Culture » May 28, 2003
The Long Detour
The History and Future of the American Left
In fact, in retrospect, the Cold War seems more like a long detour from history—a time when the left was disoriented and the political life of the nation became one-dimensional. Our nation’s leaders and the media promoted the Cold War as a contest of historic proportions—a fight to the death between capitalism and Communism.
Today, the Soviet threat (and its identity with socialism) now appears to have been grossly exaggerated. Indeed, the Cold War itself can be seen as an historical hiatus—a ritually choreographed standoff that afforded the American ruling class with both protection from dissent and an organizing principle for its retrograde foreign and domestic policies, while it provided the Soviet Union with a rationale for the Communist Party’s unquestioned rule at home and in Eastern Europe. In short, this time of fear and conformity was a godsend for the rulers on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
True, at times the Cold War seemed real enough—and at times military confrontations were devastating. The war against Vietnamese independence alone cost several million Indochinese lives, as well as the death of more than 56,000 American youth.
The Vietnam war created an ephemeral left, but it did so only after Americans became aware of the toll it was taking on both sides. And when the war was over, things went back to business as usual.
All that has now changed. The difference between ritual Cold War tensions and the terrors of the new era—real and faux—is all too clear. Now we confront a true enemy, an unpredictable, amorphous, almost intangible seething mass of freelancers, many of them highly educated and civilized, others feral, but all acting out of rage against the new American Empire. These popular forces confront American-style capitalism spontaneously, through non-governmental groups that ignore national boundaries. And they operate with little institutional control. Unlike the old enemy, the new one mounts deadly terrorist attacks on symbols of American military and commercial power, is secretly and informally organized, and is widely dispersed. As such it offers few clear targets for political or military engagement.
This situation threatens the social stability that post-industrial capitalism requires to function smoothly. And it offers the opportunity for megalomaniacal right-wingers to promote their militarist policies and dreams of world domination—as the Bush administration’s actions show all too well. For all of democratic society, and especially for the left, this new (and certainly transitory) stage of history is costly and frightening. It is the price we pay for 50 years of political and intellectual stagnation, a time when the political dynamic of capitalism was sidetracked by the Cold War.
As a lifelong socialist, and one-time Communist, the movement of history has always concerned me. And as a pathological optimist, I have always viewed American history as tending inexorably, if fitfully, toward a more inclusive democracy. Like many Americans who experienced the 20th century, I see history moving forward, driven by the progressive interaction between capitalist and socialist principles.
Still, by equating opposition to corporate domination of public life with disloyalty, our country’s rulers disoriented the left, stifled public discussion of the most basic public policy issues, and transformed the left into a plethora of single-issue movements. This removed the progressive dialectic of opposing principles from our political culture and steadily narrowed the difference between the major parties. Without vigorous debate over alternative values and principles the left has receded from view, and our political system has been converted to one focused on personality, appearance, and the ability to raise money for trivial, brain-numbing television and radio commercials.
In short, it has become more and more difficult for working people, or associations who represent their interests, to participate meaningfully in national affairs. And as working people are excluded from this process, fewer and fewer bother to vote.
With differences between the major parties or their candidates disappearing, and with the left—and the socialist ideas that shaped it—absent from popular discourse, more and more citizens retreat into private life, ignorant of the impact of public policies on their lives.
During the heyday of American socialism, capitalists epitomized the principle of market-driven rapacious individualism, while socialists were the most consistent—and insistent—advocates of reforms that moved society toward greater equality and democracy. To those steeped in its principles, socialism was more than the movement’s specific policy proposals at any given time. The old Socialist Party’s “immediate demands” were an expression of its principles as they applied to the stage of capitalist development in the early 20th century; but these reforms were not its ultimate goal or driving force. In fact, as American capitalism reached industrial maturity it accepted and internalized many socialist principles. But as capitalism transformed itself into a post-industrial consumer-driven society, socialists have not moved beyond their earlier ideas and have had little new to say.
To me socialism means the fulfillment of the promise of American democracy. As an historian, I have studied the ways in which socialist principles of associational democracy gained meaningful expression in our society and helped to democratize our nation’s advance from the laissez faire individualism of the late 19th century to the corporate liberalism of the 20th century. That process ended with the Russian Revolution, but now that the Soviet Union is gone, a new beginning is possible—if not for a movement that calls itself socialist, then for one embodying the underlying principles that gave the old American movement its impetus.
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James Weinstein founded In These Times in 1976. He also founded the journal Socialist Review and the Modern Times bookstore in San Francisco. Weinstein is the author of several books, including The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, 1900-1918 and The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925. His final book, published in 2003, was The Long Detour: The History and Future of the American Left. He died in 2005.