There is no greater fallacy than the intellectual claim that a once commonly accepted truth or paradigm has at last come to an end. More often than not it is wishful thinking. To declare the end of or the death of something was a fashionable twentieth century conceit. From the death of God to the end of History, with everything from the Novel, Art, Civilization, Nature, Hip Hop, Cinema, Socialism, and the Author terminated in between we have witnessed the rhetorical annihilation of just about everything. Even the intellectual, in an act of self-flagellation, has declared his own death. (A parallel list, I think, might enumerate the things that have literally disappeared, ended, or diedthe languages, species, tribes, currencies, habitats, etc. Not as fashionable, perhaps.)
What is left one might reasonably ask? Nuclear weapons, Global Warming, AIDS, the conflict in Israel/Palestine, Poverty, the American empire, McDonalds, Existentialism, Genocide, Republicans and Democrats. So it seems all the good things are dead, all the reasons for living have been put to rest, and we are left with the acrid residue of late (now early twenty first century) capitalism. Yes, I forgot to mention capitalismDidn’t Marx say that one day it too would end?
So what of the American left? If it isn’t dead, it is surely dying and has been for more than four decades, perhaps even longer. In 1970 a Libertarian newsletter declared that, “signs of the death of the Left are everywhere” (they were referring to the New Left, I should say. Presumably the Old Left had already passed on). This only two years after Paul Goodman wrote in the New York Times Magazine that, “in the face of the extraordinary novelties and complexities of modern times, there is no persuasive program for social reconstruction, thought up by many minds, corrected by endless criticism, made practical by much political activity.”(Imagine what he would say today!) What Christopher Lasch described as the agony of the American left had become something of an existential crisis. In his book of the same title he wrote that, “The history of American radicalism, in any case, is largely a history of failure and therefore not a source of comfort to those who look to the past to find ancestors and heroes.” A history of failure, however, is preferable to no history at all.
Today, when we are everywhere reminded of the decline and imminent death of the left, its history, even its failures, seem largely forgotten. Part of that has something to do with the death of an entire generation of activists, intellectuals, and laborers who lived through the depression and the radical ferment of an earlier time. One need not romanticize the past to recognize that it contained within it seeds of hope that have disappeared. Collective action no longer emerges from the day-to-day struggles of ordinary people. Struggle they do, but in an increasingly alienated environment, one in which politics has been reduced to the ballot box. And the ballot box is so often a reminder of the depressing state of American politics, that not voting is becoming a conscious political act. (Note that in Michigan, where Hillary Clinton was the only leading primary candidate on the ballot, 39% of the electorate cast their vote for “uncommitted.” Not a good sign for Dennis Kucinich, a candidate whose flagging campaign is a sad reflection of the left’s inability to break the stranglehold of the Party’s top down, corporate ethos. He made out with only 4% of the vote.)
Today we look elsewhere for a way out of our political impasse. Latin America is the most visible. This is perhaps a good thing, though it also seems an acknowledgement that our shared political history is not strong enough to build a new left. It may also have something to do with a certain lack of critical awareness-does the left really want to look at itself in the mirror?
A radical tradition cannot be invented overnight. Socialism has never made great inroads in this country and its absence is not insignificant. That is, its presence would at least provide a necessary counterweight to the prevailing winds of free market orthodoxy and the individual pursuit of happiness. A belief in social justice seems almost an anachronism in today’s America, a delusional approach to the complex problems that we face. Or at least old fashioned. But without a tradition of free or affordable healthcare and education, of access to clean air and water for rich and poor alike, from where does a politics of social justice emerge?
Perhaps that is the real reason we are looking elsewhere for our political future. The dismal state of the left, though it may be most evident in the absence of a powerful anti-war movement, was presaged by a decade of “reform” that dismantled what remained of America’s welfare state. And where was the left then?
Tradition might seem a paradoxical foundation upon which to build a radical politics-radical politics is often defined by its departure from that tradition-but it might be the left’s last best hope.
ADAM FEDERMAN can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org