Was there really a "Millennial Left"?

Wyatt Verlen

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 Whi