How should we conceive of the state of the American Left in the wake of the evisceration of collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin, the sequester and shutdown in Washington, corporate education reform efforts, and the ominous talk of Democratic capitulations to chained Consumer Price Index reforms of the Social Security system?
I’d like to share my own perspective on this debate, a perspective rooted in my experience as a writer and activist born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Leftists in my generation—younger participants in the lively intellectual culture that has taken root around and beyond Occupy Wall Street in New York City and the new radical journals (n+1, The New Inquiry, Jacobin, and the revitalized Dissent)—accept the need to work for the preservation of the United States’ social welfare architecture, while also setting our sights firmly on revolutionary ends.
In other words, the emerging younger Left may be the least credulous of any in U.S. history in regard to the potential gains to be achieved by working within the system of normal politics. The one exception might be found in the labor movement, where radical young organizers with the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees begrudgingly live with the unions’ proximity to the Democratic Party, but overall the mood is one of comprehensive disgust with liberalism, whether preceded by “neo” or not.
As a result of this impatience with liberal politics, the younger Left is unlikely to find Eli Zaretksy’s account of the socialist character of the New Deal project convincing. By the same token, our awareness of ever-increasing inequalities tends to make us skeptical about James Livingston’s arguments that the Left has been steadily accumulating victories.
In the face of this “neither/nor” response to the conventional debate, some of us have been turning to the study of American Left intellectual history. There are yet lessons to be learned from the last generation of Left intellectuals who thought seriously about revolutionary socialism. Reflecting on the ideas of one such figure, the historian Martin Sklar, may prove useful in escaping the false alternative of Zaretsky vs. Livingston.
Martin Sklar’s Corporate Liberalism Thesis
Sklar is best known as the originator of the “corporate liberalism” thesis, which he first articulated during the Kennedy-Johnson years. Nowadays, the phrase “corporate liberalism” likely strikes readers’ ears as a good first step. In the 1960s, however, especially as picked up by New Left historians Gabriel Kolko and James Weinstein, the term was derogatory in two ways.
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