EssaysThe Left

What’s Left?

A response to Jeremy Varon

Jeremy Varon’s interesting and important response raises three questions: 1) What do we mean by a “Left”? 2) How are we to understand the New Left’s break-up and, specifically the relation of the women’s movement to that break-up and 3) How are we to evaluate the Left today? Let me start with the third and work backwards.

I do not believe we can properly speak of a Left today. Jeremy’s view of a plurality of different movement working independently but parallel to one another avoids all the important questions. A Left needs coherence and direction. It needs leaders, organizations, its own counter public-spheres, some sense of the values that distinguish it from the mainstream. It needs a coherent analysis of such basic ruling class institutions as the Democratic Party, the universities and the so-called public sphere. Obviously I am not advocating a vanguard party, or a mass party of the Debsian sort. But to speak of the huge diversity of present protest movements that might be termed progressive as a Left stretches the term beyond reason.

A good example both of the potential of a Left today, and its weakness lies in the brilliant but short life of Occupy Wall Street. On the one hand, in inventing the figure of the 1%, OWS gave the faltering Obama campaign the language it needed to achieve its historic reelection victory in 2012. But even as OWS brought the themes of class and inequality back into American politics, it built no institutions, created no journals, devised no distinct line of analysis, had no presence at the Democratic Convention, did not establish a place inside universities and vanished almost as quickly as it appeared. Varon praises this as an example of the happy-go-lucky, antinomian, “no demands” spirit of the contemporary Left. I regard it as a tragic lost opportunity. As we look ahead, to the Hillary Clinton Presidential run, we see again that we are not even in a position to discuss how to situate ourselves, yet it is only through a genuine turn to the Left that America can address its present problems.

Turning now to the break-up of the New Left, Varon claims I “blame” the women’s movement for the breakup. This would be absurd. As long as the history of feminism is discussed in terms of a language of blame, recrimination and defense we will never make progress. It is definitely the case that 70s feminism stood for a separate women’s movement, and not for building on the initiatives of the old and new left. It is also the case that there were costs to that decision, such as the loss in continuity between the older socialist lefts and the newer cultural movements emerging in the sixties. Varon ascribes to me a whole set of silly stereotypes, including a supposed idealization of the sixties Left (“Ah, Golden Youth — how sweet it was”), and an insistence on economic inequality, to which Varon reduces the question of capitalism. What is most important is that we need to have an historical understanding of the sixties and seventies, since that is the seedbed of today’s crisis, and an understanding of that crisis is the most important task of any Left today.

In fact, the sixties were a turning point in the tradition of revolution and the Left, which had come down from the eighteenth century. There had been two previous epochs in that tradition: that of the eighteenth century, which was centered on the question of self-government and, especially, the abolition of slavery and that of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which had been centered on anti-capitalism, socialism and communism. A third phase, centered on sexuality, gender and identity, and with a strong antinomian current, started in the sixties and we still don’t have a good enough handle on how to understand it. Varon has a lot of fun mocking my supposedly grandiose ambitions for a conception of “capitalism as a whole.” But what I am calling for, namely an historically based understanding of the present, including its roots in the sixties and seventies, is nothing more than intellectuals in previous centuries had. Most importantly, there is a dominant narrative concerning the sixties out there, namely that the good part came in learning to respect women and Blacks. A Left is necessary to deepen that narrative by showing how respect for women and Blacks involves the whole of modern society, just as the abolitionists showed that slavery pervaded every aspect of society and the socialists and communists showed that class structured every aspect of society.

This brings us finally to the question of what is a Left? My point, which I elaborated on in my book, is that in the United States the very idea of a Left is a recent one, invented in the thirties and forties and continued in the sixties. The politics that has prevailed since then is a politics that claims that we do not need a Left. The true difference between Varon and me is over this question. For Jeremy many separate movements constitute a Left. In my view, neo-liberalism rests on ideas of diversity and difference such as Varon celebrates. We need a Left that relates the different moments of protest to one another, and tries to point them in a common direction, that of equality or justice, which we will not attain simply by extending markets.

Eli Zaretsky

  • Jeremy Varon

    Eli Zaretsky’s response to my position within the poly-vocal
    debate on the past and future of the left confirms my faith that thoughtful people, with broadly shared values, will gravitate toward agreement on key matters. There is much I agree with in
    Zaretsky’s latest, and I will say so without the distraction of claiming that I had been misunderstood.

    Yes, it is a pity that Occupy failed both to extend its own moment and more deeply institutionalize its presence. No, a celebration of political diversity that honors various struggles should not mean an indiscriminate pluralism that makes no normative distinctions among them. And yes, some degree of ideological cohesion enables dissident energies and initiatives to form into proper and durable movements.

    Indeed, the conviction that “it’s all connected” — both the
    plural oppressions and the many struggles against them — was a defining insight of 60s-era leftism which I cherish. My general hope is that in the United States today we are reaching a point of sufficient protest energy in diverse domains that the project of articulating
    those connections and forming coalitions will appear newly urgent to those already mobilized. Further, that the prospect of structural resistance, beyond the horizon of a single issue or cause, will itself draw more people into left politics. To the extent that Zaretsky aids such a passage, he contributes a great deal.

    I also have discerned, from my study of history and experience with activism, that people rarely start with some critical apprehension of “the whole.” More commonly, systemic power is first critically engaged by confronting a part, often with respect to an issue directly affecting one’s life, community, and sense of immediate justice. The “diversity” I praise is therefore a function of my recognition of the multiple points of entry into critical relationships with nation, race, economy, and the like.

    Whatever the left — or whatever we want to call it — has been doing lately in the United States hardly measures up to its own ideals
    or analysis, so we of course need to push better and harder. But to conclude that nothing anyone has done to this point has been worth a damn seems to me neither true nor constructive. Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the heart. Back to work, and with some joy along the way.

    Jeremy Varon

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