Joining the Party for a More Powerful Left

Occupy Wall Street posed for me an exquisite dilemma: I could agree with my radical students at Manhattan’s famously subversive New School that Occupy was a revolution in the making, and thus forsake most everything I have observed about contemporary politics and have learned from my historical study of social movements. Or I could profess my sober realism and risk both seeming a downer to my idealistic students and dismissing the transformative potential of a movement whose trajectory, in its most intoxicating phases, was far from certain.

Illustration by Pawel Kuczynski.

Establishment liberals may speak of equality and justice, but without pressure from an active Left, their words often dissolve in a wash of hypocrisy. Credit: Pawel Kuczynski (

For all its sturm und drang, Occupy largely confirmed what we already knew: that millions of Americans still believe that Wall Street—not Big Government—is to blame for the country’s economic woes. Occupy, in short, restored a balance of ideological conviction, reanimating an evenhanded war of interpretation. Throughout the boisterous protests, an adage rang in my mind: If you’re not a communist at twenty, you have a head but no heart; if you’re still a communist at forty, you have a heart but no head.

Before either my head or heart could triumph, Occupy vanished with at best a faint trace. Its demise prompted only fleeting postmortems, while leaving behind slow-burning questions: Does America benefit from a Left, such as Occupy appeared for a flash to be? And if so, what should or can it accomplish?

How timely, then, is Eli Zaretsky’s book Does America Need a Left? And how smart is Tikkun magazine for now staging a debate on precisely this question. Graced to define the debate in this issue of Tikkun, James Livingston answers “no,” claiming that all the ideological resources a putative Left needs are contained within liberalism. Zaretsky retorts “yes,” pointing to the good the Left has historically done as it both separated itself from and stiffened the spine of liberalism.

My own response first questions the question, viewing it as warped by the deep structures of American politics and economy. I next discourage the habit of the Left to insist that it would be truly effective if it were only more this way than that, save to argue that the Left is best when open to a diversity of perspectives and strategies. This ecumenical spirit is informed by years of activist experience with the perils of the sectarian impulse. Equally important, I have recently seen the power of both religious and political faith to draw individuals to the cause of change, creating lifers in struggles for justice whose consummations exceed the life of any mortal. At once practical and cosmic, our cause best thrives through appreciation of the power of numbers, faiths, approaches, and opinions. Amen.

Debating the Left and Liberalism

However one may score their positions, both Livingston and Zaretsky operate within a utilitarian calculus one may question. If Americans want a Left they should have a Left, on democratic grounds alone and with the space to frame for themselves issues of efficacy. The question of utility as posed in these pages might vanish if the United States did not have a rigidly two-party, money-saturated, winner-take-all system, but instead, like Germany, one of proportional representation with meaningful campaign finance constraints. Something like an American Green Party could flourish, wielding influence absent electoral majorities, while retaining the utopian élan that can make politics so exciting, to young people especially.

How to Read the Rest of This Article

The text above was just an excerpt. The web versions of our print articles are now hosted by Duke University Press, Tikkun‘s publisher. Click here to read an HTML version of the article. Click here to read a PDF version of the article.

(To return to the Spring 2014 Table of Contents, click here.)

Jeremy Varon is a professor of history at the New School and a longtime activist, most recently in efforts to close Guantánamo with Witness Against Torture.

Source Citation

Varon, Jeremy. 2014. Joining the Party for a More Powerful Left. Tikkun 29(2):38

tags: Politics & Society, US Politics   
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