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Further Reflections on Feminists and the Left

A response to Ann Snitow and Victoria Hattam

“The Women Did It?” by Ann Snitow and Victoria Hattam correctly argues that we need to understand the conflicts and splits of the late nineteen sixties if we are to build a New Left today. Today’s Left is rooted in the decisions and turning points of that time, and it will be hard to build something new until we come to grips with our past. However, Ann and Vicky (for we are all friends) frame the issues wrongly in that they are essentially concerned with blaming and defending. They reiterate that the men of the New Left really were sexist, and that the women of the New Left really had not meant to destroy the New Left in creating women’s liberation. This is not the way to think about it.

To be sure, I would be fool indeed to “blame” women for the demise of the New Left, as Ann and Vicky suggest I do. The women’s movement of the late sixties was akin to a natural force, a great river of emotion and eloquent power; who would blame a river? No, my purpose was to understand the breakup of the New Left historically, not morally. In this regard I will take up and develop three themes that my original post raised: 1) the historical significance of the women’s liberation that emerged in the late sixties; 2) the difference between Black Power and feminism, and therefore the origins and nature of identity politics and 3) How to think about a Left today, specifically in its relation to capitalism, feminism and identity politics. I will take these up in turn.

My basic idea, which underlies all three of these points, is that we need to understand the sixties in the context of a much longer conception of the Left. In my view, we have to think of the Left as having gone through three phases: the movements against slavery and for radical self-government of the eighteenth century Democratic revolutions; the movement against capitalism and for socialism that predominated in the late nineteenth and most of the twentieth century; and the movements for personal and sexual emancipation and participatory democracy that emerged in the 1960s. All three of these moments need to be distinguished from mainstream-rights-based liberalism. Rather, they constitute a history and a tradition of their own. The women’s liberation movement that emerged in the sixties, as well as the gay liberation movement that emerged at the same time, was part of this tradition. These movements are impossible to imagine except as part of the New Left, and they cannot be assimilated to liberal feminism, suffragism or the idea of equal rights per se, which is what Snitow and Hattam in effect do. In my post, I was trying to explore what happened to the essentially revolutionary impulse that lay behind these great innovations of the sixties’ Left.

Ann and Vicky ignore the most important sentence in my original post: “Whatever failings the men of the New Left had, and they were many, it is far more reasonable to conclude that women left the Left because they wanted to, than because male sexism drove them out.” The point I was making is that the historical significance of women’s liberation goes way beyond correcting male behavior but rather pointed to a new stage in the evolution of the Left, one centered on themes of personal liberation including sexual liberation that could not be reduced to the earlier anti-capitalist Left. I viewed and still view thinkers like Firestone not as writing defensive responses to male sexism but rather as expressing new possibilities for human freedom, rooted as much in the history of modern art and literature and in the history of psychoanalysis as in Left wing politics. Not for the first time in history, great things and terrible things occurred together. Rather than “blaming” women, the absurdity that Ann and Vicky accuse me of, I was trying to understand what place the emergence of women’s liberation had in what, after all, is the decisive event of our time: the world historical defeat of the Left, a defeat which dates to the late sixties, and in which women’s liberation played a distinct but obviously particular and limited role. My next step in understanding this defeat has to do with the distinction between Black Power and women’s liberation.

The reason this distinction is important has to do with the way in which the Left of the sixties was defeated. It was not exploded and destroyed, as for example communism was — in most accounts — exploded and destroyed. Rather, the ideas and innovations of the New Left were accepted by the liberal mainstream but in a particular, shrunken and distorted form: they triumphed as meritocracy, but not as equality. Understanding the difference between these two is fundamental to understanding my argument. Meritocracy is based on the market and on liberal principles of equal rights. Thus we learned since the sixties not to discriminate against Blacks or Jews or gays or women in hiring for a job, or in electing a politician or — the example Ann and Vicky use — in deciding who should speak at a meeting. I do not discount the liberal principle of equal rights that underlies meritocracy; on the contrary, it is a basis on which any Left of the future must rely. However, it is wholly insufficient for the achievement of justice in any robust, comprehensive sense. Thus our present sensitivity to discrimination against women, Blacks, etc., entirely coincides with a world pretty completely run by and for bankers and rentiers, a world — alien to the impulses that animated the sixties — in which there are two entirely different educational systems, housing systems, opportunity structures and health care systems — for the one percent and for the ninety-nine percent. My piece was an attempt to understand how rampant inequality and intense sensitivity to meritocratic discrimination could so easily and neatly coincide. That is why I introduced the distinction between Black power and women’s liberation, and thereby the question of “identity politics.”

In my post I needed to address the idea that it was the Black Power movement and not the women’s movement that introduced identity politics, for example under the rubric, “Black is beautiful.” My point, however, was that African-American identity politics or Black nationalism was completely different from the identity politics that emerged in the sixties precisely because it was — just that — nationalism. In other words, just as the Irish developed national feelings against the English, the Czechs against the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the Jews against European anti-Semitism, so African-Americans developed a separate sense of national identity as well. Black power, then, was not the birth of identity politics of the sort that has prevailed since the late sixties; it was rather an understandable expression of national consciousness for a people who had been oppressed as a separate people, a nation.

To understand identity politics, by contrast, we need to understand the new forms of consciousness — specifically of universalism — born in the New Left and the ways in which these forms were transformed into the meritocracy with which we live today. My thinking in this regard was influenced by Kristin Ross’s book on May 68, which introduced the term “dis-identification.” According to Ross,

“May ’68 had little to do with the social group — students or ‘youth’ — who were its instigators. It had much more to do with the flight from social determinants, with displacements that took people out of their location in society, with a disjunction that is, between political subjectivity and the social group. What is forgotten when May ’68 is forgotten seemed to have less to do with the lost habits of this or that social group, than it did with a shattering of social identity that allowed politics to take place.”

This quality of passing beyond one’s social determinants marked a new stage in the evolution of the Left and made possible the unique contribution of the New Left — solidarity with people very different from oneself, such as Vietnamese peasants or Mississippi sharecroppers. This solidarity was not based on class membership, as the old Left had been, nor on individual rights and meritocracy, as liberalism is. Rather, it was qualitatively new in that it was both universalist and based on deep, internal identifications. Women’s liberation departed from historic feminism in that it continued the New Left idea — it sought to free women from being defined by their social determinants, especially women’s place within the family. Still, its implications were ambiguous. On the one hand, women’s liberation took the classic New Left critique of capitalist oppression into its roots in private property and the patriarchal family. By rejecting women’s historic role of self-sacrifice, a role rooted in women’s place in the family, it was also critiquing the most powerful social determinant in human history, the family. This was a potentially enormous turning point in the evolution of the New Left, one that had everything to do with the changes in capitalism and the decline in democracy that was then underway. However, in the event, it was also and soon primarily assimilated to the neo-liberal ideology of equal rights, meritocracy and individual choice, along with identity politics. This failure to grasp the truly revolutionary ideas and values that the Left had created, and to turn them into a continuing radical presence in American life, was the collective failure of an entire generation of Leftists — women as well as men. The result was to allow an essentially conservative liberalism to control the agenda, leading to today’s all-too-obvious era of stasis, psychological depression and loss of direction.

This brings us to the most important point, namely how to build a Left today. First, we should remember that the break-up of the New Left in the late sixties and early seventies was not a unique occurrence. Abolitionists — the first American Left — dropped the ball after slavery was abolished (except for a few individuals like Wendell Phillips). Similarly, socialism never escaped the traumatic experience of Stalinism, a terrible weight that still holds back the obvious need to move beyond one-sided market solutions to organizing our global condition. Occupy Wall Street completely changed political discourse in the United States by inventing the brilliant trope of the ninety-nine percent, but also lost control of that discourse, allowing the Obamaesque pablum of “opportunity” and “Costco” to supplant Occupy’s insights into injustice and exploitation. The first thing we can learn from examining this history is that we need a continuing radical presence, not just an episodic one.

Secondly, the second stage in the history of the Left was correct in foregrounding capitalism. No movement that does not grasp this can call itself a Left. What occurred in the 1960s was the culmination of a long-term psychological revolution unleashed by the rise of capitalism and the corresponding decline in the role of the family as a productive unit. I have called this revolution “personal life,” and discussed both its significance and its limits in various works. To be sure, meritocracy remains an important ideal, but we have to recognize, as previous generations did, that capitalism generates structural inequality, and is completely compatible with identity politics, and the rejection of discrimination. In fact it thrives on these political forms. The critique of capitalism is indispensable for the Left.

Finally, our deepest values are universalist. Part of the value of the upheaval of the sixties lay in the rejection of national identity and the forging of ties across borders. Obviously, one understands that women may want to be with women in discussing certain matters, or that gays want to discuss certain matters with gays, but our deepest politics involves overcoming all forms of division and developing a concept of universal emancipation. We have to recognize that without our contribution — that of a Left — the problems that have surfaced recently in terms of the nature of our economic system, the paralysis of our politics and the flirting with ecological disaster that characterizes today’s world, will only get worse. We have a precious heritage, including the upheavals of the sixties, and we have to guard and advance it.

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Eli Zaretsky

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