On September 24, 2011, Michael Kazin published an important essay in the New York Times, “Whatever Happened to the American Left?” In it he examined the “populist left’s” historic role in shaping politics and policy discussions in the United States, especially in moments of past capitalist crisis and the relative failure of this Left to gain influence in the current crisis. A week before this essay was published, unremarked by almost everyone in America, several hundred protesters, inspired by developments in Tahrir Square in Cairo, had gathered in lower Manhattan to protest economic inequality and the decline of democracy in America. By the middle of October, Occupy Wall Street had riveted the attention of the nation. Until winter weather and municipal police forces shut down Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park and scores of other encampments that had sprung up around the country, the Occupy movements created a space for left politics that had not existed for a very long time.
IN LIGHT of these unexpected developments, it seemed appropriate to ask Kazin to revisit his New York Times essay and the pessimistic reading of post-1960s left politics it presented. In “The Fall and Rise of the U.S. Populist Left,” an updated and revised version of the New York Times piece, Kazin discerns possibility in the Occupy movements, while expressing skepticism about their desire to be “leaderless” and warning how hard it will be to escape America’s history of “failed ideas and strategies on the left.”
We have solicited three responses to Kazin. In “Solidarity Forever,” historian William P. Jones argues that Kazin has both slighted the way that race deformed the populist Left from the end of Reconstruction until the Second World War and misunderstood the strategies the Left has pursued successfully to achieve solidarity among African Americans, women, unionists, and other groups that the Right has stigmatized as “discrete” and narrow. In “Another History,” political scientist Ira Katznelson pushes this line of critique further, arguing that America’s most successful moment of left mobilization occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, after the civil rights revolution had succeeded in dismantling Jim Crow and the racially exclusive brand of class politics that the Southern supporters of Jim Crow in Congress had enforced. From this perspective, Katznelson concludes, “the Left today possess[es] legacies…more auspicious than Kazin’s history portrays, yet also more difficult.” Finally, in “Horizontalism and the Occupy Movements,” sociologist and attorney Marina Sitrin steps outside debates about the history of the Left in the United States, insisting that the Occupy movements in America belong to a Left that is international and new. This Left, Sitrin argues, is not bound by the past; moreover, it has already succeeded in changing political discourse and in generating spaces in which novel, and participatory, democratic forms can develop.
We hope that Kazin’s essay and the three responses to it will themselves open new space, in the pages of Dissent and beyond, to discuss and debate the past and future of the Left, in America and in the world.
Gary Gerstle‘s publications include Ruling America: Wealth and Power in a Democracy (2005), co-edited with Steve Fraser. He is currently writing a book on the state and democracy in America from the Revolution to the present. He teaches American history at Vanderbilt University.