Achieving Our Country? Part 3
The “Old” Left and New
I began this series of letters on Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country on a somewhat glum note, remarking on the major reverses and failures of the Left in recent days. Rorty’s book, based on lectures he gave in 1997, also is something of a lament for the Left of his day. But a quarter century has passed and the Left of the ‘90s is not the Left of today: there actually has been considerable growth and progress. My first political awakening comes from not long after Rorty’s book was published, in the very late ‘90s and 2000s, when I decided I was an “anarcho-syndicalist.”
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My memories of the state of the Left at that time are as something extremely small and really rather pathetic. I remember going to the May Day demonstrations in Union Square and it was just a couple dozen people, of rather musty sectarian tendencies. There were octogenarian Communist Party USA members, anarchist crust punks, the totally insane Maoist Bob Avakian worshippers of the RCPUSA, several brands of Trotskyists and the Spartacists. Each clique eyed each other with suspicion and tried to push their pamphlets and newspapers on an indifferent public. I would hang out at Revolution Books, run by the RCPUSA, then on 18th street, and argue with the Stalinist lady behind the counter. The internet was in its infancy, and instead we had the AK press catalog, video tapes of Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent or The Panama Deception, since that now-forgotten invasion was the major imperialist crime in living memory before Iraq. There was also a kind of vague anti-corporate populism that manifested itself in lame and obvious political art, the precursors of memes I suppose, but not much in the way of serious politics. And, of course, there was Ralph Nader and the Green Party. We can see in Senator Kyrsten Sinema exactly what that tendency looks like when it curdles.
Police brutality was a major and serious issue: this was the late Giuliani era and the killing of Amadou Diallo was a radicalizing event in my life. The marches against police brutality were more robust, but nothing like B.L.M. or the nation-wide uprising we’ve witnessed in the wake of police violence in the past years. I remember the anarcho-syndicalist punks, vestigial members of the hoary old Wobblies, were attempting to unionize Starbucks where they worked as baristas. Again, in retrospect, that doesn’t seem so Quixotic and hopeless. The demonstrations against the Iraq War temporarily swelled the ranks but pretty quickly fizzled. Factional infighting and the total media domination of the Bush administration saw to that. A serious democratic socialist presidential contender getting millions of votes, honest-to-God lefties in congress, police brutality as a national issue, unionization and socialism being hip among young people—none of these things seemed very likely at the time.
After the financial crisis, Occupy, B.L.M., and Bernie, the left has grown enormously and even with setbacks, seems to have some institutional staying power in the new drives for labor organization, groups like DSA, and all the various publications that have popped up. The hysteria of the Right about “communism” and “socialism,” too, suggests to me that we are on the right track. As Marx wrote in the 18th Brumaire, the reactionary habit of labeling everything even vaguely progressive as “socialism” actually demonstrates an insight into true nature of democracy:
This was not merely a figure of speech, fashion, or party tactics. The bourgeoisie had a true insight into the fact that all the weapons it had forged against feudalism turned their points against itself, that all the means of education it had produced rebelled against its own civilization, that all the gods it had created had fallen away from it. It understood that all the so-called bourgeois liberties and organs of progress attacked and menaced its class rule at its social foundation and its political summit simultaneously, and had therefore become "socialistic.” c." In this menace and this attack it rightly discerned the secret of socialism, whose import and tendency it judges more correctly than so-called socialism knows how to judge itself…
It’s easy to mock the Left, with all its silly excesses and sectarianism, but it is not the tiny groupuscules of my early adolescence: It’s a real national movement, albeit a very loosely-defined and fractious one. But these are not my memoirs. Let’s return to Rorty for a moment. He concludes on a hopeful note:
Our national character is still in the making. Few in 1897 would have predicted the Progressive Movement, the forty-hour week, Women's Suffrage, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, the successes of second-wave feminism, or the Gay Rights Movement. Nobody in 1997 can know that America will not, in the course of the next century, witness even greater moral progress.
Whitman and Dewey tried to substitute hope for knowledge. They wanted to put shared utopian dreams-dreams of an ideally decent and civilized society-in the place of knowledge of God's Will, Moral Law, the Laws of History, or the Facts of Science. Their party, the party of hope, made twentieth-century America more than just an economic and military giant. Without the American Left, we might still have been strong and brave, but nobody would have suggested that we were good. As long as we have a functioning political Left, we still have a chance to achieve our country, to make it the country of Whitman's and Dewey's dreams.
Okay, sounds good. But “What Is To Be Done?” to quote a fella. How to constitute this “party of hope?”
Rorty is unable to use the term—and actually mocks it—because of his contempt for the Marxist tradition, but what he’s after is actually something like Antonio Gramsci’s idea of hegemony: a group achieving political leadership through a unifying and transformative vision of the national project. The whole idea of “achieving our country” is essentially “achieving hegemony,” but without a specific institutional or political strategy. (I think there are many commonalities between Gramsci and the pragmatist tradition: his rejection of positivism and economic determinism, his belief in a “philosophy of praxis,” on focusing on how things actually work in concrete reality rather than fixating on abstract formulae, but more on that another time.)
Although in America it looks like an obscure hieroglyphic of foreign theory, “hegemony” suggests not a world of impenetrable Gothic power but one of open and constant political contestation. For Gramsci, the political party, "‘the Modern Prince,” had the function of articulating and working towards national leadership, of promoting a vision of itself as carrying the torch of its own particular civilization. Italian socialists had to present socialism as the natural “next step” in the Risorgimento, in the unification and modernization of Italy and its (fitful and problematic) turn to democratic rule. While he called on the party to “nationalize” itself, he practiced what he preached: his thought perhaps owes as much to the Italian humanism of Machiavelli, Vico, and Croce as Hegel and Marx. Preaching is an apt word here: he envisioned the party as a kind of “Marxist church” on the model of the Roman Catholic church, with the party intellectuals acting as a sort of priesthood—he particularly mentioned the Jesuits—to uphold doctrinal unity. This would prevent schisms:
The strength of religions, and of the Catholic church in particular, has lain, and still lies, in the fact that they feel very strongly the need for the doctrinal unity of the whole mass of the faithful and strive to ensure that the higher intellectual stratum does not get separated from the lower. The Roman church has always been the most vigorous in the struggle to prevent the "official" formation of two religions, one for the "intellectuals" and the other for the "simple souls".
This is a natural example to reach for for someone who lived in a Catholic country, but America is a Protestant country of many small churches and congregations. It also does not have disciplined European party organizations, instead there are loosely-defined parties and the myriad “voluntary associations” and pressure groups of civil society surrounding the political sphere. I happen to believe recent calls for an independent mass labor party are unlikely to work in the American context for reasons both of the nature of modern industry and the cultural particulars of the United States. Some have made the case mass politics of the 20th century are not the right model for our fragmented age. I think we will probably have to deal with the patchwork of pluralism; there can be no “Pope” of American leftism as much as some people want to give that role to Bernie Sanders or Noam Chomsky. Instead of the Jesuits, we will have to rely on the itinerant preachers of the Great Awakening and the quilt of institutions they created. The lack of a central apparatus of party discipline makes all of the interminable arguments about the “magic words;” the correct line or rhetoric to adopt on any given matter sort of moot.
The question why a “labor party” has never coalesced in America is one that has been dealt at length by many people much more intelligent and learned than me, but putting it very crudely: there are many pre-existing divisions that prevent it from happening. These divisions are certainly exploited by the “bad guys,” but also represent real internal conflicts and contradictions. The biggest one historically is race, the second one is between “native” and immigrant, another is the sheer size of the country and the hope for social mobility. To this, now we have to add “education,” which in America is often used as a proxy for class even though strictly speaking it is not. Thomas Piketty describes the birth of a “Brahmin Left” in the West, made up of the highly educated upper middle class and increasingly detached from the working class. This problem is also expressed in all the discourse about the “P.M.C.,” the professional-managerial class.
Leftists often reject this talk out of hand, because they detect it in a bad faith effort to diminish and isolate them, which is partially true. There is also the fact that Right wants to make “working class” a purely cultural signifier and, as defined by the Republicans, actually includes many people from the capitalist class who just happen to have “blue collar” aesthetics. But there should be legitimate concern on the Left about parochialism, about being only the party of a small group of people with college educations and all the class prerogatives that come with being upwardly (or downwardly) mobile professionals.
Breaking the Siege and Leading the Democracy
Gramsci writes that politics, except in periods of rapid revolutionary change, is a kind of “siege warfare:” “this is concentrated, difficult, and requires exceptional qualities of patience and inventiveness. In politics, the siege is a reciprocal one, despite all appearances, and the mere fact that the ruler has to muster all his resources demonstrates how seriously he takes his adversary.” The siege being a “reciprocal one” explains how both Left and Right often understand themselves as being on the defense and in danger of being overwhelmed by their opponents.
To extend Gramsci’s metaphor, I want to suggest that the Right, in a series of offensives since the late 1960s, has basically divided and encircled the Left into two besieged camps. On the one hand, you have the middle-class left of the progressive liberal intelligentsia, academia, etc. and then you have the working class left of the labor movement. The right-wing intellectual’s job is basically to man the battlements of the siege and to develop new weapons for its maintenance, and to seduce the defenders into joining the besiegers. To this end, they constantly emphasize the racial, class, and cultural antagonisms between the two groups, encouraging them view each other as alien forces and even enemies. This can be clearly seen now in the contemporary labor movement’s push for organization in the effort among pundits to separate the educated workers from middle class backgrounds from the “real workers.”
We get a situation wherein the working class is badly battered and demoralized and where the educated progressive bourgeoisie begins to give up on the project of “national-popular” consolidation and instead only talk to itself or worry about careerism. Or worse to mistake careerism with progressive politics. They pride themselves on being knowing and undeceived, either about the moral perfidy of everything or the futility of action. Then the sacred flame of democratic faith goes out, the progressive bourgeoisie quits the barricades of national political struggle in favor of its own disputes, and the project of “anti-fascist hegemony” is given up on as something that never really existed in the first place.
Suffice it to say, the job of the Left intellectuals, in the broadest understanding of the term, is to develop stratagems to break the siege, to link up all the popular and democratic forces in a “historic bloc,” and go on the offensive again. Without ignoring divisions or papering over them with simplistic formula, Leftists should constantly have in mind the potential unifying moment and work towards it. Perhaps it’s my youthful anarcho-syndicalism reasserting itself, but I find myself wanting to endorse something like Sorel’s “myth of the general strike:” a future state where everything comes together. But instead of a violent cataclysm, it would be a powerful alignment of political forces. (It will probably involve a lot of strikes, too.)
Another “neo-syndicalist” theme I think should bring together the Left is encouragement and support of the latest efforts to re-unionize the country and recreate a broad base of working class power. In this, the organizers are following the tradition of Eugene Debs and William Z. Foster, who saw in a unified and strong labor movement the path to overall political power. Left-wingers should be particularly on guard to the right-wing attacks on this effort, which will try to exacerbate factionalism and divide the left along racial and spurious “class” boundaries.
Has this “great alignment” ever actually happened in American history? Yes and no. No progressive “step forward” in the U.S. has been pure: we are very good at critiquing it and pointing out who was left out or its inherent contradictions. But it is important to keep alive the possibility of the great alignments even if in practice they are evanescent or provisional. Left-wingers should view themselves as the party of “the democracy” to use a 19th century term and constantly seek theoretical and practical unification between, to be somewhat schematic, the cause of labor and the cause of civil rights, and to view them as one cause. Lenin wrote, “the Social-Democrat’s ideal should be…the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects…”
Even when it is practically difficult, the Left should seek always to be the most advanced small-d democratic “party,” embodying the possibility of unified emancipation from all forms of domination. Non-academic left-wing intellectuals, as “permanent persuaders,” should seek to be the “signal corps,” articulating the connections between particular struggles in an overall framework and also decoding the enemy’s plans, demystifying and uncovering the right-wing tactics and strategies. For all its faults, this is what Marxism provides and what Rorty misses about its “pragmatic” qualities: the ideal of both an overarching theory and practical horizon for the “final struggle,” to quote an old song. I don’t believe that everyone has to become a convinced Orthodox Marxist to be a “true member” of the Left, but I do believe the tradition still has a lot to provide.
Recovering the Classics
The critics of the “woke” left have a point: the current rhetoric of the progressivism is often awful and alienating to the general public. Abraham Lincoln, Friedrich Douglass, and Martin Luther King Jr. had the King James Bible, the rhetorical tradition of the Classical world, and Shakespeare. I agree with Rorty about what he calls “Inspirational Value of Great Works of Literature,” but not about their romantic and utopian content, but their form. I think there needs to be something like a humanistic renaissance, a return to the classics and a move away from academic Scholasticism. In this effort, Left-wing intellectuals should aspire to a recovery of the rhetoric and theory of republicanism and civic humanism, which Douglass relied upon, with its emphasis on freedom from domination. Lenin wrote during the period of the 1905 revolution the revolutionaries had learned to speak “French,” the language of dramatic political action, but in the face of the reaction and during their retreat they had to learn to speak “German,” the language of step-by-step reform; I think the American Left should learn to speak “American.” This is not to suggest the Left should adopt hollow Browderism and flag-waving, but an actual engagement with America’s history and political tradition. (I certainly am sometimes much too focused on Europe.)
Theory has genuine insights, but the task of middle-strata intellectuals is to translate it into concrete and specific language, to make it real, not to show off their knowledge of terminology, or to attribute everything to grand and hazy abstractions. Whatever the various evils of conspiracy theories, at least they are easily graspable and imaginatively forceful. In the 1850s, the notion of “slave power,” while substantively true, also provided a compelling notion of a powerful oligarchy subverting the American system of self-governance that united both radical abolitionists and those with more “moderate” anti-slavery politics. They presented slavery as not only a dehumanizing and despicable institution but also a threat to the American ideal of self-governance. Frederick Douglass wrote, the expansion of slavery would “…create a class of tyrants in whose presence no man’s Liberty, not even the white man’s Liberty would be safe. The slaveholder would then be the only really free man of the country.” Surrendering the ideal of freedom to the Right has been disastrous, and renewed efforts to be made that the Left is the true “party of freedom,” while the Right’s vision of freedom is just the freedom of the few to dominate the many.
Consciousness of continuity with the American political tradition should be married to the consciousness of continuity of the American progressive project with its aspirations to bring self-governance to the whole nation, particularly those parts of the country that labor under extreme G.O.P. domination. It is important to conceive of this project, like Reconstruction and the New Deal, as one of both of national unification and modernization, bringing together political unshackling and development and making the case that the domination of local elites has prevented shared economic growth to favor of their own petty tyrannies. The connection between material improvement of life and liberty should always be made. The Left should make clear that its vision is that of a productive and prosperous nation, so wealthy it is able to generously provide, rather than the Right’s vision of atomized hoarders, desperately and fearfully hanging on to what they have in the face of diminishing national prospects.
Anyway, this is getting long again. Fortunately, I believe many are already embarking on this project. They will probably be impatient with this as “nothing new” or as too vague and abstract to be helpful. I would encourage them to stay on the path that seems to be working. None of this will be easy or is guaranteed to succeed. There’s no tricks or short-cuts here. But the effort to articulate a positive vision of what left-wing national leadership would really entail, subject to vigorous debate and revision, may be a good place to start.
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