Eli Zaretsky :THE IDEA OF A LEFT

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Eli Zaretsky :THE IDEA OF A LEFT

Eli Zaretsky

Professor of History

New School for Social Research

New York, NY 10003

(此为伊莱•扎瑞斯基09年3月18日在中国社会科学院发表演讲的英文稿。——《世界哲学》编辑部)

The fact that the Berlin Wall collapsed exactly two hundred years after the French Revolution did not escape the sharp eye of François Furet, the great French historian. Watching the uprisings on TV, Furet felt he was witnessing more than the end of a regime; he felt he was witnessing the end of an illusion. Born in 1789, not 1917, the illusion was the idea of a left. Driving that illusion, according to Furet, was “hatred of the bourgeoisie, a social class viewed as “all powerful in economic terms,” obsessed with money, but “devoid of moral principle deep down inside.” But what was “hatred of the bourgeois?” Only in appearance was it “hatred of the other; it was in fact self-hatred.” Today, he sighed happily, the revolution is finally over. “The idea of another society” is happily “almost impossible to conceive of.” Mercifully, “we are condemned to live in the world as it is.”[1]

Today it is would appear that Furet’s euphoria was misplaced. Since 1989, there have been repeated demonstrations that the idea of a left is by no means finished. In Latin America a self-proclaimed left has made spectacular gains since the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998, winning presidencies in Brazil (2002), Argentina (2003), Uruguay (2004), Bolivia (2005), and Chile (2006). In Europe, social democracy probably remains hegemonic, even given Sarkozy’s victory, while in the United States the Democratic Party seems poised to win the Presidency, in part by returning to older themes of economic justice and internationalism. Neither can be described as left, yet clearly there is a relationship. In China, India and the Middle East, important democratic movements exist, even if American foreign policy in the Bush years has discouraged them. Innovative human rights activities, the proliferation of international feminist networks and the explicitly left global social forum, also demonstrate that the idea of a left has by no means run its course.

Yet 1989 did bring into focus long-standing doubts concerning the project of a left, doubts that recent events have by no means dispelled. Thus, while a left proliferates in Latin America, it does so in societies that in many cases lack liberal institutions and a democratic culture. In the absence of liberal democracy, in what does the idea of a left consist? In Europe, ironically, the left’s last big triumph was the defeat of the European Constitution, an event that derailed the EU’s opening toward Turkey and the development of an independent European foreign policy. Between the narrow economism and nationalism of the French and Dutch lefts, and a technocratic capitalist elite that combines economic justice and “sustainability” with capitalist efficiency, the leftist intellectual faces a real dilemma. As to democracy movements, human rights activity and feminism, it is not clear in what sense these belong to the left at all.

As to the United States, once regarded as the poor man’s favored country, everyone can see the problem that the Democratic Party faces. They have to tell the American people that their sons and daughters died for nothing in Iraq. They have to explain to them that their treasure has been squandered and their future held hostage. They have to divulge that the carefully nurtured reputation of the United States has been thoughtlessly trashed. Since Americans prize optimism and a “can-do” spirit above all else, since they never want to look back except with pride, they do not want to hear these truths. Still, it can be done. Americans are capable of receiving a dark message if it is not hyperbolic and if it offers the possibility of redemption. But the Democrats will have difficulty communicating such a message.

After the 1960s they dissolved their ties with poorer, working and lower class Americans, that is with the majority of their fellow citizens. Under the slogan “the era of big government is over” they eviscerated the one institution that protected the poor from the market. Taking a leaf from the party of Big Business, they denounced “class struggle,” as long as it arose from workers, blacks and immigrants. Corruption, the destruction of pension and health plans, the turning over of the great industries to financial speculators, the transformation of cities into theme parks, the privatization of education, the subordination of scientific research to commerce, the sexualization of mass culture, the debasement of the public sphere: the Democrats either allowed this lethal tsunami of privatization to occur, or actively promoted it under the rubric of “the third way.” The result, as Thomas Frank observed, was “a French Revolution in reverse—one in which the sans-culottes pour down the streets demanding more power for the aristocracy.” [2] It is not clear that the Democrats token gestures since 2006 will change this.

Taken together, then, the difficulties of characterizing human rights activities, the confusions of the European left, and the near-disappearance of the left in the United States, suggest that the idea of a left needs to be rethought in more than a cursory manner. The problem did not begin with 1989. No one can deny that a period that produced feminism and gay liberation is a great period in the history of social justice. Nevertheless, what distinguishes our epoch is that for the first time in history a secular transformation of capitalism— computerization, globalization, “post-Fordism”-- is being led from the Right. At the same time, we have witnessed a basic shift in political culture “from redistribution to recognition,” meaning from primarily economic issues of class to the encounter of Islam and the West, to problems of the veil, immigration and the ever shifting boundaries between religion and the secular realm, the public and the private, the nation and the global order. However tendentious and inadequate, Furet’s claim that the revolution is over reflected much deep historical processes, processes that do raise the question of whether it is still important to hold to the idea of a left and, if so, of what that idea consists

This question is further underscored when we realize that the growing sense of the irrelevance of the left has largely been the product of the left itself. While it is true that since the 1970s, there has been unprecedented financial and ideological support for right-wing thought, the left could never have been destroyed from the outside. The “forgetting” of the left—often taking the form of attempts to “cut through” a supposedly “sterile” left/right distinction or to replace an outmoded “economism”—this “forgetting” has been generated by “third way” theorists, advocates of the “cultural turn,” Kantians, Freudians, Foucaultians, feminists, sexual emancipators, historical revisionists, sub-altern post-colonialists, and “progressive” social scientists, in other words by the left itself.

This paper, then, is an attempt to reassert the validity not so much of the left as of the idea of a left. It argues that the Left/Right dichotomy has an integrity of its own, one that cannot be reduced to such dichotomies as socialism vs. capitalism, Marxism vs. the bourgeoisie, or class vs. culture. It argues that the Left/Right dichotomy obscures a more fundamental relationship: that between large, popular forces such as the Democratic Party and the smaller, dispersed and diverse, but intellectually coherent and morally insistent forces of the Left. Above all, it argues that liberal politics is spineless without a left, while a left without liberalism will ultimately be marginal, sectarian and authoritarian.

The paper is adapted from a book that addresses three questions: In Part One it asks how did the idea of a Left arise? I answer by returning to the age of revolution (1789-1865), an age in which newly democratic forces came to settle on “free” (i.e., unbound) labor, including the labor of women within the household, as the primary agent of change. During this period, the first idea of a left took shape: the idea of the two opposed revolutions: a liberal, bourgeois revolution and a socialist revolution. In Part Two I ask how has the idea of the Left changed throughout history? The answer centers on one decisive moment: the shift from labor to the people, and therefore to democracy, liberal ideals, nationalism and ant-racism during the epoch of the Popular Front (1935-1950). During this period, the idea that socialism had to replace liberalism began to give way to the idea that liberalism and a left needed one another, especially because of the threat of fascism. In Part Three I investigate whether and how the idea of the Left was forgotten. Beginning with the Cultural Revolutions of the 1960s, but concentrating on our own time, I complicate the idea of “forgotten” to ask whether the idea of a Left has not simply changed its character, or whether, perhaps, it has become sociologically obsolete. In the end, however, I argue that while the Left long ago outgrew the idea of a working class revolution (whether it fully realized this or not), no social movement that fails to place an explicitly critical stance toward capitalism (not a simple negation) at the center of its thought deserves the appellation “left.” But before proceeding, I need to address a prior question: What is meant by the idea of a left?

By the idea of a left, I mean the concept of a left: not any particular left, not the history of the left, but rather the concept of itself. In using the term concept I mean to make three related points. First, I want to suggest that there is something necessary or universal about the left, in other words that in order to think about society or history at all we need such a concept, just as we need such concepts as justice, democracy and freedom. Second, I mean to distinguish the concept of a left from its historical expressions, for example its incarnation in organizations, newspapers, TV shows, journals, publishing houses, bookstores, restaurants, religious tendencies, academic orientations and the like. The idea of a left is different from a collection of protest movements, each organized around a particular problem such as multiculturalism, global warming, health care, or trade unionism. Even if all the protest movements that currently exist would join together, to support the same candidates for example, that would not constitute a left. Third and last, I mean to distinguish the critical, intellectual and consciousness-raising role of the left from its role in seeking and wielding political power. The idea of a left is inseparable, both historically and conceptually, from the idea of the intellectual; we can see this in the genealogy of such terms as the Russian intelligentsia. Power is, of course, indispensable but gaining power does not define the left. Indeed, when a left gains power, that is when a left is especially needed.

When the idea of a left is considered at this level of generality, it becomes immediately clear that the idea will never become obsolete or irrelevant. To be on the left involves a kind of existential stance, a kind of revolt or protest that can never be out grown. Intermediate between the biologically-given and the historical, deriving from the situation of the body in nature, the left/right dichotomy was originally an attempt to ground social power in nature. Thus, in every society, the symbols of order, the important ministers, the bishops of the Church, the wealthiest patrons, sit on the right while the lesser potentates sit on the left. The right symbolizes dominance, authority, and God; the left symbolizes rebellion, danger, discontent, and evil. Consider the words themselves: right, recht, and droit vs. maladroit, gauche and sinister. In Mark, 14, 62, God says: “I say unto you, Hereafter, shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power.” In Milton, the rebellious angels, Lucifer and his minions, are seated on the left. In the United States, the Democratic Party sits on the left of Congress. Robert Hertz summarizes: ‘the right hand is the model and symbol of all aristocracies, whereas the left hand is that of all plebians.”[3]

But while the universal subordination of the left, including the left hand, reflects a universal attempt to ground social power, we also mean something different when we speak of the modern idea of a left. The modern idea is almost mythically connected to the French Revolution. In part, this is because the Revolution, properly conceived so that it includes the Americas and even parts of India and the middle East, was the first world historical event, but also because it provided the first site on which the idea of a left could be enacted. During the Revolution, which famously included theatrical, redemptive and other pre-political elements, horizontality replaced verticality: the Sun-King and the Catholic hierarchy gave way to patriotic festivals which took place in open spaces so that everyone was on the same level and could see everyone else. It was in this new, horizontal space that the modern left/right dichotomy was born. During the seating of the National Assembly in 1789, the nobility sat on the President’s right and the Third Estate sat on the left. The real importance of the distinction emerged gradually, as the left (the Jacobins) came to represent the social revolution, the right (the Gironde) the strictly political revolution. After the defeat of Napoleon, and increasingly in the nineteenth century, the left/right distinction began to order parliamentary or representative democracies.[4] As Jean LaPonce has noted, being “visual and spatial …[the Left/right dichotomy was] immediately understandable and easily translatable across cultures.”[5]

The thesis that a distinctively modern idea of a left was born with the French Revolution has to be qualified in two respects. To begin with many of the ideas of social justice, economic redistribution and sexual equality that we identify with the modern left first appear not in 1793, but rather during the Dutch Revolution that began in the 1580s and the English Revolutions of the 1640s and 50s. This is especially true of the core liberal value of freedom of conscience, which is critical to both liberalism and the left. Nevertheless, the English did not seek to universalize their revolution in the way that the French did and, indeed, the whole concept of the English Revolution was only formulated retrospectively, after 1789. Secondly, what we call the French Revolution was the expression of a global process. In particular, the Haitian Revolution had as much impact in the New World as the French Revolution had in Europe, for example on the new states of South America, on the Louisiana Purchase, on the expansion of North American slavery and the American conquest of Northern Mexico. Anti-slavery, in other words, was at least as fully present at the birth of the modern idea of a left as was the abolition of feudalism.

Now, many ideals were born during the Reformation and during the age of the democratic revolutions that the idea of a left implies and must imply. These include political ideals such as individual freedom, equality before the law, limitations on state encroachment, and political democracy, as well as cultural ideals such as personal autonomy and the self-grounding character of what is often termed “modernity.” At first glance, however, none of these require a left. The idea of a left became relevant, as well as necessary, for two reasons.

First, because the commitment to modern ideals of freedom has in fact been so shallow, so compromised, so easily abandoned in the face of short-term opportunities and practical constraints, that society developed the need for a permanent body of “extremists,” risk-takers and scolds. In Michael Walzer’s language, referring to the seventeenth century Puritans, modern politics needs “saints” characterized by an “uncompromising and sustained commitment to a political ideal (which other men called hypocrisy), and by a pattern of rigorous and systematic labor in pursuit of that ideal (which other men called meddlesomeness).”[6] This might be called the sociological and psychological reason for the left: without a left, a combination of powerful interests, corruption and mass apathy would be sure to prevail. Indeed, it may just be that a certain minority of the species, at least under modern conditions, finds injustice, humiliation or socially imposed pain intolerable. I know several people like that, and I am one of them. Such individuals constitute an important basis for the left. Alexis de Tocqueville, visiting the US thirty years before the Civil War, was “astonished by the equanimity, indifference, [and] moral carelessness with which Americans managed to live with slavery.” [7] The abolitionists did not share that indifference and they felt so strongly about it, that they made indifference impossible for others, creating the space within which Lincoln operated.

The second reason a left is necessary is conceptual. Whereas a powerful liberal tradition advances the cause of freedom, that cause is an ambiguous one. Not just the slaves, but also the slave owners fought for freedom, in the latter case, the freedom to dispose of their property as they saw fit. A left is necessary, in other words, because the struggle for political rights and cultural emancipation is not sufficient; there is also a need for social equality, “parity of participation” as Nancy Fraser has called it, in all spheres of life.[8] Implicit in the shift from verticality to horizontality, the left’s radical conception of equality has been summarized by Steven Lukes:

What unifies the left as a tradition across time and space is its very rejection of the symbolic hierarchy [i.e. the universal subordination of the left] and the inevitability of the inequalities it sanctifies. What this suggests is that the left denotes a tradition and a project, which found its first clear expression in the Enlightenment [and] which puts in question sacred principles of social order, contests unjustifiable but remediable inequalities of status, rights, powers and condition and seeks to eliminate them through political action. Its distinctive core commitment is to a demanding answer to the question of what equality means and implies. It envisions a society of equals and takes this vision to require a searching diagnosis, on the widest scale, of sources of unjustifiable discrimination and dependency and a practical program to abolish or diminish them.[9]

Lukes’s conception of equality is powerful, but it conflates two different meanings of the term. One way to get at this difference is from the point of view of individual psychology. Individuals’ interests divide between self-preservation, self-interest or narcissism on the one hand, and attachment to others on the other. But this is itself slightly misleading. Attachment to one’s family, one’s nation, one’s “people,” one’s race or gender, is a form of attachment to oneself. The imperative of self-interest and self-preservation, including a commitment to one’s own group, leads to the idea of equality as a kind of metric. Thus we can envision a “society of equals” and we can seek to remedy inequalities, for example through material redistribution, through the elimination of discrimination, or through more radical means such as affirmative action. This conception of equality remains within a liberal paradigm insofar as it is based on a commitment to individual rights.

On the other hand, we can speak of equality as an experience that occurs with others. In crowds, for example, in common work, in shared purpose, in times of national emergency, the awareness of difference—for example of age, gender, race or social class-- tends to disappear. Every individual feels equal to every other individual, in the sense that they feel identified with them. This second meaning of equality, namely equality as identity or solidarity, is closely linked to such concepts as community and commensality or the sharing of a common meal, and has often been in tension with individual rights, the famous tension between freedom and equality or, ultimately, between liberalism and the left. This tension is a positive one; it should not be resolved. The left then adds to the liberal ideal of freedom the realization that individuals have a need for other people, a tangible, sensual need for them almost as partners, a need that cannot be reduced to any metric. Ultimately, in other words, the left stands for a sense of common, that is shared, project, and therefore for the unity of the human species, in a way that the liberal ideal of the equal worth of all individuals does not.

The Left did not create the call for equality. Rather this call arises from social movements, such as the labor movement, African-American freedom movements, or the women’s movement. The history of these movements reveals that the call for equality changes historically, often in quite unpredictable ways. As examples consider the abolition of slavery, a form of labor that was essentially unquestioned for thousands of years, or gay liberation, a demand that was initially unimaginable. Although social movements that demand equality create new values, often surprising ones, they are not necessarily themselves on the left, although they may be. The left’s job is not to create these movements but to be responsive to them: to listen, learn and grant both respect and esteem, since these movements are the real raison d’être of the left. At the same time, the left has the responsibility of interpreting these movements in terms of an overall telos of equality, conceptualizing their relation to other movements and critiquing them from that point of view. In Karl Marx’s formulation, the purpose of the Left is “the self-clarification of the struggles and wishes of the age.” This raises the question of what the basis of a left critique is, but it also means that the left can never simply represent the interests or outlook of a particular group such as blacks, or women or the working class. When it does so, it is not a left.

The left is not only in dialogue with movements demanding equality. It also must respond to charismatic upheavals, such as those associated with art, sexuality, and religion, upheavals that are closely related, I believe, to what I have called the second sense of equality. The abolitionists, for example, were an outgrowth of the religious revivals of the 1820s-30s. The New York intellectuals of the 1950s were trying to fashion a politics with psychoanalysis at its center. The New Left had a close but ambivalent relationship to the hippies. Without a relation to extra-political cultural movements, the left can be reduced to a running critique of liberalism, one that is always trying to push liberalism beyond its limits, but which creates no new values of its own. Analogously, without a left, cultural or transgressive radicalism tends to disintegrate into entertainment, an artifact of an endlessly absorptive mass culture.

The relationship of the left to other social movements is central to clarifying its core idea or concept. The left always combines two elements. On the one hand, it seeks to push liberal ideals of freedom and equal worth to their furthest possible extent. On the other hand, it combines liberal ideals with utopian, romantic, aesthetic and communitarian impulses of which it may be critical, but from which it derives its inspiration.

The left’s commitment to a searching ideal of equality also points to a basic asymmetry in the relation of Left and Right. The left is a protest against the established order; the right is a response to the left, a response that defends the established order and allies itself with it. Without the left, the right would not exist, as one can see when one considers the founding text of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, a response to Thomas Paine. This point has been disputed. For Lukes, for example, the Left/right distinction implies pluralism; in other words, a left and a right at all times. Thus, Lukes writes, “left and right may dichotomize political space; or constitute opposite regions along a continuum or spectrum, or flank a center…. [T]he centre may, in turn, be seen as ‘included’, as a distinctive alternative that separates the other two, or as ‘inclusive’, such as ‘a third way.’”[10] However, it is striking that when we get a right that has genuine intellectual force and charisma, as we got in the 1970s, it necessarily dresses itself up in the leftist vernacular of protest, discontent, minority voice and exclusion. The asymmetric character of the left/right dichotomy is sufficient to refute the doxa, encapsulated by Furet, which holds that we no longer need a left. The left’s commitment to equality, both because it deepens individual rights and because it deepens the sense of human commonality, is a driving force of social progress, intimately linked to all creativity, discontent, and unhappiness. The emergence of the right, by contrast, and here one would have to include even fascism, is “most helpfully conceived as a variety of responses to the left.”[11]

The really vital relationship in modern history then—the one that drives its political dynamic-- is not the relationship between left and right but rather between the left and the classical liberal and republican doctrines that emerged during the seedbed of modern, democratic politics, the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century. For many liberals-- Ronald Dworkin and Michael Walzer might serve as examples-- the advance of equality is essentially a matter of pushing such liberal principles as equal respect to their extreme. For such liberals, liberalism doesn’t need a left superego to breathe down its neck; liberalism can supply its own superego, thank you. The republican tradition also has its left variants, exemplified by Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit. But whereas liberalism leads logically to an understanding of equality in terms of the distribution of material, cultural and political resources among individuals, and republicanism stresses equal participation and shared purpose in a political community, a left stresses equality and participation in the social and economic and cultural bases of life.

A left is necessary, then, first because apathy, self-interest and opportunism typically triumph over the commitment to freedom or equality and second because the liberal tradition itself has certain necessary aporia or restrictions. But these limitations must themselves be explained. In this regard, Karl Marx’s explanation—namely, that the democratic revolutions were bourgeois revolutions and thus self-limiting—is both inadequate and unavoidable. Any left must find a coherent successor to Marx’s explanation because the most important task of the left is that of enlightening social movements as to the deep social structures that block the realization of their aspirations. Thus, in Injustice, Barrington Moore contrasts two forms of critique. The first is “anger at the failure of authority to live up to its obligations, to keep its word and faith with the subjects.” This critique, he writes, “toppled thrones” yet it is inherently limited. “Essentially it accepts the existence of hierarchy and authority while attempting to make it conform to an idealized pattern.” The second form of criticism, which Moore calls “the really subversive form,” begins when people ask whether a specific social function needs to be performed at all, whether kings, priests, capitalists or even revolutionary bureaucrats may not be something human society could do without.”[12] It is the second form of critique that distinguishes the modern idea of the left from such traditional ideas as agrarian communism and the right of revolution. Insofar as a left is modern it cannot do without a social—which is to say historical-- theory.

I will end with a few words concerning the nature of such a theory. Consider Christopher Hill’s observation concerning the English Civil War:

There were…two revolutions in mid-seventeenth century England. The one which succeeded established the sacred Rights of property (abolition of feudal tenures, no arbitrary taxation), gave political power to the propertied (sovereignty of Parliament and common law, abolition of prerogative courts), and removed all impediments to the triumph of the ideology of the men of property—the protestant ethic. There was, however, another revolution which never happened, though from time to time it threatened. This might have established communal property, a far wider democracy in political and legal institutions, might have disestablished the state church and rejected the protestant ethic.[13]

Hill’s remarks show that the interdependence of liberalism and the left, and the tension between them, has deep historical roots. Four centuries ago, the founders of modern liberal thought such as John Locke, were attacking extremist, utopian sects, such as the Diggers and the Levellers. But while figures like Locke established the principles of liberty by which we still orient ourselves, a nagging radical tradition persisted, seeking to push bourgeois culture and democratic politics beyond its self-imposed limits.

The radical sects of seventeenth century England differed amongst themselves but they all put forth economic demands, responding to the enclosures (privatizations) of rural England by insisting, in Gerrard Winstanley’s words, “us that are called the common people [must] manure and work upon the common land,” political demands, for example describing Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army as a school of political democracy, and cultural demands centered on the critique of the family, communal living, women’s equality and “true and pure undefiled religion.” But these early intimations of the idea of a left were utopian, religious, and based on a cyclical conception of time which viewed justice as a return to primitive communism, a return also reflected in the eighteenth century crowd, in carnival, in the “Jubilee,” in the primitive fellowship of Christianity, the “moral economy” of communal life, and what Maurice Bloch called “the patient, silent struggles carried on by rural communities over the years.”[14]

By contrast, the self-conscious birth of the historical left—a left that is aware of its own historicity— was first crystallized in Marx’s conceptualization of capitalism, not as an economic system, but as a stage in the history of human emancipation. In Marx’s conception, capitalism was not defined in terms of the market. Rather, capitalism existed when individuals were deprived of their property and had to work for a wage, thus creating the capital/labor relationship, whose dynamic is the driving source behind the material wealth, as well as the inequalities, that have transformed the modern world. This conception of capitalism had two further implications that Marx did not pursue, although other currents of the historic left did.

First, it implied that whereas earlier economic and political relations coincided— the lord on the manor was overseer and exploiter as well as sheriff -- under capitalism the political sphere was autonomous. Thus, capitalism is compatible with many forms of politics, such as democracy, social democracy and fascism, and so politics has to be understood in its own terms, and not simply in its relationship to capitalism. Even more relevant to our point: the left has to be understood in terms of the specificity of the political sphere, the ways in which politics translates the experiences and needs of various groups into images, concepts and forms of organization that have a logic of their own, and not as the emanation of a social group, such as the working class or the poor.

Finally, the rise of capitalism transformed the family; by removing paid labor (i.e., the “economy”) from the home, it created the famous “haven in a heartless world” as well as what I have elsewhere called personal life. This transformation of the family is at the core of modern culture; the long-term freedom for the individual that it implies is the common goal of liberalism and the left. In my book I try to show that the idea of a left developed in line with the unfolding of a tripartite structure: labor (nineteenth century), politics (the popular front) and culture (1960s).

Once the idea of a left is grasped in both its generality and its depth, we will be in a better position to see the continuity of the 1960s with earlier moments in the history of the left. In particular, the shift from economics to culture or from “redistribution” to “recognition” will pose a less intractable dilemma. After all, the problem of the family, which is so central to feminism, multiculturalism and the cultural turn, has always been central to the history of the left. The reason is that the history of the family is inseparable from the history of private property, including slavery, property in humans. Thus, the earliest arguments between absolutism and liberalism, those of Filmer and Locke, revolved in good part over whether property rights descend from an original patriarchal family (that of Adam’s) or from a God-given communism. No one who reads Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1790 Vindication of the Rights of Women against the background of the French Revolution can possibly doubt that the very instant that Jacobinism, with its idea of universal equality emerged, so too did the critique of male domination. Nonetheless, no sooner was this idea spoken than it was betrayed. Only the development of an independent women’s movement defining itself in good part against the left could return the left to its core idea and value.

I said before that forgetting the idea of a left has been a loss. At the same time there has been a great gain since the 1960s: separating the idea of revolution from the idea of a left. Thus, while Marx was very important to the first instantiation of the idea of a left, Marxism did not map on to the left/right dichotomy. Typically, in fact, Communists were contemptuous of the dichotomy, as in Lenin’s 1918 polemic “’Left-wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder.” The reason is that Communism’s self-understanding was Jacobin: it aimed at total occupation of the political space, whereas the left aims to occupy the point of critique.[15]

When we distinguish the idea of a left from the idea of a revolution, we can see the most important characteristic of the left: the left is not a mode of protest; it is a reflection on protest. It is a way of thinking about the world; one that tries to bring multitudinous demands for social justice into coherent relation with one another, but also allows for reflection on those demands. We can grasp this point, if we remember that the idea of a left arose along with the abolition of the monarchy when many believed that “reason” would replace the divine right of kings. The right, by contrast, was a protest against the over-emphasis on reason, a protest later critically appropriated and reinterpreted by many left wing thinkers. The strength of a left lies in its ability to think rationally and explain its thinking in a comprehensible, popular and dialogic manner; insofar as it simply identifies with popular forces it is doomed. At the same time, the left cannot be reduced to the intellect; it incorporates a looser set of values and practices embodied in people’s lives, and having continuity over the generations. To be on the left means to be part of a shared way of life; it involves a kind of self-consciousness about that way of life.

Finally, a word about the distinctive kind of consciousness represented by the left, namely critical, which is to say historical consciousness. It is obvious from what I have said that the left must be continually rethought historically, and that at root I am arguing that the social movements that arose in the sixties need to redefine themselves more explicitly as part of a left. The modern idea of a left, therefore, is a fundamentally historical one. But the opposite is also true. History, at least modern history, cannot be understood without understanding the left. The Napoleonic Wars grew out of the French Revolution. Insofar as the American Civil War stood for racial equality as opposed to merely national unity, it was the abolitionists—the first American left, incidentally—that gave it that meaning. World War One arose from the decline of the great empires and the resultant clash of nationalities, but the reason that democratic solutions could not be found to the national question was that democracy opened into the social question, i.e., the place of the industrial working class and the burgeoning masses of Asia. The New Deal saved capitalism, but insofar as it incorporated a principle of social and economic equality, and not just the expansion of consumer power, it was due to the left. Just as it is impossible to give any account of the Civil War or the New Deal, without an important role assigned to the left, it is impossible to explain the passivity, opportunism and inner divisions of the Democratic Party in the United States since the 1970s, and especially since 2001, unless we take account of the absence of a left. The idea of a left is, in essence, the idea of history. A people without an understanding of history is like an individual who has no memory: they will become confused and disorganized, as the American people did in the terrible early years of the twenty-first century. Their confusion, in my view, represented the absence or weakness of the left.

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[1] François Furet, The Passing of an Illusion (Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 1999)14, 16, 502.

[2] Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas, (New York: Metropolitan, 2004) 8.

[3] Robert Hertz, Death and the Right Hand (Glencoe, Il., Free Press, 1960)

[4] Steven Lukes, “The Grand Dichotomy of the Twentieth Century” in Terence Ball and Richard Bellamy, The Cambridge History of Twentieth Century Political Thought (London: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 606: The real birth of the distinction “dates from the restoration of the French monarchy following the defeat of Napoleon, and in particular from the parliamentary session of 1819-20 when it entered ‘into customary and regular form’ in the division between liberals and ultras, deriving from the memory of 1789 and ‘opposing old and new France.’ (Gauchet, “La droite et la gauche” in P. Nora, ed., Les Lieux des mémoire, (Paris: Gallimard, 1984) p. 2585.

[5] J.A. Laponce, Left and Right: The Topography of Political Perception, (Toronto; University of Toronto Press, 1981) 27 Liberal and conservative, for example, is far more context –specific (Lukes, op. cit., 605).

[6] Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints (Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press, 1965) 3-4. There may well be a psychological element at play. The left is undoubtedly overly composed of individuals like Rousseau who wrote of: “men so odious as to dare to have more than enough while other men are dying of hunger.”

[7] Tocqueville quoted by Alfred Kazin, New York Review of Books, February 1, 1994.

[8] Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth, Redistribution or Recognition (London, Verso, 2003)

[9] Lukes, op. cit. 611. See also Norbert Bobbio, Left and Right (Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[10] Lukes, op. cit., 605

[11] Roger Eatwell and Noel O’Sullivan, The Nature of the Right, eds., (Boston, Twayne, 1989), 63. When the Left becomes an established and, in fact, oppressive power as it did in the Communist world, then the right in a sense becomes a left.

[12] Barrington Moore, Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt, (White Plains, NY; M.E. Sharpe, 1978) 510

[13] Christopher Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, (New York, Viking, 1972) 15

[14] Marc Bloch, French Rural History, (Berkeley, Ca.; University of California Press, 1966) 110

[15] Lukes, op. cit., 604

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