Which way leftist?
Back out into the wilderness? Or into a corrupt bargain? Neither?
I’m working on a book that focuses a great deal on the paleoconservatives, a kind of ultra-reactionary faction in the conservative movement that crystallized in the late ’80s and early ’90s. They were a small faction compared to the neocons and mainstream Republicans, but the thesis of my book is basically that they were quite important in creating the modern right: way back in the early 90s, they basically favored finding a loud-mouthed demagogue who could scare liberals.
But the paleocons also very concerned with the identity and integrity of the conservative movement and the right wing and felt like they were the keepers of the flame against recently-entering interlopers. The conservative historian Stephen Tonsor, referring to the neocons at Philadelphia Society meeting said, “It is splendid when the town whore gets religion and joins the church. Now and then she makes a good choir director, but when she begins to tell the minister what he ought to say in his Sunday sermons, matters have been carried too far.” Many people like him were put off by the new power of recent arrivals. The context of this remark was the early Reagan years, when the conservative movement was staffing the administration and trying to define its vision. The jobs and status and philosophical spirit seemed to be going in the direction of the neocons, not the grognards of the old movement. By the end of the Reagan years, the paleos thought the entry into the halls of power had weakened and deracinated conservatives. Paleo columnist Joe Sobran wrote: “Reagan gave conservatism a beachhead in Washington, but he didn't follow through… The libs have sold the Administration on the myth which Reagan's victories should have demolished: that Republicans thrive by adopting ‘moderation.’” The conservatives had become totally sucked into the Washington D.C. blob and become indistinguishable from liberals. Of course, to the left, this seems strange: Reagan did actually shift the country to the right profoundly. The paleos got their wish in Trump eventually, long after many of them had died or been totally marginalized, and at the moment that seems be just marginalizing the Republicans in the way they once were.
With the Biden administration certain parts of this dynamic seem to be repeating on the left. It’s not an exact parallel because Biden is not a man of the left in the way Reagan was a true member of the conservative movement and the left is not a coherent ideological unit suddenly unleashed on the D.C. policy apparatus in quite the same way. Instead, it’s a dispute how to understand the political and policy shifts. Some, myself included, are pleasantly surprised and guardedly optimistic with the agenda being enacted; others, who seemed convinced that Biden couldn’t possibly do anything this bold or ambitious and would be following familiar neoliberal patterns are now grumbling it’s wholly insufficient. That’s fine: it’s correct to always expect and ask for more. But there’s another current there: of not wanting to believe the left has any influence or power, even limited, over whats going on, that it’s not part of the political calculus of the last few years.
The important thing for people of this strain of thought seems to be maintaining the identity of the left-wing as a coherent oppositional voice and movement as opposed to mainstream liberalism. (It’s sort of ironic that this view is often espoused by people who profess to disdain identity politics, as usual they just prefer their own.) It’s not clear to me that this is a strategic idea of wanting to maintain actual coherence or wanting to remain subcultural and marginal but still recognizable to oneself; a scene with a clearly-defined style that has not “sold out.” In any case, the danger now is thought to be that ever-corrupt and corrupting liberalism swallows and disarms the left, just as paleos felt D.C. liberalism did to the conservative movement.
This also sort of parallels another one of my abiding obsessions: sections left in the Third Republic believed that rallying to the support of the democratic republic had diluted the worker’s movement and made the Socialists indistinguishable from other parliamentary parties. In that case though, there was more of a real strategic point: the Socialists actually had mass support of workers in the streets, and the decision of when to use and spend that power was an essential question. The Socialists Blum and Jaurès, whom I admire a great deal, managed to stake out a position between mere reformism and uncompromising revolutionism; I’m reading a biography of Blum, and the author has this to say about Blum’s mentor: “Jaurès lent his special talents to creating a synthesis of the conflicting views. Although insisting that the parliamentary republic was the institutional framework within which the socialist must work to achieve their goal, he never abjured the idea of revolution and the class struggle.”
The left in America today is in a weird position, where it seems to be some things it wants without having a great deal of organizational power. Or there’s a disagreement about how much power the left really has. Is this progressive legislation because of Bernie or just because the libs had to address the crisis? How to respond? The idea that this is some kind of liberal trap and the correct path is back out into the wilderness seems wrong to me. On the other hand, I can see the argument for maintaining some kind of oppositional coherence in the face of a stifling liberal consensus. It’s also important to remember both strategies favor interests that are not quite so high-minded: in a small, coherent subculture its easy to be a big fish in a small pond, so it favors the interests of certain elites, and broadly merging with liberalism, also obviously favors another kind of opportunistic elite.
On the balance, I temperamentally and philosophically prefer Popular Front-ism, hence this blog’s name. I do not particularly want to be a part of a subculture—I was already a teenager once. I do not even particularly care about the identity of being “a man of the left”; I am not offended by being called a liberal even though I read Marx. There are worse things in this world than liberals. I do hope we can make a more decent and dignified life for people in this country in my lifetime.
I don’t know the answer to these problems; I’m not even sure this is the right analysis. But at the very least I hope we will begin to ask the right questions.