Interviews April 1998

The Next Left

Richard Rorty, the eminent philosopher and author of Achieving Our Country, argues that the American Left, if it is to recapture its relevance, must take pride in its past.

Achieving Our CountryRichard Rorty, one of the most famous living philosophers in the United States, would seem an unlikely person to be exhorting the American Left to "kick the philosophy habit." And yet in his new book, Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, that is exactly what Rorty does. Arguing that political liberalism in this country has been derailed by the abstract theoretical dithering of what he calls the Cultural Left—Who cares what Lacan says about repression? What does Foucault's theory of knowledge have to do with diminishing wage inequality or broadening civil rights?—Rorty calls for a more engaged Left dedicated to narrowing the wage gap, alleviating poverty, reducing social injustice, and pursuing other historically Progressive causes.

Best known for his unusually readable books and articles on philosophy—most notably Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) and Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (1989)—Rorty has for some years now been a wide-ranging public intellectual, unwilling to be confined within the boundaries of academe. While continuing to publish philosophical papers from his academic roost in the philosophy department at the University of Virginia, Rorty also publishes regularly in such publications as The Nation and Dissent, consistently urging a stronger connection between left-wing intellectuals and grassroots political activists. Reforging the connection between leftist intellectuals and leftist politics is also one of the main objectives of Achieving Our Country, a polemical little book that, though just published this month, has already come in for criticism from some journalists and ruffle-feathered intellectuals, who accuse Rorty of confusion or political naiveté or both.

rortypic picture
Richard Rorty

Yet while Rorty's knowledge of politics and political movements may sometimes be suspect (he freely confesses to never having been really engaged in politics himself), the question he asks in Achieving Our Country is clearly germane to the main problem facing the American Left: How can a Left still fractured by the divisions of the late sixties—and now newly distracted by the esoteric academic pursuits of the Cultural Left—become relevant enough to address the problems besetting America today?

The answer, Rorty says, is to emulate the model of politically engaged intellectuals of the past. The two examples he gives are the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey and the poet Walt Whitman. For Rorty, the America we should be trying to achieve is a fair and classless society, one that looks for its ultimate authority not to God or a monarchy or even to some abstract notion of Nationhood, but rather to an ever-mutable democratic consensus. Developing this consensus, as both Whitman and Dewey understood, requires more than cynical commentary or rueful disengagement—it requires intellectual labor and hard political work. With effort and engagement, Rorty writes, a good society is possible, but without them, he warns, a permanently caste-ridden society—or, ultimately, even a totalitarian one—is also possible.

Scott Stossel


The title of your book is Achieving Our Country. Is that a title you chose? And what do you mean by it?

It's an allusion to James Baldwin's use of the phrase. I thought of Baldwin as throwing himself into the project of the classless, casteless America, and so I guess "achieving our country" means achieving a casteless and classless society.

In your dedication you invoke Irving Howe and A. Phillip Randolph, but not Baldwin. Why those two?

Just because they happened to mean a lot to me when I was young. My parents worked for Randolph at one point, and I met him in the course of working as an office boy. I was impressed by the stories about what he'd had to do to organize the Pullman strikes and by his combination of organizing and writing articles. And I was impressed by Howe's combination of writing articles about literature and writing political manifestos. They both seemed to be figures who managed to do everything I always wanted to do.

Who do you see as the ideal audience for this book?

For some reason, while I was writing it the audience I kept having in my head was foreigners—European intellectuals who, it seems to me, have no grasp of the history of the American Left—and so I think I was writing for them, trying to tell them, "You know, we're an old leftist country, too. We have a Left with a distinguished history."

The two most prominent figures in your book are Whitman and Dewey, and Dewey is for a number of reasons a distinctly American intellectual. There's a strain of intellectualism in American life that is more anti-intellectual than Europe's. Do you think that's true? How would you characterize the difference between a European intellectual and an American one?

I don't see Dewey or Whitman as anti-intellectual. I think of an intellectual as just being bookish, being interested in history books, utopian ideas, that kind of thing. Whitman and Dewey were bookish in the relevant sense. I think that if there's anything distinctive it's the thoroughgoing secularism of Dewey and Whitman, which is described in my book. There's no God, no reality, no nothing that takes precedence over the consensus of a free people. What I like about Dewey and pragmatism is the anti-metaphysical claim that there's no court of appeal higher than a democratic consensus. It's the same idea Jurgen Habermas has been putting forward for the last thirty years in Germany, but we did it first.

At one point in your book you say that if the intellectuals and the unions can ever get back together again, and could reconstitute the kind of Left that existed in the forties and fifties, we might enter a second Progressive era. Couldn't a critical reader accuse you of being overly nostalgic here, just as the social conservatives are?

Sure, there's a lot of nostalgia involved, but I think what the conservatives want is a difference in sexual mores, but what I want is to remedy inequality, opportunity, and the gaps between the rich and the poor. The consciousness of the need to do that was, I think, much more present in the forties and fifties than it is now.

In the forties and fifties a lot of the impetus behind the organizing on behalf of social equality was catalyzed by unions. How realistic is a resurgence of the old leftist reform program without a strong union movement?

I think that's a prerequisite: only if the unions can do for the service workers what they did for the manufacturing workers is the widening of the gap between the rich and the poor going to stop.

How much of the decline in union participation and union political power is attributable to the fracturing of the Left that occurred in the 1960s over identity politics and such?

I don't think that had much to do with it. The blue-collar workers may have experienced a certain disgust for the hippie Left, but that didn't have much to do with the decline of the unions—it was just the decline of manufacturing and the endless attempt by the Right to find ways to prevent the unions from organizing. The government has had a lot to do with it. It has made it fantastically difficult to organize.

You say at one point that when a Left becomes "spectatorial and retrospective" it ceases to be a Left. What exactly do you mean by spectatorial and retrospective?

Spectatorial in the sense of looking on and saying, "Hey, everything is going to Hell" without having much of an idea of how you can stop it. Retrospective in the sense of looking back at how terrible we've been rather than looking forward to see how much better we could make ourselves.

So that's why you call the Left "the party of hope"?

I think that a good Left is a party that always thinks about the future and doesn't care much about our past sins.

But couldn't people on the right argue that they care about tradition insofar as it will help us in the future?

Sure. They can say that, but as long as they don't think about the same issues that the Left thinks about, it's hard to take them seriously. If you had a Republican program for narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor, that would be one thing, but they have no interest in any such program.

At one point in your book, you talk about the leftist jargon that's cluttering up our vocabulary. You say that the Left-versus-liberal distinction is sort of meaningless. But it seems that's a useful shorthand, because if there's a continuum that runs from, say, liberal to Left, you can distinguish The American Prospect from The Nation by calling the former mainstream liberal and the latter Left. And Dissent is more Left than, say, The New Republic, which has historically been progressive.

I really can't see much difference between the journals. The Nation has a tone of skeptical hopelessness, but the measures favored by the people who write for The Nation are pretty much the measures favored by the people who write for The American Prospect and The New Republic. It seems to me a matter of tone rather than of politics. Nobody wants to nationalize production, and so in that sense you've lopped off what used to be the big difference between Left and liberal. We're all social democrats now, and we all favor about the same stuff.

I'd also like to change the way we use the word "Left." Some people say that instead of calling ourselves liberal we can call ourselves progressive. I'd like to call ourselves Left just in order to remind us of the continuity between contemporary social-democratic proposals and those made in the Progressive era, those made by the British Labour Party, those made by the German Social Democratic Party, and so on. And I'd say to the Europeans, "Yeah, we do have a leftist party, it used to be the left wing of the Democratic Party, it's pretty weak these days, but it's a continuous tradition capable of being revived."

Speaking of Europe, do you see recent events—Britain's Labour Party winning in a landslide last May followed by the Socialist victory in France—as the beginning of a trend that might cross the Atlantic? Or is the real trend simply that formerly left-of-center parties (including the Democratic Party in America) are just becoming more centrist?

Partially it's that they're becoming more centrist, but I think that it has mostly to do with individual conditions in individual countries. I think there isn't going to be a swing to the left here until the Dow Jones goes down to 5,000 again and we have a severe recession and a sense of economic insecurity grows. Then centrism no longer will look as palatable.

You were saying that nobody on the Left is talking about nationalizing the means of production, and in fact you, in your first lecture, disavow the use of Marxist terms. Later in the book, when you start talking about the effects of globalization, you say, "This world economy will soon be owned by a cosmopolitan upper class which has no more sense of community with any workers anywhere than the great American capitalists of the year 1900 had with the immigrants who manned their enterprises." Isn't this a violation of your disavowal in some sense?

I don't think so. For all I know, fighting off the cosmopolitan super rich might require such drastic legislation on the part of the individual nation states that it might be tantamount to some kind of nationalization. But I don't have any concrete notions about what kind of remedies can be applied. What bothers me is that the power of the individual states was used against the power of the very rich at the beginning of the century to break the trusts, tame the robber barons, that kind of thing, and since we don't have a functioning world government there isn't any analogue for today's globalized economy.

What's the solution? There are organizations like the IMF and the World Bank and the United Nations, but as you say, there's no analogue.

Well, what there ought to be is an international labor organization, a confederation of the trade unions of all the countries speaking for the workers who are competing with one another, and talking about the difference in wage levels between, say, Europe and Indonesia. We don't have anything remotely like that. But if we don't develop something like this then I think the super rich retain all the power.

Do you think that the future conflicts engendered by these widening gaps between rich and poor and other symptoms of globalization are going to be between, like you say, Europe versus Indonesia, or between the very rich in Europe and the U.S. and the left-behind in Europe and the U.S.?

Well, I think that the old democracies sooner or later will realize that the idea of classlessness has been abandoned and that we're freezing into a hierarchical society, and this will cause some kind of populist upsurge. I just hope it's a leftist upsurge instead of a fascist one.

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Scott Stossel is the executive editor of The American Prospect. His article on television violence, "The Man Who Counts the Killings," appeared in the May, 1997, issue of The Atlantic. More

Scott StosselScott Stossel has been associated with the magazine since 1992 when, shortly after graduating from Harvard, he joined the staff and helped to launch The Atlantic Online. In 1996, he moved to The American Prospect where, over the course of seven years, he served as associate editor, executive editor, and culture editor. He rejoined the Atlantic staff in 2002.

His articles have appeared in a wide array of publications, including The New Yorker, The New Republic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Boston Globe. His 2004 book, Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver, inspired The Boston Globe to write, "Scott Stossel's superb new biography is an extraordinary achievement," while Publisher's Weekly declared, "This is a superbly researched, immensely readable political biography." His most recent book, My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind, became a top-ten New York Times bestseller in its first week of publication.

Within the Atlantic offices, Scott will be forever remembered as the managing editor who oversaw the magazine's 2005 move to Washington from Boston, where it had been based since its founding in 1857. Under Scott's supervision, the magazine shifted all of its operations from Boston's North End to the Watergate building, all the while producing issues that were later nominated for National Magazine Awards.

Along with writing and editing, Scott has taught courses in the American Studies Department at Trinity College. He lives with his family in Washington, D.C.

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