Richard Rorty, “Leftists,” and the CTU Strike

I just finished reading Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America, which consists of a few of the late philosopher’s lectures. It doesn’t take long to realize Rorty’s use of the term “leftist” is dissimilar from the conventional application of the appellation. His conception is more expansive. We should dispense with the leftist-liberal distinction, Rorty contends, and affix the “leftist” label to all denizens of the left (Conor Williams uses the same terminology).


“A hundred years from now, Howe and Galbraith, Harrington and Schlesinger, Wilson and Debs, Jane Addams and Angela Davis, Felix Frankfurter and John L. Lewis. W.E.B. Du Bois and Eleanor Roosevelt, Robert Reich and Jesse Jackson, will all be remembered for having advanced the cause of social justice. They will all be seen as having been ‘ on the Left.'”

What unites us is more than what divides us. Claiming purity or drawing clear lines between ideological segments of the Left is petty, schismatic, unhelpful. On one level, I appreciate Rorty’s opposition to sectarianism, a disease that has long afflicted the left. But, to bring it up to present-day struggles, isn’t there a difference between, in Rorty’s language, pro-CTU strike leftists and anti-CTU strike leftists? Is it really sectarian to observe that many on the center-left quickly adopted right-wing talking points when a union with a little power and a little chutzpah went on strike? Aren’t these differences in support for the labor movement real and of more consequence than latter day skirmishes over “social fascism” and the like?

Even if one shares Rorty’s desire to overcome gratuitous distinctions, it’s clear to me why some internecine distinctions need to be made. I reject Rorty’s use of the word because I reject indiscriminate, overly capacious taxonomies that have a tendency to muddy more than clarify. (In his eagerness to elide difference, Rorty also whitewashes history. He conveniently forgets about liberals’ role in suppressing their fellow “leftists”. Still, this is an improvement over Sean Wilentz’s view.)

Polarizing moments bring out latent differences. The CTU strike is over, but we still know which side some “leftists” were on.

Shawn Gude

Shawn Gude is a writer, graduate student, activist, and assistant editor at Jacobin. His intellectual influences include Chantal Mouffe, Michael Harrington, and Ella Baker. Contact him at or on Twitter @shawngude.


  1. Note: I have not read this book yet and only know it from mentions in other articles and blog posts like this one.

    That being said, I think Rorty is correct and incorrect.

    The public at large will probably see all the people mentioned in your quoted paragraph as being roughly on the same side as a wide group of the “left” Maybe a lot of the left’s low-information voters will do the same. But I think that people on the left who are high information voters or students of the history of the left will disagree. But this is the nature of the political beast I suppose.

    I think there is still a strong fight in the American Left between the neo-liberals and the not neoliberals. For the most part, I am not a neo-liberal.

    One of the reasons why I think the American liberals/left does so badly is that we are not very good at cultivating people to run for political office. The American Right is very good at finding young or relatively young supporters and launching them into political careers and elected office at an early age. Paul Ryan was elected to Congress in his late-20s. The current GOP Senate candidate in Ohio is only 34.

    The Democratic Party is either unwilling or unable to put young people up for public office as candidates. Perhaps there is a kind of maturity in this but it also hurts the left in the long run.

    The current American left seems more comfortable at producing bright stars who are young policy wonks and this people give off the impression of being constantly bewildered at the differences between policy and politics. They are too concerned with producing peer-reviewed white papers or blog posts that mentioned peer reviewed data than human interaction. Some of them seem too introverted for politics. This makes us look bewildered often like the earnest 7th grade honors student who cannot understand why the affable jock or cheerleader won the election for student body president.

    The pro and anti-CTU on the left is another fight between the neo-liberals and their dissenters. The anti-strike people are enamoured with hedge fund money, charter schools, and heavy reliance on standardized testing as ways to measure student learning and teach success. OTOH, I am very suspicious of charter schools and absolutely loathe standardsized testing. I want school to teach critical thinking and writing, literature, science, math, history, etc. I want students to be able to research and write papers, not fill in bubbles on a scantron sheet.

  2. “The Democratic Party is either unwilling or unable to put young people up for public office as candidates. Perhaps there is a kind of maturity in this but it also hurts the left in the long run.”

    I present to you the next Congresswoman from Hawaii’s 2nd district, Tulsi Gabbard . She is 31.

    Corey Booker is only 2 years older than Marco Rubio. Gabby Giffords (though no longer a rising star) is a year older than Rubio. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz is running the Democratic party at 45 years of age (though her counterpart on the Republican is indeed 5 years younger).

    (and Mandel’s going to lose)

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