What did the “Old Left,” what Rorty calls the “reformist Left,” ever achieve? A lot, according to Richard Rorty in this set of lectures and notes.
The New Left, which Rorty calls the “cultural Left” is now the dominant form of Leftist politics in the United States, ascendant since the 1960s. Rorty, argues that they have largely forgotten their history, rather ironically, as they complain that every system is broken and that we don’t deserve the patriotic hopefulness that the U.S. traditionally inspires. With the decline of the Soviet Union and Marxism as a useful theory of history, this leaves the Left without a hopeful, unifying narrative—a vision. Multiculturalism, the dominant Leftist social theory and goal in the 1990s, is inherently divisive.
Rorty concedes that there has been value in the cultural Left, pointing a finger at the US’s history of (and ongoing) oppression against different groups. He can enumerate the cultural Left victories through identity politics that have produced dramatic increases in social acceptance of marginalized people and an unearthing of their histories and experiences for the public. However, writing in 1997, he sees all of these victories as evanescent without a willingness to work on reform: enacting laws and policies (that often require compromise) to secure good outcomes for people.
Rorty has little time for Marxist theories here. There is not a coming revolution by the working class (what is the working class now anyway?) because the relationships between capitalists and corporations and communities and people have been thoroughly transformed by globalization. We need the government more than ever to step in regulate the economy. We need reform and we need the recreate the alliance between the cultural Left and reformist Left to achieve it.
Both traditions agree that the work of the country is unfinished, that the United States and democracy is an ongoing project which we must continue to make progress on to realize better quality of life for all. Conservatives fought against all of the social democratic work achieved by the reformist Left under presidents like FDR and LBJ. These policies weren’t perfect and racism undermined the access to key resources and services, but the core vision was a decent one and deserving our efforts politically to expand them.
My favorite part of this book is Rorty’s deep love of the writing of Walt Whitman and John Dewey and their hopeful narratives of America. Rorty laments the abandonment of these narratives of “social hope” on the Left since the 1960s. The Left needs to be a politics of hope and needs to return to its pragmatic roots of labor organizing and power-building at all levels of society. The Left cannot simply focus on the abstract virtues of a progressive culture, retiring into academic enclaves and only turning out to the street to protest. The Left must commit to building electoral power and propose hopeful policies on every socioeconomic issue. Only then can we achieve our country.
I would imagine that Rorty (the Rorty I infer from this book) would be energized after Biden’s election. The rhetorical work of the Obama campaign emphasizing hope and building a broad coalition would have been exactly what he would have wanted. But then the campaign withered away rather than creating the kind of ongoing organizing effort it could have achieved at local, state, and national levels. Trump, which Rorty seems to have been predicted in these lectures, was allowed to become president because of the lack of the narrative of hope and an effort among the political class of the Left (Democrats) to move to the center further dividing the Leftist coalition and imploding the narrative of progress. Biden might represent a good bridge between the reformist Left and cultural Left if they can meet there through the work of figures like AOC and Stacy Abrams and willingness of leaders like Pelosi and Schumer and organizers like Color of Change to prevent another populist demagogue from selling false hope from the Right.