Why the Left Needs America: A Response to Eli Zaretsky’s Why America Needs a Left: A Historical Argument
The American Left has succeeded where it matters.
Contrary to what most left-wing intellectuals in the West fervently believe, the Left hasn’t disappeared. It has instead infiltrated, even saturated, every level and every sphere of social life. The most cherished demographic among advertisers now thinks that socialism is kind of cool and that capitalism is kind of gross. Books by Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn are both recreational reading and gospel truth for everybody under fifty.
The Left, in other words, is an extremely variegated social, intellectual, and political phenomenon. It’s not made of mere radicalism. So it comes and goes, it waxes and wanes, but it never expires. The fact that as of this moment we can’t point to a concrete instance of its organized political presence—a movement, a faction, a party, a cadre—doesn’t mean it’s over and done. In my view, that political invisibility might be the measure of its significance, simply because the nature of politics has changed. Where it was once a matter of state-centered campaigns, elections, and party platforms, it’s now a more diffuse cultural scene, where the Left has been winning the wars of ideological position since the 1970s.
When I presented this idea—the notion that the Left has largely succeeded in its aims—in a graduate course I taught at Rutgers on the history of capitalism, the students were astonished. They could see only a shift to the right of the political spectrum in their lifetimes. Like most left-wing intellectuals, including their academic advisers, they assumed that their cause has long since been lost—that their voices barely register in the politico-cultural wilderness that is America. And to believe otherwise, they insisted, to assume that the cause of the Left has become the mainstream, would be to relinquish any claim on their standing as intellectuals who can speak truth to power.
In response to a challenge issued by those graduate students, I published an essay in the left-wing journal Jacobin titled “How the Left Has Won.” In that essay, I tried to explain the Left’s plaintive will to powerlessness in historical terms.
Here I want to examine something more specific and perhaps more insidious in the Left’s case against itself: the “political unconscious” residing in the notion that the development of socialism, progressivism, or radical democracy requires a resolute cadre of leftists dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. In other words, either a dedicated, organized, anti-capitalist Left exists to answer Rosa Luxemburg’s question (socialism or barbarism?), or the cause of social and political progress toward democracy will be thwarted.
On merely historical grounds, I find this notion specious at best. Insisting that all is lost without an organized anti-capitalist Left is a way of congratulating the true believers and beautiful souls who won’t compromise with the world as it actually exists—it’s a way of avoiding this world in the name of the next. But it’s worse than that. It’s a residual form of Leninism because it posits an alliance between workers and intellectuals as the crucial condition of effective anti-capitalist movements and politics, just as Lenin did in “What Is To Be Done?”—his canonical polemic of 1902, the blueprint for every vanguard party of the last century. This Leninist idea has become part of the Left’s political unconscious, spreading the idea that only an alliance with the well-educated can liberate workers from their limited visions of the future, and thus create a passage beyond the embarrassments of late, naked, neoliberal capitalism.
You don’t have to be a Marxist to be a Leninist by this definition. Richard Rorty, Christopher Lasch, Thomas Frank, and Nelson Lichtenstein, each a brilliant critic of late capitalism, are good examples of moderate, liberal devotion to the idea of a polite, eggheaded vanguard, without which the proles must get distracted, confused, besieged, and eventually succumb to the terminal disease of false consciousness. On the other side of the political spectrum, Niall Ferguson presents the same intellectual credentials in touting China, where the vanguard Communist Party still stands in for the state, as a vigorous alternative to the welfare-ridden lassitude of the Western democracies. Ferguson and his counterparts on the Left agree that intellectuals are the most important of people—they differ only on what these intellectuals’ stated goals should be.
So the question is, why do academics and intellectuals want to believe, on the one hand, that they’re more superfluous than Oblomov, the Hamlet of the nineteenth-century Russian novel, and on the other, that they’re like Lenin in exile, just waiting for the next crisis to prove that they’re indispensable to the Revolution?
Left-Wing Insistence on the Death of the Left
“The Left is Dead, Long Live the Left.” That’s the new refrain of left-wing intellectuals in the Western world, no matter what generation they come from—from T.J. Clark and Richard Wolff to Michael Kazin and Jeffrey St. Clair, even unto Corey Robin and Bhaskar Sunkara. With the publication of Why America Needs a Left: A Historical Argument, Eli Zaretsky now adds his voice to this refrain.
They’re all saying the same thing: the Left has expired, but without it we are lost. So they begin to sound like the medieval clerics who chanted “The King is Dead, Long Live the King” to fortify belief in the legitimacy of dynastic succession—to claim, by analogy to the death and resurrection of Christ, that although the monarch’s body had expired, his sovereign majesty was intact.
Closer to home, the new refrain of left-wing intellectuals sounds like a more recent but no less religious genre—the Puritan jeremiad from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries that evolved into the self-help manuals of the twentiethcentury. In these self-lacerating sermons, preachers first recalled that the original settlers had pursued their errand into the wilderness in a humble, communal state of grace. Then they asked why their congregations had fallen so far and so fast into pride, avarice, and individualism. The old-time spirit has expired, these excitable preachers exclaimed, and yet it is still with us, if only we can learn from the piety and humility of previous generations.
In its current incarnation, the jeremiad goes like this. The Left, understood as an explicitly anti-capitalist movement, was slowly executed along with “actually existing socialism” in the former Soviet Union and the formerly Red China. Meanwhile, without the relentless pressure this Left once brought to bear on parliamentary democracies, the liberals who had built a welfare state fell prey to free-market ideology. The neoliberal nightmare necessarily followed. But all is not lost, according to this left-wing jeremiad. If the Left can reinvent itself—if it can become a real movement as in the glory days of the 1930s or the 1960s—why, then the redemption of democracy, or at any rate the protection of parliamentary democracy against the oligarchs, becomes possible. According to this narrative, the old-time spirit is still with us, if only we can learn from previous generations.
Livingston, James. 2014. Why the Left Needs America: A Response to Eli Zaretsky’s Why America Needs a Left: A Historical Argument. Tikkun 29(2):27.