Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America
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In this slim volume (from a series of lectures), eminent liberal political theorist Rorty passes judgment on the state of the US left. And he is not amused. Beginning from familiar places for him, John Dewey and Walt Whitman, Rorty (Humanities/Univ. Of Virginia) argues that the faith of these men in what the US might become, their dismissal of all closed systems of thinking, their turn from religious authority to secular joy in the contingent process of democratic creation are all aspects of leftist thought missing from today’s left, much to its detriment. In place of the search for a moral identity that will inspire and unite us, the left today—what he calls the “academic” or “cultural” left—has opted instead for a “detached spectatorship,” condemnation without action or hope. Rorty traces the origins of this spectatorship to theorists such as Foucault, who insists on the irresistible ubiquitousness of power. The appeal of such spectatorship he traces to the US New Left and its experience with the Vietnam War. In Vietnam the US “sinned,” became beyond redemption, and so the New Left turned its back on ever reforming such a place. The Left retreated to academia, theory, culture, and spectatorship. This is all, however, a very familiar scenario by now (if argued in an interestingly odd way), and one wonders why it needs repeating, Rorty seems only to be using the New Left as a straw person here, and his depiction of the “academic” Left is caricature. Assertion substitutes for analysis. Lapses in logic occur: He chastises the Left, for instance, for being both Marxist and “postmodern,” yet the two tendencies stand mostly opposed to each other. Like an obscure club recording from a major jazz musician, this is a minor work from a profound thinker that perhaps only true devotees of Rorty will find of value.

Pub Date: April 15th, 1998
ISBN: 0-674-00311-X
Page count: 144pp
Publisher: Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1998