In his latest book, Why America Needs a Left, historian Eli Zaretsky explores the historical relationship between the left and liberalism in the United States. While some historians dismiss the very notion of an American left, Zaretsky argues that it has made a profound impact on American political life. He examines three historical “lefts”: the abolitionists, the left that coalesced around the New Deal, and the New Left of the ’60s and ’70s. In each case, the left addressed an issue already being debated—slavery, economic depression, civil rights—but transformed equality into the core goal of each movement. In this sense, each left resulted in a “refounding” of America, “a transformation of its identity and of its conception of legitimate order, one that placed equality at its center.”

Editorial assistant Sean Fabery spoke with Zaretsky about why the left never achieves its goals, how Obama ignores the left at his peril, and why Occupy Wall Street signals the dawn of a fourth left.

Sean Fabery: What was the impetus for writing this book?

Eli Zaretsky: There’s a long-term impetus and an immediate impetus. The long-term impetus is that I’m very much a product of the 1960s. I was active in the civil rights movement and in the New Left. I was very influenced at that time by an older generation of people who had gone through the ’30s and ’40s, and by the idea of the left as a kind of continuing presence in American life.

The more immediate impetus was the election of Obama in 2008. I did think that 2008 was a turning-point type of election because of the failure of the Bush policies—the disastrous impact of the war in Iraq followed by the economic crisis, which had such deep roots in long-standing policies. I thought it really opened the way for Obama to raise the question of a new direction for the country. The fact that Obama ran on that platform in his campaign for president but then didn’t govern that way was an immediate impetus behind the book.

SF: In the introduction, you mention that various historians have doubted whether an American left has ever existed. You argue that the left has very much been a part of American politics and has influenced the way we discuss equality. What is being missed when people dismiss the left as a genuine force in American politics?

EZ: Many conceptions of America say the left is irrelevant: “We don’t need a left,” or “We don’t have a left.” There are different versions of this idea. Some people say we don’t need a left because we all agree on the basic fundamentals—that the core of America is liberty and freedom. There’s a lot of truth to that. We have a consensus on human rights and individual rights in this country that’s very strong and historically grounded.

What the left brings to this, which I think is not just an impact but absolutely at the core of what the country is, is the importance of equality. You can’t really think about individual freedom without also thinking about equality. People in the New Left said that “I can’t be free as long as there are people being oppressed in Mississippi.” Individual freedom is not just something that individuals have. It requires equality as an ideal that pervades the country. It’s something that the left passionately believes and really has emphasized more than other parts of the political system in American history, but it’s really at the core of who we are as Americans.

The left always fails because it’s a long-term project; you have to look at it over a long sweep of history.

I think that the core of American history goes back to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. A lot of white Americans before the abolitionists rose said, “We are free. It’s just too bad that the black people among us are slaves.” But the abolitionists said, “We can’t be free as long as other people are slaves.” So America is a country that is not just founded on individual freedom but is also founded on the principle of equality. It runs through our history. The left has made a huge contribution because it’s the most passionate advocate of that idea.

SF: You label the abolitionist movement as the first left. As you mention in the book, they never termed themselves a “left,” and this term first arose in America in the early twentieth century. Did you have any concerns about labeling the abolitionist movement as a left?

EZ: The term “left” is a European term. It’s about parliamentary systems. In a parliamentary system, you literally and physically have people sitting on the left, sitting on the right, and sitting in the center. Every time there’s an election, we can talk about the left and the right and the center. The United States has a two-party system, so we don’t start with the idea of a left and a right because both parties claim to be in the center. But the idea of the left, which is the idea of equality, is a global idea. There’s no nation that doesn’t have that idea.

What I try to show is that the abolitionists saw themselves—and were seen—as the American counterpart of what was called the left in Europe at that time: the advocates of national liberation, the socialists, the Jacobins, and so forth. The people who criticized the abolitionists called them Jacobins and communists and that sort of thing. And then I show how the term left came into American history only with the Bolshevik Revolution, because at that moment you did have communists who had influence in the United States. Just because we start using the term left in that period doesn’t mean we don’t have a left in the nineteenth century. In fact, the United States was on the left of world politics. It was known as the poor man’s country, as the advocate of democracy and liberty in a world still dominated by kings. These principles of self-government and liberty and equality are all what I mean by the left.

SF: Your book focuses on the delicate relationship between the left and mainstream liberals. When the left loses influence or disintegrates, how much of a role do liberals play in that? Toward the end of your third chapter, you mention that, whereas Lincoln and Roosevelt had worked more closely with the left in terms of achieving their ideas of equality, this didn’t really happen with the Johnson administration and the New Left, and this hasn’t really happened since then.

EZ: I presume there’s always going to be a liberal center and a left. What’s interesting is the relationship. For us, in the American context, the left is almost a self-critique of liberalism. It presumes a pre-existing liberalism. We are not interested in bringing about social equality at the cost of liberty. There are going to be some costs in terms of business, but the basic freedoms are where we start out from.

For there to be a relationship between the two groups, there also has to be independence. My two great examples of that are Lincoln and Roosevelt. They were not leftists, but they were both engaged with very powerful leftist voices. Lincoln’s relationship to the abolitionists is an example. Lincoln believed in racial inequality. He believed that blacks were inferior. He hated slavery, but he did not accept the basic abolitionist point which was equality between the races. As the war went on, Lincoln and people like him—Grant and so forth—came to see that you could not just allow slavery. They saw that whites had to accept blacks and that blacks had to accept whites as coequal Americans.

Roosevelt in many ways was very conservative, patrician, and aristocratic figure. He was a Christian and a Democrat. But he came to see more and more that he really had to struggle to create government programs that would be a counterweight to business.

Why did it fail in Lyndon Johnson’s case? I don’t think that we can ignore the role of individuals. There’s a lot of literature that says, had Kennedy lived, he would have begun to withdraw from Vietnam after the election of 1964. It’s possible. Had Bobby Kennedy not been assassinated, he might have built, as he promised in 1968, a new politics based on blacks and the workers (but not the trade union bosses) and women and students. Lyndon Johnson turned out not to be up to making the fundamental decisions concerning the war in Vietnam and was surrounded by people who never questioned our policy, which most people now see was a disaster.

Whatever the 1960s roots Occupy Wall Street has, it’s going to be something new.

To come back to the original question, the left definitely requires creative, inspired, liberal, progressive, mainstream politicians that see the value of that dialogue, that argument, and not so much the value of dialogue with the extreme right because there’s not going to be one. That’s not going to lead to anything. We saw that with Obama. That’s what Obama tried to do. That’s not going to work and it’s never going to work. The dialogue between the liberal tradition and the kind of autocritique of that tradition from within is really what pushes us forward.

SF: You discuss the New Left and what happened to it after 1968. You mention that some of the literature about the New Left declares it had little impact after the early ’70s, but you describe how it influences politics up to the present day.

EZ: I start the book with a quote from William Morris: “Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes, turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.”

One thing that I learned in working on the book is that the left always fails. Each left flared up for ten or fifteen years and then left something behind. It fails because it’s a long-term project; you have to look at it over a long sweep of history. The New Left faded, giving way to neoliberal economic logic, but they won a terrific triumph of ideas—of anti-racism, of anti-sexism, of equality for disabled people, equality for overweight people, for sick people. This is all the legacy of the 1960s. The same thing happened with the abolitionists, the first American left. Once they saw the end of slavery, they dissolved. They didn’t realize they had to continue the struggle.

SF: According to your book, the left does not create the call for equality—those calls came from social movements spearheaded by labor, African Americans, or women. Returning to the present, how are social movements and the left working together, and does it differ from past relations?

EZ: With things like the civil rights movement, the left didn’t create it but it had a left, and the left influenced it. The same applies to the women’s movements. Now these movements do exist today. Look at the huge movement that sprung up around Trayvon Martin. Look at the women’s movement and the importance that people are ascribing to women’s issues in what looks to be the Obama/Romney election. I do think there are many movements for equality today.

What I’m arguing is that in those movements, there are people who are on the left of these movements. They want to connect the movements as they exist to one another. They see it as part of a project, part of a continuity. That’s what I mean by the left. I’m trying to get these people to be more self-conscious about that project—to see, for example, how women’s liberation, racial justice and economic justice are connected.

Occupy Wall Street is a genuine outburst of the left, but it is different. It is not a social movement of the sort that the women’s movement and the civil rights movements are. The civil rights movement expresses black people’s yearning to be free and equal. The women’s movement expresses the yearning of women to be free and equal. The gay liberation movement expresses gay people’s yearning to be equal and free. Occupy Wall Street is something else. It’s really trying to make a general statement about American society: how it works as a whole, what the structure of injustice in the society is. It’s really quite extraordinary how wealth is controlled and used in such an affluent and technologically advanced society like ours. Forty percent of the economy is in financial services. It’s absurd.

SF: Do you consider Occupy Wall Street and the financial crisis of 2007 to be a continuation of the New Left and the crises it addressed, or is it a fourth movement and crisis?

EZ: It’s a question I’ve asked myself a great deal. I think it’s too early to tell. Let’s put it this way: it’s got to be a combination of both. When you look at Occupy Wall Street, the fact that it is the descendant of the New Left could not be clearer. It’s not just its nonviolent direct action and protest, because that really goes deep into American history. What marks them as the children of the New Left is their commitment to participatory democracy, at times to a fault: the idea that everyone has to speak, a kind of skepticism concerning leaders, a skepticism concerning the media, an insistence on addressing the problem of sexism, on addressing the problem of race.

On the other hand, it’s been 50 years since the New Left, so it’s not at all a question of repeating the New Left. One of the things I’m trying to show in the book is that the left is a project that continually reinvents itself. That’s why I don’t give a continuous narrative of the left. I argue there have been three lefts and three moments. Without question, whatever happens now—if something happens, and I certainly hope it will and am trying to contribute to that—will certainly be a fourth left with its own distinctive characteristics. Whatever the 1960s roots the current phenomenon has, it’s going to be something new.