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.

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.  

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.

To understand why, we must distinguish “normal” periods, emergencies and crises in American history. During normal or everyday periods the country does tend to get along with such ideas as individualism, pluralism and private property, and with calls for “pragmatism,” “bipartisanship,” and passing beyond “obsolete” left/right conflicts. During short-term emergencies, like the Alien and Sedition Acts of the 1790s, the red-scare of 1919, or the McCarthy period in the forties and fifties, the country reveals a surprisingly strong communal, religious and ethno-national core; it comes together as a whole people, but in a panicky way, joining to expel the “alien element.” In crises, by contrast, Americans strive to form a new or revised agreement, an agreement on values, not a mere deal, compromise, or horse-swap. While the left is present during normal periods, and can be very important in resisting group pressures during states of exception, its special value lies in periods of crisis. The reason is that during these periods the nation has to look inward and summon up its unconscious and inherited powers, not just rely on its everyday, commonsensical fund of assumptions. When it does look inward, it needs the deep conception of equality—equality as the nation’s telos, as its very raison d’être—to which the left adheres.

Crises invariably have a structural dimension. They occur because of epochal transformations in the deep structure of American capitalism. Still, such crises are not merely “economic” crises, resolvable by allowing the value of goods and services to decline sufficiently, in other words by inflicting sufficient pain. Rather, they are tectonic shifts in which the nation’s assumptions, values and direction are rethought. Thus, they have an identity dimension as well.

The United States has undergone three crises of this sort. Importantly, the American Revolution, which established independence, was not one of them. As figures like Thomas Paine suggest, the Revolution is fundamental to the American left which has as part of its birthright abiding concerns for national independence and individual liberty. Nonetheless, the American Revolution was not concerned to establish equality; on the contrary, most of the “founding fathers” envisioned a relatively hierarchical society, and not simply because of slavery.

The three crises I have in mind constitute a kind of counter-narrative to the one that begins with Independence. They were, first, the slavery crisis, which came to a head in the struggle to abolish slavery and the Civil War; second, the crisis surrounding the rise of large-scale corporate capitalism, which came to a head in the struggles of the 1930s and the creation of a modern administrative state that could regulate business and ensure the general welfare; and third, the crisis opened up by the neo-liberal revolution in the 1970s, but with roots in the preceding decade. Each crisis was associated with a particular stage in the history of capitalism: primitive accumulation in the form of slavery and Indian removal; large-scale corporate accumulation in the case of the New Deal; and finance-led globalization in the case of the New Left. The shift from each stage to the next was not socio-economic alone. Each shift, rather, brought a crisis of authority, identity and governing purpose that could not be resolved by reference to the political thought of the Revolution, nor to the American Constitution, (with which in fact progressive forces were frequently at odds).

Understanding American history as a series of three successive crises and not in terms of a uni-linear unfolding  gives us a different conception of the nation. The actual founding of the United States, I will argue, should be seen to lie in its commitment to equality and justice, not simply to independence. Thus, each crisis involved a refounding of the country, a transformation of its identity and of its conception of legitimate order, one that placed equality at its center. In each case the left supplied an indispensable idea, namely a conception of equality that spoke to the country’s identity. In each refounding, moreover, the left’s role was quite specific. Slavery would have been abolished without the abolitionists. A modern state bringing some degree of rational administrative steering to the otherwise dysfunctional irrationality of corporate capitalism would have been created without the socialists. A post-industrial, consumerist America, and the end of Jim Crow and the family wage, would have emerged without the New Left. What the left did was to give an egalitarian meaning to each of these transformations—to articulate racial equality as the meaning of the Civil War, social equality as the meaning of the New Deal, and a wider democracy as the meaning of the 1960s.

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.

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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.