What's Left?


Liberalism and Its Discontents, by Alan Brinkley, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 384 pages, $27.95

The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America, by Richard J. Ellis, Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 426 pages, $34.95

Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, by Richard Rorty, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 159 pages, $18.95

The American left is in crisis. For most of the 20th century, it thought that the only significant debates were among its own factions. Now it has lived through the election and re-election of Ronald Reagan. It has witnessed the collapse of planned economies. Political correctness, the left's latest gift to an ungrateful nation, has become the object of popular derision. Republicans control both houses of Congress, and politicians run from the appellation "liberal." The left increasingly asks what went wrong and where it should go from here. These works are three diverse contributions to that discussion.

In Liberalism and Its Discontents, Columbia historian Alan Brinkley offers a set of essays and lectures loosely linked under the topic of what has happened to liberalism. They are uneven in quality, covering topics that range from the young FDR to Southern politics to the career of Allard Lowenstein, the prime mover of the revolt against LBJ's candidacy in the Democratic Party in 1968. In his brief history of the 1960s, "The Therapeutic Radicalism of the New Left," Brinkley rightly sees the counterculture as a revolution of rising expectations. He fails, however, to understand the authentic passion of anti-Stalinism on the Old Left (would anyone keep referring to anti-Hitlerism as an "obsession"?) and blames the apolitical hippies rather than the ultraradical crazies for the counterculture's "failure" (if he's right, we can chalk up one more obligation to the hippies).

It is a mark of the sad state of American history as a profession that Brinkley correctly congratulates himself for the freshness of his own view that there has been serious opposition to modern liberalism in America, alive in various populisms, sundry traditionalisms, and a vibrant libertarian school of thought. Despite his best efforts, however, Brinkley hopelessly confuses these three intellectual and political tendencies. "The Problem of American Conservatism" (meaning its problem for historians, not its internal problem) conflates F.A. Hayek, George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and the Chicago school of economics, among many equally disparate other elements, as "the right." For mainstream American historians, the "problem" apparently remains.

The heart of Brinkley's thesis about the fate of liberalism is that the inspirational vision of the New Deal gradually has been undermined by regional differences, unsolved problems, structural changes, and the whirlwind of the New Left and the '60s. Brinkley is best as a scholar of the New Deal and its legacy. His narrative of the phases, improvisations, camps, debates, and transmutations of the New Deal is fresh and probing, and it sheds genuine light on individuals, tensions, and turning points. He understands well that the deep recession of 1937 caught the New Dealers wholly by surprise and forced more-radical revisions in their thinking than the experience of 1932. He accurately concludes that the New Deal "did not end the Great Depression and the massive unemployment that accompanied it." Rather, it "greatly, and permanently, expanded the role of the federal government in American life." Although this was more a "symbolic" than "substantive" change as measured by the quality of people's lives, it altered their expectations of government, which now became the broker among competing demands for security, protection, and advantage.

In the final analysis, Brinkley writes, activist government reconciled the reformist instinct with the essentials of capitalism. That is not a new thesis, of course–the radical left, above all, has looked at the New Deal that way–but it is well argued here. In contrast to left-wing, right-wing, and libertarian critics of the New Deal, Brinkley sees this reconciliation as an inspirational accomplishment that freed liberals to pursue their other exhilarating but problematic "crusades": "fighting for civil rights, eliminating poverty, saving the environment, protecting [the world from] communism, reshaping the world." He does not assess their success in any of these.

Richard Ellis's The Dark Side of the Left is an effort to explain what seems problematic to him though obvious to many of us: How does it happen that leftist egalitarians in America often begin with humanitarian idealism and end in violent intolerance? Before tackling this question, Ellis, a professor of politics at Willamette University, seeks to establish his liberal bona fides. He makes certain we know that he voted for Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, and Clinton (twice); that he supports, among other things, public broadcasting and environmentalism; and that he believes "politicians, bureaucrats, and the federal government generally make this country a better place." Thus assured of his wisdom and virtue, we are prepared for his attempt to "toughen" the liberal tradition by criticizing it.

Ellis examines how egalitarianism turned "illiberal" in three periods of American history: the 19th and early 20th centuries (radical abolitionists, utopian communities, elitist democratic disdain for common lives); the 1960s (Students for a Democratic Society and the New Left in general); and the 1980s and '90s (radical feminism and radical environmentalism). Ellis creates a confusing congeries by terming all of this "illiberal egalitarianism."

When the issue is self-ownership vs. slavery, for example, almost all lovers of liberty have embraced the tragic necessity of violence. David Donald's classic study of the abolitionists' hatred of Lincoln, Lincoln Reconsidered, tells us far more about the dysfunctional sides of the radical abolitionists' absolutist politics than Ellis's sense that there was something fearsome about their either-or approach. He calls their attitude "Manichean," even though this was one of the rare cases where the issues actually were, literally and metaphorically, black and white.

In his account of utopian communities, Ellis ignores the essential point that these were wholly voluntary associations. The inability of such communities to sustain or even realize their cooperative ideals may be instructive about human nature and small communities, but it is not of a piece with efforts to coerce others into ways of life in which they lose their freedom to choose.

Nonetheless, there is lots of grand stuff in Ellis's work. He is at his best, displaying a fine ear for detail, when examining the dissonance between the love of radical intellectuals for the masses in the abstract and their contempt for ordinary lives in the particular. He probably errs, however, in seeing the myriad New York artists and intellectuals who fall into this category as the "heirs" of Walt Whitman, in whose work it is often difficult to distinguish between poetic hyperbole and actual judgment. He's got the textual goods on Whitman, but this poet usually overflows the categories in which we try to contain him, as a student of American culture should know.

On SDS and the New Left, Ellis offers an astute descriptive autopsy–pathologies, failures, ideological narcissism, self-defeating social organization, and sectarianism gone over the edge –even if he lacks a convincing theory about the etiology of the patient's fatal malady or about why the plague emerged in France, Germany, and England at the same time it appeared in America. Despite reiterated assurances that he is not doing so, Ellis wrongly contrasts the supposed tolerance of the New Left's first generation with the murderous furies and detachment of the second generation, which came of age after the Tet offensive. As he knows (well enough to qualify his thesis frequently but always inadequately), the "dark side" of the New Left was displayed first and foremost by its early members as they grew older. Ellis sees clearly that when the objects of the radicals' love, the American "underclass," refused to love them back–wanting, of all things, a better material life for themselves and their children–the radicals turned against an "Amerika" that could not even produce a worthy set of domestic victims and began their romance with revolutionary killers in the Third World.

In his discussion of SDS, Ellis raises a deep analytical issue that relates to what the German sociologist Robert Michels, in his 1911 book Political Parties, called the "iron law of oligarchy." Based on the experience of European socialist parties, Michels inferred that even in the most ostensibly egalitarian organizations, structural and psychological imperatives lead inevitably to division of labor, hierarchy, and a set of leadership interests distinct from the interests of the organization's nominal constituents. (In contemporary terms, Michels discovered revolutionary rent seeking.) For Ellis, the SDS experience was Michels's model in reverse. SDS's aversion to bureaucracy and organization led not to stable hierarchy but to charismatic leadership, disguised and unaccountable. Instead of making the organization more "conservative" than its rhetoric, as in Michels's model, charismatic leadership made it ever more radical and disconnected. Ellis does not explore his notion of charisma and its political effects adequately, but his use of Michels is provocative.

Ellis's discussions of radical feminism and environmentalism are less successful. The people in these movements are his contemporaries, which may explain why he moves too often from analysis to polemic. At times, he simply reacts rather than weighing his words. His discussion of Catharine MacKinnon, for example, is often ad hominem, and it asserts rather than demonstrates inconsistencies and betrayals of her own values. In effect, he argues against MacKinnon as she argues against others.

By contrast, alas, Ellis takes very seriously the work of Susan Okin, who believes that gender hierarchy lies at the heart of social injustice and argues that even if husband and wife choose to live in a hierarchical marriage, the state should not allow it, "for the sake of the children." Ellis finds Okin "lucid," "powerful," and "unsettling"–above all, because she acknowledges the conflict between "personal freedom" and "social justice." In the end, his strongest argument against her is that the abolition of voluntary hierarchy in marriage would give too much power to the state. He should worry more about her than about the abolitionists.

Concerning the radical environmentalists, Ellis is entertaining and informative, but they fit ill with his model of "egalitarianism." They are here because their "misanthropy" illustrates well his secondary theme of left-wing detachment from and contempt for ordinary lives, which he believes is at the heart of the radical greens' agenda and worldview.

For Ellis, the real problem with all these groups is not that they illustrate something fatal about the left but that they make it more difficult for the left to succeed. Seeking the millennium in the wrong way prevents the quiet, friendly confiscation and redistribution of other people's property. Ellis offers a primer on how to avoid the wrong way: Do not 1) engage in politically correct Manicheanism, 2) idealize the oppressed, 3) hold apocalyptic visions, 4) tolerate authoritarian or charismatic leadership, 5) attribute false consciousness to others, 6) succumb to radical certainty, 7) deny the real distinction between public and private, or 7) think that crimes are justified if you deem them "unselfish." Well, there goes the whole left!

Ellis believes the political theorist Benjamin Barber has grasped the means of avoiding moral catastrophe: The left must be democrats first and egalitarians only after that. Barber, recall, thinks of the West as McDonald's, but that doesn't attribute false consciousness to anyone, does it? No contempt for ordinary lives there. From Ellis's perspective, Barber is saved by his willingness to let us be coerced only by a full 51 percent of our fellow citizens.

Richard Rorty, professor of the humanities at the University of Virginia, also wants the left to succeed, and he also has a theory about why that is not happening, which he lays out in Achieving Our Country. For Rorty, who has moved from analytic philosophy to skeptical pragmatism to terminal silliness, the real problem is that contempt for country and the illusion of scientific truth have led leftists away from their rightful role as "agents" into a self-defeating role as "spectators." Agents do things like organize effective coalitions to take the fruits of one person's labor or estate and give it to another person. Spectators do things like teach university courses about phallogocentric hegemonies. (This is the only good argument that I've heard in favor of courses about phallogocentric hegemonies: Better a tendentious, fatuous theorist than a thief.)

Rorty believes there was a time when the left was Whitmanesque, celebrating America, despite her faults, as a set of possibilities, and when it was imbued with the spirit of John Dewey, eschewing scientific certainties and seeking a civic consensus on what the nation could become and achieve. Marx got in the way. He had an unfortunate commitment to notions of science and historical certainty. There went Whitman's festive spirit and Dewey's democratic pragmatism.

The New Left got in the way. It could have thought of certain phenomena (slavery, Jim Crow, exploitation, Vietnam, and the like) as our "tragedies," but instead it thought of them as our "sins," which made America unforgiveable rather than something that could be transcended and achieved. This alienated people who belonged to unions and rather liked their country. There went the natural coalition between labor and academics who read Dewey.

Postmodernism got in the way. It was attracted to science, in Rorty's singular estimation. With no trace of irony, he writes that "the Foucauldian Left represents an unfortunate regression to the Marxist obsession with scientific rigor." It spoke a jargon that put off the average working guy. It engaged in speculation instead of reformist coalition building.

Rorty's fondest hope for the species is that the "Cultural Left," which has done so much to reduce cultural "sadism" through what the defenders of the corporations call "political correctness," be united with the "Reformist Left," creating an effective coalition, just in the nick of time, to defeat the forces of "selfishness."

Why just in the nick of time? Consistent with his belief that there is no real correspondence between our "fictions" and any objective reality, Rorty asserts that 75 percent of the American people are descending into an underclass ripe for demagogic and chauvinistic totalitarianism. According to his analysis, "the average married couple, both working full time" already cannot "take home more than $30,000." If that family's "take home" versus its actual earned income–$51,000 in 1997–concerns him, he might consider lowering its taxes. Given that America provides neither public transportation nor public health insurance, "this income permits a family of four only a humiliating, hand-to-mouth existence." (He should travel more.) It will get worse. "Globalization" will drive down most people's wages in the industrialized West, and we soon will have an embittered, immiserated 75 percent of our people ruled by "the richest 25%," including "platoons of vital young entrepreneurs" who travel first-class on transatlantic jets (the horror!).

This will lead to "the formation of hereditary castes," with the ruling caste making "all the important decisions." They will buy off authors like Rorty, and readers bright enough to read him, to give the appearance of a "political class," "for the sake of keeping the proles quiet." They will get the intellectuals to devote themselves to culture. When the remaining middle class realizes that it also is going to be "downsized," however, it will refuse to be taxed "to provide benefits for anyone else," and "something will crack." Convinced that "the system has failed," voters will seek a strongman, and "a scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis's novel It Can't Happen Here may then be played out." Blacks, browns, women, and homosexuals will lose all of their gains, and "the words `nigger' and `kike' will once again be heard in the workplace." The new strongman will make his peace with the "superrich," and everyone will wonder how it happened so easily: "Where, they will ask, was the American Left?"

How might America avoid this catastrophe, and "the American Left" that damning question? First, the left must abandon theory for action. Second, it must form alliances with the patriotic labor unions, abandoning its anti-Americanism. Against selfishness, such a resurrected "American Left" would devise "a People's Charter," a list of constantly published and reiterated specific reforms, "imprinted on the memory both of professional people and of those who clean the professionals' toilets." Then we can achieve "our country."

These books unintentionally provide a partial answer to the question of why the left has fallen on such hard times. The left has learned almost nothing from history. It has not read or listened to those who predicted the fate of the New Deal, of socialism, or of state bureaucracy. Its understanding of economics is on a par with William Jennings Bryan's understanding of Darwinian biology. Its understanding of human motivation is untroubled by the world of fact and unchallenged by theories hostile to its premises.

Brinkley senses this, and he appeals to his fellow liberals to engage the traditions of those who criticize the modern so-called liberal order. Ellis seems open-minded enough, yet he poses the question of how democratic and egalitarian premises lead to authoritarian conclusions without even a soupçon of familiarity with Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, or Ronald Coase. He depicts "the Goldwater candidacy" as seeming to legitimate "the evils of segregation, the reactionary and often brutally violent resistance to civil rights for blacks, [and] the conspiratorial fantasies of the John Birch Society." He is certain that "redistributive or welfare measures are not inherently illiberal" and that we need "more today than ever before" a sharper sensitivity to "the inevitable and profound inequalities generated by capitalist markets." Such asides aside, however, Ellis argues in good faith, mind to mind.

Rorty, by contrast, recognizes no good faith among his adversaries. The left ("by definition," he asserts) is the agent of hope, because it alone works for the redistribution of wealth, the reduction of suffering, the end of sadism, and the defeat of selfishness. Critics of the left are "part of a larger attempt to discredit all critics of the cynical oligarchy that has bought up the Republican Party." When the data of history–the productivity of free men and women, and the catastrophe of state power–contradict one's view of reality, one either changes one's view of reality or denies the very notion of reality altogether. Rorty has chosen the latter course, responding to empirical claims with "fictions."

Unlike Rorty, Brinkley and Ellis seek lessons from history. May their coalitions broaden and deepen, open as they are to data and criticism. May Rorty theorize in peace, happily detached from the problems posed by human, historical, and natural fact.

Alan Charles Kors (akors@mail.sas.upenn.edu), a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania, is editor-in-chief of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment and co-author, with Harvey A. Silverglate, of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses (The Free Press), whose Web site is www.shadowuniv.com.