Reconsidering the American left

Eli Zaretsky

Abstract


The core of the American left has been a challenge to the liberal understanding of equality – the formal equality of all citizens before the law. In place of that understanding, each of the country’s three lefts sought to install a deeper, more substantive idea of equality. For the abolitionists, the issue was political equality, specifically the belief that a republic needed to be founded on racial equality. For the socialists and communists, the issue was social equality, specifically the insistence that a democracy could not exist unless all citizens enjoyed security in regard to basic necessities. For the new left, finally, the issue was equal participation or ‘participatory democracy’, not only in formal politics, but also in civil society, the public sphere, the family and personal life. In each case, the left sought to expand and deepen the hegemonic understanding of equality associated with liberalism. Far more than the struggle between left and right, the struggle between liberalism and the left is at the core of US history. Without a left, liberalism has become spineless and vapid; without liberalism, conversely, the left has often become sectarian and authoritarian.

In this essay, I will argue this case in three steps. First, I want to clarify what we mean when we speak of a left. In my view, the left is both larger and different than socialism, but what exactly is it? I hope that a look at the specific character of the American left can at once broaden and make more precise the idea of a left in general. Second, I want to look at what we mean by crisis, since it is in periods of crisis that the left has proven so important in the United States. Finally, I want to describe the relevance of the left to America’s three great crises – the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the present crisis, whose character remains to be defined.

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