Let Me Be the Leninist, Please

It is hard to define and describe what’s “Left,” regardless of whether one uses the definite or indefinite article. A modern political category presumably invented by the spatial order of delegates and rudimentary parties seated in the French revolutionary assembly, the term “Left” had (as Eli Zaretsky rightly points out in the Spring 2014 print issue of Tikkun) no particular political salience in the United States until the 1910s.

Spraypainted Democrat vs Republican

Photo Credit: Creative Commons/ truthout.org

Nonetheless, we do typically use it historically to characterize political phenomena in times and places innocent of the term.

In the present discussion, we seem to know that we are talking commonly about the same sort of thing: a radical Left that has sought, or seeks, a profound transformation of inherited and existing social, political, economic, and cultural relations in pursuit of much greater freedom (individual and collective), equality (of opportunity and of result), and social solidarity (in some form of collaboration or mutualism consistent with the prior two principles, especially in order to assure common, material well-being,).

Even saying that much may be saying too much. Eli Zaretsky insists he refers only to a Left, not the Left, for while none now exists, contemporary political life calls urgently for renewal of the kind of radical dissent that could take up the functional role that prior Lefts played at key turning points in the shaping of this nation. James Livingston’s references are a bit more elusive: he seems to say no one needs the sort of Left cooked up by Zaretsky’s imagination, which he characterizes as “Leninist.” Livingston argues that leftist forces have either been far less salient than Zaretsky thinks (and downright needless right now) or positively misguided or injurious. Nonetheless, by entitling his piece, “Why the Left needs America” (rather than “Why America Does Not Need a Left”), Livingston concedes there is something to talk about.

Debating Left Origins 

The argument between Zaretsky and Livingston focuses largely on matters of origin, and on the degree of estrangement from the dominant currents of American political life that change-makers experienced. For Zaretsky, an American Left first appeared in the form of the abolitionists and the allied women’s rights advocates (beginning in the 1830s) and reappeared in the Popular Front of the 1930s and the “New Left” of the 1960s. For Livingston, the tradition that guides desirable change toward greater freedom, equality, and solidarity had already commenced in the era of independence and constitutional founding. For Zaretsky, such Lefts stood outside the prevailing norms of American political life, turning them in otherwise unheralded directions; for Livingston, the great tradition lay inside the main drift, to which radicals adapted rather than vice versa.

We have not yet finished, however, with the complications entailed in identifying and describing historical Lefts. Looking back a century, we might easily identify the Marxian labor movement as “Left”—even if most Marxists, prior to the widening party splits of 1912-1919, would have regarded that label to be superfluous. Did labor in its varied organized forms constitute a general dissenting force, or does the Left label apply only to the self-conscious socialists (perhaps alongside anarchists, feminists, and other ideologically defined radicals) of that time? The problem of pinpointing a Left becomes even more difficult when dealing with trends after the mid-twentieth century, when Marxism and labor could no longer be recognized, to whatever degree they once were, as the main current of transformative social forces.

Zaretsky overcomes these difficulties by fashioning an impressive analytical schema—by no means so conventional as Livingston claims—for isolating those historical American situations in which a social force for transformative change became effective in tilting outcomes, thereby assigning the label “Left” to the ensemble of people, organizations, ideas, and practical initiatives that wrought that effect. Livingston actually takes the easier route, assuming that Zaretsky has in mind only the elite or marginal figures in these crisis situations who were preoccupied with ideology and “principled” dissent. The Left for him thus becomes, by definition, the narrow, ideological group.

In locating a (radical) Left, I would point in the following direction. Somewhere between concrete social movements (such as the civil rights, antiwar, women’s rights, or environmental movements) and the varied organizers/theoreticians who engage with them in hopes of realizing the vision of a new, more free, equal, and solidary way of life —there lies the Left. In this sense, the Left is something not adequately captured with sole reference either to broad movements of protest or to groups of ideologists.

For the most part, Livingston focuses his critique on the latter. He argues Zaretsky’s view is “Leninist,” since “insisting that all is lost without an organized anti-capitalist Left is … 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.”  This is a curious definition both too broad (he would throw Richard Rorty, Christopher Lasch, Thomas Frank, and Nelson Lichtenstein into this category) and too restrictive, taking its polemical force from stereotypical connotations of a sinister “vanguardism.”  Certainly, in that sense, Zaretsky neither adopts nor warrants the label.

Statue of Lenin

Statue of Lenin. Photo Credit: Creative Commons/ /kallu.

But if one is a “Leninist” because, as Livingston suggests, one sees a key role in “Left” currents for a body of people who agitate on behalf of more or less coherent, transformative goals, then let me be the Leninist, please.

Leadership in Social Change Struggles

We can all imagine our own Lenin. Livingston’s Lenin is the author of What Is To Be Done? He’s the designer of the vanguard party of “professional revolutionaries,” presumed champion of middle-class intellectuals leading the masses, avatar of the disciplined combat organization, progenitor of substitutionist politics (dictatorship of the proletariat turned into dictatorship of the party), and hence all-purpose demon in the eyes of advocates of a humane, pluralistic, democratic society yet to come. Whatever is accurate or not in that image, let me offer a simple, alternative definition of what “Lenin” stands for: the view that great social change depends to some significant degree on “leadership.” That is, social change depends on groups of people who have developed effective organizing skills, concrete social connections in milieus engaged in protest, and some shared sense of a future to be won—and thereby can foster and advance momentum toward the desired transformation.

Such leaders might or might not be (and in fact, usually are not) intellectuals in the scholarly sense; they can just as well be talented organizers of working-class background as highly schooled offspring of the middle or upper classes. They may play roles that are logistical, ideological, or strategic and usually some combination of those three; and hence they are creatures of movements (organizations and coalitions of them) as well as of ideas. It’s the latter link that suggests the mistaken identification of such leaders as intellectuals; indeed, the role usually entails some ability to frame and voice goals and aspirations in discursive terms. But leadership in all these senses need not entail domineering control.

The kinds of leaders I’ve described turn up all over the place. One of the most “Leninist” books that I know is Aldon Morris’s Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change, which pointed out nearly thirty years ago what most of us recognize today: that the Montgomery Bus Boycott, considered as a disruptive and change-making campaign, did not spring de novo out of untilled soil but instead depended on parts played by leaders. This large group of leaders included long-time activists (such as Jo Ann Robinson and Rosa Parks), organizers (such as unionist E. D. Nixon), tacticians and visionaries (such as Bayard Rustin), as well as people with intellectual training and charismatic appeal (such as King).

If Livingston recognizes that something called the Civil Rights movement was historically necessary to achieve that refounding which (in his Hegelian language) “preserved by annulment” an American constitutional heritage, then he ought to recognize in turn that the somewhat inchoate thing recognizable as a movement necessarily depended in part on the kind of leadership I have just described. And while that movement was not devoted explicitly to revolutionary goals, it both had transformative consequences and relied to a significant degree on a force that can justifiably be called “Left,” considering the multifold affiliations of those leaders to labor, socialist, pacifist, and community-organizing traditions and organizations. (Paul LeBlanc and Michael Yates’s new book, A Freedom Budget for All Americans, brilliantly elucidates those affiliations.) Insofar as we recognize the character and role of that activist milieu, the answer to the question of whether America has needed a Left is a resounding yes.

Such leaders were hardly in “monkish yet militant retreat from the cruelties and idiocies of the world,” as Livingston suggests, though they exemplified everything we need in order to recognize the significance of a Left. To enter into concerted action against segregation in the Deep South of that time meant one was daring to occupy a marginal position (sticking your neck out and at the least spending some time in jail) while also connecting—as organizers, strategists, and ideologists engaged in the boycott obviously did—with a much larger stream of sentiment and social action in Birmingham’s African American community and beyond.

The Case of Wendell Phillips

A similar combination of daring dissent and social connection underlies other episodes of the sort Eli Zaretsky highlights, particularly as he identifies the abolitionists as quintessentially Left. Let us examine a most compelling figure in that setting, Wendell Phillips. Phillips’s dedication to abolitionism, begun around 1837, was aroused by his observation of, and direct encounter with, conservative mob attacks on antislavery agitators. He knew his cause was promoted by only a small minority, besieged on all sides. In 1853, he declared:


The press, the pulpit, the wealth, the literature, the prejudices, the political arrangements, the present self-interest of the country, are all against us…. The elements which control public opinion and mold the masses are against us. We can but pick off here and there a man from the triumphant majority.


At the same time, his radicalism rested on a deep belief in the cause of democracy, the rule of the majority among a self-governing people, so the same year as his unblinking recognition of his marginality, he also said, “the convictions of most men are on our side, and this will surely appear, if we can only pierce the crust of their prejudice or indifference.” Moreover, he was committed to change by means of moral suasion, because “the rule of our [democratic] age” was “a government of brains, a government of ideas. I believe in it—in public opinion.” (See the collection of Phillips’s speeches, The Lesson of the Hour.)

Wendell Phillips

Wendell Phillips, American abolitionist. Photo Credit: Creative Commons/ Wikimedia Commons

How did Phillips square these contrary principles, holding to opposition in the face of overpowering hostility while claiming democracy was on his side? Only by his confidence that the persecuted minority today stood for the tendency of democratic-popular sentiment in the long run, that social and political affairs evolved in a direction leading toward success, that “whether in chains or in laurels, liberty knows nothing but victories.” This sort of confidence in historic progress was the key, for Phillips and for left-wing radicals after him, to mastering what would nonetheless remain the characteristic dilemma for the modern radical Left of margin and mainstream: a tension between the aspirational claim to represent a broad popular constituency and the actual status of an agitational minority persecuted by both official and (often) popular forces.

“Mainstream” in this sense does not refer to “working within the system” or adapting to the center of gravity in public discourse at any particular moment. It refers to the revolutionary expectation that oppositional politics of a small radical minority need not be walled off, impermeably, from sentiments of a popular majority that, under the right circumstances, could be mobilized to demand great change through electoral or extraparliamentary means.

The Margin and the Mainstream

This dialectic of margin and mainstream is what neither Zaretsky nor Livingston gets quite right. Or rather, I should say, each captures one side of it: Zaretsky does indeed, as Livingston claims, often emphasize the marginal, the place of “the intensely-cathected, ideologically-motivated, uncompromising small group.” Livingston on the other hand emphasizes the mainstream, noting that “Abolitionists began … as saints standing apart from a society that took slavery for granted, but they didn’t make their contribution to the Second American Revolution by abstaining from the mainstream and preserving their moral purity” (emphasis added). On this point Livingston is partly right and partly wrong: figures like Phillips and Frederick Douglass oriented toward the center of political decision—Lincoln and the Republican Party—at the moment of war crisis, but they did so mainly by keeping up a relentless campaign to push the president where it wasn’t evident he wanted to go, toward the war measure of Emancipation. That decision emerged in crisis, with the aid of radicals who anticipated and agitated for the decisive move; that end hardly came to be simply as the result of some emanation stemming from the country’s founders.

Each contender in the present argument is partly right and partly wrong, while sharing a good deal in common obscured by polemic. Zaretsky sees the history of American Lefts as a succession of crises that refound the nation, and Livingston focuses even more intensely on the notion of Left achievement measured as an ongoing realization of a national heritage. Zaretsky’s story is punctuated by episodes of crisis and redirection, emphasizing how a Left steers inevitable structural reform in directions more egalitarian than it would otherwise take on its own; Livingston focuses instead on the more mainstream forces tied strongly to the constitutional heritage, to which Lefts inevitably had to adapt if they were to share in the main currents of change. Notwithstanding charges of “Leninism” (as made by Livingston against Zaretsky) or complacent “liberalism” (as made by Zaretsky against Livingston), both of them lean toward a distinctively American framework as well as an intellectual/cultural bias in which ideas, values, and cultural sensibility are what really count as cause, process, and outcome.

Imagining Alternative Futures

To my mind, Zaretsky is more correct in highlighting the agitational role played by a dissenting contingent he calls “Left,” which helps steer desirable change. In his own way, though, Zaretsky diminishes Lefts by de-emphasizing their status as movements and ideologies that imagine, and intend to complete, great transformations in society, choosing to depict them instead largely as spirited adjuncts that modulate the reforms actually driven by more central forces.

It is Livingston—as he tries to convince those who identify as Left that “the development of socialism, progressivism, or radical democracy” is happening without their concerted protest and agitation—who hews more closely to left-wing traditions forecasting a genuinely different way of life to come. Yet oddly, Livingston’s optimism of mind and will sees that very different way of life as something already essentially present. The Golden Age is in us, and we should be happier about it than the bad habits of the leftwing Jeremiad permit. In this regard, Livingston sounds very much like the postwar liberal (or social democratic) intellectual Seymour Martin Lipset, whose 1962 essay, “My View from Our Left,” spoke in almost identical terms about a national tradition that was judged to be, without a name, actually left-wing in substance.

To be sure, Livingston is surely right that any Left worthy of the name needs to see the potential for great change lying in the conditions of its present. Yet in my view, any such Left would also have to embrace the dialectic of margin and mainstream. For all the (progressive) successes he sees in the drift of American affairs, Livingston notes in passing that the 2010 Citizens United decision effectively wrecked the constitutional balance between property rights and human rights he credits to Madison. Perhaps a great majority of Americans do not really accept the proposition that corporations are persons (with untrammeled rights to spend, speak, and contract as they choose), but any attempt to reverse the trend indicated by the Court would still require a vigorous dissent from the overpowering, everyday propaganda in favor of (privatizing, competitive) “entrepreneurship” that saturates our culture. Perhaps the Occupy movement expressed that dissent.

I know Livingston has hailed Occupy as the kind of movement that embodies, for him, the spirit of Vaclav Havel. If so, however, Livingston shouldn’t forget the extent to which that short-lived campaign was ridiculed in press and (mainstream) politics, how it bore the blows of the billy club, and how it expired as a public force all too quickly for lack of sufficient oxygen provided by the founders’ legacy. That dissent had to speak from the margin; how was it to survive—and strive to influence the mainstream—if it refused to claim a distinctive position and instead trusted the spirit of the constitutional founding to work its way (Hegel-wise) to realization?

I happen to agree with Livingston that any hope for achieving “socialism, progressivism, or radical democracy” rests on possession of the necessary ingredients provided by the evolution of the social form we already inhabit. He is utterly correct that the ostensibly regnant market fundamentalism of our time is a grand fiction, since our political economy is to a great extent already structured around a complex public/private mix that shows no sign of evaporating. Borrowing from Zaretsky, I would say it is the job of a Left to build on those resources to maximize the public dimension, in tight conjunction with the participatory-democratic principles and norms of free individuality that do have considerable purchase on Americans’ sensibilities. The problem is that the potential buried in the structural layer of political economy (and culture) remains, contrary to Livingston’s intellectual optimism, thwarted or twisted by the narrow circle of those who monopolize both the benefits and the decisions entailed in that public/private mix—that is, the so-called 1 percent, as Occupy claimed. One wonders why, if we have gone so far on the line of tracks laid down by the Founders, we would need the Havelian Occupiers any more than we need a Left.

The dialectic of margin and mainstream worked in the past, just so far as it did, because actors like Phillips—or any number of Wobblies or socialists or second-wave radical feminists—held confidence in future outcomes, which sustained them when they were marginalized and motivated them to seek access to a mainstream of public sentiment. (Shulamith Firestone, for instance, was willing to be as outré as she seemed because she believed, as did so many in her time, that the promise of automation made possible a new burst of creative life-fashioning efforts and, moreover, that it was sensible to outline the organizational forms that liberated households might take in the future.)

Add to that future orientation the real experience of cumulation in the capacities of dissent, the mounting successes (in, say, the growth of fighting unions in the late 1930s, or the proliferation in the 1950s and ’60s of Aldon Morris’s movement centers in African American urban communities) that constituted an infrastructure of change-making campaigns. It was only on the basis of such cumulation, and such a future orientation, that one could ask, as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “Where Do We Go From Here?”—which is nothing but the essential question of strategy that must be encountered by a “Left” aiming to win its aims.

The great problem of our time is the absence of much confidence in imagining alternative futures, the collapse of infrastructures (such as the “house of labor”), and incapacity to even ask, let alone answer, questions of strategy—even to the point where ephemeral movements (like Occupy) celebrate their indifference to matters of leadership, organization, and strategy and thus assure their own evanescence. Paradoxically, the optimism that Livingston invests in the present, if oriented realistically to a future that has yet to be made, is in many ways just what we are missing.

Does America need a Left to achieve what Livingston imagines is already happening? Yes.

What is a Left? A real political force that aims to achieve “socialism, progressivism, or radical democracy” by posing a goal, building the infrastructure, entertaining the strategic questions.

What form all these elements may take, or can take, in this and coming days is hard to say. But any force yet to emerge and capable of addressing goal, infrastructure, strategy would, by that very fact, entail a little more rather than less “Lenin” in the making of campaigns for change.

(This web-only article is part of a special series associated with Tikkun’s Spring 2014 print issue: Does America Need a Left? Subscribe now to read these subscriber-only articles online, and sign up for our free email newsletter to receive links to future web-only articles on this topic, as well! Visit tikkun.org/left2014 to read the other web-only articles associated with this issue.)


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