Leftist Thought
in Twentieth Century America


Harvard University Press

144 pages

$19 hardcover

On behalf of countless readers whose reaction to most left academic writing over the past two decades has increasingly been not so much either agreement or disagreement as an overpowering sense of “So what?,” the eminent philosopher Richard Rorty has composed a marvelous philippic against the entrenched irrelevance of much of the American left.

The very notion of “achieving our country” — Rorty takes his title for this collection of lectures and essays from the concluding passage of James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time — is a task, he laments, to which the current academic left is utterly unsuited. It has no belief in the country’s capacity to reform and, worse, no aptitude for achieving anything even dimly detectable in the real world. This “spectatorial, disgusted, mocking Left,” Rorty writes, ” . . . is not the only Left we have, but it is the most prominent and vocal one.” And it differs from all hitherto existing American lefts in that it has no agenda for action, is untroubled by its lack of agenda and, indeed, does not really believe in such an agenda.

Its mission, rather, is to unmask and decode the cultural product the system produces, in the comforting belief that this somehow advances the revolutionary cause. “The contemporary academic Left seems to think that the higher your level of abstraction, the more subversive of the established order you can be,” Rorty notes. “The authors of these purportedly ‘subversive’ books honestly believe that they are serving human liberty. But it is almost impossible to clamber back down from their books to a level of abstraction on which one might discuss the merits of a law, a treaty, a candidate or a political strategy.”

In a sense, Achieving Our Country is a companion volume to Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals, which chronicled the decline of social thinkers who wrote largely for public consumption and the rise of academic theorists who wrote chiefly for their colleagues. But while historian Jacoby considered the institutional changes that led to the increasing insularity of American intellectuals, philosopher Rorty focuses more on the doctrinal and methodological changes that have stranded otherwise perfectly useful disciplines on desert islands of inconsequence.

Indeed, Rorty is at his most acute in charting the changes in his own discipline, as it is practiced within the philosophy departments of the English-speaking world. There, the expansive concerns of an Alfred North Whitehead were supplanted by the close analytical work of an A.J. Ayer — relegating academic philosophy to the task of “solving problems which no nonphilosopher recognizes as problems.” Rorty fears a similar process is now at work in literature departments, as scholars interested in authorial styles and themes give way to a generation of cultural decoders. “What goes on in Anglophone philosophy departments has become largely invisible to the rest of the academy, and then to the culture as a whole,” he writes. “This may be the fate that awaits literature departments.”

Rorty’s most important insight is into the political world-view of the academic left: that it is essentially nonpolitical. This left may contend that one cultural work affirms the system while another subverts it, but the system itself remains an abstraction — a power that passes, if not all understanding, at least all attempts at reconfiguring. Before such a power, the very notion of an agent of social change is woefully inadequate. The cultural left, writes Rorty, “still dreams of being rescued by an angelic power called ‘the people.’ In this sense, ‘the people’ is the name of a redemptive preternatural force, a force whose demonic counterpart is named ‘power’ or ‘the system.’” The logical consequence of the current left epistemology, he continues, is virtually to proscribe political action. “Emphasizing the impossibility of meaning, or of justice, as Derrida sometimes does, is a temptation to Gothicize — to view democratic politics as ineffectual because unable to cope with preternatural forces.”

Rorty also offers a more familiar, though no less accurate, critique of the academic left: that it has largely dropped the banner of class, under which all manner of progressives marched until the ’60s, and has taken up an armful of other banners, for specific races, genders and sexual orientations. He offers a devastating comparison of the core beliefs of the current cultural left with those of one of its forebears, Walt Whitman. The enshrinement of otherness, he argues, couldn’t have been more alien to America’s greatest 19th-century other. “Whitman had no interest in preservation or protection [of distinct cultures from the incursions of other cultures]. He wanted competition and argument between alternative forms of human life . . . [resulting in a] new culture [that] will be better because it will contain more variety in unity.”

When Rorty moves from intellectual critic to social historian, he’s on shakier ground. On the question of how class lost its centrality to the American left, he is right to note the New Left’s disaffection from the Old during the Vietnam War, but he greatly understates just how vigorously much of the Old Left shoved the New Left away. And as political strategist, Rorty is shakier still. His appeal for reconciliation between the surviving wings of Old Left and New is mildly bewildering, not only because the realpolitik tendencies of both, greatly influenced by Michael Harrington, already achieved a rapprochement during the ’70s and ’80s. It is also confusing because Rorty’s indictment of the left on campus suggests that the non-academic left would do better repudiating than embracing its academic counterpart. To be sure, Rorty affirms the value of race- and gender-study programs, which he considers a major contribution of the left. But he so convincingly savages the actual intellectual work of the typical left academic that his call for harmonic convergence falls somewhat flat.

Rorty has a fairly precise image of what an engaged academic left would look like: the social-science departments of the early 20th-century, Progressive-era universities, where scholars like John Commons devised the social insurance models on which New Deal liberals would later build. To the extent that socialist academics also developed reforms and reformers, they pass muster with Rorty, too. Today’s academic left, by contrast, “is exactly the sort of Left that the oligarchy dreams of: a Left whose members are so busy unmasking the present that they have no time to discuss what laws need to be passed in order to create a better future.”

So eager is Rorty to demonstrate the singularity and futility of the current academic left that he imposes on virtually all previous left and liberal tendencies of this century a common identity that in fact they did not share. For Rorty, it is not enough to note that both the liberal and socialist lefts of earlier decades would be at odds with the spectatorial left he decries. “I propose to use the term ‘reformist Left,’” he writes, “to cover all those Americans who, between 1900 and 1964, struggled within the framework of constitutional democracy to protect the weak from the strong. And so he links, in order of decreasing plausibility, Michael Harrington and John Kenneth Galbraith, Angela Davis and Jane Addams, Eugene Debs and Woodrow Wilson. He notes approvingly such “bottom-up Leftist initiatives” as the Pullman Strike, the Flint-G.M. Sit-In, and “Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist movement.”

Which is to say, Rorty’s political compass conks out altogether once it has guided him through the thickets of left academia. The problem, I think, is a peculiar view of political movements, in which an activist’s or a group’s involvement in a particular campaign, rather than any distinctive set of beliefs, becomes its defining attribute. More than that, though, Rorty is wary of the movement sensibility as such: It divides potential allies; it offers a totalistic world-view likely either to explode on the world or implode on the adherent. Nor is Rorty content simply to conclude that the proper pursuit of poli tical man is involvement in campaigns rather than movements. He also revisits Amer ican left history and transforms such leading movement activists and thinkers as Irving Howe and Michael Harrington into pragmatic problem solvers trundling from one campaign to the next.

Contrary to Rorty’s assessment, what defined both Howe and Harrington was their belief in democratic socialism and in the need for a socialist movement, and, indeed, in the key role that that movement could play in deepening and invigorating any number of discrete liberal campaigns. The task of the socialist, Howe wrote in such essays as “The Near and the Far,” was to offer a perspective that could inspire and instruct activists both for the particular campaign and the broader social context in which it was situated, as well as to accommodate that perspective to the new realities that campaign might produce. That, in fact, was the very substance of Harrington’s life — converting thousands of one-shot campaigners into lifelong activists by imparting (and inspiring them with) his understanding of the political and moral meaning of the cause in which they had become involved.

Indeed, the most glaring flaw of Rorty the social historian is his failure to understand that even reformist campaigns are made by radicals. The CIO would have been stillborn without the zealous ministrations of thousands of communists and socialists who believed in both the historic mission and the moral claim of the working class. The UAW under Walter Reuther, perhaps the key institutional bastion of postwar liberalism, was guided by social democrats with a genuine ideological antipathy to capitalism. And surely, part of the greatness of Martin Luther King Jr. was to inspire a generation of civil rights activists with the certitude that they were involved in a project of cosmic consequence. “The moral arc of the universe is long,” King cried, “but it bends toward justice.”

There has always been more in the heaven and earth of building a campaign, in short, than Rorty’s philosophy admits. What Rorty offers is a kind of latter-day amalgam of John Dewey and Eduard Bernstein (the turn-of-the-century socialist who argued for incremental change): The final vision, the idea of a final vision, is a distraction at best; our proper task is to find discrete solutions to particular problems. What this Dewey-eyed view of history does not grasp is that victories in Bernstein’s day-to-day struggles have usually been won not (or at least, not just) by Bernstein’s apostles, but by more visionary crusaders for whom campaigns are surely important, but not simply in and for themselves.

There lurks in Rorty’s formulations the implication, at least, that with socialism in eclipse throughout the globe, the only sensible recourse for the entire “reformist” left is the scaled-down campaign freed from the taint of any larger movement. Would that this approach actually worked. A quick look at the city halls and statehouses across America makes abundantly clear that incremental liberalism in the most localized of settings isn’t faring any better than the world socialist project. Absent a movement or movements that can grapple with the market forces that are everywhere eroding the powers of government, the pros pects for discrete progressive campaigns are correspondingly bleak.

And yet, whatever Rorty’s shortcomings in his newfound roles as political strategist and social historian, his power as a critic of ideas — and the power of his critique of the academic left — is undiminished. He may have failed to evoke the left we need, but he has most artfully dispatched a left we don’t.

This review originally appeared in Dissent.

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