This article was originally published by Salon, on May 4, 1998.
For years, Richard Rorty held court as one of the foremost left-wing intellectuals in America. In his latest book, “Achieving Our Country,” he describes the left as anti-American, negative, lacking any program and politically irrelevant.
Damning as this indictment might seem, Rorty has no intention of abandoning a movement on whose behalf he has toiled for so long. The left remains, in his eyes, the “party of hope,” embracing the only political beliefs decent, humane and moral intellectuals could embrace. This mixture of lament and rigid self-righteousness makes for both a desperate and revealing picture, an emblem of the impossible quandary in which the American left now finds itself.
Rorty’s parents, by his own account, were “loyal fellow-travelers” of the Communist Party, breaking with their comrades in 1932 when they realized how completely the Party was dominated by Moscow. Rorty’s father was, for a time, a leading American Trotskyite; a 1935 Daily Worker cartoon portrayed him as a trained seal reaching for fish thrown by William Randolph Hearst. Rorty, in his own words grew up as an “anti-Communist red diaper baby” — supporting America’s cold war against the Soviet empire abroad, while keeping the socialist fires burning at home. With the passing of Irving Howe, Rorty has become the godfather to a small but influential remnant of “social democrats” huddled around Howe’s magazine, Dissent, clinging to socialism — “the name of our desire,” as Howe once called it.
Rorty announces his central concern with the current American left when he equates national pride with individual self-esteem, declaring the former a “necessary condition for self-improvement.” But in the 1960s, Rorty writes, a left emerged that despises America, speaks of it solely in terms of “mockery and disgust” and associates American patriotism with the endorsement of atrocities against Native Americans, ancient forests and African slaves.
It was not always thus, in Rorty’s view. There was once a progressive left whose pride in country was “almost religious.” Its aspirations were capsulized in Herbert Croly’s title “The Promise of American Life,” a promise that would be achieved by pragmatic, piecemeal reform. Into this American Eden, according to Rorty, came the serpent of totalitarian Marxism followed by the trauma of Vietnam. Negativism — the use of social criticism as a corrosive social acid — became the principal weapon of revolutionary intellectuals. The Vietnam War, which Rorty describes as “an atrocity of which Americans should be deeply ashamed,” pushed a younger generation of leftists away from reform and toward neo-Marxism.
All that is dead, of course, but Rorty would like to believe that the end of communism offers his comrades a new opportunity. Previously divided factions of the left can now unite in a new kind of Popular Front. Forget “Old Left” and “New Left,” and erase the distinction between socialists and liberals, since the idea of overthrowing capitalism has been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Rorty’s roster of progressive icons to be included in this new popular front is significant. “A hundred years from now, Howe and [John Kenneth] Galbraith, [Michael] Harrington and [Arthur] Schlesinger … Jane Addams and Angela Davis … will all be remembered for having advanced the cause of social justice,” he writes. “Whatever mistakes they made, these people will deserve, as [Calvin] Coolidge and [William F.] Buckley never will, the praise with which Jonathan Swift ended his own epitaph: ‘imitate him if you can; he served human liberty.’” Elsewhere, Rorty comments: “My leftmost students, who are also my favorite students, find it difficult to take my anti-communism seriously.” His readiness to embrace Davis and other lifetime servants of the communist cause as defenders of liberty, while dismissing anti-totalitarians like Buckley, shows why.