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Left Elsewhere

WHEN MY GRANDFATHER was a child, his stepfather would bring him along as he sold moonshine to poor working men in southwestern Virginia coal country. The men adored my grandfather, who was not yet even school age, for his talent mocking Democrats. He told me this story on a few occasions to explain, I think, the inevitability of his later affiliation with the Republican Party. He was a Republican in much the same way that I am a Democrat—voting a ticket with little enthusiasm every few years and sometimes not at all.

When I consider that story now, I find myself thinking less about my grandfather and more about the men who laughed at his jokes. What were their politics? Not all were the predecessors of today’s Republicans, as we might imagine them to be. In Appalachia, so-called “mountain Republicans” comprised an old vanguard of antisecessionists who thought of themselves as particularly enlightened—heirs, they imagined, to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln. My grandfather belonged (or at least aspired to belong) to that tradition. His audience might have consisted of Democrats, who enjoyed hearing their abuses repeated in the mouth of a child. But it is more likely that they would describe themselves as without politics, just laughing at the powerful and self-important. For a long time, it did not occur to me there were other possibilities.

My wider view of politics in Virginia’s coal country changed when I discovered that the publisher of my grandfather’s local community paper, Crawford’s Weekly, was a communist. And not just a communist in print, but a shot-while-inciting-class-war, sabotage-the-New-Deal-from-within, run-for-local-political-office-on-a-platform-of-a-producer’s-republic communist. His name was Bruce Crawford, and when my partner, also from southwestern Virginia, discovered his writings, we read them aloud to each other as though they were letters from an eccentric uncle.

Our favorite piece of his writing comes from the pages of the New Masses, a U.S. Marxist magazine that flourished between the world wars, where he announced in 1935 that he had killed his own paper because it interfered with his politics. “It was too radical for its bourgeois customers,” Crawford wrote from Norton, Virginia, “and not radical enough for me. Like capitalism, it was full of contradictions. Hence it could not go on.” The essay, “Why I Quit Liberalism,” is an exceptional piece of early #quitlit, with the same indulgent qualities. “If I get shot in the leg again, or go to jail, there won’t be that damned feeling of apology to the respectable,” he wrote. “With the more tangible roots to bourgeois life severed, I hope to know a new and meaningful freedom, whatever the hardships.”

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“Rural spaces,” writes Elizabeth Catte, author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, “are often thought of as places absent of things, from people of color to modern amenities to radical politics. The truth, as usual, is more complicated.” With activists, historians, and political scientists as guides, Left Elsewhere explores the radical politics of rural America—its past, its priorities, and its moral commitments—that mainstream progressives overlook. This volume shows how these communities are fighting, and winning, some of the left’s biggest battles. From novel health care initiatives in the face of the opioid crisis to living wages for teachers, these struggles do not fall neatly into the “puny language,” as Rev. William Barber says, of Democrat or Republican. Instead they help us rethink the rural–urban opposition at the heart of U.S. politics. The future of the left, this collection argues, could be found elsewhere. With contributions from William J. Barber II, Lesly-Marie Buer, Elizabeth Catte, Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, Nancy Isenberg, Elaine C. Kamarck, Michael Kazin, Toussaint Losier, Robin McDowell, Bob Moser, Hugh Ryan, Matt Stoller, Ruy Teixeira, Makani Themba, and Jessica Wilkerson.