Having His Cake and Eating it too

Rorty on the Revitalization of the Left


Kevin Mattson




A Review of Richard Rorty, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998).


e are living in a period of reassessment, a time full of questions that deserve debate and rigorous thinking. Where should a progressive left go next? How do we reawaken populist and democratic sentiments on the part of the American people? How best can we resist corporate power and the recent ascendancy of conservative political thought? It would seem that the left is arising from its dogmatic slumber and starting to ask some of these questions. One bit of evidence on this front is Richard Rorty's most recent book, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America.

Rorty derides the remnants of the left in this country -- those remnants found in radical English departments in American academia. He minces no words at the beginning of his book: "Leftists in the academy have permitted cultural politics to supplant real politics, and have collaborated with the Right in making cultural issues central to public debate.... The academic Left has no projects to propose to America, no vision of a country to be achieved by building a consensus on the need for specific reforms" (14, 15). Rorty wants the left to give up on academic theorizing -- the sort done by Frederic Jameson and others -- and instead to address real issues of concern to Americans. He argues that the left should be reformist, working on redistributionist politics within the framework of constitutional democracy. He wants to revive the American labor movement (as it seems to be doing in fits and starts today) and have intellectuals address issues of social inequity by drawing up a "concrete political platform" made up of "specific reforms" (99). In essence, he hopes to revive a viable Social Democratic politics for America as we head into the twentieth-first century.

I agree with much of Rorty's vision, but I don't like the way he gets to his positions. Reading Rorty's book is like watching a speaker wave his arms around in the air in hopes that his audience won't recognize the immense contradictions within his speech. Achieving Our Country is not only deeply contradictory, it is far too short for the sorts of themes it develops (a book on "leftist thought in twentieth-century America" that's only 107 pages long, plus thirty pages of appendices?, I asked myself when I first picked it up). More so, the premise of the book leads to sloppiness. Rorty rightfully argues against the "purity" of the left -- its historical tendency to act more to preserve its dogmas than to accomplish anything in the real world (you can still spot this tendency by talking to some of those who sell Trotskyite or Maoist newspapers at protests). But his argument against purity leads to an intellectual looseness that becomes flabby.

Let's begin by examining Rorty's attack on the "cultural left." While Rorty opens his book with a criticism of the academic and cultural left, he can't seem to make up his mind whether or not post-structuralism and identity politics are bad or good. He is confused but at the same time highly polemical. Take the statements above about the academic left and then put them alongside a statement Rorty makes later on: "This cultural Left has had extraordinary success.... The new academic programs have done what they were, semi-consciously, designed to do: they have decreased the amount of sadism in our society" (80-81). Rorty attributes "enormous change" in American society due to the academic left. So which is it? Does the academic left distract us from the real problems of real Americans or is it something to be celebrated and glorified for purging us of racism and bad attitudes? Rorty even defends the academic left from "the current conservative attempt to discredit the universities -- which itself is part of a larger attempt to discredit all critics of the cynical oligarchy that has brought up the Republican Party" (128). But earlier, Rorty was saying that the academic left simply ignores economic problems and real political conflicts. Once again: which is it? Rorty wants it all: to criticize the academic left while remaining on their side. Unfortunately, you can't always have it both ways.

Nor does Rorty deal with a central weakness of the academic left -- a weakness pointed out by numerous critics before him. The academic left has placed its faith in libertarian cultural politics, celebrating everything from Madonna videos to the explicit photography of Robert Mapplethorpe. The critique of reactionary "white male" attitudes remains a central component of the academic left's bag of tricks. If Rorty had dealt with this issue, he would have dealt with a substantive contradiction between what he wants from the left and what the academic left provides. After all, it's not just "theorizing" that alienates the working class from academic left intellectuals, it's cultural libertarianism. Clearly, working class Americans have been much less willing to attack the nuclear family as a form of paternalistic social control as much as cultural lefties have. And that's what has driven a chasm between the left -- as it's presently constituted in academia -- and working class Americans. But Rorty simply ignores this issue, papering over another central contradiction in his own hope for reviving the left.

Rorty also has a hard time coming to terms with the New Left of the 1960s. He criticizes the New Left's arguments against "anti-communism" and consistently argues that the Cold War was a good war. Rorty places himself within a strong tradition of anti-communism in America -- one which included Irving Howe and Arthur Schlesinger. This is fine, if only Rorty would stick to his intellectual guns. But pretty soon, he's slipping up again. He argues, "The New Left accomplished something enormously important, something of which the reformist Left would probably have been incapable. It ended the Vietnam War" (67). But it was precisely anti-communism that led America into that war, and it was precisely the New Left's anti-anti-communism which led them to protest the war. Again, you can't have it both ways. Listen to this passage: "The New Left was right to say that America was in danger of selling its soul in order to defeat Communism. Even if one agrees with me in thinking that the Cold War was a necessary war, that does nothing to diminish the service which the New Left did for our country" (69). It's passages like this that make me want to pull my hair out. How can such deeply contradictory statements be made without sensing a certain amount of intellectual dishonesty? I'm not calling for a return to leftist "purity," just a bit more consistency.

Rorty even slips up in the domestic activities of the New Left. It's the "have your cake and it eat it too" syndrome again. He argues to abandon the "leftist-versus-liberal distinction," clumping together various different progressives into one tradition of reformist leftism that he wants to revive (including -- ironically! -- "communists") (42-43). Then he turns to history and cites "the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party [MFDP]" and places this movement alongside LBJ (try for a moment to forget the Vietnam War, Rorty pleads) and Walter Reuther as representing the best of his invented tradition. Historically, this sort of clumping together just doesn't work. Reuther and LBJ squashed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party out of political expediency.2 Rorty recognizes this fact but then tries to gloss it over. Rorty seems to believe that wishful projections about what he wants from politics can displace historical realities. Maybe Rorty wants to clump together the MFDP and LBJ, but history won't let him.

In criticizing the New Left, Rorty makes another mistake. He accredits the New Left's mistakes to Christopher Lasch, a cultural historian and public intellectual who recently passed away. Now I have to admit here that I studied with Christopher Lasch. So if you want to dismiss the following defense of Lasch against Rorty as a student honoring his advisor, that's fine. But whatever the case might be, Rorty gets Lasch all wrong. Rorty asserts that Lasch "encouraged the New Leftists' delusion that they were the first real leftists America had seen in a long time, or at least the only ones who had not sold out" (65). He goes on to explain that Lasch (and others) "reconfirmed the students' impression that there was nothing in America on which [the students] could rely, except perhaps the most militant of the African-American protest movements" (67). All of this Rorty reads into Lasch's book, The Agony of the American Left. But I am not sure how closely Rorty read the book.

In the first place, how could a historian tell students that they were the "first real leftists America had seen in a long time..."? In fact, The Agony of the American Left condemned the lack of historical knowledge on the part of the New Left. Lasch traced out the history of populism and socialism in America to show the traditions and legacy of radicalism in this country. And he by no means allowed the student left to think it was heaven-sent. In fact, Lasch denounced "the anti-intellectual proclivities of the contemporary student left."2 So I'm not sure just where Rorty comes up with the idea that Lasch stands like an intellectual godfather to much of the nonsense carried out by the student left in the late 1960s.

Beyond his misreading of Lasch, Rorty's work suffers from another major, overarching contradiction. Drawing from his pragmatist background, Rorty argues for an experimentalist approach to reform. He wants the left to focus on "piecemeal reform" and the ability to compromise. This is a fine sentiment, and I am in agreement with it. But once again, there seems a contradiction between this sentiment and one that Rorty expresses later in his book (in a tagged-on essay that he labels an appendix). In a celebration of the "inspirational values" offered by great pieces of literature, Rorty argues for a return to utopian thinking -- the regeneration of what he calls "romantic utopians trying to imagine a better future" (140). What seems odd is that Rorty never squares romantic utopianism with even-tempered, pragmatic reform. And there does seem a contradiction between these two things. On the one hand, "piecemeal reform" is content with single-issue "campaigns" (something else Rorty celebrates). On the other, utopian imagination discards such pragmatism for its supposed narrowness, for its tendency to lose sight of the bigger picture -- the grand utopia waiting beyond the horizon. That Rorty doesn't see this as a problem -- as at least an intellectual contradiction -- seems odd to me. Again, he seems to ignore these contradictions, allowing his arguments to spill all over the place.

In the end, Rorty is right to call for a revived left. Though I am not sure what role intellectuals will play in such a future left, one thing seems clear: they will have to spell out clearly what traditions in American history we can draw upon for inspiration. They will have to renavigate the twisted path of "leftist thought in twentieth century America" in order to come up with an inspiring vision that can speak to ordinary Americans. But along the way, they will have to retain a good amount of intellectual honesty and consistency. They cannot merely project onto history what they want from history. They will have to deal with the contradictions and conflicts within the history of the left. On that count, Rorty comes up short. Though he's right to focus on the revival of indigenous strains in American history (and let me just say that his revival of Dewey and Whitman is right on, if a bit weak), he needs to pay more attention to the inconsistencies within the traditions he revives. Wishing away these conflicts won't improve the state of the left one bit.





1 For a recent account of this, see Taylor Branch, Pillar of Fire: America in the King Years, 1963-65 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1998), Chapter 33.

2 Christopher Lasch, The Agony of the American Left (New York: Vintage, 1969), p. 37.