Jeffry J. Kaplow

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 931

There is some question in my mind as to whether one ought to attempt a single definition of the European Left since 1789, as Caute does [in The Left in Europe Since 1789]. The problems of society, and therefore the grounds of political identification, have changed so rapidly in the last 175 years that what was "Left" in 1789 was often "Right" by 1793; what was revolutionary in 1848 was conservative in 1871. In the presence of so intense a rhythm of change, what purpose is served by the establishment of a lowest common denominator of the Left?

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I would not be misunderstood. There is a Left tradition in Europe, and it is a strong one. (p. 784)

But Caute is not content to note the tradition. He must have a more concrete string with which to tie the Left up into a nice little bundle. The search for that string keeps his eyes riveted firmly to the ground from the very beginning of the book. The so-called characteristics of the Left are examined in turn and rejected as false or inadequate in what seems to me to be a masterpiece of faulty method and confusion.

First of all, what Left is he talking about? Nowhere does Caute make clear his criteria of selection. Is there some standard, or even arbitrary, definition to work from—or is he examming all the groups that have identified with the Left at one time or another? If the former is the case, he should tell us what that definition is; if the latter, he should learn to use a historical machete, for it is simply ludicrous to throw the First International and Gambetta together for any purpose whatever, analytical or otherwise.

Second, Caute ought to know that a list of attributes may delimit but does not generally define its subject. He is at great pains to compile such a list in order to destroy each of the items on it. (p. 785)

After all this, Caute informs us that "most political situations, medieval and modern, reveal groups to the left of other groups, but the Left itself, viewed historically and conceptually, is an absolute based on a minimum demand of one man, one vote." This is his minimum definition of popular sovereignty which, he assures us, is identified with universal suffrage, if not always with democracy. At this point, it is I who am confused, both theoretically and as to the fact situation. What is popular sovereignty? If it means one man, one vote, then many men on the Left have been willing to do without it for extended periods of time, precisely in order to insure a greater measure of democracy than might otherwise have come into being. Moreover, if it means universal suffrage, then it is a matter of pure form, without reference to the social antagonisms of a given time and place. It hardly allows for the dynamic definition of the Left across time to which Caute aspires, nor does it give us any but the most summary of analytical tools…. Caute is aware of the problem and tries to resolve it by extending the frontiers of popular sovereignty in the direction of social democracy. But if this be the case, why not declare at the outset that the Left has always been identified with the desire to readjust property relations and leave the intellectual somersaults alone?

There is much of value in this book, both for students and the general reader. Caute efficiently dispels a whole series of bourgeois myths about the destructive nature of revolution and the meaning of terror and dictatorship. His factual accounts are generally reliable. Unfortunately, a good part of the book is vitiated by an anti-Communist and anti-Soviet bias that sometimes goes beyond reasonable limits. It is, I think, correct to criticize the tactics of German Communists in 1932, but is is not permissible to burden them with the responsibility of Hitler's rise to power, as Caute does at least by implication. In regard to the Soviet Union, popular sovereignty becomes a whip with which to beat Stalin and his successors. An examination of Stalinist and, indeed, Soviet shortcomings in the exercise of power is welcome, but the attempt to read the USSR out of the ranks of the Left because "the original quest for popular sovereignty" has become obscured is properly ridiculous. First of all, that quest goes on and, second, there is more to being on the Left than popular sovereignty can encompass.

A number of more minor faults may be pointed out. I would suggest that the sans-culotte defense of their traditional economy was not quite so blind as Caute believes, but was based on a reasoned and reasonable set of moral options. The illustrations are well chosen, but the captions sometimes fall short of the mark. Why repeat the cliché about the revolution devouring its own? And is it true that Lenin contradicted Marx in maintaining that "revolution is not evolution"? Worst of all is the commentary on Georges Grosz's The Millionaire: "Left-wing millionaires are not unknown." Tiens!

Caute ends his book without drawing conclusions. Are we to assume that the Left is dead or reduced to the role of gadfly in the consensus? If so, it requires a eulogy. If, on the other hand, it is still alive, then it is proper to ask: where does it go from here? To end abruptly, as the author does, is to leave half his job as a historian undone. (pp. 785-86)

Jeffry J. Kaplow, "Left Tradition," in The Nation (copyright 1966 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 202, No. 26, June 27, 1966, pp. 784-86.

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