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Death of the Left?

It would seem that from the 1960s to the present, the Left worldwide has been in a consistent decline from power, marked most visibly by the fall of the former Soviet Union. By the beginning of the 21st century in the United States, the once respectable word “liberal” had become a radioactive epithet eschewed by nearly all but the most intrepid and securely ensconced Democrats. Republicans controlled every branch of government, and by many accounts, the Right seemed in the ascendant both in the United States and in the world. The question thus has to arise: have we witnessed the death of the Left?

To answer such a question, one has first to determine what the Left is. This is not so simple as it once may have appeared back during the height of the Cold War when the world could be divided more or less into communist and capitalist. The division of the world between the spheres of the Soviet Union and of the United States (particularly during the 1950s and early 1960s) encouraged a falsely monolithic sense of those on the Left as “fellow travelers” of the huge, bureaucratic communist state. But in fact, much of the Left’s history, especially from the 1960s onward, consisted of efforts to develop an identity distinctively separate from the self-evident failures of state communism.

Indeed, one can see the range of positions on the Left at the meeting of the First International at The Hague in 1872, at which Karl Marx was able to manipulate the organization sufficiently to keep it moving along communist rather than anarchist lines. Marx’s flamboyant chief opponent was the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, who for all his own errors presciently warned against the emergence of a communist authoritarianism that would take power over working people. Needless to say, while Marx won—in part by moving the headquarters to New York—Bakunin’s critique was ultimately vindicated.

These same broad positions keep recurring throughout the history of the Left and certainly can be seen in the American Left since 1965. On one end of the spectrum, we see those who overtly defend Stalinism or Chinese Communism and the assertion of centralized bureaucratic power. On the other, anarchist end of the spectrum are those who are extremely skeptical of state power in general, and whose aim, somewhat like Bakunin’s, is a more inchoate rage against the machine, an insistence upon revolution for revolution’s sake. The Left spectrum extends, in other words, from enforced collectivism to anarchic individualism.

Different positions in this spectrum have long led to bitter feuds. One of the more entertaining examples of recent internecine warfare on the Left is to be found among anarchists, a reigning anarch for the last third of the 20th century being Murray Bookchin, a retired Vermont professor and founder of the Institute for Social Ecology. Bookchin, the author of Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971) and numerous other books, describes himself as a “social anarchist” because he looks forward to a (gentle) societal revolution. Since 1995, Bookchin has lit out after those whom he terms “lifestyle anarchists.” They in turn responded with books like David Watson’s Beyond Bookchin or Bob Black’s fiercely polemical Anarchy After Leftism, arguing that Bookchin’s neo-Marxist, collectivist anarchism is likely to lead to state-centralized authoritarianism and in any case has a musty odor about it. Contemporary anarchism is certainly vigorous, and in all of its tumult, one occasionally hears at least the distant echoes of Marx and Bakunin.

But critique of the military-industrial state in the name of participatory democracy long has been implicit in the American Left, especially since the 1962 Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The very name emphasizes democracy, and so too did the Port Huron Statement. The SDS, and to some extent the New Left more generally, was infused with a hostility toward centralized military-industrial power, behind which was a significant body of political and social science literature, including such works as C. Wright Mills’s Power Elite, Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, and perhaps most of all, Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. During this period, the Left began to be associated primarily with criticism of the American military-industrial state.

When we look in American history for prior opponents of the centralized bureaucratic state, we can find them, among other places, in what is now often termed the Old Right, which included John T. Flynn, Albert Jay Nock, and Herbert Agar. A number of Old Right authors, from the 1930s onward, were extremely skeptical of American military adventurism abroad, of big business, and of centralized state power in general. Many were opposed to Roosevelt’s bureaucratization of the American state—which Flynn likened to fascism—and to centralized corporate power. Their principles, carried forward into the 1960s, logically would have allied them with the students who opposed the Vietnam War as well as an American military-industrial corporate state more generally, and indeed, Flynn warned against American military involvement in Southeast Asia, presciently as early as 1954.

But a New Right was emerging. In striking contrast to Flynn, in January 1952, William F. Buckley wrote in Commonweal, “we have to accept Big Government for the duration—for neither an offensive nor defensive war can be waged given our present government skills, except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores … . And if they deem Soviet power a menace to our freedom (as I happen to), they will have to support large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards, and the attendant of centralization of power in Washington … ” The military-industrial globalist adventurism of early 21st-century neoconservatism can be seen already in young Buckley’s endorsement of “a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.”

From the 1960s onward, especially with the emergence of the Weatherman Underground and its campaign of bombings, just as the intellectual Right became more identified with a centralized American state, the Left became more and more identifiable as those who stood against the military-industrial state. Yet the Left did so without an over-arching secular millennialist plan for the future. Several graduate students recently interviewed Bill Ayers, a founding member of the Weather Underground, and pressed him about the kind of state he and his fellow members imagined would follow upon their imagined American revolution. His answers were diffuse and indicated what is visible in the Weatherman communiques as well—they weren’t quite sure what a future state would look like, except it would not be American corporate-militarism. This is very much akin to the writings of Noam Chomsky or even Ward Churchill today: they are highly critical of the existing American government, but they do not offer a secular millennialist vision for the future. Why? Not least, I think, because the communist states turned out to be totalitarian.

The Left’s role as critic of the military-industrial American state, yet without a clear vision for an alternative future, came about to a large degree because already by the 1960s and certainly in the 1970s and 1980s, it was becoming clear even to the true believers that communist states were failed attempts at utopias. The horrors of Stalin’s reign, the nightmarish Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Russian gulags, the butchery of Pol Pot’s regime—the imagined secular millennium in each case turned out to be monstrous when put into practice. And so the Left had no workable model to offer—indeed, the Left turned in large part toward theories highly critical of any “metanarrative.” Thus emerged what became known as postmodern theory.

Postmodern theorism came into prominence in the 1980s and by the 1990s was at full ascendancy in the American academy. Many of its primary figures could be termed “late Marxist,” if not “post-Marxist,” in orientation, since residual Marxist terminology and ideology informed their writing, and yet implicit in it also was the absence of any belief in broad social transformation, let alone revolution. A pivotal work of this era was Gilles Deleuze’s and Felix Guattari’s baroque contraption A Thousand Plateaus (1987), which extols nomadism and the assemblage of a nomadic “war machine.” It bears an interesting relationship to—and in some respects reflects on a theoretical level—the peregrine militancy of underground groups like Weatherman or the Red Army Faction. But the key is that the work is theoretical: it represents as well as anything the retreat of the Left into the abstruse sphere of intellectual puzzles.

The word to describe the Left in the last few decades is fragmentation. Postmodern theorism is, by and large, intellectual analysis refined to a rarified degree in order to create an esoteric terminology and a safe sphere of critique largely separated from the gritty world outside academia. But this is only one example among many of the Left’s dissolution into a variety of self-contained groups. Indeed, inherent in the very nature of identity politics is fragmentation or separatism. So long as a group is devoted primarily to advancing its own particular agenda, it will be less interested in a larger, overarching coalition that could unite it with some larger group, like workers. The emergence of identity politics in America occurred along with the decline of unions and with the export of American manufacturing jobs, which made larger common agendas for the Left even more difficult.

Despite all this, it would be a serious mistake for conservatives to assume triumphantly that the Left is dead or even on life support. Among the most influential books now in Left academic circles are those of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, notably Empire (2000) and Multitude (2004). These two books, and especially the latter, represent efforts to steer the Left past the bloated corpses of totalitarian communist states and toward some vaguely imagined new secular aeon. The precise outline of their plan is not all that clear, but it does have some familiar aspects, among them the recurrent theme of participatory democracy. In fact, near the end of Multitude, Hardt and Negri actually propose that one possible guide for their future ideal state is none other than James Madison. Yes, that James Madison.

Of course, it’s not as though these archetypal figures of the Left really belong to the Right. In the place of Marx’s term “proletariat,” Hardt and Negri use the word “multitude,” which, they believe, better allows for the preservation of identity politics within collectivism. And although they occasionally tie their text to verses from the New Testament, there is a perverse quality to such allusions, as when they cite as precedent for the word “multitude” the story of the Gadarene demoniac whom Jesus encountered, and who in the Gospel of Mark says to Jesus, “My name is Legion: for we are many.” Talk about being the devil’s advocate! Dostoevsky would recognize these types right away.

But most troubling is that Hardt and Negri represent the return of secular millennialism. Like Marx, Lenin, and Mao, they imagine some great and sudden social transformation that involves, they think, a “machinic multitude.” It really isn’t clear what vision they have for some future utopian state, any more than it was clear for their predecessors, but their millennialist language troubles even some on the Left. Still, while relatively popular for somewhat theoretical neo-Marxist writings, the books of Hardt and Negri are far from household commonplaces, and at present one can see relatively little indication that the Left, as they envision it, is in the ascendant.

And yet we have to ask ourselves: when the consequences of globalization—the export of American manufacturing and agriculture—really hit home, when the results of a massive American trade imbalance with Communist China are completely visible, when the recession or depression finally hits with full force, do we really think that the pendulum might not swing back in the other direction? Might it not be possible that many of today’s policies here and abroad are sowing the seeds for a return of the murderous nightmares of more secular millennialism?

Historians—like our greatest contemporary historian, John Lukacs, in his masterful history of America in the past century, A New Republic—will no doubt remark that it is unclear how military adventurism and interventionism around the globe, policies “rendering” prisoners to the secular arm of foreign countries for torture, gulags where people are held indefinitely without trial, a gigantic military-industrial managerial bureaucracy, the curtailing of civil liberties, unsustainable deficit spending, obsequious behavior toward our greatest military threat, Communist China, and ever intensifying centralization of power in the federal government can be considered conservative in any meaningful sense of the word.

Indeed, if a careful study of the history of the Left during the 20th century leads to any clear conclusion, surely it leads to this one: that the massive centralization of a managerial bureaucracy, especially in the name of a secular millennialist vision, has led all too quickly to ideological purges and to all the other horrors of totalitarianism. Seen in this light, the hesitation of at least some on the American Left to embrace grand utopian schemes is not something to be scorned but rather may be a sign of welcome skepticism about the busybody notion that one can impose utopia upon others by force. Yet has the Right or the Left truly learned this lesson?

I must confess, I have come to wonder whether, in the end, terms like Left and Right are not quite as useful as is a political spectrum that goes from the totalized state at one end, to decentralized anarchism or libertarianism on the other, with all manner of gradations in between. Perhaps it is salutary for us each to consider where we belong on such a spectrum. It is possible, after all, that some on the so-called Left—who have come to be skeptical of grand state metanarratives and managerial bureaucracies, and who encourage decentralization, small businesses, and small farms—are closer to what used to be called conservatism than many on the so-called Right.

Clearly, investigating a theme like the death of the Left rapidly leads to fundamental questions about the very nature of political categories themselves. Such questioning is essential, from time to time, and if it disturbs some, perhaps they should take the opportunity to stop and consider exactly what they stand for and why. For inevitably, consideration of what has happened to the Left forces one to confront what it means to belong to the Right in the first place.


Arthur Versluis is Professor of American Studies and Writing at Michigan State University and is author of numerous books.

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