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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 left was indispensable because without it the meaning of each reform was ambiguous. Consider the abolition of slavery. As David Brion Davis has written, the “sense of self-worth created by dutiful work” that replaced slavery could have become either “a way of disguising exploitation” or a spur to redeeming the “equality [of]  people of subordinate status.” The abolitionists, the first American left, forced the latter meaning, to the extent that it has been forced. Similarly, the powerful mechanisms of the New Deal state could have been used either to help rescue Wall Street from its continuing disastrous errors, or to advance the condition of industrial workers, immigrants and Southern blacks. To the extent that the New Deal did the latter, it was due to the efforts of the socialists, understood broadly to include a great range of American reform, including the communists. Finally, the sixties could have produced a meritocratic, sexually liberated, consumption-oriented world of gated communities, mercenary armies and exquisite cafes or a world-wide democratic transformation centered on an expanded ideal of equality. The New Left sought to establish the second outcome; if it failed, the long-term meaning of the episode remains to be seen.

In each case, the left did not create the call for equality. That call arose rather, from social movements, such as the labor movement, the various African-American freedom movements, and the women’s movement, movements sparked by the large-scale shifts I have termed crises. The history of these movements reveals that the call for equality changes historically, often in quite unpredictable ways. The abolition of slavery, a form of labor that was essentially unquestioned for thousands of years, is one example of the unpredictable course that the demand for equality follows; the New Deal’s overthrow of “the Protestant Republic” (i.e., WASP domination) was another; Gay Liberation is still another. Although the social movements that demand equality create new values, often surprising ones, they are not themselves on the left. The left’s job is not to create these movements but to be responsive to them, to relate them to an overall telos of equality, to participate in them as a left, and to critique them when necessary from that point of view. In Karl Marx’s youthful formulation, the left aims at “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age.”

Reprinted with permission from  Why America Needs a Left: A Historical Argument (Polity Books, 2012) by Eli Zaretsky.

Eli Zaretsky, a professor of history at Eugene Lang College, writes and teaches about twentieth-century cultural history, the theory and history of capitalism (especially its social and cultural dimensions), and the history of the family.

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