Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country
Reviewed by Marc BernsteinAchieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America
Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 1998.
140 pages. $18.95
Who but Richard Rorty could examine the last hundred years of the American left in 140 pages? The eminent philosopher's new book, Achieving Our Country, is so packed with ideas (and so clearly written) that no thoughtful citizen should miss it.
From 1900 to the 1960's, Rorty argues, a political force he calls "the reformist left" struggled to improve the lot of ordinary Americans. "My term...is intended to cover most of the people who were feared and hated by the Right, and thereby to smudge the line which the Marxists tried to draw between leftists and liberals." The reformist left included Debs, other socialists, Communists and union activists, but also New Dealers.
Galvanized by economic inequalities, this left forged alliances between intellectuals and workers, the conscientious rich and the poor. Pragmatic and hopeful, it believed our social problems had solutions, that American could realize its promise.
Unequal to the challenge posed by the Vietnam war, the reformist let lost its way in the mid-1960's, as students and professors mobilized against the war. The new left forced the government to end its carnage in Southeast Asia, but unlike its predecessor, it has never been hopeful about America. The war over, the country's treatment of women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals became the new left's overriding concern. Though Rorty acknowledges its successes in improving the climate for these groups, he focuses on its failings.
The new or cultural left has celebrated differences between social groups, not their commonalities, thereby mocking the old reformist idea of fraternity. It has shunned economic issues. It has become insular, a university affair, and has failed to build alliances with labor and other progressive forces. It has grown more interested in social theory and the content of curricula than in political action. Its emphasis on estrangement, on otherness, in a country steeped in sin, has sapped us of the hope we need to effect change.
Unless the left returns to the ideas and alliances of the reformists, Rorty argues, it will cede to Pat Buchanan and other conservative populists all the issues-- worker insecurity, stagnant wages, the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth in American-- that new global markets have created.
But can we resurrect the reformist left? -- that's the question. What issues can unite intellectuals and labor leaders? feminist academics and working-class women? President Clinton's lurch to the center is but one expression of the current retreat from economic issues; Tony Blair's repudiation of Labor's historic agenda is another.
Rorty offers a brilliant analysis of how we've gotten lost. For a map out of the "sterile vacuum at the center" we will have to look elsewhere.
Marc Bernstein's essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York Newsday, and other papers. He is currently writing a biography of Algernon Black, the activist and Ethical Culture leader.
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