I’m working on an essay that will, I hope, provide a genealogy of the left and leftist thought in the United States. Several colleagues recently read and gave me comments on a draft and raised a number of crucial questions that I need to attempt to answer as I make what are amounting to sweeping revisions of the essay. I will pose these questions below for us to think about in public. This is me spit-balling.
- What is a workable definition of “the left”?
Political categories are notoriously difficult to pin down. They are ceaselessly malleable and highly specific to time and place. Hard-and-fast distinctions between one category (the left) and another (liberalism, for example) are sure to fall apart when examined across divergent contexts. And yet we need such words to make sense of history, even if we also need to contextualize these words to make sense of history. The trick is to provide specific enough context for a word without parsing it into meaninglessness.
In American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, Michael Kazin defines the left as “that social movement or congeries of mutually sympathetic movements that are dedicated to a radically egalitarian transformation of society.” I like this, but I also think it is too broad. So I am looking for a more specific definition.
- The left in relation to what?
I work from the assumption that political categories can only be understood historically in relation to alternative, usually opposing political categories. Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin models this approach to studying opposing political ideologies by showing how conservatism has been forged in combat with revolutionary leftism. Right now I am tentatively arguing that in the United States left-wing thought has often been forged in combat with liberalism. The intellectual histories of the leftism and liberalism often exist in tension with one another, in a dialectical dance of sorts.
Such an approach is somewhat consistent with the framework forwarded by Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps in their recent book, Radicals in America: The U.S. Left Since the Second World War (which I reviewed for Jacobin). Brick and Phelps contend that radicals must live estranged from the status quo lest they become mere liberals committed to its defense. But they also contend that if radicals ever want society to reflect their vision of the good life, they must engage it. The mission of the left is to maintain “ardent opposition to the status quo, as outsiders if need be, while also seeking solidarity with strong social forces, here and now, that might be capable of changing it root and branch…” This task “poses a dialectic of margin and mainstream” through which Brick and Phelps analyze the history of the American left since World War II.
- If leftist thought is indeed forged in relation to liberalism, what is a workable definition of liberalism?
The goal is to treat liberalism as equally dynamic—to not treat it in straw-man fashion—but at the same time to draw a sharp distinction between leftism and liberalism (otherwise why even discuss the left as a separate category?) My working use of the term liberalism does not denote a precise political philosophy or systematic political program. Rather, I follow Lionel Trilling in defining liberalism as a “political position which affirmed the value of individual existence in all its variousness, complexity, and difficulty.” But I qualify such a capacious and frankly generous definition with crucial caveats. As with the Declaration of Independence that set into motion American liberalism’s founding creed—“life, liberty, pursuit of happiness”—Trilling’s conception of liberalism often fails to hold true to its promise, and is sometimes defined by such failure.
- When did the left become the left?
Origin tales are often just-so stories that read the present back into the past in ahistorical fashion. Which is what makes a genealogical approach difficult and yet, if done well, enlightening in its propensity to denaturalize. As most of readers of this blog are no doubt aware, the political terms “left” and “right” originated with the French Revolution in reference to the seating arrangement of the Estates General. Those who opposed the Old Regime and supported the Revolution sat on the left. But what about in the United States, where the political spectrum of left and right came into focus later (some say not until the New Deal).
Many historians of the U.S. left—including Brick and Phelps and Kazin—highlight antebellum abolitionism as the first American left-wing movement. I’m not sure about this, but I need to figure out a way to fully articulate my skepticism. My recent research on Marx and America has led me to think that the American left emerged out of the First International, or the International Workingmen’s Association (1864-1876). The International never had a large membership in the United States, but its ideas about emancipating labor became the ideas of the American left up until the 1960s, when categorical coherence was tossed into the air (and has yet to land).
- Is “class” the organizing analytical category for the left?
If distinctions between the left and liberalism hold true they do so on the basis of divergent forms of class analysis. Put another way, a fuller historical understanding of liberalism beyond Trilling’s definition requires a stipulation: American liberalism has rarely championed those who challenged American capitalism in the name of class solidarity. Such a condition does not necessarily contradict Trilling’s delineation since individualism has often served as an intellectual foundation for capitalism, and since liberals have often viewed resistance to capitalism as a threat to the individual.
The legacy of 1960s social movements is instructive here. There is an enormous difference between what Brick and Phelps term “liberalizing social relations,” which has been the result of those 1960s social movements that often attached themselves to the name of the left or the New Left, and “democratizing and equalizing social relations,” which has been a goal of the left since the International. Blacks can now sit at the front of the bus. Leftists and liberals alike celebrate this fact. But the busses rarely come, and cost too much. Only the left decries this fact, or rather only the left analyzes failing public services as a feature of capitalism.
- What do I need to read?