U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Left: Toward a Genealogy

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.

  1. 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.

  1. The left in relation to what?

I work from the assumption that political categories can only be understood historically in relation to alternative, usually opposing political categories. Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin models this approach to studying opposing political ideologies by showing how conservatism has been forged in combat with revolutionary leftism. Right now I am tentatively arguing that in the United States left-wing thought has often been forged in combat with liberalism. The intellectual histories of the leftism and liberalism often exist in tension with one another, in a dialectical dance of sorts.

Such an approach is somewhat consistent with the framework forwarded by Howard Brick and Christopher Phelps in their recent book, Radicals in America: The U.S. Left Since the Second World War (which I reviewed for Jacobin). Brick and Phelps contend that radicals must live estranged from the status quo lest they become mere liberals committed to its defense. But they also contend that if radicals ever want society to reflect their vision of the good life, they must engage it. The mission of the left is to maintain “ardent opposition to the status quo, as outsiders if need be, while also seeking solidarity with strong social forces, here and now, that might be capable of changing it root and branch…” This task “poses a dialectic of margin and mainstream” through which Brick and Phelps analyze the history of the American left since World War II.

  1. If leftist thought is indeed forged in relation to liberalism, what is a workable definition of liberalism?

The goal is to treat liberalism as equally dynamic—to not treat it in straw-man fashion—but at the same time to draw a sharp distinction between leftism and liberalism (otherwise why even discuss the left as a separate category?) My working use of the term liberalism does not denote a precise political philosophy or systematic political program. Rather, I follow Lionel Trilling in defining liberalism as a “political position which affirmed the value of individual existence in all its variousness, complexity, and difficulty.” But I qualify such a capacious and frankly generous definition with crucial caveats. As with the Declaration of Independence that set into motion American liberalism’s founding creed—“life, liberty, pursuit of happiness”—Trilling’s conception of liberalism often fails to hold true to its promise, and is sometimes defined by such failure.

  1. When did the left become the left?

Origin tales are often just-so stories that read the present back into the past in ahistorical fashion. Which is what makes a genealogical approach difficult and yet, if done well, enlightening in its propensity to denaturalize. As most of readers of this blog are no doubt aware, the political terms “left” and “right” originated with the French Revolution in reference to the seating arrangement of the Estates General. Those who opposed the Old Regime and supported the Revolution sat on the left. But what about in the United States, where the political spectrum of left and right came into focus later (some say not until the New Deal).

Many historians of the U.S. left—including Brick and Phelps and Kazin—highlight antebellum abolitionism as the first American left-wing movement. I’m not sure about this, but I need to figure out a way to fully articulate my skepticism. My recent research on Marx and America has led me to think that the American left emerged out of the First International, or the International Workingmen’s Association (1864-1876). The International never had a large membership in the United States, but its ideas about emancipating labor became the ideas of the American left up until the 1960s, when categorical coherence was tossed into the air (and has yet to land).

  1. Is “class” the organizing analytical category for the left?

If distinctions between the left and liberalism hold true they do so on the basis of divergent forms of class analysis. Put another way, a fuller historical understanding of liberalism beyond Trilling’s definition requires a stipulation: American liberalism has rarely championed those who challenged American capitalism in the name of class solidarity. Such a condition does not necessarily contradict Trilling’s delineation since individualism has often served as an intellectual foundation for capitalism, and since liberals have often viewed resistance to capitalism as a threat to the individual.

The legacy of 1960s social movements is instructive here. There is an enormous difference between what Brick and Phelps term “liberalizing social relations,” which has been the result of those 1960s social movements that often attached themselves to the name of the left or the New Left, and “democratizing and equalizing social relations,” which has been a goal of the left since the International. Blacks can now sit at the front of the bus. Leftists and liberals alike celebrate this fact. But the busses rarely come, and cost too much. Only the left decries this fact, or rather only the left analyzes failing public services as a feature of capitalism.

  1. What do I need to read?

I would love suggestions for books and articles that will help me answer these questions (I already received a bunch on Twitter and Facebook).

17 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m still thinking of a few suggestions to give you–but right now I can say you raise some provocative, and much needed, questions about how we conceptualize “the Left” in American history.

  2. This post prompted me to re-read a blog-post review I wrote in 2009 of Alan Wolfe’s The Future of Liberalism. Wolfe quoted a passage from Arthur Schlesinger Jr’s The Vital Center in which Schlesinger criticized what he called ‘doughfaced progressivism’ for its attachment to “the more subtle sensations of the perfect syllogism, the lost cause, the permanent minority, where life can be safe from the exacting job of trying to work out wise policies in an imperfect world.”

    In what you refer to as “the dialectical dance” between liberalism and leftism, this Schlesinger sentence, depicting the left as impractical/utopian/irresponsible etc., represents one presumably typical line of liberal criticism of the left, at least in the mid-20th century. But the left in the U.S. has not always, or even often, been strong enough to worry liberals in this way. (The relative weakness of the left in the U.S. could be for Hartzian reasons or others, I suppose, but that’s a whole other topic.)

    I like Kazin’s definition of the left b.c it suggests that egalitarianism is one of the main axes around which the left v. liberal dialogue revolves. Trilling’s definition of liberalism I’m not as keen on, though I’m not sure definitions matter that much here. A lot of the ‘dance’ between left and liberals still revolves, I think, around different notions of equality (the liberal attachment to ‘equality of opportunity’ vs. the left’s commitment to some rough — not absolute — equality of outcomes). Of course there have been attempts to bridge this divide, both politically and philosophically (Rawls being a generally successful, in my view, instance of the latter), but that would take this comment too far afield and it’s already long enough.

    • Louis–I agree with you that the left is often not strong enough for liberals to worry much about. But it was strong, or least it remained a specter, when Schlesinger dismissed the left as wooly-eyed in Vital Center. I’ve long agreed with Kazin’s definition, but it’s so broad that I think it is often easily co-opted by liberalism. But maybe that’s the point and maybe I’m drawing too fine a distinction between leftism and liberalism. For now I’m going to continue to play out this distinction to see if I can make sense of it.

  3. Andrew — A much needed discussion and essay. As historians, we correctly want to keep our definitions sensitive to changing contexts. So, even though some immediate abolitionists (particularly white and economically comfortable ones) were uncritical of capitalism, nearly all believed that racial and gender inequality were at the root of what was wrong in the US and this radical critique of the made it possible for some to be sympathetic to labor after the Civil War which was arguing for class equality. But I think a focus on class equality alone is too narrow to provide a flexible definition of the left over time. That would make the New Left not really part of “the left” — which would make no sense.

    • Michael–Thanks for this. I agree that things really change dramatically with the New Left, which had its origins in at least two strands of thought that moved away from class-based analysis, or at least Marxist-based analysis. The Wisconsin school, which was making a similar move to the Frankfurt school though in a more American-inflected register, sought to rethink Marxism in the context of corporate capitalism. And then there was the Port Huron Statement/SDS left which took its inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement and thus often largely ignored class. These strands grew into the larger identity-based movements of Black and Ethnic Power and Women’s and Gay Liberation, which was definitely radical in its origins even if such stances hardly seem radical now. I guess this is what I’m trying to get straight: how and why do certain strands of leftism, such as identity politics, move their way quite easily into liberal and mainstream politics, and how do others, often class-based, not? And does this help us distinguish between leftism and liberalism in thinking about their histories over the 19th and 20th centuries?

      As Leo Ribuffo has constantly pointed out to me and anyone else who will listen, the modern American political spectrum of left-center-right did not emerge until the 1930s and really did not become common language until the 1950s. So in a certain sense calling the abolitionists, or even the radical unionists of the late 19th century, leftists is a bit of an anachronism. But I think there is merit in trying to understand what was meant by “the left” in the 1930s and tracing that meaning back in time to find its roots. And in this I think the late 19th century labor movement, especially in its international and socialist strains, is where we find the left. But as is obvious, I am still working these things out. And as Leo says, there’s nothing like empirical research to cure historians of over-reliance on linguistic analysis.

  4. Andrew–That’s a big and difficult task, so good luck. But I wonder if Trilling comes even close to defining political liberalism, as opposed to an ethos and mood having to do with personal fulfillment. For example, the New Deal tradition can be seen as America’s version of social democracy and social liberalism, which abandoned the liberal hostility to the state. It played plenty of attention to the economic sphere and social equality, as it developed after the 1930s. Liberal supporters of Civil Rights didn’t really neglect the economic dimension, but tried to coordinate changes in it with changes in legal and political status of African Americans. It wasn’t socialism but I think it supplies liberalism with a much richer tradition of ideas and policies than you give it credit for.
    And what do you do with the liberal-civic republican First Amendment tradition/civil liberties in this debate? It’s just not adequate to see this tradition is an example of liberal, individualist rights-talk. There is a strong component of the First Amendment and 14th Amendment that has been part of the justification of collective speech and action (public marches and political organizing), not to mention the protection of religious institutions that have been the point of origins of, say, Abolitionism and the Civil Rights Movement. To advert to one of your other concerns, one of the most disappointing aspects of Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man was his failure to respect and build on this tradition rather than dismissing it for all intents and purposes.
    Best, RHK

    • Excellent, excellent points all around. One of my toughest challenges with this essay–and this no doubt has to do with my personal inclinations–is to not treat liberalism as a straw man in my effort to distinguish between it and leftism. I think your point about New Deal liberalism is especially effective. It seems to me that for about 30 or 40 years American liberalism was dedicated to a (working-) class politics of sorts, even if liberal thought’s relation to class analysis was markedly different from leftist thought. Perhaps this speaks to what Jefferson Cowie calls “The Great Exception” in his new book which takes that phrase as its title? In any case, thanks for giving me things to think about.

  5. What of white radical abolitionists like Wendell Phillips who went on to defend workers’ rights? Or black radicals like Martin Delany? I think many of the socioeconomic issues that came to the fore around the Marxist concept of class were already beind discussed and debated in the mid-19th century, even if they did not frame ideas through dialectical materialism. Not taking these voices into account would be the same as not including the so-called utopian socialists from a genealogy of the left, don’t you think?

    • Yes, indeed, I agree with you Kahlil. Thinking about someone like Phillips opens up a number of interesting questions. Why was he one of the few American commentators outside the International crowd who supported the Paris Commune against the widespread scorn heaped upon it? I don’t yet have answers to this except to say that any attempt at definition will automatically be met by exceptions.

  6. Andrew: I’ve been reading David Caute’s The Left in Europe Since 1789, (1966), which treats the issues of categorization and genealogy you mention. His first chapter helpfully surveys various definitions of the Left that the author considers faulty because they produce assorted conundrums and outliers (reactionary populists, anti-democratic radicals). You might take a look. For Caute the Left is a historic movement towards popular sovereignty—with the emphasis on movement—“a dialectical progression of demand, concession, and renewed demand” (30). What is ultimately most important to the Left in Europe, he writes, is not the securing of political rights or the redistribution of property but the adoption of ways to mobilize popular pressure, participation and control. The debate over how this is to be achieved has occurred over a period of less than 200 years (as of 1966). Caute’s survey (it’s concise, engaging and well-illustrated) then considers other issues important to the various national groupings on the Left—reform or revolution, the role of parties and social class, the functions of state and society. What I’m wondering is to what extent does the American Left draw intellectual sustenance from what Caute describes as the historic debates of the Left in Europe? In the 1970s I would have said quite a bit. Now I’m not so sure.

    • Thanks for this reference, Bob–I will check out Caute. The relationship between the European and American left is an interesting problem. Obviously major differences, especially given that “the left” in the United States is not called as such until the 1930s (see my comment above in response to Michael Kazin.) But I would (tentatively) argue that the left as such does not come into being until taking its cues from the International which had its organizational origins in Europe. All of which is to say that it’s complicated.

  7. Andrew, in the American sense, one thing you might consider is the role of religion in marking out this tension between liberalism and the left. I can’t think of any good precise books on this subject at the moment, but I would think religion (or perhaps more simply spirituality, faith) would be a key analytic category and tension point in the relationship between liberalism and leftism. Still today we have the tension (not often recognized enough) between the “faithful” Clinton and the “atheist” Sanders. (am using quotes because I don’t think either of them have defined their positions explicitly).

    Here, though, you have the historiographic problem of the “Old Protestant Left” vs. post-’30s/40s. Perhaps Hollinger and others can help you here, but I feel like there are some good books on this that I’m simply forgetting.


    • Good points here, Bryan, you give me more to think about. The left as I conceive it is more secular and even atheist, but I say this not wanting to erase the religious left which has a very real history. Of course distinctions between the religious left and religious liberalism are even murkier.

  8. As an early Americanist, I must confess my disappointment that no one has mentioned Thomas Paine, or cited the works of such historians as Staughton Lynd, Alfred Young, Gary Nash or a host of other Neo-Progressive historians. The issues which animate the Left have been around as long as the republic. I don’t know if this is a function of the community being comprised mostly of historians of the 20th century, Founder’s Chic, or the relative conservatism of those who decide the canon for early American history.

    • I was thinking of mentioning Paine but then thought I’d leave that to someone else.

      I think the nature of the comments has been dictated to some degree by the post, which focused on the 19th cent. onwards.

      No one has mentioned, except indirectly in my earlier comment, Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America and some of the debates that it set off (and probably continues to). I’ve read certain things about and/or related to Hartz*, but not the book itself.

      (Btw, I thought Richard King’s comment upthread re the ‘collective’ aspect of the First and Fourteenth Amendments in connection w links between liberalism and the left and grassroots movements, was well taken.)


      *E.g. Robert Packenham, Liberal America and the Third World, not a recent book but interesting for the way Hartz is applied to a different topic.

      • Good points, Brian (and Louis). My original thought was to begin the essay with Paine. But I thought this would take me too far afield from the left as I see it emerging later. Obviously I need to deal with Paine and the revolutionary era to some degree even if to make an argument about periodization. In short, more research. (By the way, to Louis’s point, I plan to return to Hartz–which was suggested to me by one of my readers.)

  9. One should consider the Frankfurt school as laying the foundations of modern, American “leftism”. Many founding members came to Columbia University after they fled the Nazl’s. Out of this movement came critical theory that has had a profound impact on leftist thought at most major Universities.

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