Todd Gitlin, Frances Fox Piven and Michael Walzer spoke at a City University of New York symposium on “The Vanishing American Left” in September 2006. These essays are drawn from their talks. —Eds.
I DON'T KNOW about “vanishing”—we probably weren’t as strong as we thought we were in the sixties, and we probably are not as weak as we think we are today. Back then, there were still some illusions about ideological coherence and perhaps some sense that we were actually building organizations. But the sixties left no organizational residue, and we no longer can have any illusions about ideological coherence. Still, if you add up all the “fragments”—environmentalists; feminists; antiwar activists; all the people still fighting for civil rights; ACLU types; multiculturalists of all sorts (well, of some sorts); Americans active in global civil society in organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Doctors Without Borders; the readers of left magazines, and so on, I doubt that our numbers have dropped all that much.
If we are politically weaker, as we obviously are, it is not because we are fewer, but because of two long-term trends: first, the demobilization of the labor movement and the decline of the unions (liberals and leftists have paid too little attention to this); and second, the mobilization of evangelical Christians, who were largely withdrawn and politically passive back in the sixties (and also, though we never noticed it, bitter and resentful)....
I remember or think I remember an oppositional politics that had some weight and integrity. I am less sure about the existence of a politics like that today. What’s been vanishing in this country over the last years is a left that doesn’t deserve to vanish....
But the real left, I mean, the left whose members vote Democratic (or should vote Democratic, though too many of them don’t) but think of themselves as an independent political force—that left should never be muffled or evasive. We should have a clear position or, because we are an argumentative lot, a range of positions that have a strong family resemblance. We should share a commitment to a set of principles, even if we disagree sharply about how best to represent those principles in the “real world.” The principles are big ones, like freedom, democracy, and—the defining principle of any left—equality. What these words mean is uncertain, but not all that uncertain, and we need to take them seriously.
What would a left be like that had commitments like that? Ever since September 11, 2001, the really difficult political questions have had to do with global politics. But the Bush administration has used this fact, has used the cover of war and terror, to push the country hard right on domestic issues. So let’s start there.
The left we need would be strongly pro-labor and committed to rebuilding the union movement. I put this first because the idea of an egalitarian politics without a base among industrial and service workers is an illusion—a common illusion among leftist defenders of “difference,” but an illusion nonetheless.
We should have a redistributive program with teeth in it, which means that we are committed to a radical revision of the way the tax system works, so that the burdens of both domestic welfare and an internationalist politics are shared fairly by all our citizens.
Public education has to have a central role in any left program—and it has to be funded in a way that reflects its centrality. We should be the defenders of a secular curriculum, with strong intellectual content, imaginatively taught, by teachers who are respected and decently paid. And we should be defenders of schools that are integrated across the lines of class and race. “Difference” (especially religious difference) should mostly be accommodated in after-school and weekend classes, but we can live with head scarves and yarmulkes—we don’t have to be Jacobin secularists.
We should, obviously, be the advocates of comprehensive national health insurance. That is the keystone of any decent welfare system. But after that we need to be a lot more inventive than the left has been in the past in designing the administration of welfare programs. We should aim at higher levels of participation in “helping” activities and mutual aid and a greater role for civil society. ...
We need to oppose the neoliberal economic order, but without setting ourselves against economic growth and globalization. Perhaps the most important contribution the left can make would be to expose the complex patterns of politics and finance that make for grinding poverty, rampant disease, and governmental failure in the developing (or not developing) countries. Sometimes it is true that “all politics is local,” but often there is Western state and corporate complicity in the patterns, and we must speak clearly when that is so, and work for radical change.
Finally, and perhaps this is the most difficult thing, we need to recognize that although we have opponents at home, with whom we are engaged in democratic debate and competition, we have enemies abroad, with whom we are engaged in a much fiercer kind of conflict. If the left vanishes as a moral-political force, it will happen because we turn out to be incapable of intelligent enmity. ...The standard enemies of the left are all the people, East and West, North and South, who have a vested interest in economic inequality, in the gender hierarchy, and in the authoritarian rule of oligarchs and plutocrats.
BUT OUR MOST dangerous enemies right now are people who defend inequality, hierarchy, and authoritarianism idealistically, with ideological fervor and organizational discipline. ...Today we need to be clear about our hostility to religious fundamentalism—in all its versions, but most important, right now, in the form of Islamic radicalism, because this is by far its most threatening form. Here we have idealistic hatred of everything the Western left stands for (or should stand for); here we have fanatical zeal, cruel intolerance, a cult of death, a passionate commitment to the subordination of women, vicious anti-Semitism, and a pervasive hostility to liberalism and democracy. And yet there are people on the left who insist that the dangers posed by this hatred are exaggerated (or even invented by right-wing politicians) or who make excuses for it, invoking cultural difference or imperialist oppression—as if our enemies were (secretly: it would have to be secret) advocates of multiculturalism and national liberation. It won’t be easy to maintain moral clarity here and do everything else that the left needs to do, but that’s what the times require if we are to maintain our rightful place in the political world, if we are to deserve not to vanish.
Friday, June 8, 2007