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Reformist Left

The Reformist Left is a political term coined by Richard Rorty in his 1998 book Achieving Our Country, in reference to the mainstream Left in the United States (though the term may be applied elsewhere) in the first two thirds of the 20th century: I propose to use the term reformist Left to cover all those Americans who, between 1900 and 1964, struggled within the framework of constitutional democracy to protect the weak from the strong. … I think that the Left should get back into the business of piecemeal reform within the framework of a market economy. This was the business the American Left was in during the first two-thirds of the century. … Emphasizing the continuity between Herbert Croly and Lyndon Johnson, between John Dewey and Martin Luther King, between Eugene Debs and Walter Reuther, would help us to recall a reformist Left which deserves not only respect but imitation—the best model available for the American Left in the coming century.


1. Definition

Rorty's purpose in defining the Reformist Left is breaking away from the prevailing notion of the Left being divided between New and Old Left, which left no room for anyone but Marxists and Neo-Marxists:

For us Americans, it is important not to let Marxism influence the story we tell about our own Left. We should repudiate the Marxists, insinuation that only those who are convinced capitalism must be overthrown can count as leftists, and that everybody else is a wimpy liberal, a self-deceiving bourgeois reformer. Many recent histories of the Sixties have, unfortunately, been influenced by Marxism. These histories distinguish the emergent student Left and the so-called Old Left from the "liberals"—a term used to cover both the people who administered the New Deal and those whom Kennedy brought from Harvard to the White House in 1961. In such histories, you are counted as a member of the Old Left only if you had proclaimed yourself a socialist early on, and if you continued to express grave doubts about the viability of capitalism. So, in the historiography which has unfortunately become standard, Irving Howe and Michael Harrington count as leftists, but John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger do not, even though these four men promoted mostly the same causes and thought about our country's problems in pretty much the same terms.[1]

Rorty thus includes in the Reformist Left all that have, at one time or another, advanced reforms—not revolutions—toward social justice:…

In my sense of the term, Woodrow Wilson—the president who kept Eugene Debs jail but appointed Louis Bradeis to the Supreme Court—counts as a part-time leftist. So does FDR—the president who created the rudiments of a welfare state and urged workers to join labor unions, while obdurately turning his back on African-Americans. So does Lyndon Johnson, who permitted the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese children, but also did more for poor children in the United States than any previous president. … A hundred years from now, Howe and Galbraith, Harrington and Schlesinger, Wilson and Debs, Jane Addams and Angela Davis, Felix Frankfurter and John L. Lewis, W. E. B. Du Bois and Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Reich and Jesse Jackson, will all be remembered for having advanced the cause of social justice. They will all be seen as having been "on the Left." The difference between these people and men like Calvin Coolidge, Irving Babbitt, T. S. Eliot, Robert Taft, and William Buckley will be far clearer than any of the quarrels which once divided them among themselves.[1]

… while excluding both Marxists…

Marxism was not only a catastrophe for all the countries in which Marxists took power, but a disaster for the reformist Left in all the countries in which they did not. … Leftists should repudiate links with Lenin as firmly as the early Protestants repudiated the doctrine of the Primacy of Peter.[1]

… and Neo-Marxists:

When one of today's academic leftists says that some topic has been "inadequately theorized, " you can be pretty certain that he or she is going to drag in either philosophy of language, or Lacanian psychoanalysis, or some neo-Marxist version of economic determinism. Theorists of the Left think that dissolving political agents into plays of differential subjectivity, or political initiatives into pursuits of Lacan's impossible object of desire, helps to subvert the established order. Such subversion, they say, is accomplished by "problematizing familiar concepts." … With this partial substitution of Freud for Marx as a source of social theory, sadism rather than selfishness has become the principal target of the Left. The heirs of the New Left of the Sixties have created, within the academy, a cultural Left. Many members of this Left specialize in what they call the "politics of difference" or "of identity" or "of recognition." … The new cultural Left which has resulted from these changes has few ties to what remains of the pre-Sixties reformist Left.[1]

2. History

William James (1842–1910) is the grandfather of pragmatism and of the Reformist Left.

2.1. United States

John Dewey (1859–1952) was an heir to James' pragmatism and to his Reformist Leftist tradition.


Rorty traces the origins of the Reformist Left in the United States back to William James and Herbert Croly, in their pragmatism, egalitarianism and faith in democracy:

"Democracy, " James wrote, "is a kind of religion, and we are bound not to admit its failure. Faiths and utopias are the noblest exercise of human reason, and no one with a spark of reason in him will sit down fatalistically before the croaker's picture." … Croly wrote that "a more highly socialized democracy is the only practicable substitute on the part of convinced democrats for an excessively individualized democracy." It is time, he believed, to set about developing what he called "a dominant and constructive national purpose." In becoming "responsible for the subordination of the individual to that purpose," he said, "the American state will in effect be making itself responsible for a morally and socially desirable distribution of wealth." From 1909 until the present, the thesis that the state must make itself responsible for such redistribution has marked the dividing line between the American Left and the American Right.[1]

Inspired by James and Croly, Walt Whitman and John Dewey, further fleshed out their call into a vision:

This new, quasi-communitarian rhetoric was at the heart of the Progressive Movement and the New Deal. It set the tone for the American Left during the first six decades of the twentieth century. Walt Whitman and John Dewey, as we shall see, did a great deal to shape this rhetoric. … They offered a new account of what America was, in the hope of mobilizing Americans as political agents. The most striking feature of their redescription of our country is its thoroughgoing secularism. … "Democracy," Dewey said, "is neither a form of government nor a social expediency, but a metaphysic of the relation of man and his experience in nature." For both Whitman and Dewey, the terms "America" and "democracy" are shorthand for a new conception of what it is to be human—a conception which has no room for obedience to a nonhuman authority, and in which nothing save freely achieved consensus among human beings has any authority at all.[1]

And that secularism in Whitman and Dewey, Rorty attributes to Hegel's humanism:

Forgetting about eternity, and replacing knowledge of the antecedently real with hope for the contingent future, is not easy. But both tasks have been a good deal easier since Hegel. Hegel was the first philosopher to take time and finitude as seriously as any Hobbesian materialist, while at the same time taking the religious impulse as seriously as any Hebrew prophet or Christian saint. … He suggested that the meaning of human life is a function of how human history turns out, rather than of the relation of that history to something ahistorical. This suggestion made it easier for two of Hegel's readers, Dewey and Whitman, to claim that the way to think about the significance of the human adventure is to look forward rather than upward: to contrast a possible human future with the human past and present.[1]

Many of Dewey's ideas came into their own in the FDR's's New Deal, and its administration employed many that subscribed to them.


Dewey, in turn, inspired many of the reformers that followed him:

Dewey disliked and distrusted Franklin D. Roosevelt, but many of his ideas came into their own in the New Deal. … Because a lot of my relatives helped write and administer New Deal legislation, I associated leftism with a constant need for new laws and new bureaucratic initiatives which would redistribute the wealth produced by the capitalist system. I spent occasional vacations in Madison with Paul Raushenbush, who ran Wisconsin's unemployment compensation system, and his wife, Elizabeth Brandeis (a professor of labor history, and the author of the first exposé of the misery of migrant workers on Wisconsin farms). Both were students of John R. Commons, who had passed on the heritage of his own teacher, Richard Ely. Their friends included Max Otto, a disciple of Dewey. Otto was the in-house philosopher for a group of Madison bureaucrats and academics clustered around the La Follette family. In that circle, American patriotism, redistributionist economics, anti-communism, and Deweyan pragmatism went together easily and naturally. I think of that circle as typical of the reformist American Left of the first half of the century.[1]

Todd Gitlin (born 1943), an American sociologist, diagnosed the eclipse of the Reformist Left starting in 1964.


Rorty concurs with Gitlin that the hegemony of reformism within the Left in the United States came to halt in 1964:

The conviction that the vast inequalities within American society could be corrected by using the institutions of a constitutional democracy—that a cooperative commonwealth could be created by electing the right politicians and passing the right laws—held the non-Marxist American Left together from Croly's time until the early 1960s. But the Vietnam War splintered that Left. Todd Gitlin believes August 1964 marks the break in the leftist students' sense of what their country was like. That was the month in which the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was denied seats at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, and in which Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution.

Gitlin argues plausibly that these two events "fatefully turned the movement" and "drew a sharp line through the New Left's Sixties." Before them, most of the New Left's rhetoric was consensual and reformist. After them, it began to build up to the full-throated calls for revolution with which the decade ended. Whether or not one agrees with Gitlin about the exact date, it is certainly the case that the mid-Sixties saw the beginning of the end of a tradition of leftist reformism which dated back to the Progressive Era. …

The New Leftists gradually became convinced that the, Vietnam War, and the endless humiliation inflicted on African-Americans, were clues to something deeply wrong with their country, and not just mistakes correctable by reforms. They wanted to hear that America was a very different sort of place, a much worse place, than their parents and teachers had told them it was. So they responded enthusiastically to Lasch's claim that "the structure of American society makes it almost impossible for criticism of existing policies to become part of political discourse. The language of American politics increasingly resembles an Orwellian monologue."

When they read in Lasch's book that "the United States of the mid-twentieth century might better be described as an empire than as a community," the students felt justified in giving up their parents' hope that reformist politics could cope with the injustice they saw around them. Lasch's book made it easy to stop thinking of oneself as a member of a community, as a citizen with civic responsibilities. For if you turn out to be living in an evil empire (rather than, as you had been told, a democracy fighting an evil empire), then you have no responsibility to your country; you are accountable only to humanity. If what your government and your teachers are saying is all part of the same Orwellian monologue if the differences between the Harvard faculty and the military-industrial complex, or between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, are negligible then you have a responsibility to make a revolution.[1]

Trump's election

Rorty's 1998 book was widely quoted in the mainstream and alternative media for its prophetic warnings materialised in the United States' 2016 presidential election:[2][3][4][5][6][7][8]

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. A scenario like that of Sinclair Lewis' novel It Can 't Happen Here may then be played out. For once such a strongman takes of office, nobody can predict what will happen. In 1932, most of the predictions made about what would happen if Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor were wildly overoptimistic.

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words "nigger" and "kike" will once again be heard in the workplace. All the sadism which the academic Left has tried to make unacceptable to its students will come flooding back. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.

But such a renewal of sadism will not alter the effects of selfishness. For after my imagined strongman takes charge, he will quickly make his peace with the international super rich, just as Hitler made his with the German industrialists. He will invoke the glorious memory of the Gulf War to provoke military adventures which will generate short-term prosperity. He will be a disaster for the country and the world. People will wonder why there was so little resistance to his evitable rise. Where, they will ask, was the American Left? Why was it only rightists like Buchanan who spoke to the workers about the consequences of globalization? Why could not the Left channel the mounting rage of the newly dispossessed?[1]


Rorty's book, more than simply a historical and philosophical account of the Reformist Left, is itself a manifesto toward its revival:

I think that the Left should get back into the business of piecemeal reform within the framework of a market economy. This was the business the American Left was in during the first two-thirds of the century. … I can sum up by saying that it would be a good thing if the next generation of American leftists found as little resonance in the names of Karl Marx and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin as in those of Herbert Spencer and Benito Mussolini. It would be an even better thing if the names of Ely and Croly, Dreiser and Debs, A. Philip Randolph and John L. Lewis were more familiar to these leftists than they were to the students of the Sixties. … Emphasizing the continuity between Herbert Croly and Lyndon Johnson, between John Dewey and Martin Luther King, between Eugene Debs and Walter Reuther, would help us to recall a reformist Left which deserves not only respect but imitation—the best model available for the American Left in the coming century.[1]

3. Outside the United States

While Rorty focuses his definition of the Reformist Left in the realm of the American Left, his characterization sits in a much larger narrative, extending far beyond the confines of the United States:

Author Life Title Year Country
Adam Smith 1723–1790 The Theory of Moral Sentiments[9] 1761 Great Britain
Louis Blanc 1811–1882 The Organisation of Labor[10] 1839 France
John Stuart Mill 1806–1873 Principles of Political Economy[11] 1848 United Kingdom
Walt Whitman 1819–1892 Democratic Vistas[12] 1871 United States
Henry George 1839–1897 Progress and Poverty[13] 1879 United States
Ernest Renan 1823–1892 What is a Nation?[14] 1882 France
Pope Leo XIII 1810–1893 Rerum novarum[15] 1891 Italy
Eduard Bernstein 1850–1932 Evolutionary Socialism[16] 1899 Germany
Jane Addams 1860–1935 Democracy and Social Ethics[17] 1902 United States
Lizzie Magie 1866–1948 The Landlord's Game 1903 United States
William James 1842–1910 Pragmatism[18] 1907 United States
Benedetto Croce 1866–1952 Philosophy of the Practical: Economic and Ethic[19] 1908 Italy
Herbert Croly 1869–1930 The Promise of American Life[20] 1909 United States
David Lloyd George 1863–1945 People's Budget[21] 1909 United Kingdom
Leonard Hobhouse 1864–1929 Liberalism[22] 1911 United Kingdom
Hilaire Belloc 1870–1953 The Servile State[23] 1912 United Kingdom
Woodrow Wilson 1856–1924 The New Freedom 1913 United States
Louis Brandeis 1856–1941 Other People's Money and How the Bankers Use It[24] 1914 United States
Franz Oppenheimer 1864–1943 The State[25] 1914 Germany
Eugene V. Debs 1855–1926 Labor and Freedom[26] 1916 United States
G. K. Chesterton 1874–1936 Utopia of Usurers[27] 1917 United Kingdom
John Dewey 1859–1952 The Public and its Problems[28] 1927 United States
Felix Frankfurter 1882–1965 A Critical Analysis for Lawyers and Laymen 1927 United States
Carlo Rosselli 1899–1937 Liberal Socialism[29] 1930 Italy
Pope Pius XI 1857–1939 Quadragesimo anno 1931 Holy See
R. H. Tawney 1880–1962 Equality 1931 United Kingdom
Aldous Huxley 1894–1963 Brave New World[30] 1932 United Kingdom
Oszkár Jászi 1875–1957 Proposed Roads to Peace 1932 Template:Country data Kingdom of Hungary
Michal Kalecki 1899–1970 A Theory of the Business Cycle[31] 1933 Poland
Eleanor Roosevelt 1884–1962 The State’s Responsibility for Fair Working Conditions[32] 1933 United States
John Maynard Keynes 1883–1946 The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money[33] 1935 United Kingdom
W. E. B. Du Bois 1868–1893 Black Reconstruction in America[34] 1935 United States
Oskar Lange 1904–1965 On the Economic Theory of Socialism 1936 United Kingdom
John L. Lewis 1880–1969 The Rights of Labor[35] 1937 United States
Nicholas Kaldor 1908–1986 A Model of the Trade Cycle[36] 1940 United Kingdom
Abba P. Lerner 1903–1982 Functional Finance and the Federal Debt 1943 United States
William Beveridge 1879–1963 Full Employment in a Free Society[37] 1944 United Kingdom
Franklin Delano Roosevelt 1882–1945 Second Bill of Rights 1944 United States
Karl Polanyi 1886–1964 The Great Transformation 1944 Austria
John Dedman 1896–1973 Full Employment in Australia 1945 Australia
George Orwell 1903–1950 Nineteen Eighty-Four 1948 United Kingdom
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. 1917–2007 The Vital Center 1949 United States
Alberto Pasqualini 1901–1960 The Essence of Laborism 1950 Brazil
H. C. Coombs 1906–1997 Economic Development and Financial Stability 1955 Australia
Joan Robinson 1903–1983 The Accumulation of Capital 1956 United Kingdom
Ludwig Erhard 1897–1977 Prosperity Through Competition 1958 West Germany
John Kenneth Galbraith 1908–2006 The Affluent Society 1958 United States
Piero Sraffa 1898–1983 Producing Commodities with Commodities 1960 United Kingdom
Michael Harrington 1928–1989 The Other America: Poverty in the United States 1962 United States
Pope John XXIII 1881–1963 Mater et magistra 1961 Holy See
Martin Luther King, Jr. 1929–1968 Where do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? 1967 United States
Pope Paul VI 1897–1978 Populorum progressio 1967 Holy See
Axel Leijonhufvud b. 1933 On Keynesian Economics and the Economics of Keynes[38] 1968 United States
Bayard Rustin 1912–1987 The Anatomy of Frustration 1968 United States
John Rawls 1921–2002 A Theory of Justice[39] 1971 United States
Paul Davidson b. 1930 Money and the Real World[40] 1972 United States
Jan Kregel b. 1944 The Theory of Capital 1976 United States
Ted Kennedy 1932–2009 The Dream Will Never Die 1980 United States
Pope John Paul II 1920–2005 Laborem exercens 1981 Holy See
Willy Brandt 1913–1992 Left and Free 1982 West Germany
Mario Cuomo 1932–2015 Tale of Two Cities 1984 United States
Peter Navarro b. 1949 The Policy Game 1984 United States
Hyman Minsky 1919–1996 Stabilizing an Unstable Economy[41] 1986 United States
Robert Dimand   The Origins of the Keynesian Revolution 1988 Canada
Philip Harvey   Securing the Right to Employment 1989 United States
William Vickrey 1914–1996 Full Employment without Increased Inflation 1992 Canada
Robert Skidelsky b. 1939 The World After Communism 1995 United Kingdom
Geoff Harcourt b. 1931 Capitalism, Socialism and Post-Keynesianism 1995 Australia
Warren Mosler b. 1949 Full Employment and Price Stability 1997 United States
L. Randall Wray b. 1953 Government as Employer of Last Resort 1997 United States
Richard Rorty 1931–2007 Achieving Our Country[42] 1998 United States
Stephanie Kelton b. 1969 The Hierarchy of Money 1998 United States
Mathew Forstater   Functional Finance and Full Employment 1999 United States
James K. Galbraith b. 1952 Created Unequal[43] 2000 United States
Peter A. Diamond b. 1940 Towards an Optimal Social Security Design 2001 United States
Ha-Joon Chang b. 1963 Kicking Away the Ladder[44] 2002 United Kingdom
Joseph Stiglitz b. 1943 Globalization and Its Discontents 2003 United States
Steven Pinker b. 1954 The Blank Slate[45] 2003 United States
Pavlina R. Tcherneva   Full Employment and Price Stability[46] 2004 United States
Jeffrey Sachs b. 1954 The End of Poverty[47] 2005 United States
Ellen Brown b. 1945 Web of Debt[48] 2007 United States
Bill Mitchell b. 1952 Full Employment Abandoned 2008 Australia
Roberto Mangabeira Unger b. 1947 The Left Alternative[49] 2009 United States
Eric Tymoigne   Central Banking, Asset Prices and Financial Fragility 2009 United States
Scott T. Fullwiler   Modern Monetary Theory 2010 United States
Abhijit Banerjee & Esther Duflo b. 1961; b. 1972 Poor Economics 2011 United States
Emmanuel Saez b. 1972 The Case for a Progressive Tax 2011 United States
Thomas Piketty b. 1971 Capital in the Twenty-First Century 2013 France
Mariana Mazzucato b. 1968 The Entrepreneurial State[50] 2013 United States
Miles Corak   Income Inequality and Intergenerational Mobility[51] 2013 United States
Pope Francis b. 1936 Evangelii gaudium 2013 Holy See
Luiz Carlos Bresser-Pereira b. 1934 New Developmentalism 2014 Brazil
Raj Chetty b. 1979 Behavioral Economics and Public Policy 2015 United States
Mark Blyth b. 1967 Austerity[52] 2015 United States
Robert Reich b. 1946 Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few[53] 2015 United States
Thomas Frank b. 1965 Listen, Liberal[54] 2016 United States


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