Classic Democratic/Liberal literature?
August 11, 2015 6:10 PM   Subscribe

I've read some classic literature explaining the libertarian/right side of our US political divide, but I'd like to read the 'Atlas Shrugged' for the left. What classic thinkers/authors come to mind?
posted by toastchee to Law & Government (24 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
My high school teacher recommended two books by Howard Zinn that set me on the right path...

A People's History of the United States - this in particular is a classic left text.
The Zinn Reader - some great, wide-ranging, readable essays.
posted by naju at 6:16 PM on August 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

For what is REALLY the Atlas Shrugged for the left, I'd suggest, of all things, Jack London's The Iron Heel, but I say that meaning it has a lot of faults, too.

Seriously, though, maybe Rawls' A Theory of Justice.
posted by synecdoche at 6:52 PM on August 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

The Jungle or Call It Sleep might work too.
posted by rikschell at 6:54 PM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Grapes of Wrath?
posted by No-sword at 7:01 PM on August 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

Herbert Marcuse.

I'll quote from A Critique of Pure Tolerance, for when your goony "But liberals are supposed to be tolerant! How can you hate anything if you're so tolerant?"
Tolerance is an end in itself. The elimination of violence, and the reduction of suppression to the extent required for protecting man and animals from cruelty and aggression are preconditions for the creation of a humane society. Such a society does not yet exist; progress toward it is perhaps more than before arrested by violence and suppression on a global scale. As deterrents against nuclear war, as police action against subversion, as technical aid in the fight against imperialism and communism, as methods of pacification in neo-colonial massacres, violence and suppression are promulgated, practiced, and defended by democratic and authoritarian governments alike, and the people subjected to these governments are educated to sustain such practices as necessary for the preservation of the status quo. Tolerance is extended to policies, conditions, and modes of behavior which should not be tolerated because they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery.

This sort of tolerance strengthens the tyranny of the majority against which authentic liberals protested. The political locus of tolerance has changed: while it is more or less quietly and constitutionally withdrawn from the opposition, it is made compulsory behavior with respect to established policies. Tolerance is turned from an active into a passive state, from practice to non-practice: laissez-faire the constituted authorities. It is the people who tolerate the government, which in turn tolerates opposition within the framework determined by the constituted authorities.
You could also dive into The One-Dimensional Man, which is about a "Democratic rejection of democracy and modern tools of intellectual and political suppression.

See also, for much more.
posted by boo_radley at 7:02 PM on August 11, 2015

Robert Anton Wilson's The Illuminatus Trilogy.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:03 PM on August 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

Science & Western Civ 101 Textbooks
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:07 PM on August 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Gideon's Trumpet.

To Kill a Mockingbird.

The Constitution of the United States (Schoolhouse Rock edition).
posted by alms at 7:12 PM on August 11, 2015

Looking Backward is an 1888 science fiction novel about a socialist utopia in 2000 that was widely read and influential in its time.

Seconding Rawls for an overview of liberal principles.
posted by earth by april at 7:43 PM on August 11, 2015

The Milagro Beanfield War does it for me.
posted by rw at 8:25 PM on August 11, 2015

Silent Spring helped popularize environmentalism and paved the way for the EPA.
posted by Rhaomi at 8:35 PM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Oh boy am I loath to equate the authors I love with Ayn Rand, but... Kurt Vonnegut has certainly helped articulate lefty ideas to generations of young folks who are just starting to develop a political consciousness, which is what I think of Ayn Rand as having done for the right.

Studs Terkel's oral histories are classics.
posted by aws17576 at 10:06 PM on August 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

More fiction options: Ragtime by Doctorow. Anything by Brecht (Good Man of Szechuan for example). Most anything by Dickens.

Although while trying to think of fiction I have concluded that everyone here who suggests non-fiction has a more compelling case.
posted by mark k at 10:23 PM on August 11, 2015

John Berger "Ways of Seeing"
E F Schumacher "Small Is Beautiful"
Howard Zinn "A People's History of the United States"
James Baldwin "Notes of a Native Son"
Alexis de Tocqueville "Democracy in America"
Voltaire "Candide"
Maya Angelou "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings"
Mary Wollstonecraft "A Vindication of the Rights of Woman"

Animal Farm!
The Grapes of Wrath.
Noam Chomsky
Antonio Gramsci
Francis Bacon
John Locke
David Hume
Bell Hooks
John Stuart Mill
John Maynard Keynes
posted by Conrad-Casserole at 11:55 PM on August 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Philosophy professor here. The classic liberal rebuttal to libertarianism is John Rawls. And the better, famous, statement of libertarianism is Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia. The classic Rawls work, at which ASU is directed is his A Theory of Justice.

Start at and look up libertarianism and Rawls. That'll give you a lay of the land.
posted by persona au gratin at 2:36 AM on August 12, 2015 [7 favorites]

George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London has observations about poverty and the working poor that hold true to this day.

Also by Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier and, essentially, Politics and the English Language.

Seconding (thirding?) The Grapes of Wrath. Also, and again, Letter from a Birmingham Jail isn't nearly as old as D&OiPaL but has the same "things really haven't change" flavor, in that King specifically addresses the "go slow" moderates who are made uncomfortable by African-Americans protesting for their rights.

And while it isn't a leftish text at all, along with Locke and Rousseau I'd recommend Hobbes' Leviathan, as it, too is a rebuttal to many libertarian notions, specifically in its pointing out that life in the state of nature (without a state, in other words) is "nasty, brutish and short," and that a legitimate government must be able to enforce its laws (and collection of taxes) thru physical force if necessary. It's also the seed of the concept of the social contract, although Hobbes held that the consent of the governed was irrevocable, an idea that obviously changed since the English Revolution.
posted by Gelatin at 8:04 AM on August 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Hrm. I think I know what you're getting at, but you'd probably be better looking for "progressive" texts. "Classic liberal" is what libertarianism sprang from as a sort of fundamentalist self-serving wank.

For a good bit of background:

John Locke: Second Treatise on Government; Letter Concerning Toleration. First is the root of a lot of libertarian thinking; the second is about social liberalism, essentially.
Rousseau: The Origins of Inequality; The Social Contract. Both respond/rebut some Lockean assumptions about how society functions while making some socialist/totalitarian proposals.
Hobbes: Leviathan. You only have to read the first half or so, and take notes because Hobbes is really methodical so it's usually faster to just refer back to your summaries than it is to slog back and try to work out what you missed. Hobbes is a weird, idiosyncratic monarchist — basically, an anti-libertarian because (in large part) he agrees with a lot of the premises about individuality, but doesn't think rights justify the chaos of Cromwell. The second half is fun, crazy Christian theology that I think is totally worth reading, but isn't included in most courses that feature Hobbes.
JS Mill: On Liberty. Another expression of classical liberalism; one of the best popularizers of the idea that my right to swing my arms ends at your nose. Still, worth paying attention to the parts on temperance to see how he resolves individual versus social conflict.

Grapes of Wrath is worth picking up, though books like Cannery Row and Tortilla Flats are more fun. The Jungle is a total fucking slog, but a classic because of the effects it had in social reform. While Das Kapital is the marquee Marx, The German Ideology is much more pithy and funny. Marx was wrong about a lot of stuff, but his framework for viewing history as materialist conflicts between social/economic forces is something that's underrated.

I'll go back through some of my bookshelf later and see if there are others.
posted by klangklangston at 10:39 AM on August 12, 2015

All the historical stuff that klang mentions informs Rawls. Add Kant to it. So when you look at that Stanford EP article, you'll see references to Hobbes and Locke and Mill etc.

I have to mention MLK's Letter, referenced above. It's one of the most powerful things I've ever read. Rhetorically he is the heir to Lincoln.
posted by persona au gratin at 4:00 AM on August 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

British, not American, but The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.

Tressell's cast of hypocritical Christians, exploitative capitalists and corrupt councillors provide a backdrop for his main target — the workers who think that a better life is "not for the likes of them". Hence the title of the book; Tressell paints the workers as "philanthropists" who throw themselves into back-breaking work for poverty wages in order to generate profit for their masters.
posted by glasseyes at 8:52 AM on August 13, 2015

Dorothy Day, maybe, and the idea of social justice?
posted by wenestvedt at 8:49 AM on August 14, 2015

Richard Wright's "Native Son" may be an accurate lefty equivalent here--60-page courtroom monologue and all!
posted by duffell at 6:03 AM on September 30, 2015

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