For some, the word “Leftist” might conjure up images of students in disarray, clutching back issues of “Jacobin” and volumes by Trotsky as they hurry between critical theory class, revolution planning, and meetings with shadowy unknowns.
Kevin English ’20 is a Leftist, but he’s a bit more low-key. He’s sitting pensively on an old grey chair in the Kirkland House courtyard, wearing a nondescript t-shirt and athletic shorts. He looks solemn. He wouldn’t strike you as the type of person who would start a Leftist Club.
English’s Leftist Club is a bi-monthly discussion group that will be an official club as soon as English collects the requisite 10 signatures. The club, open to anyone, will teach members about modern Leftism, hold conversations about forms of government, and serve as a general forum for all things politically and socially Left. Besides conversation, English plans to use the club as a platform for activism, outreach, and guest speakers.
English says the idea came to him and a friend when they took a deeper look into Harvard’s political clubs.
“The Dems weren’t left enough, and they have a group. Then there’s the Harvard Republicans, and they have a group. And there was no group for Leftists,” English says.
Harvard has had Leftist student clubs in the past, including American Youth for Democracy, the John Reed Club, and Students for a Democratic Society. Now adays, he says, neither the College Democrats nor the Student Labor Action Movement are explicitly Leftist in the way English wants his club to be.
English’s view is that America’s agitated relationship with Leftist politics has saddled them with a stigma that has not yet washed away. He thinks it explains why groups have been hesitant to align themselves with that label.
“It’s because of the stigma of viewing the Left as radicals who aren’t willing to work with anybody. And also the stigma of being labelled as a Leftist, potentially. If you want to pursue a career in politics, and you get labelled as a Leftist, that can ruin your career because people are like, ‘Oh, that’s not an American thing!’” English says.
At least on the campus level, English himself is pursuing a career in politics, too. He’s a newly elected Undergraduate Council representative for Kirkland House, though he says his campaign wasn’t based on a Leftist platform and is unrelated to his club initiative. He admits, however, that his campaign was “all about fighting for the people,” so maybe there is a common theme.
Through the Leftist Club, English hopes to alleviate the stigma around the concept of Leftism. Part of that is inviting Leftist “economists or political theorists or people who are actually in the government” in order to show students that Leftism is thriving.
“A lot of the Leftist stuff that’s out there is older political theory, like Marx and Lenin. That’s what most people read,” he says. “I think it’d be interesting to get more of a modern perspective on a lot of the stuff.”
The more he talks about Leftism, the more English’s voice adopts a spontaneous, improvisatory quality. He’s full of ideas for the future of the Leftist Club, and confident that he can eventually pull them all off.
English still doesn’t seem like the type of person who would start a Leftist Club. But maybe that’s the point.