Richard Rorty on the failure of the Academic Left


The difference between early twentieth-century leftist intellectuals and the majority of their contemporary counterparts is the difference between agents and spectators. In the early decades of this century, when an intellectual stepped back from his or her country’s history and looked at it through skeptical eyes, the chances were that he or she was about to propose a new political initiative… It rarely occurs to present-day American leftists to quote either Lincoln or Whitman. It is no longer the case that, in Croly’s words, “every new stage of our educational training provides some additional testimony,, on behalf of Americans’ faith in their country. On the contrary, a contemporary American student may well emerge from college less convinced that her country has a future than when she entered. She may also be less inclined to think that political initiatives can create such a future. The spirit of detached spectatorship, and the inability to think of American citizenship as an opportunity for action. may already have entered such a student’s soul…

…Leftists in the academy have permitted cultural politics to supplant real politics, and have collaborated with the Right in making cultural issues central to public debate. They are spending energy which should be directed at proposing new laws on discussing topics as remote from the country’s needs as were Adams‘ musings on the Virgin and the Dynamo. The academic Left has no projects to propose to America, no vision of a country to be achieved by building a consensus on the need for specific reforms. Its members no longer feel the force of James’s and Croly’s rhetoric. The American civic religion seems to them narrow-minded and obsolete nationalism.


  1. Rorty, Richard. Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998. Print. 9-14.

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Filed under History, Notes on History, Philosophy, Politics

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