The Past, Present, and Future of the American Left

Jim Livingston’s essay on “Why the Left Needs America” in this issue of Tikkun is a classic expression of American liberalism, which holds that America has no need for a Left since it is already radical, free, democratic, participatory, self-correcting, and so forth. The Left needs America but America does not need a Left, he argues. Madison, Jefferson, and the Founding Fathers are terrific; Marx is irrelevant.

Illustration of the Abolitionist America by Sonja Murphy

Abolitionist groups reached beyond the abolition of slavery toward deeper ideas of racial equality, actively incorporating escaped slaves and ex-slaves into their organizations. “This is the main reason I call them the first American Left,” Zaretsky writes. Credit: Sonja Murphy {link url=""}({/link}

Having written Why America Needs a Left—the book that provoked Livingston’s response—to dispel these all-too-familiar bromides, I am happy to have the opportunity to rebut his claims and explain why liberalism, as we see it today, without a Left is spineless, and why the country desperately needs an ongoing, self-aware Left.

My conception of the Left is a stringent one. It has nothing to do with alliances between workers and intellectuals, Leninist cadres, political party organizations, and Livingston’s other flights of fancy. I called my book “Why America needs a Left,” not “Why America needs the Left,” because I do not believe America has a self-aware Left at present, and because I do not pretend to prescribe what form any future Left should take. Whatever its form, moreover, my view is that a Left represents but one element of a solution to the nation’s structural problems, not the solution as such. After all, the history of the American Left is episodic and discontinuous, flaring up only during thirty or forty years of the country’s existence, and it was only in 1926 that the term “Left” in its political sense even appeared in a book title. Nonetheless, the rebirth of a Left will prove indispensable to any reversal of America’s palpable present-day unwinding.

To understand my core argument, think of American history as a suspension bridge that rests on three pillars. These pillars are not stable concrete pylons, however, but rather the three great long-term crises of American history—those concerning slavery, industry, and finance. Just as there have been three crises, so there have been three Lefts: the abolitionists, the Popular Front (an anti-fascist alliance of socialists, liberal Democrats, and union activists in the 1930s), and the New Left of the 1960s and ’70s. Each of the first two crises ended with a structural reform: the abolition of slavery and the creation of the welfare state. In those cases, the role of the Left was to bend structural reform toward the goal of equality. The third case is somewhat more complicated, as we shall see. But taken together, the three Lefts constitute a tradition, one that we need to revive today.

Liberal vs. Marxist Views of the Left

The broad differences between Livingston’s view and mine stem from the fact that he is primarily concerned with extending liberal values to those who are excluded from them, whereas my analysis derives from Marx, who argued that progress is blocked by the same internal capitalist dynamic that created progress in the first place. Livingston takes a progressive, linear view of U.S. history, whereas my view stresses discontinuity, conflict, and regression. According to Livingston, the revolutions that launched the modern world were about self-government and the consent of the governed. Capitalism, he informs us, was not even an issue. I argue, by contrast, that there were two revolutions in mid-seventeenth-century England—one that succeeded and one that failed. The revolution that succeeded removed all impediments previously suffered by men of property. The attempted revolution that failed to win its goals had promised communal property, a wide democracy, and the disestablishment of the state church. The conflict between democratic, lower-class radicals and people of property was intrinsic to the democratic revolutions, even though this did not take the form of capitalists vs. workers until the nineteenth century.

A proper conception of capitalism is critical to the idea of a Left. Capitalism cannot be reduced to the market because it also comprises the exploitative social system that organizes social labor into two classes, one of which appropriates a surplus from the labor of the other. The exploitative, deceptive, and dual character of capitalism—market and class—installs ambivalence at the center of liberalism. On the one hand, liberalism’s formal or procedural understanding of equality serves to disguise exploitation. On the other, it can serve as the departure point for struggles to build a deeper, more substantive equality. The latter requires a Left. To be sure, there are thinkers, such as Ronald Dworkin or Michael Walzer, who hold that a consistent, vigorous liberalism can itself resolve this ambivalence. But they make their arguments on hypothetical grounds whereas my argument is historical and can only be refuted by a historical counter-argument.
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3 thoughts on “The Past, Present, and Future of the American Left

  1. If the U.S. didn’t need a left, then Obama would have done a lot more to help the victims of the economic collapse and less to protect Wall Street from suffering the consequences of its bad behavior. He would have proposed a single-payer “Medicare for all” health program for the uninsured instead of a warmed over Romney-care. He would have done something to reverse the globalization of the U.S. economy, which is very good for the elites in China and other low wage countries, but very bad for U.S. workers. He would have done something to reverse the trend of disappearing labor unions. But he didn’t, because he’s a liberal, and he believes the market system is, if not self-correcting than at least not to be messed with.

  2. I guess it could be argued that Obama is not REALLY a liberal, but he’s what passes for a liberal in the new, Clinton centrist Democratic party, making him the only possible representative of liberalism in our two-party system. So if America doesn’t need a left, then “real” liberals are going to have to work outside the Democratic party to fix things.

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