Apple pie in the sky?

Achieving Our Country

June 5, 1998

In Achieving Our Country, philosopher Richard Rorty reflects on the rise, fall and possible redemption of America's intellectual left. He could easily be dismissed for merely presenting yet another attack on the professoriate, and many of my colleagues will no doubt respond to him in that way. However, I think politically progressive academics should consider carefully Rorty's arguments. With all their faults, they pose important questions about American politics and public-intellectual practice.

Originally presented as the 1997 Massey lectures in the history of American civilisation at Stanford, Rorty's book echoes conservatives' allegations that humanities and social-science professors are propagating anti-American views.

Nevertheless, his ambitions are not those of the new right culture warriors who seek to castigate "tenured radicals" for their supposed hostility toward American life and western civilisation. Indeed, Rorty wants his colleagues to talk even more loudly and effectively to their fellow citizens. He wants them to give up their status as historical "spectators" and become historical "agents". But to do so they must first change their tone and words. (Rorty admitted in a recent interview that he has never engaged in politics.) Achieving Our Country recalls Russell Jacoby's contentions in The Last Intellectuals (1987) that America's post-1960s left intellectuals had alienated themselves from public life by retreating into the academy and speaking a language not even their mothers could understand. Similarly, Rorty claims that the academic left has become simply a "cultural left" that, when it is not obsessing over problems of cultural theory, unwisely champions multiculturalism and a politics of identity and resentment. He grants that the cultural studies left has contributed to making America less sadistic (less racist and less sexist), but, observing how during the same past quarter century class inequalities have dramatically intensified, he laments the failure of left academics also to address those developments.

Rorty's criticism of the cultural left is on target. However, it is hardly original. And, by conflating the cultural left with the academic left as a whole, he completely disregards serious and valuable work by social scientists on political economy and class questions. Perhaps Rorty has been distracted from such studies by the same corporate and conservative media hype about cultural studies celebrities and the "pc" takeover of higher education that has served to distract, agitate and/or entertain extra-academic audiences.

In any case, it is more than a matter of scholarly language, practice or subject matter. Academic leftists, Rorty asserts, must make of themselves a patriotic left. They must eschew their anti-American stances and rhetoric, transcend their multiculturalist commitments and labours, and set themselves to cultivating the kind of national identity and pride that, while recognising past wrongs, does not see the nation as irredeemable but, rather, appreciates persistent possibilities for justice and progress and sees the future as contingent upon what we make of those possibilities.

Moreover, Rorty says, not only must the academic left become patriotic, it must once again act more like a left: "The right never thinks that anything much needs to be changed: it thinks the country is basically in good shape, and may well have been better in the past... The left, by definition, is the party of hope. It insists that our nation remains unachieved... (However) the academic left has no projects to propose to America, no vision of a country to be achieved by building a consensus on the need for specific reforms."

The left to which Rorty aspires did exist once upon a time but, as he recounts, it tragically tore itself apart over the war in South-east Asia when the youthful new left broke with the older "reformist left". Rorty uses the term "reformist left" to encompass both the old left of the socialist and communist parties and the liberal reformers of the progressive, New Deal and Great Society eras, thereby enabling him to include Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson in the ranks of the left (just as the right has always claimed).

Having repeatedly chastised the 1960s student left for its rhetorical and behavioural excesses, Rorty here actually praises it for helping bring an end to the war and the regime that pursued it. He then proceeds to call for reconciliation between the (now old) new and reformist lefts.

Unfortunately, Rorty's narrative will not readily encourage reunification. He patronisingly accords a place to socialists and communists in his reformist left, but clearly favours progressives and liberals. He fondly invokes the 1930s alliance of labour and intellectuals, but fails fully to appreciate the role of communist organisers in building the Depression-era labour movement. He aggressively defends liberal support of the cold war against the Soviet Union, yet all but ignores the worst of US imperialism (seemingly assuming it could not have been otherwise). And he accepts the historical importance of popular struggles from below, but emphasises top-down initiatives.

Envisioning a newly-unified left, Rorty nominates poet Walt Whitman and philosopher John Dewey to serve as its historical and intellectual mentors:

"They offered a new account of what America was, in the hope of mobilising Americans as political agents." And, noting their respective attentions to democratic love and democratic citizenship, he anoints Whitman and Dewey prophets of an American "civic religion" that held firmly to a faith in American exceptionalism, but conceived it in decidedly secular terms. "They wanted to put hope for a casteless and classless America in the place traditionally occupied by knowledge of the will of God. They wanted that utopian America to replace God as the unconditional objects of desire. They wanted the struggle for social justice to be the country's animating principle, the nation's soul." Amen. To recreate a progressive political majority, Rorty recommends that the academic left "kick the theory habit" in favour of public-intellectual engagements; pursue fewer cultural studies in favour of political-economic projects (though bizarrely Rorty expresses far more sympathy for Nietzsche than for Marx), and "mobilise what remains of our pride in being Americans" in favour of connecting it to a politics of economic justice.

Advocating re-alignment with the labour movement, Rorty suggests that the academic left contribute to formulating a "people's charter" that would enumerate potentially popular "piecemeal reforms" such as universal national health care.

Pragmatist Rorty closes by redeclaring himself for experimentation over tradition and for "hope and shared utopian dreams" against "knowledge of God's Will or the Laws of History".

I am prepared to join Rorty in cultivating a patriotic progressivism and fighting the good fight, but I think he could have strengthened our leftist case for reclaiming patriotism if he had attended even more to American history and the role of the radical tradition as the prophetic memory of America's democratic promise. As Rorty apparently realises, the making of America - for all its tragedies and ironies - presents an exceptional narrative of struggle and progress. Thus, my own hopes and agency arise out of neither "shared utopian dreams" nor "the Laws of History", but from a critical and appreciative knowledge of American experience and the progressive possibilities it continues to afford.

Harvey Kaye is professor of social change and development, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, United States.

Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in 20th-Century America

Author - Richard Rorty
ISBN - 0 674 00311 X
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £12.50
Pages - 158

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