• What Is Left? Rebecca Solnit on the Perennial Divisions of the American Left

    “It should be a modest request to ask that ‘left’ not mean supporters of authoritarian regimes.”

    In late 1936 George Orwell, like so many young idealists from Europe and the USA, went off to fight fascism in Spain. By the spring of 1937 he realized he was in a war with not two but three sides. The USSR was holding back a full Spanish revolution while attacking the socialists and anarchists outside its control.

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    Facing prison and possible execution himself, not from the fascists, but the Soviet-allied forces, Orwell fled Spain. His immediate commander, Georges Kopp, was imprisoned, and the leader of his militia unit, Andres Nin, was tortured and assassinated by an agent of Stalin’s secret police. Orwell would spend the rest of his life trying to clarify that in his time the left meant both idealists committed to human rights, equality, and justice and supporters of a Stalinism that was the antithesis of all those things.

    He wrote after he got back to England:

    When I left Barcelona in June the jails were bulging… But the point to notice is that the people who are in prison now are not Fascists but revolutionaries; they are there not because their opinions are too much to the Right, but because they are too much to the Left. And the people responsible for putting them there are… the communists.

    Some of the pro-Stalin left believed the sunny propaganda about the USSR and some of them knew better but went with the Stalinist notion that you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet, that the gulags and lies and mass executions were the price of the ticket to some form of utopia that would soon arrive after everything else had been quashed. There are similar rifts in the left of our time, which is both obvious and seldom addressed outright.

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    What is the left? I wish I knew. When the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the fact that some sector of what is supposed to be the left excused, justified, or even rooted for the Putin regime was, among other things, a reminder that “left” has long meant a grab bag full of contradictions. Later came the “peace marches” that argued the US should withdraw support and Ukraine should surrender.

    Recent stories about these sectors of the left stumping for the Chinese government and downplaying its human rights abuses are reminders that this is an ongoing problem that takes many forms. I’ve seen genocide denial among this left: excusing the Chinese in the case of the Uyghur people, justifying the invasion and subjugation of Tibet, denying the Holodomor—the Soviet genocide through induced famine in 1930s Ukraine—even whitewashing the Pol Pot era in Cambodia, and siding with Assad as he wages a brutal war against the Syrian people.

    It should be a modest request to ask that “left” not mean supporters of authoritarian regimes soaked in their own people’s blood.

    It should be a modest request to ask that “left” not mean supporters of authoritarian regimes soaked in their own people’s blood. But the people and groups and agendas grouped together as the left contain not just contradictions but sworn enemies. Some of the loudest pro-Putin people are now clearly part of the right; some continue to claim the mantle of the left, begging the question of what the left is.

    You could call this just a problem of nomenclature. Put that way, it might seem like a small problem, but being unable to distinguish and describe differences can be a large one. A few years ago I said to a man working for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign, at a point when he and the campaign were dealing with a lot of attacks from people who considered themselves the true left, “It’s as if we called fire and water by the same name.”

    Perhaps the left/right terminology that originated with the French Revolution has, more than two centuries later, outlived its appositeness. (In the French National Assembly of 1789, the royalists members sat to the right, the radicals to the left, and thus the terms were born.) The left I love is passionately committed to universal human rights and absolute equality and often is grounded in rights movements, including the Black civil rights movement. I sometimes think of the current US version as a latter-day version of Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition.

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    This rainbow left pitches a big tent and as such is often more welcoming to, say, things like religion—after all, the Black church played a huge role in that movement, Cesar Chavez and Dorothy Day were among the devout Catholic radicals in American history, and Indigenous spirituality is central to many land rights and climate campaigns—while many traditional leftists often scorn organized religion.

    I’d argue that because of its intersectional understanding of both problems and solutions, this left is more radical—radically inclusive, radically egalitarian—than those who treat race and gender as irrelevancies or distractions (including the men, from Ralph Nader in 2000 on, who’ve been dismissive of reproductive rights as an essential economic justice as well as rights issue). Perhaps it’s seen as less radical because bellicosity is often viewed as the measure of one’s radicalness.

    Perhaps the left/right terminology that originated with the French Revolution has, more than two centuries later, outlived its appositeness.

    Likewise, this rainbow left often has radical aims but is pragmatic about how to realize them. This might be because it includes a lot of people for whom social services and basic rights are crucial to survival, people who are used to compromise, as in not getting what they want or getting it in increments over time. All or nothing purity often means choosing the nothing that is hell for the vulnerable and I-told-you-so for the comfortable.

    That’s the Rainbow Coalition-ish left; the other left has some overlap in its opposition to corporate capitalism and US militarism, but very different operating principles. It often feels retrograde in its goals and its views, including what I think of as economic fundamentalism, the idea that class trumps all else (and often the nostalgic vision of the working class as manly industrial labor rather than immigrants everywhere from nail salons to app-driven delivery jobs to agricultural fields).

    This other left is often so focused on the considerable sins of the United States it overlooks or denies those of other nations, particularly those in conflict with the USA, decrying imperialism at home but excusing it abroad (and apparently seeing US aid to Ukraine through the lens of American invasions of Iraq and Vietnam rather than the more relevant US role in the European alliance against Germany and Italy in the Second World War). It often embraces whatever regime or leader opposes the US, even when that means siding with serious human rights abuses and inequalities, as if the sins of the one erased or undid the sins of the other. It tends to rage against Democrats more than Republicans.

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    This becomes the slippery slope down which some of the loud white men of the last several years have slid to become explicit rather than implicit defenders of the right. They often do so by attacking opponents of the right in the name of some abstract principle that just happens to serve the right; thus they can pretend they do not serve the Republican Party but find fault, again and again, with everyone who opposes it.

    The Putin regime’s invasion of Ukraine brought to the surface some of the old conflicts in what the left is and should be. Not a few people claiming the mantle of the left have been cheerleaders of Putin and Russia for some time. Putin is, of course, an authoritarian, a petroleum-fueled oligarch who might be the world’s richest man, an obstacle to climate action, the leader of an international white Christian nationalist revival, a vicious human rights abuser whose domestic enemies have a habit of dying suddenly, a homophobe, misogynist, and antisemite, and he’s involved in an imperialist war to annex the sovereign nation of Ukraine. You can’t get much further to the right.

    This other left is often so focused on the considerable sins of the United States it overlooks or denies those of other nations.

    But many in this version of the left insist that somehow the US forced Russia’s hand, or it was all NATO’s fault and NATO was just a US puppet, and Russia was somehow a victim acting in self-defense. Jan Smoleński and Jan Dutkiewicz were among the many Eastern European critics who called this “westsplaining,” writing that though these arguments are supposed to be anti-imperialist…

    …they in fact perpetuate imperial wrongs when they continue to deny non-Western countries and their citizens agency in geopolitics. Paradoxically, the problem with American exceptionalism is that even those who challenge its foundational tenets and heap scorn on American militarism often end up recreating American exceptionalism by centering the United States in their analyses of international relations.

    Of course all this muddle about Russia is not new. Western leftists fell in love with Russia during the revolution from which the Soviet Union arose. Some—the anarchist Emma Goldman among them—became disillusioned early on, but for others, nothing could shake the devotion. All through the history of the USSR, it had its defenders in the west, when that meant denying the gulags, the show trials and executions, the attempt to control everything everyone did and said, the ethnic cleansing and cultural and sometimes literal genocide of many non-Russian populations from Crimean Tatars to Siberian reindeer herders to Muslim Kazakhs. When it was an ally during the Second World War, the mainstream West supported Stalin and the USSR (which of course then included Ukraine). This is cited to their credit, often while overlooking the fact that Stalin had earlier signed a non-aggression pact with the Nazi government, dividing up Eastern Europe between the two.

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    While some of his peers who became disillusioned with communism and the Stalinists shifted right, Orwell was loyal to the left and pushed back at conservatives who tried to claim him and his books Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. But he was disturbed all his life by the conflicts and contradictions of what left means. 

    I wonder now if the vicious persecution of leftists, communists, socialists, and progressives by the postwar American right, made people avoid analysis and statements that could weaken or divide their own side. That is, had there been no McCarthyism, might the left itself have cleaned house and clarified its positions? Might it have taken on the widespread mistake of supporting Stalin and other authoritarians?

    There’s no answer to that, because there was McCarthyism and it was brutal. It left us with direct legacies, including what McCarthy’s righthand man, Roy Cohn, taught his protégé Donald Trump about ruthlessness, manipulation, lying, and winning at all costs. (One of the ironies of what I call the left-wing men of the right was their constant claim that talk about Russian intervention on behalf of Trump was McCarthyism, as if somehow anticommunism had anything to do with the facts in the case or assessments of the current government of Russia.)

    But this lack of clarity about what the left is and what principles are essential to it continue to create confusion and spread credit and blame between two different camps. It’s an old conundrum but maybe the solution is as simple as truth in labeling and clarity in categories.

    Rebecca Solnit
    Rebecca Solnit
    Writer, historian, and activist Rebecca Solnit is the author of twenty-five books on feminism, environmental and urban history, popular power, social change and insurrection, wandering and walking, hope and catastrophe. She co-edited the 2023 anthology Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility. Her other books include Orwell’s Roses; Recollections of My Nonexistence; Hope in the Dark; Men Explain Things to Me; A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster; and A Field Guide to Getting Lost. A product of the California public education system from kindergarten to graduate school, she writes regularly for the Guardian, serves on the board of the climate group Oil Change International, and in 2022 launched the climate project Not Too Late (nottoolateclimate.com).

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