Magazines: Looking Left


It was the autumn of 1990, and America's liberals and leftists clamored for a place in the sun. The Republican Party was led by a man elected to be a second Ronald Reagan but whose persona was that of a kinder, gentler Richard Nixon. The economy was swan-diving into a recession, as developers, investment bankers, and savings-and-loan executives spent their days alternating between bankruptcy courts and grand jury proceedings.

The conservative movement appeared to be splitting up. The sniping between traditionalist conservatives and their neoconservative rivals had escalated into a cold war, and fiends had burst in on Pat Buchanan and fired a round of verbal bullets at point-blank range.

In the 1990 elections, voters, when they wanted to change their leaders, preferred politicians with principles over those who believed in nothing at all. While many of these principled politicians were Republicans and some were even conservative, in a few states voters preferred liberals or leftists to a Republican nonentity. Given some victories—a governor in Oregon, a senator In Minnesota, and the first avowedly socialist congressman since the days of' Harry Truman—some liberals proclaimed that their cause was resurgent.

When Robert Kuttner viewed the future in the October 29 New Republic, he was as enthusiastic as a child in a candy store who got to stuff his pockets with chocolate bars, Tootsie Rolls, and jelly beans. Faced with a dark and forbidding future ("winter is coming, the larder is empty, and the supply of firewood has already been burned"), Kuttner's cure was to stimulate spending by increasing taxes. If people stopped spending money on what they wanted to and were forced to give more money to the state, said Kuttner, all would be well. After all, he said, World War II government spending ended the Great Depression!

The one admirable fact about Kuttner is that he never changes. In good times or bad, Kuttner's cure for the economy is always the same: massive government spending and punitive income tax rates. Such constancy is to be admired in our fickle world.

Most of Kuttner's peers on the left aren't as stalwart in their opinions. Indeed, it's difficult to determine what the American left wants these days.

That is because the American left, like the American right, has its authoritarian and anarchistic tendencies; both Emma Goldman and Herbert Croly have their descendants among today's leftists. Since the first World War, the debate on the left has been about what tendency will predominate. Until the 1960s, most prominent leftists, as the writers and editors of the New Republic, tended to be authoritarian command-and-control social democrats. The rise of the New Left in the 1960s restored the anarchistic faction of the left to some degree of power. Today, neither side dominates. Indeed, in many cases, a leftist typically uses authoritarian and anarchistic language at the same time.

Consider the question of free speech. On the one hand, most leftists believe that recipients of the National Endowment for the Arts grants have an absolute right to say and do whatever they want. On the other hand, many of these same leftists—particularly feminists, gay-rights activists, and blacks—then argue that politically incorrect speech on campus should be severely restricted or banned.

But David Rieff, in the November Esquire, notes that censors on the right and censors on the left have an eerily similar agenda, as both demand "linguistic martial law." Far from being the cutting edge or the avant-garde, Rieff argues, the puritans of the left advocate the timeless American view that the country will be purified if all purportedly harmful substances or thoughts are outlawed. Rieff correctly notes that the arguments for banning "hate speech," pornography, and alcohol advertising rest on the same false assumption—that Americans "are so gullible and childish that they will follow the lead of everything they see or hear."

In a hard-hitting essay, Rieff observes that calling for restrictions on the First Amendment, rather than advancing bold and daring views, will result in "imposing one more layer of conformity and blandness in a country where conformity and blandness in politics and thought are more and more the rule. Americans need to take stock, to argue, ridicule and defame without worrying about hurting one another's feelings."

Rieff is correct. Banning offensive speech would reduce the debate about the future of our country to the opinions offered on the op-ed page of a one-newspaper town. The best way to advance one's cause isn't to ban your opponents' arguments, but to offer better arguments.

But the arguments offered by liberals and leftists these days lack vigor. Consider a symposium conducted by the Institute for Policy Studies and presented in the November Progressive.

Inspired by a similar forum published in Policy Review last spring, the IPS asked 19 prominent American leftists to determine what were "the crucial foreign and domestic priorities for the progressive movement in the 1990s."

What is curious about the symposium is who the editors selected. There are no novelists, no artists, and no one from the Hollywood Left: Saul Landau is the only filmmaker represented. There is one union leader and only two politicians, Jim Hightower of Texas and Jesse Jackson. Most of the writers earn comfortable livings as professors, think tankers, and legal-services lawyers. Secure in their endowed chairs or government jobs, few of the participants have to endure the rigors of the marketplace.

Most avoid specific reforms in favor of vaguely advancing the politics of niceness. The left, says Leslie Cagan, an adviser to New York Mayor David Dinkins, should "develop organizing vehicles to challenge power in the different arenas of our lives." "Facilitate the integration of work and family," add think tankers Heidi Hartmann and Roberta Spalter-Roth. "Encourage people to take on the joys and frustrations of public engagement," urges author Frances Moore Lappe.

Gee, that's swell. But how and why should this be done? Why should people become leftists? Most of the authors, cushioned in a comforting layer of babble, won't tell us. Those who do advance an agenda use the arguments of the past. Monthly Review Editor Harry Magdoff, for example, uses speeches first made by Franklin Roosevelt. Historian Howard "Ho Chi" Zinn thinks leftism is wonderful because of the eight-hour workday and the vote for women. Such nostalgia for past triumphs may comfort older leftists, but it does little to resolve the problems of our time.

The most disappointing contributors to the Progressive's forum are the feminists. At its best, feminism means that the virtues that made America great—hard work, independence, self-reliance—shouldn't be arbitrarily limited to a particular sex. That sort of individualist feminism isn't represented in the Progressive forum.

Instead, we have such comments as Rutgers University scholar Charlotte Bunch's call for a world where "progressive and feminist values" carry the day. Most of these values—"economic justice," "participatory democracy," "community responsibility for the fate of the planet"—involve considerable expansion of government power. But why should women, freed from dependence on men, see government as the solution to every problem? To replace Big Brother with the nanny state is hardly an advance.

None of the Progressive contributors makes a case for advancing socialism. The best pro-socialist argument I've read recently is made by British political scientist Alan Ryan in the fall issue of Dissent.

With the collapse of communism in Eastern and Central Europe, Ryan observes, it is "an odd time to be thinking about socialism in the 1990s and in the West." Indeed, Ryan admits that most of the old Marxist arguments have to be tossed on the rubbish heap of history. The proletariat doesn't exist; most revolutionaries have failed; and most of Marx's economic arguments, particularly his calls for central planning, are, in Ryan's view, misguided. Even the socialist arguments derived from altruism, Ryan admits, won't work any more. Most people would rather give to their church or to the March of Dimes than sacrifice their life or their incomes to people they don't know.

Why be a socialist? Ryan gives three arguments. First, the market won't provide "public goods"—a lighthouse, or a clean river. Second, socialism restores a sense of community—in an ideal socialist world, "one's ideas and aspirations are taken as seriously as anyone else's." Third, a socialist world limits the destructive possibilities Ryan considers inherent in capitalism. In the capitalist world, Ryan argues, most businesses fail, including "ninety-nine out of every hundred new novelists and pop groups." In Ryan's socialist system, planners would advise these would-be entrepreneurs to find more fruitful lines of work.

But most "public goods," when given a market or a market-like mechanism, are produced. When businesses are given the incentive to reduce pollution through credits or licenses, for example, they are more likely to reduce waste than businesses that are severely regulated. As for "creative destruction," not every artist succeeds.

But consider the dismal record of the National Endowment for the Arts, where grants are typically awarded, not because of merit, but because an artist has pals who hand out the cash. What's more noble—succeeding as an artist because you produce books people want to read or because you went to the right schools? Socialist societies, as an examination of Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union or Harold Wilson's Great Britain will show, are less likely to advance social mobility than their capitalist counterparts.

As for Ryan's second point, it would be a major advance if the puritans on the left and their counterparts on the right would stop seeing the other side as devils whom they must silence. The left and the right don't talk to each other enough; if they did, they might find that their foes, however misguided, are neither beasts nor demons, but people very much like themselves. As H.L. Mencken once noted, a combatant in the political arena should always realize that "his opponent is as decent a man as he is, and just as honest—and perhaps, after all, right."

Martin Morse Wooster is the Washington editor of REASON.