The Left in an Age of Fracture

(Illustration: Rafał Kucharczuk)

Dissent editor Michael Kazin recently participated in a symposium on the future of the left for the Polish website Kultura Liberalna. The following is his contribution; for the others, including Zygmunt Bauman and Marcel Gauchet, visit Kultura Liberalna.

We are seeing the ongoing fragmentation of what it means to be on the left. In the United States, many of those who care deeply about ecology, human rights or redistribution would not even see themselves as leftists, preferring some other term. This is in part because the mass media often describes as “left” the mainstream of the Democratic Party, which, for radicals of various stripes, is seen as an intrinsic part of the “establishment.”

Certainly, as long as most self-identified leftists come from professions and are economically comfortable while the labor movement and allied movements are in decline, redistribution will not be the major issue for the left. And, of course, the politics of growth increasingly comes into conflict with the need to stop climate change.

But when I think about main ideas for the left today, I do think–as Jacques Julliard suggests–that “justice” in its many definitions (racial, gender, sexual, environmental, even class!) is the most common trope of the left in the U.S. and perhaps in Europe. And when I think of “progress,” I would not say that the left is more anti-progress than the right, unless one equates “progress” with the proliferation of large manufacturing facilities powered by fossil fuels. We can say that the left is afraid of science, but that may be true only of a small number of anarchists or the kind of environmentalists who hammer spikes into trees to stop, temporarily, them from being cut down. Still, at least in the U.S. and Canada, there is a large cohort of young leftists who put their scientific knowledge to use in such fields as environmental engineering, alternative energy development, and data analysis.

On the other hand, I often hear in Europe that we need to choose between a more “progressive”, morally liberal, and culturally advanced left, and the left of the old working class which supports, e.g., the death penalty and is against gay marriage. I strongly oppose that. Choosing one or the other of these foci would be a historic and perhaps a fatal error for the left! When the left has been able to make a legitimate claim to being the only force that wants to advance both freedom and democracy, it has embraced both cultural modernism/pluralism and economic egalitarianism. And young working-class people–at least in North America and much of Europe–are often more open to cultural issues than to redistribution. This is one of the results of over three decades of neoliberal or libertarian hegemony. Activists in the now mostly defunct Occupy movement (or “uprising” since it never really jelled into a social movement) strongly denied there was any contradiction between the two foci. But they were stronger on utopian hopes and rhetoric than on political strategy. The problem is that the historic institutions of the redistributionist left (labor unions, left parties, informal and often locally based working-class societies of various kinds) are weaker and on the defensive nearly everywhere. If they cannot be reimagined and reinvented, then intellectuals who want to concentrate on economic equality will be speaking mainly to themselves.

At the same time I do not think that we need to choose between imagining society as a group of classes with certain interests (teachers, workers, etc.) or as a society of individuals with different cultural, social and religious needs. In my view the basis for a good society remains as follows: “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Nonetheless, the kind of class consciousness envisioned and advocated by Marxists clearly no longer describes reality, nor does it inspire large numbers of working-class people, left-wing intellectuals, and activists (some of whom are workers, of course). But we all do live nowadays, as Marx once predicted, in an almost fully capitalist political economy–and it would take an extremely naïve analyst to say that classes or, at least, fractions of classes don’t exist and struggle to defend their interests– both nationally and internationally. A left that is not rooted in social movements–old, new, yet to be born–would not be anything more than une gauche caviar.