Politics is about ends and means—about the values that we pursue and the methods by which we pursue them. In a perfect world, there would be a perfect congruence between ends and means: our ends would always be achievable through means that were fully consistent with them; the tension between ends and means would not exist. But then there would be no need to pursue just ends, for these would already be realized. Such a world of absolute justice lies beyond politics.
The left has historically been burdened by the image of such a world. Marx’s vision of the “riddle of history solved” and Engels’s vision of the “withering away of the state” were two canonical expressions of the belief in an end-state in which perfect justice could be achieved once and for all. But the left has also developed a concurrent tradition of serious strategic thinking about politics. Centered around but not reducible to classical Marxism, this tradition has focused on such questions as the relations of class, party, and state; the consequences of parliamentary versus revolutionary strategies of social change; the problem of hegemony and the limits of mass politics; the role of violence in class struggle; and the relationship between class struggle and war. These questions preoccupied Karl Kautsky, V.I. Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Georg Lukàcs, and Antonio Gramsci—and also John Dewey, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, George Orwell, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. The history of left political thought in the twentieth century is a history of serious arguments about ends and means in politics, arguments about how to pursue the difficult work of achieving social justice in an unjust world. Many of these arguments were foolish, many of their conclusions were specious, and many of the actions followed from them were barbaric. The problem of ends and means in politics was often handled poorly, but it was nonetheless taken seriously, even if so many on the left failed to think clearly about the proper relationship between their perfectionist visions and their often Machiavellian strategies.
What is striking about much of the political discussion on the left today is its failure to engage this earlier tradition of argument. The left, particularly the campus left—by which I mean “progressive” faculty and student groups, often centered around labor solidarity organizations and campus Green affiliates—has become moralistic rather than politically serious. Some of its moralizing—about Chiapas, Palestine, and Iraq—continues the third worldism that plagued the New Left in its waning years. Some of it—about globalization and sweatshops—is new and in some ways promising (see my “Thinking About the Antisweatshop Movement,” Dissent, Fall 2001). But what characterizes much campus left discourse is a substitution of moral rhetoric about evil policies or institutions for a sober conside...
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