Why America Needs the Left

The fight for true equality since 1776.

Eli Zaretsky

A campaign poster for the Socialist Party ticket for president, 1904.

From the beginning of the American republic, most of the country’s thinkers and politicians have argued that our nation neither had nor needed a Left.

Historians of the so-called liberal consensus school argue that the United States has simply always enjoyed agreement on such matters as private property, individualism, popular sovereignty and natural rights. Others claim that the country never developed the leftist working class or peasantry seen in other nations, a claim often termed American exceptionalism. Still others say that the country doesn’t need a Left because it already believes in, or has even achieved, such goals as democracy and equality – a view held by Cold War liberals and neoconservatives.

But these are all false and misleading ways to understand America. The country has always needed, and typically has had, a powerful, independent, radical Left. While this Left has been marginalized (as it is today) and scapegoated (during periods of national emergency), the Left plays an indispensable role during the country’s periods of long-term identity crisis.

The United States has gone through three such crises: the slavery crisis culminating in the Civil War; the Great Depression precipitated by the rise of large-scale corporate capitalism, culminating in the New Deal; and the present crisis of affluence” and global power, which began in the 1960s. Each crisis has generated a Left – first the abolitionists, then the socialists, and finally the New Left – and together, these movements constitute a tradition.

At the core of each of these Lefts is a challenge to the liberal understanding of equality – the formal equality of all citizens before the law. In the first case, the abolitionists, the issue was racial equality. In the second case, the socialists and communists, the issue was social equality, the insistence that democracy requires a minimum level of security in regard to basic necessities. In the third case, the New Left, the issue was equal participation in civil society, the public sphere, the family and personal life.

Indeed, more than the struggle between Left and Right, the struggle between the Left and liberalism over the meaning of equality is at the core of U.S. history. Without a Left, liberalism becomes spineless and vapid; without liberalism, the Left becomes sectarian, authoritarian and marginal. In contrast, the Right is merely a reaction to the Left.

But the difference runs deeper still. Behind the Left’s commitment to equality is a passion for emancipation from entrenched forms of oppression. Criticizing forms of domination that liberals tolerate or ignore, the Left stands not only for equality, but also for an enhanced concept of freedom.

When Marx described all of history as the history of class struggle, he gave us the idea of emancipation as a continuous struggle, a project with a deep past and an extended future. In this way, he countered the notion – central to the liberal tradition – that we are already free, or that we live in free societies.” Further, Marx is the only thinker who has provided a clear and lucid theory of capitalism, a social system organized through the division of capital and labor. 

Such a system is distinct from a market or exchange society, as described, for example, in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, or in the works of contemporary liberal economists such as Joseph Stiglitz or Paul Krugman. Such a theory of capitalism lies behind the second term we need to clarify, crisis.”

Understanding crisis

Marx insisted that capitalism is intrinsically crisis-prone. The American Left inherited the idea of a crisis from Marx, not just the kind of economic crisis” that characterized the Great Depression and that afflicts the country today, but also broader crises reflecting Marx’s influence on modern historiography, such as the crisis of the Middle Ages,” the general crisis of the seventeenth century” or the crisis of the modern state.”

A crisis is not simply a calamity. It is a turning point during which decisions are made about society’s future direction. Crises have narrative structures, as in the Greek tragedies, where the subject arrives at a decisive moment and must directly confront his or her fate. It is during periods of crisis that the Left’s active involvement becomes indispensable to the nation.

To understand why, we must distinguish between normal” periods and crises in American history. During normal periods the country tends to get along with such ideas as individualism, pluralism and private property, and with calls for pragmatism,” bipartisanship” and passing beyond obsolete” Left/​Right conflicts. In crises, by contrast, many Americans strive to form a new or revised agreement on values, not a mere compromise.

Crises occur because of epochal transformations in the deep structure of American capitalism. Still, as such they are not merely economic” crises. Rather, they are tectonic shifts during which Americans re-evaluate their assumptions, values and direction.

During these periods the nation has to look inward and summon up its unconscious and inherited powers, not just rely on its everyday assumptions. And when the nation does look inward, it needs the deep conception of equality that the Left provides. 

America’s three crises

The three crises we are discussing – slavery, corporate capitalism and hyper-globalization – constitute a counter-narrative to the one that begins with Independence. 

Each crisis is associated with a particular stage in the history of capitalism: primitive accumulation in the form of slavery and President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal”; large-scale corporate accumulation leading to the New Deal; and, in the case of the New Left, the shift from manufacturing-based Keynesianism to financial-industry dominance, which began in the 1960s. The shift from each stage to the next was not socioeconomic alone. Each shift, rather, brought a crisis of authority, identity and governing purpose that could not be resolved by reference to the political thought of the Revolution or to the American Constitution.

Understanding American history as a series of three successive crises gives us a new conception of the nation. The actual founding of the United States should be seen in its commitment to equality and justice, not simply to political independence. Each crisis involved a refounding of the country, a transformation of its identity and of its conception of legitimate order, one that placed equality at its center. In each case the Left supplied the indispensable idea of equality that spoke to the country’s identity. In each refounding, moreover, the Left’s role was quite specific.

Slavery may have been abolished without the abolitionists. A modern state may have been created without the socialists. And a postindustrial, consumerist America, and the end of Jim Crow and the family wage, may have emerged without the New Left. But what the Left did was give an egalitarian meaning to each of these transformations – it articulated racial equality as the meaning of the Civil War, social equality as the meaning of the New Deal, and a broader vision of democracy as the meaning of the 1960s.

Without the Left, the meaning of each reform would be ambiguous. Consider the abolition of slavery. As David Brion Davis writes in Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World, the sense of self-worth created by dutiful work” that replaced slavery could have become either a way of disguising exploitation” or a spur to redeeming the equality [of] people of subordinate status.” The abolitionists, the first American Left, secured the latter meaning. Similarly, the powerful mechanisms of the New Deal could have been used either to help rescue Wall Street from its continuing disastrous errors, or to advance the condition of industrial workers, immigrants and Southern blacks. To the extent that the New Deal did the latter, it was thanks to the efforts of the socialists – understood broadly to include a great range of American reformers, including Communists. Finally, the 1960s could have produced either a worldwide democratic transformation centered on an expanded ideal of equality or a meritocratic, sexually liberated, consumption-oriented world of gated communities, mercenary armies and exquisite cafés. The New Left sought to establish the first outcome; to the extent that it failed, the long-term meaning of the episode remains to be seen.

In each of these crises, the Left did not create the call for equality. That call arose, rather, from social movements – that of labor, African Americans and women – sparked by the large-scale shifts in the structure of American capitalism. The Left contributed its part by placing the ideal of equality at the center of the country’s collective memory.

We have been reminded in recent years of how important collective memory is to politics. The Tea Party movement, for example, argues that activist governments contradict the founding fathers’ sacred writ. Originalists insist that the Constitution contains eternal truths. The Left and most liberals, by contrast, argue that the nation’s identity is an ongoing narrative, constantly redefined, but moving in the direction of greater equality.

Thus a crucial moment for the first American Left occurred when Lincoln insisted that the assertion in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal” was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain … it was placed in the Declaration not for that, but for future use,” by which Lincoln meant the emancipation of the slaves. Likewise, Eleanor Roosevelt understood the nation’s identity as an ongoing project when she arranged for black soprano Marian Anderson, denied access to the Daughters of the American Revolution Constitution Hall, to sing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The memorial, she grasped, had been put there for future use.” In his speech to the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom, Martin Luther King Jr. observed that the Negro after emancipation had been given a promissory note,” and that the note had come due. Barack Obama ran for President in 2008 as a community organizer,” implicitly drawing on recollections of the civil rights struggle. In each case, the Left connected the present to an ongoing quest for equality, seeking to re-found the country on an egalitarian basis. Far from being irrelevant, then, the Left has been central to the country’s effort to establish a coherent history.

When we have seen a Right that has genuine intellectual force and charisma – as we got in the United States after the quasi-defeat of the New Left in the early 1970s when the ideals of racial and sexual equality survived but the broader idea of a Left went into hiatus – it necessarily dressed itself up in the leftist vernacular of protest, discontent, minority voice and exclusion. But any attempt to exclude the Left, and to form a coalition between liberals and the Right, cannot resolve the country’s crisis. Only a revitalized Left, which further deepens America’s egalitarian commitments, can move it in a progressive direction.

The struggle over what equality means is at the core of U.S. history. Without the Left, liberalism becomes spineless and vapid; without liberalism, the Left becomes sectarian and marginal.

Going forward, back to the 60s

Today’s Left, such as it is, grew out of the New Left – the third American Left – and for it to become a fourth Left and confront the present crisis it must look back to the 1960s.

The crisis that the New Left faced was decolonization and the beginning of the end of U.S. global hegemony; the United States was evolving into the de-industrialized, finance-centered state it became in the 1970s. The question facing the country was what these changes would mean.

The answer proposed by the New Left was a deepened, extended, radicalized sense of equality, tantamount to a third re-founding. Thus Leftists struggled, in the three movements in which they played a critical role (civil rights, antiwar and feminism), to bend the arc of capitalism toward equality. 

It is important to distinguish the New Left from the sixties.” It is likely that there would have been a cultural revolution had there never been a New Left. One did not need a Left to understand that Cold War liberalism had produced a democratic faith lacking in the profounder emotional resources.” One did not need a Left to see that this lack might encourage a religious awakening, shown not only in the importance of prophetic religion to the civil rights movement, but also in Zen, Indian music, meditation, the Christian search for existential authenticity and altered states of consciousness,” based on the use of drugs. Without the New Left, one would likely still have had the Beatles, the Grateful Dead, Hair, Pop Art, Jimi Hendrix, John F. Kennedy, Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Mary Quant, color TV, jet travel, transistors and the birth control pill.

•What the America of the 1960s needed the Left for was to:

•break through the iron vise of Cold War thinking.

•expose the alliance between Democratic Party liberals and Mississippi segregationists.

•confront the corporate and military control of the universities.

•challenge the shocking sycophancy of American intellectuals in the face of power.

•explain the almost incalculable extent to which the government lied to its people, especially concerning war.

•grasp the continuity between racism, colonialism and the war in Vietnam.

•realize that schools, prisons and doctors’ offices were sites of power.

•develop critical subfields in every academic discipline.

•understand sexism as a deep structure of human history, not simply a form of discrimination.

•build ties of solidarity with the planet’s poor and other marginalized people, including homosexuals, women and people of color.

The New Left gave the cultural transformation of the 1960s its political meaning: a radical deepening in the promise of equality, in terms both of new subjects, such as sexual orientation, and new sites, such as the family. These egalitarian aspirations found charismatic expression in iconic figures of the 1960s: Martin Luther King, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Herbert Marcuse, Angela Davis, Malcolm X and Albert Camus.

The New Left constitutes the third great Left in American history, but it differs from the previous two in that it did not provoke a successful transformation of liberalism. On the contrary, what followed was a turn away from the great American theme of equality in favor of neoliberal competitiveness,” meritocratic achievement” and postpartisan” pragmatism. 

Equality was morphed into meritocracy, freedom was reunderstood as choice, and the critique of bureaucracy gave way to the romance of the market.

America needs a Left if it is to pull itself out of its much-touted long-term decline.” By decline I do not mean the shift in economic power associated with the rise of China and India. I do mean the country’s moral decline implicit in its abandonment of the project of equality, as witnessed by the pampering of elites and the demonization of the poor. The only way to reverse this decline is by a revival of the egalitarian traditions – racial equality, social equality, cultural and sexual equality, and equality among the peoples of the world – that have proven indispensable to this country in previous eras of turmoil and difficulty. The possibilities of such a revival, and the hope that is the inevitable forerunner of the Left, were palpable in 2008, when Barack Obama emerged as the anti-Bush, anti-establishment and antiwar candidate, and as the person who at the level of image, rhetoric and resonance positioned himself as signaling a revival of the Left, albeit one appropriate to a new world.

The sense of malaise that has pervaded the legions of volunteers and supporters who made Obama’s victory possible reflects the failure of that image to correspond with reality. It is a depression born from a longing for a Left. 

Redefining American identity

Can another Left intervene in the present crisis to help redefine American identity once again, and thereby make a resolution of the crisis possible?

The key to answering this question is the realization that the New Left was never fully absorbed by the rise of neoliberalism. Like earlier Lefts, its legacy has been a remainder, a promissory note” for future use,” for an expanded sense of equality. Only when liberals and progressives return to the core egalitarianism that the Left stands for can we reclaim the mantle of freedom – not the shallow freedom of personal choice upheld by neoliberalism but a critical conception of freedom rooted in equality.

For the New Left, it was axiomatic that one could not be free so long as blacks were subjected to racism in Mississippi, so long as peasants were being napalmed in Vietnam, or so long as women were dying from illegal abortions.

With that as our heritage, today we who belong to the Left must reject liberals who counterpose equality to freedom. And we must insist on a deeper conception of freedom than that provided by the market.

That the tradition of the Left never died in America was apparent during the 2008 Democratic primary. Hope invariably springs eternal for the Left, and hope” was the tagline of Obama’s campaign. Had Obama moved in the direction that his campaign implied, we would today be witnessing the characteristic conflict between liberalism and the Left that marks the great eras of reform. That has not happened. Instead Obama chose to occupy a vacuous bipartisan center,” which inevitably let the Right and its corporate allies hold the country hostage, deepening our current crisis.

Occupy Wall Street represents a stark contrast to the missed opportunities of the Obama presidency. The protests on behalf of the 99% bear witness to the irrepressible American commitment to equality and speak to the impossibility of a successful resolution of the current crisis without a robust, independent Left. Given the fact that Occupy Wall Street has already changed the discourse of American politics, nothing could be more harmful than for the movement to be absorbed into the neoliberal, corporate-dominated Democratic Party. Instead, its goal should be to recreate a permanent radical presence in American life. For that to happen, progressives, liberals, feminists, ecology activists, gay liberationists, pacifists, antiwar activists as well as the Occupiers must reaffirm their common identity as a Left.

The consolidation and clarification of identity is central to every founding. It is what the abolitionists did when they got started, what the socialists did when they got started and what the New Left did when it got started.

Like our predecessors, today’s activists need to know themselves as a Left, as part of an indispensable tradition. To be sure, no one can know exactly what programs today’s Left should espouse. What balance should we strike between: government and markets; efficiency and distributive justice; and global, national and local frameworks. But that does not mean that we do not know the difference between a Left that is committed to the nation’s core egalitarian values, and a technocratic, problem-solving” establishment committed to corporate power.

Almost every public voice in America is in thrall to the rich, the banks, the military and the technology companies; to celebrity culture and to the academic elites. Only a Left can develop the commitment and capacity to go deeper and to think independently on the basis of the country’s core values. To be sure, our history as a Left has been fraught, just as the country’s history has been fraught. We lost our way in the 1970s, just as our predecessors did. But what was lost in those moments was not lost forever. On the contrary, the history of the American Left constitutes a living legacy, one that now includes Occupy Wall Street. It remains for us to reclaim and extend that legacy.

The times demand nothing less.

This essay was adapted from Why America Needs a Left: A Historical Argument (Polity, March 2012)

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Eli Zaretsky, a professor of history at the New School for Social Research in New York City, writes about 20th-century cultural history, capitalism and the history of the family. His latest book, Why America Needs a Left: A Historical Argument, was published in 2012.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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