The tone of the symposium question is forlorn, and its terms hint at trauma and disappointment. In about equal parts, I identify with this voice, and I don’t.
As a cultural group, we U.S. leftists (Old and New now shoveled together by recent events) may not recover spiritually or intellectually from 1989. Our utopianism took root in other soil. Children of the cold war, we are not likely to be elected to the future.
Sad. But need we all identify as the subjects of this elegy? Many (indeed most) of us have been complaining about the limits and distortions of traditional left undertakings for years. Certainly, to give the example I know best, the women’s movement arose in large part because left women were angry with the sexism of left men, men who are mourning now for some of the very traditions that silently excluded women. Farewell to (some of) that past— without regret.
Socialist ideas are perennials and will survive this current winter. But what will the spring look like? In the worst case scenario, as the symposium question puts it, socialism will be a pallid “social democratic reformism . . . urging only that things be made a little more democratic.”
My “radical hope” (can one get away now with rhetoric so drenched with romance?) would be, instead, for a wild in-rush of new material, for a politics elastic enough, say, to move from private to public, from body to nation. My undergraduates find this expansion of conceptual boundaries much less alarming than many of my graduate school colleagues do. The next generation seems to assume a wide range of experience as relevant for politics: birth, babyhood, sexuality, media, housework (including dirt and garbage more generally), sibling rivalry, madness and paranoia, irrational rage, fear, mortality, quests for meaning from religion to any number of sublunary ideologies, the psychopathology of everyday life, and that fragile yet well-defended achievement, adult identity, including but by no means limited to class, race, gender, and sexual orientation. Socialists used to treat these themes as the periphery; now the very concept “periphery” is challenged everywhere.
In 1970, the great feminist psychologist Dorothy Dinnerstein wrote a letter to I.F. Stone: “You are, of course, one of the clearest voices of sanity—i.e. of impassioned humane reason-ableness —that we have. . . . What seems to me insane about your lovely sane voice is that it talks reason, inexorably and imperturbably, in booby-hatch.” Dinnerstein urged that we consider the flesh and the unconscious. Among the sources of war, she identified gender asymme¬tries, fear, rage, confusion, and childishness. Terrifying as these under-theorized matters re¬main, the left I want will think about them, centrally, without apology.