Top-down and botton-up Leftism


The history of leftist politics in America is a story of how top-down initiatives and bottom-up initiatives have interlocked.

Top-down leftist initiatives come from people who have enough security, money, and power themselves, but nevertheless worry about the fate of people who have less. Examples of such initiatives are muckraking exposes by journalists, novelists, and scholars-for example, Ida Tarbell on Standard Oil, Upton Sinclair on immigrant workers in the Chicago slaughterhouses, Noam Chomsky on the State Department’s lies and the New York Times‘s omissions. Other examples are the Wagner and Norris-Laguardia Acts, novels of social protest like People of the Abyss and Studs Lonigan, the closing of university campuses after the American invasion of Cambodia, and the Supreme Court’s decisions in Brown v. Board of Education and Romer v. Evans.

Bottom-up leftist initiatives come from people who have little security, money, or power and who rebel against the unfair treatment which they, or others like them, are receiving. Examples are the Pullman Strike, Marcus Garvey‘s black nationalist movement, the General Motors sit-down strike of 1936, the Montgomery bus boycott, the creation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, the creation of Cesar Chavez‘s United Farm Workers, and the Stonewall .. riot” (the beginning of the gay rights movement) .

Although these two kinds of initiatives reinforced each other, the people at the bottom took the risks, suffered the beatings, made all the big sacrifices, and were sometimes murdered. But their heroism might have been fruitless if leisured, educated, relatively risk-free people had not joined the struggle. Those beaten to death by the goon squads and the lynch mobs might have died in vain if the safe and secure had not lent a hand.

These loans were unheroic but indispensable. The Luce journalists of 1937 who filled the pages of Life magazine with pictures of the National Guard beating up striking United Automobile Workers were not taking many risks. Nor were the TV reporters who kept the cameras focused on Bull Connor’s dogs and cattle prods in 1961. But if they had not been there, and if a lot of secure and well-off Americans had not reacted to those images as they did, the UAW strike against Ford and the Freedom Ride through Alabama would both have been ineffectual. Somebody has to convince the voters that what the authorities are calling senseless violence is actually heroic civil disobedience.


  1. Rorty, Richard. Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-century America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1998. Print. 53-54.



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Filed under History, Notes on History, Philosophy, Politics

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