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“Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America” by Richard Rorty — Part 2

In the second lecture, “The Eclipse of the Reformist Left,” Rorty gets down to business. He starts right out of the gate with a criticism of Marxism, which some of we ‘spherians are right to call attention to, not the least of which is because of the emphasis on essentialism and purity.

 

 

 

 

Indeed, a few pages into the lecture, Rorty says:

If we look for people who made no mistakes, who were always on the right side, who never apologized for tyrants or unjust wars, we shall have few heroes and heroines. Marxism encouraged us to look for such purity. Marxists suggested that only the revolutionary proletariat could embody virtue, that bourgeois reformers were “objectively reactionary,” and that failure to take Marx’s scenario seriously was proof of complicity with the forces of darkness. Marxism was, as Paul Tillich and others rightly noted, more of a religion than a secularist program for social change. Like all fundamentalist sects, it emphasized purity. Lenin, like Savaranola, demanded complete freedom from sin and undeviating obedience. (p. 45-6)

Those of us who grew up with religion (me: Catholic) know about sin and obedience. This is why we usually end up fucked up and why it will take some years to undo the damage done when we were young. (Not our faults, of course, since we didn’t have any say in, for example, being baptized or sent to Sunday school when we were too young to decide for ourselves.) With modern-day feminism, we have another religion, and one that preaches about sin (viz., ignoring, neglecting, or negating the “feminine”) and and obedience (viz., you lose your job if you don’t toe the party line). It’s ideology run to the extreme.

Rorty says that the American Left of the Progressive Era could have done fine without Marxism. Marxism muddied the waters in recent decades with its emphasis on ideological purity, and using a vocabulary that supports this purity. In contrast, the Progressive Leftists were more concerned with the experimental nature of American life, which began with Madison and Jefferson. Rorty cites Herbert Croly, a preeminent Progressive, and his book The Promise of American Life. In summary, Croly believed that the problem lay with the traditional American emphasis on individuality and individual freedom, which, in turn, fostered a climate of unequal distribution of wealth. In other words, when everyone is “looking out for Number One,” the society as a whole suffers. The question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” comes to the front. If we are staunch individualists, we have the tendency to ignore our fellow citizens and focus only on ourselves. One can see that this detrimental to society, as a whole. But, of course, the issue is more complex.

Rorty goes on by saying that Croly eventually looked to the state as the means to redistribute wealth, in tune with a drive to counteract selfishness and excessive individualism. In this respect, Croly is sometimes called a “socialist,” as was his intellectual successors. And, Rorty adds, “we Americans did not need Marx to show us the need for redistribution, or to tell us that the state was often little more than the executive committed of the rich and powerful.” p. 48) In other words, it wasn’t necessary for we Americans to use Marxian categories to frame some sort of workers’ revolution, which is classical Marxism from the social, and not the economic, standpoint. Instead, it would have been sufficient to concentrate on the American values of responsibility to one’s fellow man, in order to head rampant selfishness and greed off at the pass.

“The history of leftist politics in America is a story of how top-down initiatives and bottom-up initiatives have interlocked.” (p. 53) The difference, according to Rorty, is the following. Top-down comes from people who are safely and securely ensconced in the upper echelons. They got this way through hard work, entrepreneurship, or, yes, maybe through inherited money. They then take this time and money and devote it to those that are below them, because they’re worried about the have-nots and how little security they have. Why this is so is largely immaterial, and Rorty doesn’t comment on it. With bottom-up, it’s a rebellion — a rebellion from those that don’t have the money and security, and who feel that they’re getting a raw deal. Strikes fall into this category. Bottom-up took the risks and made the sacrifices, but this would have gotten very far if the top-up, with relatively little risk, had not joined in the struggle, and provided safe spaces and cover for the bottom-up. This is a truism, as evidenced by many example from the period.

Then came Vietnam. That same left, Rorty says, that was a combination of top-down and bottom-up, and who believed that the state (a commonwealth) could be used to address inequalities, became splintered. The students’ sense of what the country was like during that time changed, and not for the better. Now there were calls for revolution. This wasn’t what the Progressivists were all about. Rorty then cites example of the New Left that started to form, the theoretical underpinnings of which were Christopher Lasch and C. Wright Mills.

Rorty concludes the lecture by saying that the period between 1964 and 1972 was, despite the rage, a good thing. If nothing else, it fomented feelings and activity to get something done. Otherwise, the US might have turned out to be a far worse place than it is today (Rorty writing in 1997). The revolution didn’t take place, and that was a good thing. The hue and cry managed to get the troops out of Vietnam, and get the unions to push through for 40-hour weeks and collective bargaining agreements. Again, it could have been worse; the military-industrial complex, which Eisenhower warned us about, could have continued unabated.

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