We share Eli Zaretsky’s desire to understand the trajectory of the Left past, present, and future. We disagree with him over the nature of the Left itself and with his account of the dynamics of political change. Where Zaretsky looks to the long duree and to political breaks as sources of current decline, we argue that the Left was always a more protean political formation in which lines of affiliation and disagreement were porous and changing. Finally, we insist, that if we are to understand the fate of the Left we must put it in dynamic relation with the actions of capital. Without expanding the political field, we mis-specify the geographies of political action — then and now.

Contested Fields Rather Than Defection

In the early 70s, small groups, Marxist-Feminist I-IV, formed to think about how Marxism and feminism might be put together. At one of those meetings, Snitow remembers the anthropologist Sherry Ortner rather regretfully saying that her Marxism wasn’t an adequate frame for what she was seeing in her research. “There’s something phobic in men’s actions toward women.” Left women struggled in many locations with exclusions that made no rational sense. Men seemed to be irrational in their need for the public sphere to be male only.

But Zaretsky reiterates in his latest post his point that it was feminism and its wild move to separation that was irrational: “The women’s movement of the late sixties was akin to a natural force, a great river of emotion and eloquent power; who would blame a river?” This kind of tin ear is not what one expects from a colleague who is familiar with feminist theory, with the long effort to analyze the many ways in which sexism and the family work. By equating women with nature, with flowing emotion, and by seeing their force as overpowering and with no rational restraint, we arrive at a distortion of New Left feminist history. (Consider the image reversed: “The men of the New Left were like a natural force, a mighty stream of emotional outrage; they can’t be blamed for the ways their utopian yearning for unity caused the New Left to seriously, even tragically, underestimate the forces impeding this unity, nor for the ways in which ‘unity’ itself is a problematic wish.”) But in some senses, Zaretsky’s river has its truth: those were indeed wildly flowing times, and both men and women were caught up in visions of new freedoms and new desires.

Thomas Cole
Detail of Thomas Cole’s “The Voyage of Life: Youth,” oil on canvas, 1842, the National Gallery © michellevanloon.com

At the other end of the spectrum from great rivers, Zaretsky sees early second wave feminist thought as having a narrow focus on identity. But many classic feminist texts contain multiple strands that get flattened in Zaretsky’s liberation-to-identity politics retelling. Early feminist work ranged widely from the economy to the family, from the shape of the public sphere to various, shifting forms of private life.

Out of the spate that was 60s politics, Zaretsky’s impulse is to sort out radical movements one from another, trying to establish bright lines among what were more muddied, heterogeneous political phenomena: First, there are the “liberal” ones unable to effect radical change, only demanding small accommodations against discrimination, lack of opportunity, etc., changes that are easily assimilated and co-opted by the system. Second, there is real radicalism, which always has capitalism in its sights. Zaretsky blames the Left for “allowing” (his verb) these different tendencies to run into each other. If only we had the power to “allow!” Many other forces are always at work defining the possible.

In Zaretsky’s sorting device, he places the “movements for personal and sexual emancipation and participatory democracy” inside his idea of a radical New Left. The Women’s Liberation Movement and the Gay Liberation Movement, he says, were part of an authentic radicalism; “they cannot be assimilated to liberal feminism, suffragism, or the idea of equal rights per se, which is what Snitow and Hattam in effect do.” Alas, not only can all these movements be assimilated; they often are. We agree with Zaretsky that liberation movements have the potential to demand radical change but there is no guarantee that these regroupings will go beyond the “identity politics” Zaretsky deplores. Some do, some do not develop into potentially radical political struggles. The new groupings require the development of their own radical political analyses and practices.

CIW (Coalition of Immokalee Workers) - NESRI Wendy's Action in NYC on Oct. 15, 2013 © NESRI | Flickr
CIW (Coalition of Immokalee Workers) – NESRI Wendy’s Action in NYC on Oct. 15, 2013 © NESRI | Flickr

Complex movements include many locations and there is constant cross-over of ideas and of individuals. For example, many radicals have chosen “rights” struggles in these over thirty years of reaction; they have seen “rights” as the only discourse in town and have tried to extend rights territory to include systemic social change (For example, The National Social and Economic Rights Initiative [NESRI]). They try to push liberal opportunities towards radical outcomes in a time when an organized Left has been absent — for many reasons, beyond the scope of this post.

We need empathy with how radicals try to climb, step by step, in very restrictive situations, and the ways in which they are sometimes forced back down into a mere caricature of their once freely evolving demands. That a powerful movement like feminism is constantly being co-opted, turned into private rather than social goods in a grossly privatizing corporate world, assimilated into values its radical thinkers abhor, should go without saying. Such afterlives of radical feminist demands — or call them such aggressive reinterpretations of those demands — are signs of both feminism’s various defeats and its extraordinary successes. To give an example of this kind of slide-around, post-1989 feminism in East Central Europe was often anti-Left, given recent communist history. Initially, many people were happy to greet liberation as a free marketplace. But already this formation is changing. Disenchantment with once-lionized Reaganism has given rise to an indigenous New Left, especially among the young. Alas, there’s a separation between these New Leftist ideals and a growing regional feminism that replicates some of what happened in the U.S. Feminism travels, and a vigorous Left feminist movement (of both men and women this time) would require constant rethinking, recombining of interests, and reimagining of effective on-the-ground strategies.

Zaretsky says we ignored his most important sentence: “…Women left the Left because they wanted to [not primarily] because male sexism drove them out.” Zaretsky again betrays a desire to parse and split phenomena that we think need to be analyzed together. Male sexism and women’s separatism are related, not alternative paths. Separation had many meanings in those roiling times — from lesbian self-realization to new political forms that could include once quiet and isolated women in new ways. But how Zaretsky gets from those partial, or sexual, or angry, separations to the idea that this became the damaging “identity politics” that prevented our collectively reaching a next stage of revolution, seems to us to require quite a leap.

Bush confronts Code Pink! Protest outside the Washington Convention Center during an AIPAC conference, June 4, 2008 © IntangibleArts | Flickr
Bush confronts Code Pink! Protest outside the Washington Convention Center during an AIPAC conference, June 4, 2008 © IntangibleArts | Flickr

In fact, radical feminism was precisely the opposite of identity politics. Many early activists thought of female identity as something others had done to them, the very mechanism of their oppression. Initially, radical feminism was about what Zaretsky says the New Left dreamed of, an escape from being over-defined by “social determinants.” It should be obvious to everyone on the Left: “Passing beyond one’s social determinants” was much easier for some than for others. Dare we turn Zaretsky’s argument on its head? Maybe the failure of the New Left was its inability to see how many couldn’t act on that dream of existential freedom and universal community. There was damage, lack, restriction, anger, disappointment, gross exclusion. The New Left didn’t take seriously enough the consequences of living in a system which did indeed, as Zaretsky says, generate “structural inequality” and separate people from each other. More recent radical movements, some of which Jeremy Varon has described so well in his post, have rejected an ideal of oneness, seeking other forms of fundamental, radical resistance that don’t require a single vision.

We agree with Zaretsky that “Women’s Liberation goes way beyond correcting male behavior” and that feminists wanted (and some still want) “a new stage in the evolution of the Left, one centered on themes of personal liberation including sexual liberation.” We agree, too, that Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex is not an anti-male text but a utopian vision of liberation. There is no way we said that an end to discrimination or the chance to speak more at meetings was what we were after. Meritocracy!? No. Once again, being able to speak was not the far-off goal but the merest gateway. Many women formed their own groups to hear each other for the first time, but, new pleasure that it was, once again speech was merely an entry point for the chance to entertain new, radical ways of thinking and for constructing effective political action. Women speaking has changed the prospects for radical politics.


Early feminists and everyone on the Left did not fully understand how much capitalism and its global projects were flexible, changing, shifting into new phases of organization and development. This was a general failure to recognize where we were, though some in all camps began work on analyzing the new situation (Eli Zaretsky, Judith Stacey). Zaretsky seems to think that if the Left had held together and not succumbed to various particularist identity struggles that…well, what? It would have survived and successfully opposed the surge of self-protective changes capitalists made in response to new crises in their system, basic changes beginning just as the New Left was eating its own in internecine battles, and just as the long post-war growth in the U.S. took a major hit — around 1973?

Book cover of The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism by Zillah Eisenstein, paperback edition © 1981 Longman Higher Education | Amazon.com
Book cover of The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism by Zillah Eisenstein, paperback edition © 1981 Longman Higher Education | Amazon.com

For example, how should feminism have responded? It would have been great if Left feminist analysis of that time had understood the macro changes in the works. Feminism — and feminist analysis — was then and is now polyglot. Sometimes liberal feminism bloomed into much more radical projects. (The Radical Future of Liberal Feminism, Zillah Eisenstein [1981]) And sometimes revolutionary, utopian ideas got whittled down by long-term backlash. As everyone on the Left knows, truly alternative visions are often swallowed up in their own ardor or visciated by the need to compromise. As Zaretsky says himself, the Left was “often” defeated. Defeat is indeed something that should call forth analysis. But the assumption that we (the Left, feminism, etc.) made mistakes that led to our demise gives us all too much power. As Marx said, it’s capitalism that is the wild flood. That we lacked a perfect vision or strategy is only a small part of the story of how we were often swept away.

The New Left assumed that capitalism was the true and only enemy. Rereading those early feminist texts (we recommend this) we find that many feminists thought the Marxist interpretation of women’s subordination was not so much wrong as insufficient. (Ann remembers many meetings on the theme: “Is women’s subordination a secondary or a primary contradiction?”) Left men hoped the inferiorizing of women would wither away with the end of capitalism. Many feminists saw this as unlikely, and at the very least as requiring a long, long wait.

The conceit of the American Left broadly conceived is that we set the terms of American politics across the twentieth century. The historic and analytic narrative has long been framed as the rise and fall of the New Deal and Civil Rights coalitions, with scant attention to people, movements, and institutions that operated beyond that frame. Only in the last two decades has there been any sustained attempt to understand the rise of the Right. Doing so has widened the analytic lens and forced the Left to contend with the limits of its own political agency.

Book cover of Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism by Wolfgang Streek © Verso Books | versobooks.com
Book cover of Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism by Wolfgang Streek © Verso Books | versobooks.com

The Left’s decline must be analyzed in dynamic relation with shifts in capital. The move to post-Fordist production, off shoring, globalization, abandoning of the Gold Standard, and changing supply chains, redrew the boundaries of political possibilities in ways that dwarf the separatist skirmishes within the New Left. The work of scholars such as Michael Piore and Charles Sabel, Harley Shaiken, Gary Herrigel, Katherine Stone, Richard Locke, Wolfgang Streek, Julie Graham/Katherine Gibson, and Robert Meister all might be useful here. This is a diverse, even disparate list, but all shed light on the dynamic nature of capital, and force the question that Left politics needs to be reconsidered in relation to dynamic economic social formations. Any account that limits its analysis to the dynamics within the Left will be inadequate. Indeed, many have gone further and suggested that the economy has always been a heterogeneous and protean cultural formation that requires a rethinking of industrialization as well as the contemporary economic conditions (Timothy Mitchell, Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin, Michel Callon, Gerald Berk, Adam Sheingate, Bethany Morton, Julia Ott). The difficult task when mapping broad social change of the sort that captures Zaretsky’s imagination is to see the dynamic interplay between economic and social forces. The defection argument that structures Zaretsky’s account does not do justice to this dynamic interplay.

We sympathize with Zaretsky’s dream: “our deepest politics involve overcoming all forms of division and developing a concept of universal emancipation.” This is utopian thinking, an important part of all movements, though, obviously, activists never arrive at this amniotic bliss, this universal freedom. To be sure, identity alone has major flaws as the foundation of structural change. It does indeed lend itself to piece-of-the-existing-pie thinking. But thinking about connection has changed in interesting ways, and utopia is often figured now as agonistic. In feminist theory, the ideal of the One has been edged out by many constructions of “difference” meant to confront the weaknesses of unity. Unity represses struggle and the right to fundamentally disagree. These are among the wild, flowing freedoms radicals want.