I’m working on an essay that will, I hope, provide a genealogy of the left and leftist thought in the United States. Several colleagues recently read and gave me comments on a draft and raised a number of crucial questions that I need to attempt to answer as I make what are amounting to sweeping revisions of the essay. I will pose these questions below for us to think about in public. This is me spit-balling.
- What is a workable definition of “the left”?
Political categories are notoriously difficult to pin down. They are ceaselessly malleable and highly specific to time and place. Hard-and-fast distinctions between one category (the left) and another (liberalism, for example) are sure to fall apart when examined across divergent contexts. And yet we need such words to make sense of history, even if we also need to contextualize these words to make sense of history. The trick is to provide specific enough context for a word without parsing it into meaninglessness.
In American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, Michael Kazin defines the left as “that social movement or congeries of mutually sympathetic movements that are dedicated to a radically egalitarian transformation of society.” I like this, but I also think it is too broad. So I am looking for a more specific definition. Continue reading