“The irony is that this is in stark contrast to how our rivals on the political right often portray the Left.”
hese days people on the Left cannot agree on anything, if they ever could. The joke typically runs that if one wants to know what it is like to spend time with a group of activists or progressive intellectuals from different walks of life, imagine a bunch of well-meaning—if eccentrically dressed—people gathered in a circle. Everyone draws a gun, aims inwards, and fires. The irony is that this is in stark contrast to how our rivals on the political right often portray the Left. I have sometimes found myself wishing we resembled the united and powerful movement that haunts the dreams of Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson: united in our quest to destroy Western civilization by assigning too much Derrida to undergraduate students and allowing trans women to use female-designated bathrooms. It might make us less interesting, but we would probably get more done.
Why Can’t the Left Agree on Anything?
As I write these words, I can already see some of my readers—sophisticated people that they are—rolling their eyes and saying, “Well, duh. That is because the whole left-right binary is kind of silly. It got its start in 1789 during the French Revolution when supporters of the King sat on the right in the National Assembly and supporters of the revolution sat on the left. These groupings were always fairly arbitrary, lumping together people who had little ideologically in common, even in the 18th century. Now, in our post-modern 21st century, why should we expect whatever the ‘Left’ is to be united on anything?”
Another objection might run that not being united is exactly what the “Left”—and let us deliberately leave that as an under-determined signifier—is all about. During the early years of the 20th century, there was a broad consensus that what progressives wanted to achieve was some iteration of socialism. This was either to be inspired by Marxism or, in the case of the Anglo-sphere, some iteration of consequentialism focused on achieving welfare for all. As the decades rolled on, socialism became discredited—fairly or otherwise—through its association with the crimes of the Soviet regime. This led to many economic leftists moderating their demands from public ownership of the means of production to calling for some form of social democracy ala the Western European states. (For the record, I still think this is a desirable and achievable goal.) At the same time, sharp critics began to observe the huge gaps in purely economic critique and what later came to be known as “class reductionism.” They claimed that the largely male and white thought leaders of the socialist movements were largely ignorant of—or even indifferent to—the particular marginalization of women, LGBTQ individuals, racialized minorities, and others. While most agreed that there was something to be said for universal liberation from economic depravity, it would likely be far less of an accomplishment to a gay black woman living in a racist, homophobic, and misogynistic society than to her counterparts.
As a consequence, what the “Left” should be is a free-floating and continuously renegotiated coalition of different groups each agitating for greater freedom and equality for their members.
The 1960’s helped to spur a realignment in progressive circles that firmly broke down the old consensus to make way for the so-called New Left. Much of this was spurred by the emergence of second wave feminism, the Civil Rights movement, and LGBTQ activism. The change was given theoretical voice through a variety of post-modern and post-Marxist intellectuals, from Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe to Michel Foucault. Each of these thinkers argued that the point of a progressive politics was to break up the totalizing theories of politics and identity that characterized earlier forms of leftism. Rather than unity, we should aspire towards pluralism, as well as to the democratic connotations that implies. As a consequence, what the “Left” should be is a free-floating and continuously renegotiated coalition of different groups each agitating for greater freedom and equality for their members. This is what David Harvey calls “militant particularism,” and it may be imperfect. However, it is certainly better than insisting on some artificial unity that papers over differences and, at its worst, can demand unity as surely as a right-wing advocate demands conformity to traditionalism.
Militant particularism sounds great, and there is much to it. Its achievements have—in many respects—been staggering for groups that have been marginalized through history. Women, racialized minorities, and LGBTQ individuals enjoy greater rights and respect in many parts of the world than they ever have. There are still considerable struggles left, no doubt. Women still disproportionately contribute more to unpaid labor than men—up to three times as much. The second shift is alive and well. In many countries, being gay remains a crime punishable by violence and even death. And, of course the death of George Floyd, which sparked worldwide protests, highlighted the intense anger that still exists over racial inequities, even in developed states. The fact that a post-modern conservative like President Donald Trump could win the White House while pandering to xenophobes and other “very fine” people indicates that—for every step forward—there can be two back. However, for all that, it is still important to reflect on what has been achieved in the last 60 years, if only to ward off the dangers of cynicism.
Yet there is a problem with these various forms of militant particularism. When it comes time to coalesce around a unified vision of what society should look like if it were truly just, we often come up flat. Slogans about making money work for people—and not the other way around—substitute for concrete platforms, and compromise gives way to suspicion and even animosity towards candidates and ideas that are not directly coincident with particular interests. This has real problems when it comes to the nitty-gritty of daily politics.
The real problems with militant particularism emerge when we have a chance actually to win power—as we did in 2020 with the Bernie Sanders campaign—and struggle to unite together and expand a progressive coalition. Politics is the art of the compromise; however, we must emphasize the appeal of better healthcare, a socialized workplace, more democracy, and so on. And it has real consequences when the Right—just as riven by doctrinaire differences as we are—is, nevertheless, all too happy to put those arguments aside and unite behind those such as President Trump, if that means its coalition can wield political power. Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin, and Ann Coulter may occasionally parrot “concerns” about Trumpism; however, one knows who they will be casting their ballot for when the time comes. This does not mean that progressives should just mindlessly do the same, but those unwilling to learn from their enemies are destined to be beaten by them again and again.
Matt McManus is a professor of politics at Whitman College and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, among other books. He can be added on Twitter via @mattpolprof