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Folly on the Left

There are no lost causes; there are causes waiting to be won": Katrina  vanden Heuvel on 150 years of The Nation | Salon.com
Katrina vanden Heuvel

Daniel Ortega, el guerrillero convertido en tirano

Daniel Ortega, el guerrillero …



I’ve been there; I’m still on the left in more ways than not, but not in all ways, and sometimes only by default. Occasionally, my civic-republican compass points rightward. But neither “left” nor “right” as we know them remains a vessel of hope. This section links some pieces in which I’ve sketched the left’s failures. But see also the thematic section, “Conservative Convolutions.” I’m not pure enough to share Ivan Turgenev’s belief that “In politics, the honest man will end by having to live alone.” But sometimes it’s hard to avoid feeling that way. 

Marxist ideologues’ blunders and opportunism have sometimes only strengthened the right-wing, “Red-baiting” taboo against criticizing capitalism at all. A clearer view would show Americans that our relationship to today’s financial and conglomerate capital is somewhat like American colonials’ relationship to the British monarchy and mercantilism in the 1760s, when most people professed affection for and reliance on the crown and empire, even as they were discovering that British imperial, mercantile interests couldn’t be reconciled with their own growing experiences and powers.  Eventually they decided to risk their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” to reconfigure the deep relationships upon which the colonies had been founded.

So now, too, something foundational will have to change in Americans’ reliance on vast, profit-making combines that are degrading the rhythms and security of civil society and are incapacitating us as cultural actors and free citizens. Just as divine right of monarchs had to be discredited as fanciful covers for exploitation, so will today’s equivalent of divine right — The Invisible Hand — have to be rejected, because it’s punching us bloody in ways that many of us, like many battered spouses, haven’t been willing to recognize and oppose.

Because Americans would rather do anything but face this daunting challenge, many have accustomed themselves to its accelerating distractions and distempers. Many are drugging or eroticizing the pain or projecting it violently onto scapegoats or into dead-end escapes.

In the 1960s, SDS President Carl Oglesby came to understand and to insist that both the New Left and the “Old” Right –i.e., the honorably conservative American right  — needed to renew a shared civic-republican compact and to sacrifice many psychological as well as material comforts to do it. The left and the right each have credible claims on truths that both might share, but each tends to cling so tightly to its own emphases that they become half-truths that curdle into lies, leaving each side right only about how the other is wrong. The left’s almost willful misreading of our divided human nature condemns it to lurch from sweeping denials of nationalism’s and religion’s importance to simulations of nationalism and religion, as in Stalin’s “Socialism in one country” and in Marxism’s secular eschatology of salvation that dissolves the state and economic elitism.

George Orwell understood the right’s brutalities and hypocrisies, but he also saw dangerous delusions among left-leaning editors and writers in Britain in 1944. Carl Oglesby saw analogous delusions among American leftists in the late 1960s and ’70s, and as I do among them now. Probably my best account of what Orwell saw — Orwell’s ‘Smelly Little Orthodoxies’ — and Ours, from the volume Orwell Into the Twenty-First Century, developed for a conference at Wellesley College at the beginning of that century — includes a brief account of what I saw in America at that time.

Other pieces listed below update that account, but please read the Orwell essay and draw your own conclusions. And, to understand why I still lean left, albeit with exasperation, please read the pieces in the accompanying section, “Conservative Convolutions,” that follows this one on the homepage.

When the Tea Party Resembled the Left,   August 25, 2009. At least it made some of the same mistakes I remember seeing us make (although, of course, I never made them myself.)

Glenn Beck Knocked a 78-year-old Radical — and Some of Us, Too. Was He Wrong?

“Folly on the Left,” This 1983 review-essay for Salmagundi on Paul Hollander’s Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba touched on the tendency of activists, left as well as right, to turn distant lands into giant projection screens for unexamined fantasies of tribal and ideological solidarity.

Why Isn’t the Left Able to Deliver?, New York Observer, 1988

The Left’s Wrong Turns in the Politics of Race, Tikkun, 1991. This account of misdirected black protest politics in Brooklyn was my opening salvo against racial identity politics that reinforces a perverse racial essentialism that should never be an organizing principle in politics, or even in most of civil society. When the American left was thwarted in its well-justified opposition to what’s really wrong in our political economy, too many leftists defaulted to defensive, ethno-racial solidarity. (And too many liberals indulged it, partly to divert protest from their corporate employers, brokers, and bankers.)

How American journalists forgot Henry Wallace, the real third-party candidate of 1948, History News Network, 2002

My letter of resignation from Dissent magazine’s editorial board in 2021, after nearly 40 years.