afflicts the county today, but also broader crises reflecting Marx’s influence on modern historiography, such as “the crisis of the middle ages,” “the general crisis of the seventeenth century,” or “the crisis of the modern state.”
We can learn much about the character of crises by considering the Greek word krino, from which the word krisis derives. Krino means to pick out, to choose, to decide, to judge. A crisis is not simply an economic breakdown or a war, from which one needs to recover. More deeply, it is a turning point during which fundamental decisions are made as to the society’s future direction. Crises have narrative structures, as in the Greek tragedies, where the subject arrives at a decisive moment and must directly confront his or her fate. The heart of a crisis lies not in its objective character but rather in the subjective self-awareness of the one who is undergoing it, in our case the American people. It is during periods of crisis that the left becomes indispensable to the nation, so indispensable that the crisis cannot ever be truly resolved without the left’s active involvement.