Daisy Deadhead responded to my previous post, calling me out for my liberal use of the term “leftist.” She doesn’t agree with me a whole lot, but she disagrees respectfully. I therefore elect to return the favor. She brings up some important points that demonstrate my larger thesis, and she therefore merits a response.
This post isn’t exactly succinct, but sometimes I like to ramble, and this is one of those times.
There IS a difference between a leftist and a liberal. However, I draw the distinction differently than Daisy. I will also assert that the distinction is one that eventually will lose its importance, hence my use of “leftist,” or more commonly “leftie” to describe them both.
Marx may have stated that “the vanguard party could not come from the privileged,” and he may have even meant it, but it’s a point on which the left has expressed consistent ambivalence. On one hand, there is the overt derision towards the upper classes. On the other hand, the lower classes have typically failed to buy into the program sufficiently and have required significant nudging from the “privileged” (including Marx himself; he mooched off of Engels quite a bit, but he wasn’t exactly a coal miner). There have been multiple movements from the “proletariat”, but all too often these movements have either faded away or been coopted by Lenin’s “vanguard”, which I would argue has become the more operative paradigm than that of Marx.
(I’m not accusing the modern left of even liking Lenin, much less adhering to his program. Nevertheless, he advocated an elite vanguard, and the left has its elite vanguard.)
Hence, the leaders on the left who champion a class below their own but who nevertheless portray themselves as being similarly underprivileged. Woody Guthrie, Fred Hampton, Michael Moore, and Che Guevarra all acted as though they had more in common with those they championed than they actually did. To say that no radicals come from the lower classes would be fallacious, but their leaders are usually middle-class kids who dress down.
Bernardine Dohrn grew up in Whitefish Bay, but she wasn’t exactly a moderate.
If we are to preclude Al Gore from being a leftist solely because of his father, would we not also have to preclude the son of a doctor whose face appears on the tee-shirts as the ULTIMATE radical from even being a radical at all?
Nevertheless, there are a couple of differences between a liberal and a leftist. One was more important fifty years ago, the other more important today.
Until LBJ’s downfall, prominent in American politics was the liberal hawk. JFK, Truman, and others believed in a relatively strong social welfare state but drew a sharp distinction between programs like Social Security and Communism; their programs were to be a bullwark against socialism, not a step towards it (I’m aware that there were factions who felt differently). LBJ most decidedly did NOT want the Great Society to make us more like the Soviets, and he wasn’t exactly popular among the radicals.
So who are the leftists and who are the liberals today? Daisy argues that which is what depends primarily on background. I readily concede that many of the Ivy League types haven’t the slightest clue regarding what concerns actual working people (Seen any mechanics at that last cocktail party? Me neither.).
However, if we’re to preclude anyone born into privilege from being a leftist, we have to preclude almost the entire political left, or at least damn near every leader with any influence whatsoever. Those who aren’t privileged who remain on the left almost invariably follow those who are. Yes, there are exceptions, but not a lot of them. The Occupy Wall Street Movement, the labor movement, and the environmental movement are led almost exclusively by the affluent. Are there exceptions? Yes, but you’re far more likely to find a rich hippie leading around the working-classes than vice-versa.
Instead, I believe that today the biggest difference between a liberal and a leftist is less one of ideology and more one of tactics. (I can almost see Daisy leaping out of her seat and trying not to punch her computer.)
Many of the radicals of the sixties retained both their radical politics and tactics; others retained the politics but altered their tactics. Most members of the Weather Underground admit that they were mistaken in how they set off all those bombs, but they retained their fealty to leftist ideals. They declined direct revolution in favor of Gramsci’s “long march through the institutions.” Instead of blowing building up they decided to run them, and they’ve done a good job pulling it off.
Academia, pop culture, the educational establishment (often guided by Bill Ayers himself) are today largely run by folks who hope to see American capitalism overthrown, who wish to institute a new and more communitarian system. They don’t push too far too fast, but they do whatever they can that they think they can get away with. There are others with far less patience (who are wrong) and those who decry that these folks intend to retain their own privilege (who are right). Still, the culture is sliding in a leftward direction, as are our politics.
Daisy obviously believes that Obama is merely a liberal. I disagree. He’s clearly stated that he would introduce a single payer healthcare system if he could get away with it, and he’s well on his way. Obamacare is a financial boon for the insurance industry in the short-term but may eventually leave it bankrupt. At the very least, it will be entirely dependent on government largesse and require armies of lobbyists to pay homage to their benefactors who could bankrupt them with the stroke of a pen.
To radicals this isn’t good enough, but unless things change dramatically, they will get much of what they want. Usually, today’s liberal wants the same thing, he’s just more strategic, patient, and interested in saving his own ass.
A radical opposes bank bailouts because they benefit the rich; a liberal supports them because he knows that bailouts make the banks beholden to the government. Radicals despise the revolving door between government, lobbying and big business; liberals love it because it blurs the lines between them–harmful in the short term because money corrupts politics, but beneficial in the long term because eventually Washington may be so powerful that no business will have a prayer of opposing it. Radicals oppose corporate power because they don’t like elites running things; liberals instead hope to leverage that power to institute future programs. Radicals despise Obama’s love of drones because it violates fundamental principles of justice; liberals like it because they know they’ll need power like that to keep the reactionary forces at bay.
These definitions are only for this post to demonstrate a point, that point being the distinctions among lefties I drew earlier. Liberals are often more moderate in their politics, but if they’re Anointed, they’re only sheep in wolves’ clothing. Radicals are often more extreme in their politics, but if they’re Benighted, they’re adhering to principle, and principle is an ally.
Among the things the Benighted need to realize is that any transition to egalitarianism requires an elite to guide it. The more expansive the transition, the more power that elite will need to have. The purely voluntary communes of the 1840’s and 1960’s may have worked for a while, but eventually everybody left all of them. Somebody has to keep that from happening, and whoever does that will invariably have a lot of power.
Somebody’s going to have to decide how many tires to produce in such as way as to maximize the benefits to society, balancing the interests of the workers producing them and the farmers who need them, and it won’t be a farmer making that decision. It’s going to be some guy with a doctorate in economics from Duke. The Revolution requires an elite, and that elite’s going to be even more powerful than the one we’ve got today.
But maybe that elite will be more moral than the one we’ve got today. If we’re to consider Lord Acton’s maxim about absolute power, I don’t think we should count on it.
And even if they were more noble, would they be more capable?
This is why I conflate “liberals” and “leftists.” I see them as favoring different means to similar ends. “Liberals” may be more consciously aware of the need for an elite, but even if “leftists” have their way, we’ll end up with the same thing.
I therefore categorize the Left according to a different paradigm, and they’re free to disagree. I’m sure that many of them consider Bush to be a hardcore conservative when I know he’s not.
However, as staunchly as I disagree with Daisy on where we need to go, I respect her. I’ve seen no evidence that she’s some dumbass who thinks she can run my life for me better than I can. She wants my freedom. Unfortunately, she defines freedom in such a way that it can only lead to slavery.