Introduction to the American Left: A Roadmap for the New/Old Politics of American Opposition

By Michael Souders, Editor—

Terry Eagleton, commenting on Jacques Derrida’s 1994 book Specters of Marx which announces Derrida’s rather conditional affiliation with Marx, asked a pointed question:

“Where was Jacques Derrida when we needed him, in the long dark night of Reagan-Thatcher?…There is something pretty rich…about this sudden dramatic somersault onto a stalled bandwagon.”[1]

It is a fair—if bitter—question. Eagleton saw Derrida, whose post-structuralism had been extensively (if questionably) employed to attack the political left as rigid and archaic, as showing up at the post-Soviet moment of least risk. In contrast, Derrida saw himself showing up right on time, checking in against the triumphalism of liberal democracy at the post-Soviet moment of greatest need. Who was right?

Perhaps today’s politics vindicate both Derrida and Eagleton. We appear now to be entering another dark night, a generation after the Reagan-Thatcher era closed, and it may be a long one and perhaps even darker. Trumpism—as we call it here in the US—is not the work of one man. A glance at politics across Europe and North America—in the Netherlands, in the United Kingdom, in France, in Greece—reveal that the West’s dedication to liberal democracy and its surface-level rejection of fascism and the politics of ethno-nationalism have both worn thin. Our repeated declarations of “Never again!,” our endless repetition of documentaries, books, and movies about the Allies military triumph over anti-Semitism and bigotry are falling away. Our war memorials, holocaust memorials and museums, our celebration of our antifascisms and our holidays for the heroes of civil rights are being remade into heroic symbols of ethno-national superiority.[2] Indeed, the whole cultural project to declare the West triumphant over its own worse tendencies of authoritarianism, racism, exploitation and mass murder—via our democracy’s innate auto-immune system of capitalism and positive thinking—is at risk of total collapse.

So in a way both Eagleton and Derrida were right. Eagleton’s “plaint” is certainly well received. Allies who show up after the dust-up is over aren’t very useful allies. To be a leftist in 1985—when few could distinguish between the anti-Soviet Left and the evil prison-state of the Soviet Union—was to risk your credibility, your connections, your livelihood and sometimes even your life. To show up as a Leftist in 1994—three years after that unfortunate bastion of global communism had collapse into ruin—is akin to declaring your desire to die for the Union cause in 1868. Yet Derrida, whose admittedly “untimely” book on Marx was meant to serve as his definitive entry in the realm of political philosophy, certainly knew that politics did not end in 1991 and, if the Left was right about anything, it was that it would again be called upon to stand up for itself.

And so we here are: The American Left. This publication is our effort to ensure we are not accused of being absent during the “long dark night” of Trumpism or the rise of global fascist tendencies. It is our effort to do what Derrida asks us to do: To forward a politics that declares a dedication to the liberatory potential of the Left while refusing to fall into the old dogmatism that ensured it could not keep as an ideology. Our goal is to continue a forgotten tradition of American-style Leftism; a tradition that has been buried by a history of Red Scares, Reaganism, Nixon, the murderous regimes of the Soviets and other Communists, Red Baiting, Clintonism and the capitulation of the Democratic Party to Wall Street, and the other small handfuls of dirt that have accumulated on American Leftism since at least the Second World War. The American Left will be publication that will define and outline the American Left and its politics, conceptually and in practice—and think carefully about the unique American tradition of Leftism and how it is applicable now.

In a country where politics revolves predominantly around the labels “conservative” and “liberal”, we are surely, as Derrida would have said, “out of joint.” After all, according to both the mainstream media and all the members of your family, the Democrats are already avowed “leftists” and, to at least a large portion of America, President Barack Obama was only slightly to the right of V.I. Lenin. In our strange world, Secretary Clinton—once a leader of the Democratic Leadership Council, whose successful coup of the Democratic Party involved booting labor interests out of the center of the party in favor of business interests—is seen as suspiciously sympathetic to wealth redistribution. On the TV news Clinton, whose connections to Wall Street investment banking involve not just recent history of paid speeches but a long history of cultivation, was called a socialist on a regular basis. Perhaps more surprisingly, those who made such comments were not sent out to pasture immediately for obvious ignorance. Instead, those voices were given central roles in hourly gladiatorial battles between paid political partisans featured on 24-hours news television, where Left is defined as any deviation from the right.

Even for more circumspect Americans with a more solid awareness of the true terrain of American politics, the term “liberal” is synonymous with “left;” to declare yourself “pretty liberal” in a conversation is pretty much to declare yourself as sitting near the left-side arrow on the political spectrum (beyond which, There Be Dragons). We live in a culture that barely separates types of liberatory ideas in any format; but, to be fair, it’s only partially the fault of the citizenry. Our systems of elementary and secondary education are built to avoid preparing citizen-students for political life. Anyone with a child knows that our public school system’s of idea of advanced preparation for civic life involves students doing nothing political at all, but instead involves “service projects” that are completely devoid of any critical analysis of WHY service is needed. The school system may encourage students to volunteer a few hours at a soup kitchen—which doubles as a nice warning about what happens if you fail in your education—but it certainly will not ask students to speculate on, much less investigate, why the soup kitchen is required in the first place. But it’s not just the schools. It’s almost everywhere. The soup kitchen itself, doing the work on the ground, can hardly attack the system which makes it necessary: Its main donors are likely corporations, local businesses, and churches, none of whom want to hear any claptrap about surplus labor, a systemic housing crisis, or lack of effective services due to budget cutbacks created by de-regulation and tax cuts.

But the truth of the matter is that a liberal is not a Leftist—and the distinction is essential. In the classic terms, a liberal is someone believes in defending individual rights—the liberal world. The term “liberal” is close to the term liberty, in the sense of individual freedom and rights. Rights to political suffrage, free speech, private property, religion, and free markets and equality before the law. It’s true that today’s liberalism in the United States is slightly different. It is fundamentally committed to liberal rights and especially the central role of a mostly-free market, but it does have a sense of social good and it does permit a role for government in areas its sees as not well-dealt with by the market. But despite its moderate role for the government, liberalism, even modern liberalism, is not Leftist. Liberalism believes deeply in meritocracy, the market as a sorting mechanism of social ability and talent, the right of individuals to maximize their own wealth, the innate value of competition, and almost every other foundational capitalist value. Liberals have zero skepticism about wealth-accumulation or the aspiration to achieve wealth. They are believers in entrepreneurialism and the American Dream. In fact, most liberal social programs are explicitly intended to be a “kickstart” toward wealth aspiration, rounding off the problem of “random misfortune” and social biases. Social programs, in the liberal world, are not intended to be any sort of a creator of equality. Take education, the biggest social program: Why do liberals encourage getting an education? Not for its intellectual or aesthetic value. Not to create a critical, equal citizenry capable of expressing its autonomy in a democracy. No, liberals support education because it’s an opportunity to get ahead in the market. Education is, primarily, understood as a business opportunity—a chance at a comparative advantage over your competitors in the job market.

A Leftist is something different—and there are many, many kinds of Leftists. The Left is diverse in the same way the right. What we call “the Right” ranges from low-tax, pro-de-regulation but pro-choice/pro-schools suburbanites to anti-government libertarians to jingoistic neo-conservatives to ethno-nationalist proto-fascists to pseudo-theocrats and xenophobes. In fact, without a common enemy, many of these folks could not manage to share a drink in a bar (to borrow a close friend’s test). The same is true of the Left (ask socialists about their ability to agree with each other). But Leftists do have some common characteristics. Compared to a liberal, a Leftist has far less faith in the power the market to achieve equitable outcomes, and refuses to grant the market broad legitimacy for determining social merit. A Leftist is at least skeptical of the individual drive for wealth accumulation and eschews the “hand up, not hand out” views of liberalism. A Leftist generally advocates for education of the citizens but, as Thomas Frank has noted, is skeptical that education is the whole underclass’s route to socio-economic mobility; indeed, a Leftist knows that an education only provides social mobility if the rest of the underclass fails to gain education—and thus cannot be the solution for the whole underclass.[3] A Leftist recognizes that the liberal view of education is one based in market competition. A Leftist sees that “equality of opportunity,” while superior to a lack of equality of opportunity, is often a cover for deep inequalities in outcomes and regularly serves as a sort of race/class/gender blind mantra for refusing to recognize historical structural disadvantages that can’t be resolved simply by outlawing discrimination in hiring or housing. The Leftist demands we confront socio-economically ingrained inequality, not wish it away in an attempt to declare ourselves ‘post-discriminatory” either in law or culture. The Leftist remind us that structural problems can’t be solved by passing out atomized “opportunities.” The Left is deeply invested in the collective success of its people and it sees its ethic of commitment to social equality as going beyond the border of the nation-state to all persons. Leftists see liberals as “dangerous compromisers” who are often more likely to defend the supremacy and ethical rule of the market rather than promote greater social equality.

So what is the “American Left”? To us at the American Left, the American Left is an offshoot of European Leftism that, while adhering to all of the core elements that constitute the Left, is committed to some radically American ideas that grow out of our frontier and non-European history. We see ourselves as committed, at a base level, to individual liberty in a way that might not be seen in our fellow Leftists across the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. We believe in free speech as a near-absolute value and refuse to see free speech as subordinate to political perspective. We recognize the dignity of each person at a pre-political level and that each person should not be compelled in any way to give up their spiritual, religious or cultural beliefs. We recognize that the heritage of our nation’s Leftism comes from not only the factory—as in Europe—but in our resource and development industries: farming, mining, timber, construction, railroads. Our Leftism is both the leftism of the labor union and the leftism of the frontier: a leftism that knows that as an immigrant nation, folks came here to create a new world for themselves. Thus, we recognize that our nation’s values are more individualistic than Europe’s tradition, and that our sense of collectivism must be tempered by the American sense of the individuality and liberty. Thus we refuse any deterministic mechanism that crudely seeks to shuffle people in socially beneficial roles—even if those roles are well-compensated. We recognize that our culture is one that embraces risk and that each person should have the ability to take on risk as they see fit.

As American Leftists, we are also committed to the democratic tradition, and we place democracy over our collective aspiration. We place opposition to all forms of totalitarianism: tyranny, dictatorship, fascism, theocracy and authoritarianism—prior to our political projects because such formats are the enemy of a free and self-determined people. Those of the 20th century American Left, along with many in the UK and Europe, proudly denounced and opposed the Soviet regime as a murderous, oppressive prison-state—and we would do the same. There is no victory in politics without democracy as the underpinning mechanism, because only democracy respects the sovereignty of the individual and the right of each individual to participate in the government that determines the rules of society.

In our iteration of Leftism, then, we oppose all anti-democratic politics. We seek ever more democracy—ever greater openness and participation and voice. It’s a sentiment Derrida would agree with, but it doesn’t take a French-Algerian to say it. Instead, we agree with the great progressive Governor of New York Al Smith, who said long before Derrida wrote about the democracy-to-come that, “If there are any ills that democracy is suffering from today, they can only be cured by more democracy.” That does not, however, insulate our present democracy from criticism. In the US, we have a fairly static idea of democracy—it is voting, it’s the House and Senate, it’s the presidency and state legislatures. And yet, these have often been very poor institutions of democracy, both historically and presently. While recent events put a focus on the anti-democratic nature of the Electoral College, it is not hard to see how anti-democratic principles run the thread throughout US history. It’s one of the great contradictions of the American heritage: A nation of such high ideals and great potential has so often engaged in almost every trick possible to avoid living up to those ideals. It is our blessing and our curse. We have a glorious history of idealistic principles of liberty, opportunity, equality and democracy but a material reality of murder, colonialism, war, slavery, oppression and violence. The extent of our heritage of violence may be more than some nations and less than others, but it is magnified by its contrast with our outspoken dedication to freedom.

Our dedication to democracy and our commitment to the dignity of all people means that we will not be comfortable allies for some other Leftists. Leftists of authoritarian stripes, the Stalinist sympathizers or Maoist apologists will find no welcome in our pages. Even today, the politics of revolutionary vanguardism continues to poke out its ugly head. To us, any group which demands violence or a take-over of the few for eventual greater good is a group that cannot be trusted. Any group who refuses to recognize the dignity of all persons or believes in a politics of destruction justified by past history will find us hostile. There is no person who is not worthy of democratic participation in our version of Leftism, there is no excuse for premeditated collateral damage. The writers here will vary in their perspective. Some will believe in the existence of universal human rights. Others will be skeptical of these things. Some will encourage people to work through existing political structures or support a reform of those structures. Some will engage in deep critiques of those structures. But all of us believe in the core concept that democracy is a society of argument and persuasion—that a democracy is a society that eshews revolutionary take-overs except as deepest last resorts because revolutions, at the best of times, kill, destroy, murder and maim—and revolutions have a terrible habit of going very wrong.[4] Even the revolutions with the best of intentions fly off the tracks, are coopted by forces who want power instead of freedom, are subverted by those who want revenge instead of justice, democracy or freedom. Even the most optimistic of political revolutions can easily spin into terror, purges, ethnic-cleansing, and genocide as counter-revolutionary forces fight back and it becomes clear that only the brutal can win. The 20th century is littered with the mass graves of those who have died as collateral damage in political revolutions. Political revolutions—left and right—all seem to end in the same place: the charnel house.

But opposing revolution or destruction does not make us the defenders of injustice or conservatives who believe in the preservation of institutions at all costs. If the 20th century gives us a crash course in the murderous potential of an advanced technological society, it also shows us that politics can operate in opposition while refusing to give into the demand for submission. The fall of the Soviet state involved people’s revolutions that did not engage in the murder of political opponents, the burning of all institutions, or the retributive justice. South Africa, long the land of the cruelest racist government in the world, has shown the way with an ever great commitment to racial justice, democracy and inclusion. The opponents of the apartheid South African government, like the ANC who fought in on-going conflict with the government South Africa for nearly 80 years, did not use their rise to power to recriminate or destroy their enemies but to create a functioning, better state. They were neither complicit with the evil of their governments—indeed, they fought it, sometimes with arms—but they did not reject the institutions entirely. They fought them and then used them to achieve their goals. These examples, of course, do not mean that these new states are perfect—far from it. We are never perfect. We must always fight for greater openness. But in these cases, resistance succeeded largely without the total destruction of a society and the consequences that go along with that—and the number of lives that were saved is without count.

So that is our position at the American Left. We are a voice for Leftist politics in America—a politics that opposes the emerging fascisms, ethnic-nationalisms and the status quo’s perverse faith in the market meritocracy. We are dedicated to social equality and to promoting a just society that is not merely equal opportunity, but which respects the dignity of each person and recognizes our collective responsibility for our fellow humans and citizens. It’s an ethic that goes beyond the border of our nation-state to those around the world. In our recognition of dignity, we oppose totalitarianism of all types and support the freedom and liberty of the individual. We recognize the contradictory history of our nation—a nation created by immigrants and political and religious refugees with high-minded ideals of greater freedom and liberty, but whose material history was one of violence and colonialism from the very beginning, and whose growth was based on the exploitation and abuse of the poor. We are seeking to close that gap, to live up to those ideals and close out our history of violence in favor of a new and ever-greater democracy that can stamp out the dangers of racism, xenophobia, gender discrimination and social inequality while pointing out liberalism’s failure to come to grips with these challenges. We hope you find our writing interesting and illuminating.

Edited May 2, 2017.

[1] Terry Eagleton, “Marxism without Marxism,” in Ghostly Demarcations, ed. Michael Sprinker (London, Verso, 1999), 83-84. Derrida’s book is: Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International (New York: Routledge, 1994).

[2] One of the most recent disturbing trend is the use of now uncontroversial civil rights figure like Martin Luther King, Jr. to demonstrate our cultural superiority over other nations and use his statements to defend anti-civil rights policies.

[3] I’m thinking of Thomas Frank’s writing in: Thomas Frank, Listen Liberal.

[4] I don’t mean the non-revolutionary ‘revolutions’ of Representative Ron Paul and Senator Bernie Sanders, which are ‘revolutions’ only insofar as they fall slightly outside the narrow boxes of the whisker-box plot of American politics…which is to say that are not revolutions at all. They can’t even escape the two-party system, much less the structure of government.

CITE THIS (CHICAGO): Michael Souders, “Introduction to the American Left: A Roadmap for the New/Old Politics of American Opposition,” The American Left 1, no. 1 (May, 2017).