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The Philosophers and the American Left

Third in a series on the American left: a tale of buried treasure

Paul Berman
November 26, 2018
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine
Illustration: Tablet Magazine

This is Part Three of a series of commentaries on the American left. Part One is here. Part Two is here.


The American left, which has sometimes been poor in institutions, has always been wealthy in political philosophy—and you can see the wealth and its significance in two books of our own moment, one by the late Richard Rorty and the other by Michael Walzer. Perhaps Rorty’s book is not completely of our moment. The book is Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, which came out from a university press in 1999 and lay in slumber for 17 years, until the catastrophic Election Day of 2016. Then the book awoke, and Achieving Our Country became a publishing sensation, such that, even today, it appears to be selling fairly well, for a book of its nature. Its success is owed to a single passage on page 90. Rorty wondered on that page what would happen if, one day, America’s trade unionists and unskilled workers, the people who do not live in prosperous suburbs, ever came to notice that, in the American government and among the American elites, no one at all was even trying to defend them from the economic and social consequences of modern industrial trends.

He wrote:

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words ‘nigger’ and ‘kike’ will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

He was a genius. It is not just Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, his masterwork. It is that one passage!

His goal in Achieving Our Country was to revive an American left that, in his view, had taken a wrong turn in the later 1960s and ’70s, and had ended in a ditch. He applauded the many aspects of social progress that had gotten started in those years. He saw a partial virtue in what might be described as identity politics and the culture of political correctness, which were products of that period. The university left came into existence, and he was glad to see that, as a result, college professors had begun to instruct their students to refrain from personal cruelty.

But the university left had made a mistake. It had fallen under the influence of the postmodernist professors, who led their adepts into an infinity of mini-causes and controversies over language. The university left had ended up losing sight of the primary purpose of any left-wing movement, which ought to be the maxi-cause of the working class. And Rorty proposed a rectification.

He was a little bashful about describing his proposal, and a little boastful. He wanted to hearken back to the political traditions and the worldview that he had absorbed as a child (he was born in 1931) in the bosom of his family, whose history on the American left happens to have been glorious. His grandfather was Walter Rauschenbusch, the Baptist theologian from the turn of the 20th century, who propounded what used to be called the “social gospel,” or Christian socialism. Rorty’s father, James Rorty, was a literary man, a poet and essayist, who played a lively role in the circle of socialist or social-democratic intellectuals around the philosopher Sidney Hook—who was himself a protégé of the greatest or, at least, the most American of the American philosophers, John Dewey. The people around Hook were champions of the labor movement in an exalted version, which prompted them to be the enemies of totalitarian movements of every kind, right wing and left wing.

With family contacts like those, young Dick Rorty found himself hanging out at the Harlem office of A. Philip Randolph, a particular hero of his, who concentrated in his own person all the causes of the day: civil rights, labor, socialism, and the defense of democracy. Even as a boy, Rorty was a romantic of the best of the best of the American left. And, in Achieving Our Country, his idea was to do for the American left something like what he had done for modern philosophy in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, which was to strip away the outdated and the pointless, and get at the heart of things.

He wanted to retain the moral sense and social conscience of his grandfather, the theologian—and wanted, at the same time, to strip away the merely theological. He wanted to retain the trade-union loyalties and civil-rights affiliations and anti-totalitarianism of his father and the Hook circle—and wanted, at the same time, to strip away the Marxist grandiosity that figured for a while in those people’s thinking, back in the 1930s. He proposed a thoughtful revival, instead, of the ideas of Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass and Democratic Vistas. Whitman looked on America herself as a kind of religion, except without a theology—a secular and poetic religion of democracy, with an aspiration for social justice and the liberation of the ordinary individual, and a further aspiration for the liberation of the world. In Rorty’s thinking, a progressive American patriotism along Whitman’s lines would be capable of gathering up the infinity of scattered and narrow identity politics of the modern university-influenced left and rendering the pluribus into an American unum, accessible to all.

He wanted to invigorate the philosophy of democracy that John Dewey had drawn in part from Whitman—democracy as an eternal project for endless social progress, democracy as a way of life and a way of thinking—which became Hook’s idea, and became his own. And he considered that, if only those ancient inspirations could be conjured back into life, they could generate the newer left that he was looking for—the newer left that was going to assimilate everything good and useful that had come out of the New Left and the university left of the last few decades, and was going to shuck off everything noxious and foolish, and was going to renew the long-lost left-wing connection to working-class life, and was going, therefore, to be able to fend off the Trump-like demagogueries and the dictatorship that he already foresaw creeping across the nonsuburbs.

What would social justice look like, in the eyes of the newer left? Michael Walzer has something to say about this. He has said it repeatedly and in many variations, and this year he has said it in a book that I have already had the occasion to discuss, his A Foreign Policy for the Left—though I discussed only one dimension of the argument, and not its other dimensions. In that book he describes the extreme simplicities of the American left in regard to world affairs—the simplicities that lead earnest left wingers to suppose that everything bad that happens around the world is America’s fault, and to suppose that America will never do anything good. And he offers a criticism.

He points out that sometimes bad things happen around the world that are not, in fact, America’s fault. And sometimes American power, even military power, can be deployed in a helpful manner—though only with constant self-examination, a Walzerian principle, and scrupulous caution. He considers that humanitarian interventions might sometimes be a good idea, under extreme circumstances. He reminds us that democratic solidarity across the continents is in the American vein. He notes with admiration the Jacksonian radicals of the mid-19th century, who wanted America’s democrats to intervene in some fashion on behalf of the beleaguered European revolutionaries of 1848—even if he draws a distinction between humanitarian interventions, which might be military, and democratic solidarity, which ought not to be military.

But mostly he proposes a way of thinking about these questions—a method of thinking, as opposed to a set of dogmatic rules. He advises us to be nuanced, instead of one-sided; to think in shades, and not in black-and-white oppositions. He reminds us that bad guys typically come in pairs, as if from opposite sides of the room, which means that we have to contemplate battles against two enemies at the same time—not just the Islamist terrorists and tyrants (for instance), but also the anti-Islam bigots. He offers, in effect, an analytic procedure, which has been his theme in one book after another, and in his Dissent magazine essays. It is a procedure for thinking ethically about everything and its opposite—war, civil life, the secular, and the sacred.

The most influential of his books has been Just and Unjust Wars—on the ethics of war (his point being that even war requires ethical judgment and a way of arriving at it)—which has become a staple of American military education. His Spheres of Justice ought to be equally influential, or even more so, for people whose concern is social justice. He asks the question that hardly anybody thinks of asking, which is, namely, what is social justice? Everybody claims to be for it—to be left wing is to make a fuss about it—but what is it? And he proposes an answer that, in the long history of the political left, other writers and philosophers may have toyed with, but nobody else seems to have analyzed quite so clearly or elegantly.

Social justice is many things, and not just one thing; and the many things deserve our respect. Such is his contention. He quarrels with John Rawls, who considers that social justice is what reasonable people would take it to be, if only they had the opportunity to ask themselves; and he quarrels with Karl Marx, who, in his principle contention, satisfies himself with the idea that social justice is fundamentally a matter of money. Rawls and Marx are Platonists, in Walzer’s view. They believe in the One. Social justice in their eyes is a single thing. Walzer is anti-Platonist.

He considers that, even if the opinions of reasonable people are reasonable, and even if money is indispensable, social justice will still mean various things, all of them important or even crucial. There are matters of wealth, but also matters of access—to education, or to professional and personal opportunities, or to public parks, or to the arts, or to religious freedom, or to recognition and dignity in the eyes of other people. And, if social justice means different things, there must be different ways of arriving at it.

He proposes, in these ways, to liberate the left from itself—to liberate the left from its own antiquated categories of understanding, which, in his analysis, turn out to be far too straitened to accommodate the amplitudes of human nature. His idea and Rorty’s are, in that respect, the same. Rorty tells us to liberate ourselves from the foolish mythologies of a certain left of the last half century. And Walzer tells us how we should go about thinking, once the liberation has been achieved—how to think in a complicated manner, suited to a pluralist world, with “complex equality” as our goal.

Only, is there a place for this kind of thinking right now, in the middle of the battle, so to speak? I think there is a place. There is certainly a need.


During the last 150 years or so, the American left has advanced in a nearly mathematical pattern of waves, one wave after another—waves of popular insurgency, which rush forward and linger a while, then get pulled back by a nasty undertow and other forces, only to rush forward again, a generation later. There have been four of those waves in the past—in the 1870s and ’80s; in the 1910s; in the 1930s and ’40s; and in the 1960s and ’70s, continuing into the ’80s and maybe beyond. A fifth such wave is unmistakably upon us right now—the new insurgency that got underway with Occupy Wall Street in 2012 and continued into Bernie Sanders’ Political Revolution and the Women’s March and has lately brought a lot of people, the progressives, into the Democratic Party. And each of these waves has engendered its own destructive undertow.

The authentic philosophy of the American left is not a nihilism. It is not a program for eliminating anyone. It is a program for including everyone.

The left-wing undertow over the many generations has consisted of a turn to violence, or a dream of violence, or a support for the mass violence of faraway movements on other continents, or a dream of mass elimination—with the actions and dreams supported by just enough people to inflict a terrible wound on a larger left that was never really guilty. In the 1880s, there was a bomb-throwing turn by an anarchist wing of the labor movement—which devastated the larger labor movement. At the end of the 1910s, there was a turn away from the democratic and labor left in favor of Bolshevik dictatorship—which, together with some renewed terrorism, pretty much destroyed the Socialist Party and damaged a variety of unions. In the 1930s and ’40s, there was the strange popularity of Joseph Stalin in a large corner of the left—which brought about any number of American misfortunes. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, there was a trend for guerrilla Marxism and Maoist miniparties among the left-wing student leaders and in one wing of the black movement—which largely destroyed the New Left of those years. In our own moment, there is the mania for eliminating the faraway Jewish state, or, at least, the mania for singling out the Jewish state for unique obloquy—with consequences that we will see, or perhaps are already seeing.

The left wingers who have been drawn to these perverse causes over the generations have always thought of their own motivation as compassion, or solidarity, or a keener fidelity to the principles of the left than everyone else’s. But something psychological has always entered into the motivation. It is an impulse to outdo the excitements of rebellion by cultivating the forbidden thrills of violent transgression. It is rebellion, transformed into nihilism. And something theoretical has entered the motivation. It is the allure of left-wing doctrines that, in calling for violent attacks and the elimination of entire populations, appear to have achieved a beautiful simplicity of analysis. These are the doctrines that might call for the eradication of the business class as a whole (as per a crude anti-capitalism), or of the Ukrainian peasants (which was Stalin’s program), or of the Jews of the Middle East (which is the anti-Zionist program). A panache of intellectual prestige can attach to these kinds of shocking simplicities—a panache of the avant-garde, which, by adding to the allure, adds to the destructiveness.

But those are the ideas of the left-wing undertow, the ideas that undo the left—the ideas that represent a rebellion of sorts against the left. The authentic philosophy of the left itself, the American left, is entirely different—the dominant philosophy, I mean, which has principally governed the political imagination of the repeated waves of left-wing insurgency. The authentic philosophy is not a nihilism. It is not a program for eliminating anyone. It is a program for including everyone. It is an idea about the American Revolution—an idea about democracy as a universal and revolutionary project, ever expanding and deepening.

This kind of thinking can sometimes look a little feeble, in comparison to the philosophies of violent elimination—can look like a sentimentality, or like a folk belief, or like a conformity to the official American culture. It can look like something without contours—like a wispy set of phrases, suitable for oratory but not for serious thought.

But there is no reason for the authentic philosophy of the American left to look feeble or sentimental or unsophisticated or wispy. This was Rorty’s point in Achieving Our Country. The ideas have a definite contour. They are the ideas of the greatest of the American thinkers, from Whitman to Dewey and onward to Dewey’s comrades and philosophical heirs, unto Rorty and his friends. The ideas amount to a left-liberalism, with a few hints of a theory of history, too. They amount to a liberalism because they offer a philosophy of human rights. And they amount to a liberalism because they offer a philosophy of procedures—the procedures of law, or of philosophical investigation, as in Rorty’s pragmatism, or of ethical analysis, as in Walzer’s thinking.

Then again, they amount to a leftism because social solidarity and egalitarianism are their principles, and not just rights and procedures. They amount to a leftism because the worker is their social ideal, the worker who does things, and not the aristocrat or the moneyed heir, who does nothing. The ideas hint at a theory of history because—in Whitman’s version, anyway—they postulate that all of the human past has pointed to a democratic future; and the history of social progress in America accords with the inner truth of civilization; and what is true of America is true of the world—which may not be the case, but, then again, seems often enough to be the case to be inspiring.

The philosophy of the American left is what Rorty describes and Walzer exemplifies. It adds up to something grander than Marxism. In principle, it ought to confer a strength on the American left that has lately begun to flourish so impressively—a double strength, if only anyone were to tease out the possibilities. The left-liberalism ought to make it easy to recognize the absurdity of people who admire Vladimir Putin (such people exist), or admire Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro (they, too, exist), or focus their rage at the tiny faraway state that happens to be a Jewish state (they are legion). The philosophy of the American left ought to make it easy to identify those people, and easy to put them in their appropriate corner, and easy for the American left to stand up and proclaim its own message.

This ought to be, in Rorty’s argument, a patriotism. It ought not to be a mindless patriotism—a patriotism of the flag and the slogans and the stupid “USA” chant. It ought to be a rich and interesting patriotism—a patriotism that takes the trouble to define and analyze the ideas and principles of the liberal left, and insists on identifying those ideas and principles with America herself.

Everybody understands that, in the political battles to come, the Democrats and Republicans are going to fight over the meaning of Trump’s slogan, “America First.” But what is the alternative to “America First,” and do the Democrats know how to present it? I have pointed out in an earlier essay that, back in the time of the original America First Committee, which was the 1940s, “America First” expressed an American sympathy with fascism. And the opposition to “America First” came from people with backgrounds in the old Socialist Party, who formed a committee of their own. This sort of thing is exactly what Rorty had in mind in Achieving Our Country when he observed that American patriotism is the proper home of the left.

Why shouldn’t the opposition to “America First” in our own time likewise be led by people on the left? The establishment Democrats will never do it properly, and that is because, being establishment Democrats, they are politicians above all, and are attuned to the polls, which is not the same as being attuned to the grandeurs of American civilization. But the insurgent Democrats, if they are people of the left, ought to be able to identify the grandeurs. The insurgents ought to see something large and thrilling and deep in the patriotic idea. Patriotism ought to be their cause, and they ought to be the ones who lead the charge. They ought to lead a preliminary charge against the anti-Zionists and the Farrakhanites and any lingering Chavistas, who think of themselves as left wing or progressive. And, having clarified their own program, they ought to be the ones to lead the charge against “America First”—lead the charge by summoning America to her own best principles, which are their own principles, which add up to democracy in all its complexity and procedures and aspirations.

But I do not pretend to be describing what exists. I am describing ideas that I find in books, which amount to possibilities, which add up to a proposal, which I submit to the enormous public that constitutes the American left.


This is Part Three of a series of commentaries on the American left. Part One is here. Part Two is here.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.