Was there really a "Millennial Left"?
June 7, 2022
What actually matters about the left is not “Old” or “New.” These are placeholders and, strictly speaking, they make no sense: The Spartacist League and the Progressive Labor Party were both part of the New Left, yet, in the aesthetic style and intellectual sensibility, both were Old Left organizations. The New Left, in short, wasn’t so new. At the same time, the Old Left wasn’t really old. Rather, the Left of the 1930s was much altered from the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs out of which it grew. It was a series of Stalinist Popular Front Against Fascism front organizations built around the Democrat’s welfare state agenda. Just as the breaking point is not Old or New, nor is it New or Millennial. The Millennial Left is not in any way, shape, or sense different than the 1930s CPUSA organizers. This is no compliment.
How can there be no difference? It is true that, to some extent, the Old Left was less kooky on social issues. But this mostly out of respect and deference for Stalin’s and FDR’s conservatism (being on the same team was very important to them). And, yes, the New Left was better on censorship and civil liberties than is today’s deeply illiberal “left.” But only to some extent, because it is hardly clear that this was the case if you really look at what these people were writing at the time. At any event, each successive wave of “left”— whether Old, New, or Millennial—served as water carriers for the Democratic Party. By contrast, the Debsian SPUSA was an independent party. It was rooted in civil society and had radically different goals than the expansion of the administrative state.
This requires some explanation of the party system in the US. The old joke on this is that there is a stupid party and an evil party, and, when they do something together, it is both stupid and evil. While I love this joke, why the Dems are evil requires a bit of explanation. The Dems are the party of the technocratic administration of capital. They are the default party of governance, even when technically “voted” out of power. This is as true now as it was a hundred years ago, contrary to those who claim that, prior to the 1960s, there was some sort of giant cadre of conservatives coming out of Yale to run the Department of Defense. The Republicans, on the other hand, are the party of right anarchist opportunism. They basically don’t care about administering anything, and just want to deliver for the very specific petite bourgeois constituency they represent. This is why Republicans are the party of the filibuster, blocking “popular” legislation on guns taxes and the environment, and loser demographics located outside of the (blue) urban areas. Again, this has not drastically changed in the past one hundred years.
Woodrow and Wilson, The Progressive Era, and The Beginning of Democratic Hegemony
Perhaps ironically, the Democratic Party was once the party identifiable with laissez faire, a small state, and the continuation of local governance in what was understood to be a federal republic. The old Republican party, in many respects, at least from Reconstruction to the end of the 19th century, was closer to the Wilsonian Democrats than the Democrats of that time. As Murray Rothbard documents in The Progressive Era,
Throughout the 19th century—with the single and grave exception of slavery—the Democratic Party (and before it, the Democratic-Republicans) was the libertarian, laissez-faire party—the “party of personal liberty,” of free trade, of hard money, the separation of the economy, religion, and virtually everything else from the State; the opponent of Big Government, high taxes, public works (“internal improvements”), judicial oligarchy, or federal power; the champion of the free press, unrestricted immigration, state and individual rights. The Federalists, on the other hand, and after them the Whigs and then the Republicans, were the party of statism: of Big Government, public works, a large public debt, government subsidies to industry, protective tariffs, opposition to aliens and immigrants, and of cheap money and government control of banking (through a central bank, or later, through the quasi-centralized national banking system). The Whigs, in particular, strove to use the State to compel personal morality: through a drive for Prohibition, Sunday blue laws, or a desire to outlaw the Masons as a secret society. The Republicans, who were essentially the Whigs with the admixture of anti-slavery Democrats, became known quite aptly as “the party of great moral ideas.” After the Civil War, when slavery was no longer a blot on America, the Democrats could be a far less sullied champion of personal liberty, while the Republican drive for “moral ideas” became more susceptible to libertarian irony, being fully coercive and now in no sense liberating.
It wasn’t until the 1890s, when the Democratic Party underwent a capture by “progressive” evangelical Christians (to be contrasted with the more traditionally laissez faire Presbyterian, Anglican, and Catholic demographics of the old Democratic Party), that William Jennings Bryan began a transformation towards a statist, administrative line. Demands for major changes in the function of the economy and the state, and the degree to which the latter would dominate the former, were made by these new Democrats. This was accompanied by a newfound commitment to crusades like prohibition (an idea so alien to the old American republic and its people that it required a constitutional amendment to be implemented).
In some ways, one can read the rise of Woodrow Wilson just a decade or so later as a sort of Thermidor within the Democratic Party itself, a renegotiation with the more expansive vision of Jennings-Bryan and the early progressives. Wilson, whose political philosophy was informed by the development of proto-administrative elements in the short-lived Confederacy, was a more conservative, and limited, symptom of the Democratic Party’s transformation. Nevertheless, his belief that a new state, one intervening into society, was necessary, and that the pieties of this form of “democracy” must be spread—by the sword, if necessary—across the world, was systematized and concretized both in his political thought as a professor of Political Science (where he wrote several works dedicated to the proposition that public administration ought to be oriented towards “the general good”) and in his political leadership and policy. This latter included, but was not limited to, the Orwellian sounding “new freedom agenda” that entailed, apparently, the freedom to be drafted to fight in European conflicts and have one’s earnings taxed to feed a growing federal bureaucracy.
It was these new changes that enabled, a mere two decades later, the Democratic Party to opportunistically seize upon the economic dislocation of the Great Depression and the increasingly turbulent scene in Europe as justification to go in a far more radical direction: The New Deal, and an alliance (more of a one-way suicide pact) with the radical left. The Communist Party, shaken by the losses in Spain and the turn towards fascism in Germany and Italy (not to mention the growing restiveness of their working class base), became a junior partner in a “critical support” for a global crusade against fascism and in the expansion of the state. Such moves that would have been unthinkable decades prior. The conceit, sloppy thinking, and betrayal of this “popular front” was documented in James Burnham’s The People’s Front: The New Betrayal.
The words of its defenders make entirely clear what the real content of the policy of the Peoples’ Front is. . . It is merely a re-wording of the theories and practices of class collaboration and coalition government, as these have been advocated by reformists since the beginning of the modern labor movement. Class collaboration is what the Peoples’ Front specifically proposes: the union of organizations and parties representing various classes and sections of classes on the basis of a common program to defend bourgeois democracy. A Peoples’ Front government means, as defined by Dimitroff and Manuilsky, the assumption of governmental responsibility in a capitalist state by the coalition of these organizations and parties.
In the formation of the Popular Front, the left became a part and partner in the progressive movement, the Democratic Party, and the capitalist state.
Absent from many analyses of the pathologies of the modern left is commentary on how exactly it came to promote statist concepts of “progress” and to become moralizing scolds. Moreover, as the state was expanded by the Democrats, it itself, the actual cogs that make it up, become integrated with the Democratic Party. A one-party state emerged from the fusion of the democrats-state-labor-left. But with an understanding of this fusion it becomes apparent how the left came to be the people who wag their fingers at the people, routinely castigate them, and demand state-funded abortion and euthanasia. The line from the prohibitionist Progressives and the eugenicist Wilsonians to these positions is plain. But this was a massive departure from socialism.
The Debsian Party and the Old Right
Ironically, the Debsian party had fairly traditional understandings of the American concept of a limited state. It was content to uphold the Bill of Rights, even radically so, appealing directly to Jefferson’s politics as a model. The objective of the party was not to create a megalith to socially engineer school districts through busing or an ATF to crack down on grandmas with 12-gauge shotguns in the house. The primary goal was for a proletarian socialist party seize the trusts and turn them to democratic control. They were, in essence, Jeffersonians who had been redpilled by the technological efficiency of ever greater monopolization of capital and, with it, the decline in independent production. They thought that by seizing the trusts they could restore the individuality and sense of responsibility of workers and communities, who would then be able to (and have to) administer said production themselves.
The Debsian party, in contrast to the Democrats, opposed prohibition, railed against speech restrictions, and opposed the growing imperialist war machine. While it supported ending segregation and interracial cooperation, it hardly supported the kind of anti-racist crusades that the Democrats have made commonplace since the LBJ era. It was the party that had the most profound analysis of the trusts, the party with the only clear plan for dealing with this emerging problem.
Indeed, it was the development of these trusts that eroded the foundations of the old republic and its political base: independent producers. As Rothbard notes in The Progressive Era, the railroads were the first trust and the root of future progressive consolidation of other industries, such as finance, military technology, and so forth, with a replicable model of handouts, corruption, and influence.
Of nearly 200 million acres of valuable land in the original federal grants, almost half were handed over to the four large transcontinental railroads: Central Pacific, Southern Pacific, Union Pacific, and Northern Pacific. The typical modus operandi of these railroads was as follows: (1) a small group of inside promoters and managers would form the railroad, putting up virtually no money of their own; (2) they would use their political influence to get land grants and outright loans (for the Union and Central Pacific) from the federal government; (3) they would get aid from various state and local governments; (4) they would issue a huge amount of bonds to sell to the eager public; and (5) they would form a privately-held construction company, issuing themselves bonds and shares, and would then mulct themselves as managers of the railroad (or rather, mulct railroad shareholders and bondholders) by charging the road highly inflated construction costs.
These trusts were necessitated by the scale of the technology, but their corrosive influence cannot be underestimated. Indeed, the horror and indignity of life as a wage laborer on the monopolistic railroads was how Debs himself was politicized. Where the economics of Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson, and other bourgeois revolutionaries was rendered an impossibility, so was their political economy.
Nevertheless, while a large portion of the nation’s people increasingly found themselves reduced to wage slaves, dependent on mass trusts, and deprived of their independence, a large subset of the populace remained petit-bourgeois, perhaps larger than any other nation. This independent bourgeoise of small business owners and farmers became a base of the Progressives in some circumstances, but, more often, they became the base of their right-wing opposition. Such opposition has since been termed, imprecisely, as the old right.
The old right found its intellectual base in educated southern agrarians, midwestern anti-war Republicans, and those who had been excluded from the new arrangements of capital-state-labor that had come to be in the Progressive Era through to the New Deal, but whose circumstances differed substantially from the emerging urban lumpenproletariat. Opposing Wilsonian foreign policy, the New Deal, and state intervention into civil society, Robert A. Taft best exemplified both the limits and extent of the old right.
Coming from a family that descended from the old democrats (pre-progressive), Taft’s signature rollback as a senator of the New Deal and progressivism was the Taft-Hartley Act, which broke up at least some of the stranglehold that the capitalist state’s unions had over employment. His warnings about the problems with overseas engagements, prohibition, federal overrides of state liberty, and his suspicion of the state-directed finance system fell on deaf ears, however. When he more or less won the nomination to be the Republican Party nominee for president in the 1950s, his line proved too radical for the party’s establishment, which could not risk its status as lukewarm opposition to the progressive regime. Eisenhower was nominated in his place at the convention, despite Taft’s overwhelming support from both intellectuals of the old right and the party base itself. By this point, the ostensible left was more or less wholly absorbed into the Democratic Party.
It should be noted here that the extensive and impressive roster of intellectuals the old right had put together, with the aforementioned Rothbard alongside fellow individualists H.L. Mencken and Alfred Jay Knock, who themselves cross-pollinated with the southern agrarian poets, the Burkean social critic Russel Kirk, and others. In states with an agrarian base, these politicians had overwhelming support. Taft himself was elected multiple times by large margins in Ohio, then still a fairly sleepy Midwest state. His allies in the Senate hailed from agrarian states from Nebraska to Mississippi. With no socialist party left to defend the common man from the encroachment of the state and the system of imperialist war, many who once voted for Debs threw their energies into this coalition. Despite this, it was a nearly complete failure, with Taft ending up a tepid defender of the New Deal, although opposed to its further expansion. In the aftermath of World War II, in perhaps the last stand of the old right, Taft submitted sincere reservations about the American war machine involving itself in trials of German war criminals. These too fell on deaf ears.
The criticisms raised by the old right found themselves recycled in a vulgarized form by William F. Buckley and his “new right,” but were more prominently and clearly carried forward by the Burnhamite “paleoconservative” movement. All three—the old right, the Buckleyites, and the paleoconservatives—lacked a coherent plan to overcome the state growth of the 20th century and the constant growth of the trusts. They became politically impotent, able to only lead the Republican Party to meager reforms and the occasional act of opposition. At worst, they became active defenders of the status quo.
Indeed, it didn’t matter so much for the right either, as it too collapsed into a different kind of water carrier for the Democratic Party, its loyal opposition.
New Left and Millennial Left: It really is the same
The common understanding of the New Left is that rediscovered the left’s concept of freedom. However, this is at best problematic, if not outright wrong. The New Left opposition to the war in Vietnam, far from an authentic anti-imperialism, quickly descended into a vulgar support for the Vietcong. It could never take hold among the working classes, but only among young people who wished to avoid the draft. Their discovery of “sexual freedom” quickly turned into a perverse puritanism, in which those not living a “healthy sex life” were deemed deficient, and the state was yet again called upon to impose special protections and invent new rights (such as Roe vs. Wade) to ensure that this “sexual freedom” would not be hindered in any way. Beneath the free speech movement lay Marcuse’s sinister preoccupation with repressive tolerance. The project was that of retooling capitalism for yet another generation.
Yet again, the left’s greatest contribution was to carry water for the state and the Democrats. Anti-war activism seemed to be put on hold when the New Left was called upon to support LBJ’s new “civil rights” expansion, which mostly consisted of the proliferation of bureaucracy, development of government-mandated corporate HR departments, and coercive policies towards independent businesses that failed to defend multiculturalism with the same zeal as the enlightened technocrats, whether in the private or state bureaucracy.
Even the supposedly “out there” elements of the New Left merely demanded a shift in government policy and civil society organization. In his quest for the New Left’s odd concept of “freedom,” Timothy Leary (with the full support of the “radical” Weather Underground) claimed that the United States would and must become a “psychedelic society.” Presumably, this meant that he was disappointed that LBJ’s Great Society did not include a ministry of LSD dosage, that it failed to “responsibly” dose the water supply, about which the hippies once fantasized. Everyone was encouraged and able to tune in and drop out, and, of course, prepare herself for a life of happy talk and lifestyle consumption.
Today’s Millennial Left consists of a slightly more farcical version of this “New Left.”
Perhaps in an even further regression, its initial stages were fueled by a claimed “injustice” and, worse yet, “illegality” of the Iraq War (as if international law were real and not just a construct of the NGOs that leftists tend to work for). Quickly it morphed into a movement to expand the ability of the state to issue more marriage licenses (gay marriage), to intensify the New Left’s perverse puritanism by creating weird sexual taboos around previously normal behaviors like flirting, and to drop even the pretense of free speech for those it deemed backwards. Somewhere along the way they also camped out for a few days in New York and advocated more (administrative!) control of the financial sector, and backed avowed New Dealer Bernie Sanders—not once but twice—in his presidential campaigns, which seemed to amount to a crusade for “student loan forgiveness” more than anything else. Their current standard-bearers, the “Squad” (all of whom are Democrats), recently voted for an expansion of the imperial apparatus in the form of a forty billion dollar “aid” plan to Ukraine.
The Millennial Left has paired all of this with an academic jargon around something called “neoliberalism,” which they insist was some sort of radical reduction in the size of the state in the 1980s and 90s. But the number of people employed directly by the federal government, as well as overall spending and the number of laws on the books, has only increased in this time. Through this misdirection, they have fully dropped the mask of the Left for the past century: They are nothing more than advocates for the administered society.
At least the right has a claim to have opposed the imperialist technocracy. The left of today cannot claim this.
The March to Defeat
By the time Deb’s Socialist Party collapsed, the Left simply became a part of the administrative party, demanding “better” technocratic administration and greater state control. Today, even the most hardline Maoist-anarchist whatever inevitably ends up protesting, rallying, petitioning, and supporting just this. They want “the big banks man” to get regulated more, the rich to get taxed more, and, of course, they spare nary a thought for the administrative state that now runs a biosecurity freak show, a civil rights bureaucracy devoted to totally demolishing civil society in the name of various made up “rights,” and an ever more totalitarian education system that indoctrinates the young into hating the very figures Debs rightly celebrated as heroes, such as Jefferson. If they do lend a thought to this, it is that these things are, to them, good and need to be expanded under their future rule of hardline technocrats.
So, the various explanations of the various “left” phrases are specious. There is no actual difference between whatever leftists (and now “trad communitarians”) call “neoliberalism” and what came before. It is still the state, led by the Democrats—ever-expanding and ever invading more and more spheres of life, as it has done since the Wilson administration, with the occasionally block or rollback by the aforementioned opportunist Republican Party. So I don’t buy that the “Millennial Left” was somehow united in opposition to “neoliberalism.” These are simply shock troops for expanding the welfare and “civil rights” regime. That’s it.
It pains me to see so much polemicizing against the supposed “liberalism” of our times, from both the left and, now, the supposedly informed “communitarians” at outfits like Compact Magazine and The Bellows.
I fail to see how a state that has consistently expanded throughout the 20th century, and rolled over and reintegrated its critics, can possibly be called “liberal.” From their use of James Burnham in their critiques of the PMC, they seem to believe that his criticism of the capitalist state and of political cooperation with it, both as a conservative and as a Trotskyist, is not worth listening to or working to understand. While the old right was vehemently anti-state and, at the very least, the useless Republican Party used to rhetorically support state rollback, today’s “new right” grifter class celebrates the “old” New Deal Democrats. And, like the DSA, it demands state expansion. Their ideologues, such as Michael Lind, emphatically support capitalist monopolies, a corporatist state, and an enlarged welfare apparatus. The history of how these things eroded the vital civil society achieved in the United States in the 19th century seems never to merit consideration. Serious rollbacks of the Civil Rights Act are ignored by this new right in exchange for constant demands for the state to regulate pornography, abortion, and other supposed sources of a “national malaise.”
Ultimately, this history is important, because people recently have thrown around in discourse “cultural Marxist,” “New Left vs. Old Left,” “post leftist,” “neoliberalism,” and so forth, particularly in intellectual circles. But none of this matters. The question is, are they Democrats? Do they plan to run the state and to constantly enlarge its scope so that the economy can be managed to their various pseudo-utopian goals, or not? If not, then they inevitably are Republicans, which is a weak and ineffective opposition party based on opportunistically using the constant failure of the administrative state to occasionally get elected and trim some things. As the story of the old right proves, there is no opposition that is viable from the right, whether traditionalist, constitutionalist, or libertarian.
If politics is a matter of who is leading and who is led, it is the left who have been led, by power-mad technocrats, moralistic crusaders, and clownish “dissidents,” whose “dissents” amount to pleas for more of the status quo. The Old Right has not been led at all, and its defeats both stem from an inability to lead and an inability to summon a leadership to reign in the occasional outburst of philistine anti-semitism, ineffective and counterproductive messaging, and an overreliance on a beleaguered southern and midwestern petite bourgeoise for both funding and a political base. For every good idea the right has had, it has had anarchic intellectual masturbation follow, with a few mediocre reforms the end result. For every bad idea the left has had, it has been taken seriously by Democratic party leaders and street agitators alike, a symbiotic relationship of disastrous consequence. Both have failed, but the history of how they failed is a history of the betrayal of serious questions arising out of the industrial revolution.
Ultimately, what matters is one simple question, which both the trads and the Left forget time and time again: How can a republic be sustained, much less realized, in the face of masses of laborers dependent on trusts, herded into factories, and subsidized by the state? Such an existence is openly hostile to the independence, responsibility, and freedom of a man once declared sacred by revolutionaries of all stripes. Until this problem is solved, the Democrats will continue their prolonged march to defeat all freedom, joy, independence, and dynamism that societies can accomplish. And we will all be poorer because of it.