We have the left and right all wrong: The real story of the politics of nostalgia and tradition

The right is less committed to tradition than hierarchy. Liberals actually look backward, in hopes of better future

Published August 2, 2015 9:59AM (EDT)

Franklin Roosevelt, Barry Goldwater       (AP)
Franklin Roosevelt, Barry Goldwater (AP)

Ever since Edmund Burke, founder of the conservative tradition, declared, “The very idea of the fabrication of a new government, is enough to fill us with disgust and horror,” pundits and scholars have divided the political world along the axis of time. The left is the party of the future; the right, the party of the past. Liberals believe in progress and the new; conservatives, in tradition and the old. Hope versus history, morrow versus memory, utopia versus reality: these are the stuff of our great debates.

In "The Reactionary Mind," I argued that this view of the political divide is incorrect, at least as it pertains to the right. Beginning with Burke, conservatives have been less committed to tradition or the past than to a hierarchical vision of society. In Burke’s case, it was aristocrats over commoners; in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it would be masters over slaves, employers over employees, husbands and men over women and wives. And so it remains: the most consistent feature of contemporary American conservatism is the GOP’s war on reproductive freedom and worker rights.

When it comes to history, conservatives have demonstrated a flexibility about time best captured by an aristocratic character in "The Leopard," Giuseppe Di Lampedusa’s novel about nineteenth-century Sicily: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” In defense of an established order of power, any innovation can be countenanced, any past disposed of. Time, in other words, is not the key.

But if the right’s window does not open onto the past, must the left’s open onto the future? Not necessarily, claim two fascinating new books: Steve Fraser’s "The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power" and Kristin Ross’s "Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune." When it comes to past and future, they show, the left can be as ambidextrous as the right. What’s more, it may be the left’s ability to look backward while marching forward that explains its most potent moments of power and possibility.

Fraser is our preeminent historian of America as a capitalist civilization. No one is more attuned to the inner vibrations of our monied culture: the brazen fantasies of its wildest speculators, the embittered rage of its most abject victims, how the market both awakens desire and stokes dreams of revenge. Writing a prose of sinuous beauty, Fraser has brought a sense of high literature to everything from labor leader Sidney Hillman to Wall Street, reminding one of those poets the critic Floyd Dell once described as “seismographs of social disturbance.”

In "Age of Acquiescence," Fraser pursues a comparison often noted between our time and what Mark Twain called “The Gilded Age,” those decades of the last turn of the century when wealth and power were gathered at the top and powerlessness and poverty collected at the bottom. Why, Fraser asks, do workers and citizens today accede to the inequalities and injustices of capitalism that they refused to accept 100 to 150 years ago? After the Civil War, farmers and workers responded to the explosion of corporate power and financial wealth with desperate acts of violence and audacious feats of political creativity. The reason they could see a utopia beyond industrial capitalism, says Fraser, is that they remembered a reality before industrial capitalism. Their vision of the future was fueled by a memory of the past.

In 1820, 80% of Americans were self-employed; by 1940, 80% worked for someone—or something—else. “The individual has gone,” declared John D. Rockefeller, “never to return.” Driven into the mills and the mines or onto the rails, these refugees from the shop and the farm were injured, maimed, or killed (35,000 per year) by industrial capitalism. They were the lucky ones. Many Americans couldn’t get work at all. In the 1870s, unemployment became a census category for the first time. So desperate were jobless New Yorkers that they got themselves arrested just to enjoy a night off the streets, in jail. They also struck, marched, organized, bombed and killed, launching decades of class warfare, literal and metaphoric, that would haunt the country’s elites for years to come.

The fact of unemployment, Fraser writes, struck these men and women “as shocking, unnatural, and traumatic,” as did the astronomic new wealth of the nation’s plutocrats. That’s because they remembered a life before wage labor and their pervasive dependence on—and the compulsion of—the market. So powerful was this memory of a pre-capitalist past that it framed the way they understood their enemies: well into the twentieth century, Fraser reminds us, FDR was railing against “economic royalists” and “Tories of industry.” Not merely as propaganda but as a residue of the world not long ago left behind.

But it was precisely that memory, Fraser argues, that shock of the new, that made these rebels so ready to demand something even newer: a cooperative commonwealth, in which production would be collectively managed and profit democratically shared. Scandalized by the novelty of capital, they did not opt for an escapist nostalgia. They instead turned to the state, traditionally an object of opprobrium, and demanded that it assume new responsibilities: take over industry, tax wealth, supply credit, store surpluses—all for the sake of a vision drawn from a pre-capitalist past:

It is undeniable that the movement owed its fervor and sense of political and moral peril to the republican, smallholder mentality of the Revolution. Passionate attachments to immemorial traditions and ancient creeds—one might say to a useable or empowering past—were conjoined to creative methods of reconfiguring the future, all as a way of escaping the torments of an intolerable or even fatal present.

What Fraser shows, with vivid set pieces drawn from the nation’s most violent battlefields, is that far from presenting itself as the enemy, the past was viewed by workers and farmers as a resource and an ally. In part because the capitalist right so heartily embraced the rhetoric of progress and the future (no one, it seems, was content with the present). But more than that, historical memory enabled workers and farmers to see beyond the horizon of the capitalist present, to know, in their bones, what Marx was constantly struggling to imprint upon the mind of the left: that capitalism was but one mode of economic life, that its existence was contingent and historical rather than natural and eternal, and that because there was a past in which it did not exist there might be a future when it would cease to exist. Like the nation, capitalism rests upon repeated acts of forgetting; a robust anti-capitalism asks us to remember.

Perhaps, a critic might respond, this is a peculiarly American story. It’s long been noted how devoted Americans are to the Revolution and the republic it created. It should come as no surprise, then, that even America’s most violent radicals would resort to a vocabulary of the past. One must turn to Europe’s revolutions, our critic might conclude, to hear what a true left sounds like. One must listen to the wildest voices of French Revolution, 1848, and the Paris Commune.

Except, this is what those voices sounded like:

I must of necessity turn back to past times, and even times a very long while passed; and you must believe I do so with distinct purpose of showing you where lies the hope for the future, and not in mere empty regret for the days which can never come again.

That’s William Morris, the English socialist who “during the 1880s,” writes Kristin Ross, “would become Britain’s most vigorous and creative supporter of the memory of the Paris Commune.” Morris features prominently in Ross’s book on the Commune of 1871, Paris’s 72-day experiment with radical democracy that ended with the French army’s massacre of thousands of Parisian citizens.

The Commune is one of the most storied events in the history of the European left (just last year, the Yale historian John Merriman offered a blow-by-blow account of those fateful 72 days and their bloody aftermath in his "Massacre: The Life and Death of the Paris Commune"). Ross, a literary critic at NYU, takes a novel approach to that story, examining what it was that the Communards said they were doing and how their admirers—particularly Morris, the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin, and Marx—relayed and recast their words in the most far-flung precincts of Iceland, Siberia, even Idaho.

Ross is the perfect guide for such a journey: few critics are more attuned to how words and images can travel. In July 1871, for example, just months after the Communards had been slaughtered, Morris toured Iceland. Ross follows him there, to the volcanic countryside, only to find him “reminded by the loose stones on the edges of the lava fields of ‘a half-ruined Paris barricade.'”

One of the most visually spectacular acts of the Commune was the toppling of the Vendôme Column on May 16. Built originally as a monument to France’s victories under Napoleon, it had come to represent the despotic regime of his nephew Napoleon III. Tickets to the event were sold to Parisians, who gathered by the thousands to watch this assault on a hated symbol of the Second French Empire. Nearly 20 years later, Ross notes, Morris would replay this event in his novel "News from Nowhere," when he imagines London’s “Trafalgar Square, cleansed of its own imperialist monumentality” in the form of Nelson’s Column, transformed “into an apricot orchard.”

Ross has an acute eye for this juxtaposition of the pastoral and the political, how the vines of nature can overtake the monuments of empire, how revolutionary events can interrupt the silence of the countryside. Like Morris, she is drawn to parables, especially parables about travel across not just space (as in the lava fields of Iceland) but also time:

Parable, from the Greek meaning “beside,” plus “casting, putting, turning”: a “putting beside” or “putting side by side.” A parable is not about going backwards or reversing time but about opening it up—opening up the web of possibilities. In this case… as a way of recruiting past hopes to serve present needs.

Ross does not argue, in the manner of Fraser, that the memory of pre-capitalist society fired the imagination of the Commune, whose far-reaching proposals included daycare centers for working-class children that would house “‘an aviary full of birds’ to combat boredom, ‘the great malady of young children.’” She focuses instead on how the Commune prompted a renewed interest, among radicals like Marx and Kropotkin, in pre-capitalist institutions like the Russian obshina, the agricultural property held by a village in common.

We must “not be frightened of the word ‘archaic,’” Marx writes Vera Zasulich in a letter that Ross cites as a clue to Marx’s post-Commune writings about Russian agrarianism. What’s most significant about these and Kropotkin’s writings, Ross shows, is how much they eschew nostalgia and romanticism. Neither writer looks for or finds an arcadian past in the countryside. Both seek instead a source of information about the capitalist present and insight into a possible communist future: it was the isolation of the Paris workers from the peasants in the countryside, Marx was convinced, that had allowed the French state to crush the Commune so easily. Understanding the countryside would be key to moving forward, not merely tactically but imaginatively. In turning to the past, Marx was perhaps returning to one of his earliest insights, which he formulated in an 1843 letter to Arnold Ruge:

It will then become evident that the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality. It will become evident that it is not a question of drawing a great mental dividing line between past and future, but of realising the thoughts of the past. Lastly, it will become evident that mankind is not beginning a new work, but is consciously carrying into effect its old work.

In his "Reflections on the Revolution in France," Burke is supposed to have given voice to the conservative dispensation by describing society as “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Yet who in and around the Commune had greater sensitivity to the delicate and mutual dependencies of past and future: The anarchist Kropotkin, who spent an entire week in prison tapping out the history of the Commune to his young neighbor in the next cell, lest it be forgotten? The Communard geographer Élisée Reclus, who called for solidarity “between those who travel through the conscious arena and those who are longer here”? Or the reactionaries in charge of the French regime, who spent the better part of the 1870s forbidding anyone who managed to survive the Commune from carving any mention of it on their gravestones?

By Corey Robin

Corey Robin is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. Author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin and Fear: The History of a Political Idea, he is currently writing a book about Clarence Thomas.

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