The Defeat of the Left

Three Movies Analyzed

Through the Perspective of

Stanley Aronowitz’s

“The Death of the Left”


This revolution is for display purposes only: the blogosphere revolution sets the page for reform of the media

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Ken Loach's Land and Freedom:





Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby:





John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy:





C o n c l u s i o n:




A d d e n d u m:




B i b l i o g r a p h y:






Most Relevant Points on

Stanley Aronowitz’s Introduction Text to


The Death of the Left


 Stanley Aronowitz 

The existence of an American radicalism has been in question since the great break in the world economic and political environment in 1973, and since one of the most explosive consequences of that break, the collapse of communism. Apparently, to many, the idea of a present and future American left radicalism is virtually unthinkable.




For the past twenty years, modern welfare liberalism no less than communism has all but disappeared and, remarkably, doctrines reminiscent of those advanced by Herbert Hoover have taken center stage. Nowadays, the difference is that instead of a chicken in every pot and a car in the garage, what is being offered is a computer duly equipped with the latest version of Windows and a CD-ROM. We are plied with a vision of a technological utopia which displaces work as the mode of life.



Once again, the terms of economic, political and social life seem permanently altered. What some have called the “new enclosures” plague Africa, Asia and Latin America, as hundreds of millions of peasants have been driven from the land and herded into sprawling, gargantuan cities where, frequently, they live on the streets or in hastily built shantytowns. In the US, the good job is rapidly becoming a memory for millions of industrial and service workers, as Capital reorganizes the “labor market” on the basis of low-wage, part-time and contingent labor.


We may extend the metaphor of enclosure for the tens of millions in Western countries who have been permanently expelled and otherwise disempowered by the corporate-controlled technological machine. Economists, themselves victimized by corporate downsizing, are concerned that if present trends continue, the economy may be permanently in recession.


As capital consolidates into fewer, mostly transnational corporations, the old political arrangements cannot be maintained, because they were predicated on an essentially national capitalism. Consequently, conservative and social democratic governments alike attempt to resolve the contradictions of the welfare state resulting from sagging revenues and widespread capital strikes, by dismantling whole sections of it. Now, the U.S. is reducing its apparatuses of social welfare, especially for the poor, women and children and the elderly, limiting state functions to coercion and repression.


The pace of change is a measure of the weakness of the popular left of trade unions, the ecology, women and black’s freedom movements. In turn, the once influential ideological left (social democratic and communist groups, the anarchists, and the independent radicals) has virtually disappeared from public view.


More to the point, whereas in the last great global shift of the post-World War One era the left had solutions (reform on the basis of deficit financing and a measure of redistributive justice), now there is barely a margin of hope that some, not all, of the painfully constructed social welfare state can be preserved in some form.


However, the left does not seem to have posed the right questions. For example, it persists in repeating to itself the fiction that there was nothing wrong with left political ideology and program; it was simply defeated by the superior forces of Capital. On the conventional account, the right controlled the media and other means of communication, captured the legislative branch and neutralized the executive branch of the federal government. Transnational corporations simply decide to avoid the constraints of national and local politics, which tended to expect a measure of social justice.


The defeat itself requires explanation, not only in terms of what Capital does, but in relation to the specific history of the various components of the political Opposition. In brief, Aronowitz argues that the left – both its popular and ideological spheres – functioned, for the most part, as participants in the regulatory state introduced by the Wilson administration and developed by the New Deal and its successors. When two world historical events conjoined, the eclipse of regulation (including its income support aspects) and the end of the Soviet Union as institutionalized revolutionary alternative to capitalism, the left was utterly disarmed.


After this introduction, Aronowitz’s story begins with the death rattle of the American communist movement and the birth of the New Left. He tries to make sense of the era of American radicalism following the demise of the Old Left. There are two historical movements for social emancipation which overlap but are quite distinct:


·      The first movement, the great movement of the economically and politically disenfranchised within the Third Estate (1), from which the modern struggle for social justice derived and for which revolution and reform signified freedom from grinding poverty. This struggle for decent living standards and for democratic “rights” has dominated the workers movement which, despite its decline, remains the leading force on the popular left. The great combat (and compromises) between labor and capital more or less successfully marginalized all other instances of dominations: of men over women, of humans over nature, of heterosexuality over homosexuality, the old over the young and so forth. If these questions could not be posed as part of the social question (that is, made consonant with the economic and political struggle for – more – equality) the labor movement made up of trade unions and political parties effectively excluded them from its agenda;


·      The other movement, which Aronowitz called “cultural radicalism”, contends that the idea of freedom is by no means confined to a narrow political definition. Cultural radicals hold that freedom entails self-management of the body and its environment: reproductive, sexual, labor issues. In the shadow of the French Revolution, the suppressed work of Sade held out a new vision of sexual freedom. This theme was reiterated and developed by figures like anarchists Emma Goldman and Paul Goodman, the Bolshevik-feminist Alexandra Kollontai and the radical psychoanalyst Wilhem Reich. Later, Aronowitz argues that cultural radicalism also fulfills one of the themes of the early works of Marx: the dream of the “whole man”, the idea that social emancipation is not complete without cultural freedom. The history of cultural radicalism is not recounted chiefly in the development of the workers movements, but in feminism, radical educational reform, social ecology and sections of the gay and lesbian movement.



The ideology of the primacy of class politics over cultural politics was weakened. In this new political environment, social movements gained a more or less permanent footing in the political spectrum. In every country, the degree to which social movements were able to advance their demands on the state, socialist parties, traditional popular left organizations and to establish autonomous organizations varied according to the exigencies of the country’s perspectives of political culture, especially the strength and receptivity of the own left. In France, for example, feminism remained a movement of intellectuals who were unable to generate a popular following for their ideas due to the resistance of the French Communist Party and the labor federation it controlled.


The U.S., Spain and Germany were important centers of world-wide anarchist-inspired education and communitarian movement: they started and maintained more than twenty elementary and adult schools in America, which have survived their general decline by the 50’s. Perhaps, equally important for the past sixty years, the anarchists – not the socialists or communists – have provided the visionary thinking that influenced the emergence of the New Left, and without which any possible new radicalism is inconceivable. And it was from the spirit of anarchism – not the doctrines of the conventional social justice left – that one of the most widely influential new social movements of the post-war era, ecology, emerged.


While parliamentary socialism increasingly pressed for and won concessions from a reluctant capitalist state, the communist parties that emerged after World War One were strengthened by their links to the Great Revolution in Russia – and later China as well as other parts of the post-colonial world. So, for more than seventy year – and especially since the Soviet Union emerged during World War Two as the second great military and economic power – until 1990, world politics were dominated by the spectrum of communism. And in every major Western country, including the United States where the Communist Party ( C.P.) was painfully weak after 1948, they retained their status as the symbolic representations of a potential world-wide negation of capitalism.


For example, in the 1930s, the American Communist Party organized quite potent mobilizations on behalf of the Spanish Republican government and against Roosevelt’s ostensible neutrality policy and otherwise led the antifascist movement in the United States. Whatever its retrospective accuracy, the French C.P. slogan ‘Communisme est la jeunesse du Monde’ was taken seriously by both the powerful and the powerless, after the success of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.


Many of the parties were led by arrogant, even delusional militants and, in Germany, this hubris contributed to Hitler’s rise to power. After a brilliant beginning, the fledgling American Communists quickly split into two and spent much of the 1920s in fruitless sectarian wrangling.


It is difficult for many in these days of its apparent defeat to visualize how menacing communism seemed to the established powers and, conversely, how completely the first successful revolutionary socialist state, the Soviet Union, captured the hearts and mind of several generations of revolutionaries and radicals. Beyond those who chose to give their allegiance to the communist movement and, especially in Spain, their lives, many intellectuals were, nevertheless, obsessed with the “Russian” question.


After the Nazis were defeated, with the help of the red Army, a series of post-war Communist regimes was installed in the countries of Eastern Europe. But Stalin could not control all of them and the Yugoslav Communists, led by Tito’s independent frame of mind, decided to ignore Moscow’s orders to yield to the British-backed Chekniks (2), while Italian and Greek parties were more loyal to honor Stalin’s deal with Roosevelt and Churchill, ceding a region defined as the Soviets “legitimate” sphere of domination and, like the French CP, the Italians joined coalition governments with conservatives and social-democrats.


In 1945, the Communist Political Association may have reached close to one hundred thousand members, perhaps a third of whom were activists, and many others of whom were implanted in some of the more important sectors of American life – the unions, the civil rights movement, cultural organizations, especially in Hollywood and among youth. Consequently, the American CP had become, thus, a force in the Democratic Party in both large cities and farm communities.


But by the 1950s, under the burden of its premature and calamitous break with the Democratic Party, its isolation from the industrial unions, Cold War inspired government attacks on its legality, and inherent internal weakness, the CP was reduced to political insignificance. And with the revelations of Stalin’s crimes delivered to the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in 1956, the American Communists were mortally wounded.


By the 1990s, split in two after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist movement has virtually disappeared in the USA, as already mentioned. However, in its heyday, the American Communists were respected, even courted by the liberal state but despised and feared by their left-wing competitors: the Socialists, whose party had been much larger than the CP, but were eclipsed after 1936 when the CP joined the Roosevelt coalition and became the leader of its left wing, leaving Socialist out in the cold in splendid isolation.


But the “Russian” question remained at the heart of American radicalism after 1917 and despite all troubles within the Soviet Union and in Eastern Communist regimes – like the Sino-Soviet split of 1956 as well as the worker’s uprising in East Germany, in Poland or the movements in Hungary, which were snuffed out by Soviet tanks. There was also an expanding Soviet influence in different areas of the world like in the Far-East, Africa, Middle-East and Latin American.


In this meanwhile, the very conditions that limited the growth of the post-war welfare state in the United States (the Cold-War generated permanent war economy) also protected the gains made by workers and popular forces as the Bolshevik Revolution might not be repeated in any Western country. But after the Depression visited mass suffering, Capital was no longer able to survive without a new social contract with the organized working class in America or in Europe.


The conservative Eisenhower administration held the line against extension of the welfare state and Richard Nixon dismantled many – if not all features – of the antipoverty program. But, in the wake of the black uprisings of the 1960s, Nixon then initiated affirmative action to forestall a vast expansion of funding for black and working class public education.


After promising to dismantle the New Deal, and to reinstall the “free” market in services and goods, the arch-conservative President Ronald Regan was forced to abandon his boldest initiative, the reduction of Social Security benefits. But just like Eisenhower and Nixon, Reagan did as much damage as his administrative powers allowed him to. Perhaps Reagan’s most important achievement was to have radically transformed the rhetoric of politics and the policy agenda. Notwithstanding all this, eight years of Reaganism left most of the welfare programs weakened, but intact and, by 1990, there was a strong feeling that the way was clean for a new era of modified social liberalism and progressive social policy, especially to repair the seriously crippled health care system.


Under the shadow of communism, mass unemployment, homelessness, and hunger had become morally unacceptable. When the Soviet Union disappeared, the moral as well as political climate rapidly shifted to a new social Darwinism. The pent-up rage against the poor, shared between the rich and the middle class, was given full vent by the right-wing triumph in the mid-term elections of 1994. And, with the absence of even a genuine social-democratic left in the United States, the pace of deterioration became incredibly rapid.


When, with the crashing of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Soviet Communism began its brief but steed descent into history, the stage was set for a massive counterattack by Capital and the conservative forces, which in the Cold War era had been obliged to stipulate many elements of the “social wage” (social security, unemployment compensation, and the more recently enacted Medicare and Medicaid programs). Contrary to the fervent hopes of many that the end of the Cold War would produce a “peace dividend” by freeing once sacred military funds for social programs, the right was poised to take effective, if not ostensible, control.



In the United States the peril of Soviet power became an occasion to be built an unprecedented peacetime military colossus. In the name of fighting communism, the federal government poured billions of dollars into the development of science and technology, much of which was not even for military use. Consumer society is an idea antedating the Russian Revolution, and state regulation is not directly linked to the Cold War. But who can doubt that the huge military budgets of the years 1946-1980 provided a large chunk of the income required to fuel the credit system that sustained high levels of mass consumption?


Consumerism became, thus, a characteristic feature of post-was U.S. capitalism and, with the help of the Cold War in the early 1970s, capital had reached the end of its long wave of economic expansion, which began with the rearmament of the leading powers in 1938 and ended when Europe and Japan once more became global economic players, by the late 1960s.


By the late 1950s, Europe joined the United States in the Fordist cornucopia of production and consumption while in the Soviet Union – and its client states the Cold War – it was imperative to maintain full military preparedness combined with working-class demoralization (produced by the infinite postponement of the promised socialist prosperity) in order to create conditions of a near-crisis in the Soviet Union and in the Eastern countries. The containment strategy of the U.S. government – of which the creation of the permanent war economy and global military interventions were centerpiece – may not have been sufficient to topple the communist states, but they were enough to prevent the Russians from “delivering the goods” and from pillaging their allies.


Following the wrenching events of the late 1950s, in order to forestall disaster, Stalin’s successors and the more “liberal” East Europeans Communist regimes decisively moved, at least, toward fulfilling the promise of higher mass living standards by abandoning forced industrialization in favor of providing consumer goods. But having poured almost all their capital on heavy industry and arms in the 1930s and 1940s and having actively discouraged innovation in consumer products, the Communists lacked the technology and industrial efficiency to produce these goods, including food. As a result, the independent Communist state of Yugoslavia, for example, accumulated $22 billion in debt, Hungary about $10 billion, and Poland $30 billion – or about $ 1000 per capita – and the period of a brief Eastern European prosperity proved to be extremely short.


Faced with worldwide overproduction, profits began to tumble. High wages, higher prices for oil demanded by OPC and the continuing burden of taxes to pay for social benefits prompted Capital to undertake the first major restructuring since the turn of the century. In order to reduce costs, capital decided to discipline the still-crucial Western working class. Corporations began to pull their capital from the high-wage Western countries to low-wage regions of the world.



The World Bank called in the debt the Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America, warning that any renegotiation and rescheduling of the terms of repayment or to obtain new funds would be conditioned to the certainty that recipients were prepared to introduce austerity measures, designed to discipline their populations by, among other things, curtailing wages and tightening the credit system. Inflation became, thus, a worldwide concern as investment lagged seriously behind rising demand, especially for energy resources, food, and real estate. Capital was busily engaged in global reorganization, intensifying merges and acquisitions so that large corporations held even greater economic power.


In the face of stagnation and decline in the world economy, productive investment in the two decades after 1973 was concentrated in the employment of labor-saving technologies in the workplace, particularly labor-saving computer-mediated processes. Although the destruction of more than six million mostly high-paying jobs in the 1970s and 1980s potentially reduced living standard, the effects of the decline in factory jobs were offset by the entrance of large numbers of women into the clerical labor force inn these growth sectors.


But the expansion of women’s work also proved to be short as the Stock-Market Crash of 1987 made hundreds of thousands of them to loose their jobs. Moreover, word processing and electronic telephone answering, both computer-mediated processes, replaced the file clerk, typist, and receptionist in all major offices. At the same time, at least for the European countries, the concentration of capital eliminated many enterprises, spelled rising unemployment and began to put strains on the extensive welfare state which, by this time, had extended considerably to include long-term income guarantees for laid off workers.


The Labour Party presided over the deindustrialization of Britain and, by 1979, British conservatives were back in power. By the 1980s, the British steel, car, and mining industries were sharply reduced. And in the continent, although the Socialist president of France, François Mitterrand, lasted through the 1990s, his reform program was all but dead by 1983 and the Lorraine steel region entirely shut down while the nation’s textile industry was reduced to specialties.


In the wake of this restructuring and the collapse of the Soviet Union under the weight of corruption and social stagnation, transnational capital has found little incentive to maintain its commitment to the historic compromise and its product, the welfare state. It simply refused to honor the renewal of the social contract with labor, in most of the countries where the welfare state prospered after the war. This is when Thatcherism, perhaps the most resolute of the conservative efforts to break the deal, has become a global model.


We live in an era of a true paradigm shift in world relations of economic and political power. It is not simply that the left – both communists and non-communists – have “lost” a series of decisive battles. The very conditions of possibility for a politics of social justice on the basis of the historic compromise between Labor and Capital have been destroyed, for the viability of a social reform as the political strategy of labor was more or less assured by the era of capitalistic regulation.


The astonishing rate of change reflects the weakness of the popular left, especially ideologically. White and black workers are at each other’s throats while men and women are arrayed into hostile camps and the old are abandoned by some of the young who, animated by the decline of living standards and the illusion of immortality, have become more sympathetic to arguments for reducing or eliminating the Social Secure program, since a significant fraction of male workers and the middle class see the “government” – rather than Capital – as their enemy.


There is still a genuine division between the public and the private facilities in the USA. Public sector employees are under unprecedented attack while cities and states rush to privatize vital services such as sanitation and education under the sign of lower costs and higher efficiency. In fact, what we are witnessing in the United States and Western Europe is the decline of welfare state leftism as a distinct from the other great strain, social and cultural radicalism. In contrast, under Roosevelt, Truman, and Lyndon Johnson, the federal government presented itself as the creator and guardian of a caring society.


Aronowitz realizes that the most dramatic departure of the New Left of the 1960s was to have rejected two of the cardinal features of the Old Left: its preoccupation with the Russian Question and its unadorned statism. While anti-imperialist and profoundly involved in the black freedom movement, the young radicals who came to maturity in the first half of the 1960s sharply moved their point of view, becoming critical of the bureaucratic administration of the welfare and educational systems, suspecting about the motives and commitment of the Liberal Establishment and becoming disappointed with the labor movement. They become, thus, hopelessly integrated into the prevailing social order.


Although the feminist, ecology, or gay and lesbian movements of the late 1960s, 70s and 80s were not directly outgrowths of the New Left, there were more radical expressions, consonant with its political culture. In the case of radical feminism, the connection is direct, even by negation. To summarize, what Aronowitz argues is that if there is to be a rebirth of radicalism, it would have no alternative but to revive the critique of political and economic liberalism and affirm the participatory democratic themes of the New Left. His modest proposal is to abandon the term “left” in favor of the more inclusive and accurate term “radicalism”.





(1) – French “Tiers État”: in French history, with the nobility and the clergy, one of the three orders into which members were divided in the pre-Revolutionary Estates-General. It represented the great majority of the people, and its deputies' transformation of themselves into a National Assembly in June 1789 marked the beginning of the French Revolution.


(2) – One of the two main groups of resistance fighters in the Balkans during the World War Two.





(The text above transcribed is a resume of Aronowitz’s

original essay and brings fragments of it