Michael Walzer on the American Left

Todd Gitlin, Frances Fox Piven and Michael Walzer spoke at a City University of New York symposium on “The Vanishing American Left” in September 2006. These essays are drawn from their talks. —Eds.

I DON’T KNOW about “vanishing”—we probably weren’t as strong as we thought we were in the sixties, and we probably are not as weak as we think we are today. Back then, there were still some illusions about ideological coherence and perhaps some sense that we were actually building organizations. But the sixties left no organizational residue, and we no longer can have any illusions about ideological coherence. Still, if you add up all the “fragments”—environmentalists; feminists; antiwar activists; all the people still fighting for civil rights; ACLU types; multiculturalists of all sorts (well, of some sorts); Americans active in global civil society in organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Doctors Without Borders; the readers of left magazines, and so on, I doubt that our numbers have dropped all that much.

If we are politically weaker, as we obviously are, it is not because we are fewer, but because of two long-term trends: first, the demobilization of the labor movement and the decline of the unions (liberals and leftists have paid too little attention to this); and second, the mobilization of evangelical Christians, who were largely withdrawn and politically passive back in the sixties (and also, though we never noticed it, bitter and resentful).

But I am not a political sociologist; I don’t study the latest survey research; I can’t make educated judgments about our standing and influence in American society. I am more concerned about, and feel more confident talking about, the kind of left that we need and don’t have right now. Did we ever have it—in my or your adult life? Well, yes, despite the craziness of the Weatherman and the various neo-Leninist sects in the seventies and the pusillanimity of many liberals in the eighties and nineties, I remember or think I remember an oppositional politics that had some weight and integrity. I am less sure about the existence of a politics like that today. What’s been vanishing in this country over the last years is a left that doesn’t deserve to vanish.

I am not going to talk about the Democratic Party’s left. It is doing the best it can, I guess, given poll data that strongly suggest that if it prevails, the party will lose the next presidential election. (The data are analyzed in some detail by David Plotke in the Summer 2006 issue of Dissent, and his piece is sharp and insightful but profoundly discouraging.) My views about the Democratic Party are very simple: I want it to win, because any Democratic victory would be a setback for the far right. It will take time to set the right back as far as we would like it to be, but it’s vitally important to ...

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