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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A quick and provocative look at American leftism.
Some of the other reviewers of this book seem to have missed the point that this is the text of lectures, not a book length analysis of the policatical left in modern America. Rorty's intent, it seems to me, was to provoke thinking about leftist activity at the political level, not analyse leftist theory. As with other of his works, Rorty is openingly an advocate of a...
Published on September 19, 1999

versus
15 of 41 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars If you don't know Leftist lingo and literature forget it
Rorty is talking to the initiated, people who know their Cornell West, Walt Whitman, JP Sartre, Marx, Chomsky, Croly et. al. True to his title, he compares leftist thinkers throughout the ages and especially the 20th century. To his credit he considers communism a massive failure and says he is optimistic about America. He points out that these views separate him from...
Published on April 1, 2003 by Graham H. Seibert


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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A quick and provocative look at American leftism., September 19, 1999
By A Customer
Some of the other reviewers of this book seem to have missed the point that this is the text of lectures, not a book length analysis of the policatical left in modern America. Rorty's intent, it seems to me, was to provoke thinking about leftist activity at the political level, not analyse leftist theory. As with other of his works, Rorty is openingly an advocate of a return of the influence of Dewey. I really recommend this book, especially to those who consider themselves on the political left and are wondering why the importance of social reform in America seems to have faded since Vietnam.
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's up to the Left to achieve our country, May 16, 2003
In Achieving Our Country, Richard Rorty details the roots to leftist thought, exploring the dawning of the modern era and the pragmatic approach, the glorification of the American ideal and American story as one that would continue onward and upward, and the role of the intellectual Left to be the agent of hope and progress as opposed to maintaining the status quo.
Unfortunately, events in the 1960's created a schism in the Left from which neither side have succeeded in counteracting a unified Right that sunk its claws into the haunches of America. It is up to the Left to coalesce once again into a unifying force to continue the American story and achieve the country.
The loss of American pride is another key element. Rorty derives this from two modern thinkers, Walt Whitman and John Dewey, whose beliefs sharply contrasted with that of the finite, absolute, divine-centered beliefs of the Victorian pre-modernists. Whitman passionately exalted the more humanistic approach to truth and self-discovery caused by the floodgates opened by Darwin's theory of evolution. As a result, the divine standard to which men held to was replaced by secular humanism and humanistic standards.
Both Dewey and Whitman saw "America" and "democracy" as synonymous with being "human." Dewey too placed "America" and "democracy" on a visionary scale. But where Whitman described the American way as "the last and greatest vision of the American potential," Dewey saw "democracy" and thus America's story as "a great word, whose history... remains unwritten, because that history has yet to be enacted".
As a result, Rorty asserts that Dewey and Whitman would advocate American pride despite blacker moments in America's history such as the Vietnam War. This was why the Left lost its effectiveness in carrying out its intellectual role--its spectatorial preoccupation with sin. According to Rorty, a Dewey-Whitman counter to this indulgence in self-disgust would be that "there are many things that should chasten and temper such pride, but that nothing a nation has done should make it impossible to regain self-respect."
Another group of thinkers Rorty drew upon was the "reformist Left," progressives who as champions of the downtrodden, strove to make political and social changes within a constitutional and democratic edifice. This reformist Left consists of two groups: the powerful, financially secure leftist elite launching top-down initiatives, (Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell, the Wagner Act) and the second group, consisting of the financially insecure and disempowered "little man" and grass roots organizations (Marcus Garvey, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the Stonewall riots.) Rorty contends that the reinforcement of the bottom by the top was the glue holding the two groups until 1964, when the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the denial of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic Convention created a rift in the Left.
The solution, according to Rorty, is a unification of the Lefts, as the Cultural Left is "unable to engage in national politics... [or] deal with the consequences of globalization." That is something the pre-Sixties left is able to do, i.e. "piecemeal reform within the framework of a market economy." Rorty also wants to wean the Cultural Left from addictions such as theorizing, philosophizing, abstract systems, and self-disgust. In its place, he proposes activism, concrete solutions, a focus on people and pressing issues, and national pride, the latter two which the grass roots conservatives used to push the Right in power. The job of this Brand New Left, a union of the reformist Left, Cultural Left, and in support of the little man, is to create a new ideology and hence a new utopia that will engage and mobilize a hitherto disillusioned populace into political participation waiting for specific solutions. The Brand New Left will be an intelligentsia practicing pragmatism.
Proud as Dewey and Whitman are in their assertion of America, bowing to no other authority, not even God, I am disturbed by one application of their assertion. This statement corresponds with American unilateralism, the concept of the United States being above the auspices of the United Nations, whose vision is more inclusive and unbiased towards any one nation.
I also agree, that yes, it is beneficial to be aware of the darker moments of American history, and to learn not to make the same mistake and move forward to what one would hope to be a better tomorrow. But what is the line between proper awareness and a prosaic, token, and trendy "awareness month" or "awareness week"?
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pointers to increasing the relevance of the left, February 9, 2002
This review is from: Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Hardcover)
As even the negative reviewers of this book point out, the intellectual left of the US has become stagnant, overly theoretical, and is stuck ruminating on the mistakes of the past (whether those are mistakes of the Left, like the willful ignorance of repression in the USSR, or mistakes of the right, like McCarthyism, hardly matters). Rorty argues, and I don't see many people disagreeing, that from the relevance and good works of the civil rights movement, the war on poverty, and voter registration campaigns, the left has retreated to the ivory towery, deconstructivist literary theory, and apathy towards the actual day-to-day lives of the world. His examples of his own personal conflicts growing up as a "red daiper baby" (see the review "Red Daiper Baby Still in the Dark") serve to illustrate this growing irrelevance, and he admits that issues like these, which he once championed, have grown stale.
Rorty's lectures in this book are aimed at finding a way out of the dead end of abstract theory and "cultural politics," and into an applied social justice campaign. Let's drop the whole "leftism is dead" and "theory of culture" prattle, and move on to doing things about people starving in our streets, he says.
Now, this is where the negative reviewers really begin to skewer him-- he suggests that the answer lies in pragmatism and a sort of 'secular religion.' I'm not convinced that he's correct, however, and I think that although he's right about the need to preserve our government as a secular one, I think that he really ignores the benefits of religion in civil society. Regardless of whether you agree with his prescription, however, his history of American leftism, and his analysis of its problems today, are insightful.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Informative and Inspiring Essays on Renewing "the Left", June 30, 1998
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This review is from: Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Hardcover)
In this collection, which includes his three Massey lectures delivered in 1997 and two related essays from 1995, Richard Rorty argues that the once vital "left," to which America is deeply indebted, has sadly rendered itself irrelevant. Rorty critiques members of the (post)modern left who, embittered by pervasive injustice, have eschewed meaningful campaigns for political change in favor of too-abstract theory, too-utopian "movements" and too-pessimistic contempt for those who would work "within the system" for necessary reform. The American Left, Rorty argues, has become "spectatorial" rather than "participatory," able to comment upon the nation's descent into oligarchy but stymied by view that our nation's sins are so ingrained as to place us beyond redemption.
Drawing on figures such as Walt Whitman, John Dewey, Abraham Lincoln, Irving Howe, Herbert Croly, and Harold Bloom, Rorty conjures an inspiring vision of a left that reconciles economic and cultural progressivism and becomes once again a participatry, progressive, and relevant force in American politics.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Insightful and hopeful, November 25, 2000
This review is from: Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Hardcover)
Achieving Our Country is both an historical account of the shifts in the ideas underpinning the American Left and a recommendation for how to improve what Rorty perceives to be its decayed state. Should you read it? Yes. The historical account has an almost revelatory character -- to read it is to have one's eyes opened to the left's increasingly theoretical bent and the consequent loss of vigor. Success in leadership, politics and government is, after all, measured by action. Rorty's recommended way to solve the degeneration of the left, of course, flows from his diagnosis of the problem. In addition, this book displays much skill with blending seemingly unrelated kernels of information in suggestive ways to show problems, trends, etc. that weren't detected otherwise. This weaving character makes the book enjoyable to read irrespective of its content - one must admire the Rorty's technical skill. This book is not without its flaws. Foremost is Rorty's overly simple diagnosis of the left's problem. Achieving Our Country is a collection of lectures, so arguably oversimplified presentation may be expected and excused. At bottom, this book informs the reader about the past and about choices to be made in the future, and it does so in a pleasant and readable.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Serious and Interesting Read, June 3, 2001
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This review is from: Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Hardcover)
While the author does point the finger of this lack in national pride at the New Left (partly), he also points fingers at American society as a whole, for not having the pride necessary of America's successes. American bashing is just as dangerous as blind patriotism. Rorty is not calling for nationalism, but national pride. He reminds us that to do that, we must first accept ourselves and our nation--good and bad. Do yourself a favor, and pick up this book. Everyone will get something out of reading it.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An important reminder of the true America., November 28, 2003
By 
Augustus Caesar, Ph.D. (Eugene, Oregon United States) - See all my reviews
The pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty is one of the best-known and most renowned academic philosophers of our time. In "Achieving Our Country," he turns his ever-penetrating gaze to the state of Leftist thought in American history, focusing on both the important gains Leftists made in our country in the past, and why the Left is moribund today. What results is a highly accessible, brilliant examination of what makes the Left the sustainer of hope in our modern era of quasi-Fascist brainwashing and chest-beating militarism.
To Rorty, the modern Left has abandoned the dreams of Debs, Dewey, and DuBois in favor of scholastic "theorizing" and defeatist fatalism, as exemplified by the unlearned scholars who populate most of the nation's humanities departments. In exchange for any movement toward authentic social change, we are left instead with Foucault-reading pessimists, disillusioned by the aftermath of the Sixties and less interested in effecting actual progress than in "resisting" the system through barren exercises in jargon-laden "thought." This development over the last three decades, with its concomitant anti-Americanism, has made the Left largely impotent in the face of the well-organized, practical, and methodical assault from the Right.
To remedy this, Rorty proposes an abandonment of pointless theory and instead an active, pragmatic, dedicated effort toward the realization of the true principles that have made America great: diversity, social justice, civil rights, and a movement toward actual equality rather than the social Darwinist "conservatism" which dominates our current political landscape. This is what the author means by "achieving our country." As someone who has spent considerable time in English departments, I wholeheartedly agree with Rorty that a transformation is necessary if the Left is not to decline into total oblivion in the near future.
This is an important and insightful assessment of our culture and politics, and a superb primer for Leftist regeneration.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Plea to Work for Governmental Action to the Academic Left, June 23, 2006
Richard Rorty is a prominent philosopher and academic with deep family roots in the anti-communist efforts of Norman Thomas' Socialist Party, the societal amelioration of the New Deal, and the Social Gospel movement.

He is appalled by the failure of advocates of continued governmental involvement in societal problem-solving to win enough elections to keep political progress moving ahead during a time of ever-increasing globalization and general income stagnation.

He sees a vibrant Academic Left--which he admits has valid critiques of the reformist Left with which he most identifies--but he is appalled that its members have little interest in developing workable programs for societal betterment or engaging in active campaigns for change or the inner workings of government.

He is not David Horowitz. His attacks on the Academic Left are meant to persuade its members, not to rally support of others against them. He praises academic teachings against sadism, bullying, racism, sexism, and homophobia--but feels that merely dealing with how people relate to each other is an inadaquate response to the many institutional failings of American society. He describes the Academic Left's abstention from wider political conflict as to the economic direction of our country as "an inability to do two things at once."

"Sometime in the Seventies, " he writes, "American middle-class idealism went into a stall. Under Presidents Carter and Clinton, the Democratic Party has survived by distancing itself from unions and any mention of redistribution, and moving into a sterile vacuum called the "center."....So the choice between the two major parties has come down to a choice between cynical lies and terrified silence."

In the Pennsylvania legislature, I have long been a leader of efforts to improve the economic welfare of struggling citizens: from repealing laws raising consumer prices and the law establishing welfare liens, to raising the minimum wage and establishing and increasing subsidized senior citizen prescriptions and property tax rebates.

So I am in complete agreement with Rorty's argument for greater involvement to reduce economic injustices. He writes with a scathing eloquence and a deep political understanding that the only way to arouse public support on a national level for new policies is to be able to place them in a context of both patriotism and attention to the genuine needs of the American people.

Because he is largely addressing the Academic Left, he spends too much time for my taste enmeshing himself in leftist sectarian discussions. I hope he persuades some of his intended audience, but his book is also useful for the more general audience of people who, in Robert Kennedy's words, "see suffering and want to stop it."

"I have been arguing that...we Americans should not take the view of a detached cosmopolitan spectator," he writes. "We should face unpleasant truths about ourselves, but we should not take these truths to be the last word about our chances for happiness, or about our national character. Our national character is still in the making. Few in 1897 would have predicted the Progressive Movement, the forty-hour week, Women's Suffrage, the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, the successes of second-wave feminism, or the Gay Rights Movement. Nobody in 1997 can know that America will not, in the course of the next century, witness even greater moral progress.

"(Walt)Whitman and (John) Dewey tried to substitute hope for knowledge. They wanted to put shared utopian dreams--dreams of an ideally decent and civilized society--in the place of knowledge of God's Will, Moral Law, the Laws of History, or the Facts of Science. Their party, the party of hope, made twentieth-century America more than just an economic and military giant...."

I don't think any one group is responsible for the failure of the public to adaquately organize to protect its common interests. I feel we need active organizing everywhere across ideological, geographical, generational,racial, religious, sexual, and other lines. So I do not attribute nearly the significance to the Academic Left that he does.

But I think he has written a book well worth reading by those who very much want a more empowered public, as well as those who want university studies and faculty research to include a greater focus on how the vast knowledge of the universities and their faculties can be better employed for social good.
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4.0 out of 5 stars setting the left right, December 24, 2001
There is one thing for certain in a country where it has become embarassing to say one is a social-democrat while almost 50 million people are without health care and the disparity between the haves and the have nots is such that we can certainly talk of a permanent underclass, it is that the concepts and implimentation of those who profess to be 'liberals' or progressives are muddled, disorganized and often self-defeating
(the last presidential election says much about the problem, from Nader to Florida to low income voter turn out).
Richard Rorty addresses the issues and offers broad, clear, macro analysis of the problems and an approach to the solutions.
You may not agree but it is worth the effort to get the questions right.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A New Old Left, December 8, 2002
By 
A. Steinhebel (Tacoma, WA United States) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This book is a most needed refreshment to the stagnation that is the current left. Though Rorty claims to belong to the 'old' or reformist left, rather then the new, identity based left, it is about as believable as his claims to not belong to the Postmodern set. No, instead of completely destroying the New Left, Rorty creates an imazing fusion of the identity politics of the new left, with the class based politics of the old. He manages to weed out the bad in both traditions, clearing the Old left of Marx, Lenin and Stalin, while at the same time bringing economic awareness and positivism to the increasingly pesimistic, overly theoretical New academic left. The prime focus of Rorty's lectures is the shift from what he terms the participatory Left, which was the reformist left that brought on the Progressive Era and the New Deal, to the Spectatorial left, which is the Current "new" left that bemoans the inequalities of the world but only spends its time theorizing about the problems rather than trying to find a solution. In doing this, he creates a view of a new reformist left that embraces the cultural and racial changes the New Left created. Though I do not agree with everything Rorty says, especially his views regarding the Cold War (he uses the word evil too freely for my tastes), he did manage to reinforce many views I already hold and open my eyes to many new ones.
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Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America
Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America by Richard Rorty (Hardcover - April 15, 1998)
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