The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America

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Why do people who identify themselves as liberal or egalitarian sometimes embrace intolerance or even preach violence? Illiberalism has come to be expected of the right in this country; its occurrence on the left is more paradoxical but no less real. Although equality lies at the heart of the liberal tradition, the earnest pursuit of egalitarian goals has often come at the expense of other liberal ideals.

In this provocative book, Richard J. Ellis examines the illiberal tendencies that have characterized egalitarian movements throughout American history, from the radical abolitionists of the 1830s to the New Left activists of the 1960s. He also takes on contemporary radical feminists like Catherine MacKinnon and radical environmental groups like Earth First! to show that, even today, many of the American left's sacred cows have cloven hooves.

Ellis identifies the organizational and ideological dilemmas that caused Students for a Democratic Society to transform itself from a democratic to an elitist organization, or that allow radicals to justify illegal acts as long as they are free of self-interest. He explains how orthodoxy arises within a group from the need to maintain distance from a society it views as hopelessly corrupt, and how individuals committed to egalitarian causes are particularly susceptible to illiberalism—even poets like Walt Whitman, who celebrated the common people but often expressed contempt for their mundane lives. Political correctness, idealizing the oppressed, and an affinity for authoritarian and charismatic leaders are all parts of what Ellis calls "the dark side of the left."

Building on the groundwork laid by Richard Hofstadter in his pioneering book, The Age of Reform, Ellis exposes the shortcomings of today's left and provides a badly needed historical perspective on the contemporary debate over "political correctness." The Dark Side of the Left is a gutsy book that is essential reading for anyone who occasionally feels dark forebodings about seemingly noble causes.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In his second paragraph, Ellis quickly points out that he is a lifelong Democrat, a 'card-carrying member' of the ACLU, an environmentalist, a supporter of women's rights and a federalist. If it seems rather defensive, that is, in some way, the point of his book. Here, Ellis (American Political Cultures) offers a provocative critique of left-wing movements from 19th-century utopians to abolitionists to the old left of the inter-war era, to the New Left of the Vietnam era and, finally, to contemporary radical feminists like Catharine MacKinnon and certain environmental activists. Through an examination of speeches, books and articles, Ellis tries to document how varied ideologues abandoned their egalitarian principles in favor of rigid political correctness, sometimes slipping into violence and elitism. At root, Ellis sees a tendency to romanticize 'the People', 'those powerful, natural persons whose heroism needs no drug of fame or applause to enable them to continue: those humble, mighty parts of the mass,' to quote American Communist Michael Goldwhile. To quote Gold again, denigrating 'the simple souls who save their money, plod to offices, and plan college careers for their children.' This is a largely academic study that attempts to lump in Walt Whitman and Tom Hayden with various extremists. The problem is Ellis' arguments often tend to be as reductionist and simplistic as the radical rhetoric he criticizes.
In an effort to toughen the liberal reform tradition in the U.S., Ellis (politics, Willamette University) discusses the recurrent organizational and ideological dilemmas that have periodically thrown radical egalitarian political thinkers and movements down illiberal tracks. He eschews analysis of the psychology of individual activists in favor of a focus on the cultural significance of the dilemmas. His episodic coverage addresses such phenomena as utopian fiction of the late 19th century, the 1960s New Left, and the environmentalism of Earth First!
Washington Times
Richard J. Ellis is a liberal who acknowledges a certain amount of discomfort writing a book that is critical of the left. He nonetheless does a good -- often devastating -- job of it.
Washington Post Book World
Ellis's book, readable and scholarly and lovingly published, opens many doors.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700610303
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 2/28/2000
  • Series: American Political Thought Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 440
  • Product dimensions: 6.11 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Table of Contents



I: The Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

1. Radical Abolitionism: Purity and Violence

2. Illiberal Utopianism in the Age of Reform

3. The Revolting Masses: From Walt Whitman to Mike Gold

II: SDS, The New Left, and the 1960s

4. The Illiberal Turn: Tom Hayden, SDS, and the New Left

5. Romancing the Oppressed: The New Left and the Left Out

6. When More (Democracy) Is Less

III: Egalitarianism Today

7. Radical Feminism: The Personal is Political

8. Earth First! and the Misanthropy of Radical Egalitarianism

9. Apocalypse and Authoritarianism in the Radical Environmental Movement




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