What Does the US Left Need? A Review of Left Turn

In the minds of some, the name of Stanley Aronowitz — and Social Text and Situations, the two journals he is associated with — may immediately conjure up the specter of postmodernism.  But in Left Turn: Forging a New Political Future, he champions a number of ideas that go against the grain of all that school stands for.  Aronowitz devotes a chapter to arguing that the postmodernist emphasis on local action and disdain for “totality” has disarmed theorists confronted with the major political challenges of our time.  Rather like Slavoj Zizek (who is coming from a very different political space), Aronowitz also criticizes those who only highlight “resistance” and avoid developing a comprehensive alternative to present-day power arrangements.  Above all, Aronowitz makes a case that the US Left needs to have some sort of centralized organization if it is to pose a major challenge eventually.  Although he makes it clear that he does NOT mean a Leninist party, but rather an organization whose local chapters have considerable autonomy, even as resources are pooled and occasionally unleashed nationally, Aronowitz has clearly violated a taboo here.  It is, I think, a taboo past due to be violated.

For too long, the provenance of the claim that the US Left needs an organization has been only puny sects, while prominent intellectuals have contented themselves with denunciations of injustices, avoiding any effort to discuss how to build effective opposition (Noam Chomsky, who typically ends fierce denunciations of US foreign policy with vague calls to citizen action, is the best known example).  Given the experience of the last thirty years, there is little reason to believe that powerful moral stances, combined with single-issue activism, will have a sustained, large-scale impact on structures of power in the US.

Considerable portions of what Aronowitz has to say are not new to any leftist.  He lists many of the problems besetting the US, from ecologically destructive suburban development to the lack of stable and secure good jobs.  Nor are his laments about the centrist-dominated Democratic party especially fresh.  And even his call for an anti-capitalist politics, focused on the creation of horizontally linked communities in which workers control production, may sound familiar to some readers (his strong emphasis on workplace democracy when describing his utopian vision, however, gives it a distinct character and is to his credit).

The most original contributions of Left Turn focus directly on the American Left — what it is, and in what ways it must transform itself if it is to play a more effective role.  This is a topic practically never discussed by those who pray the Democrats will suddenly adhere to a radical platform or believe that “speaking truth to power” should suffice to change the world.  In passages that definitely could be expanded, Aronowitz offers a balance sheet of the Left over the last thirty years: bohemian movements whose charm is appropriated by gentrifying realtors, “civil society” movements like community gardens that can claim some modest successes, campus-based activism that leads to no particular sustained path of political engagement in adulthood beyond grumbling around the kitchen table, or signing up for emails from MoveOn.org.  The Left has tiny parties, celebrities like Amy Goodman and Jim Hightower, and sympathetic professors, yet it is the Right that has seized the terrain of strategic political interventions, even on university campuses.  Symptomatically, the New University Conference, intended to bring together radicals across disciplines, “has disappeared into the once criticized mainstream.”  National anti-war organizations pitch their message at a lowest common denominator of simple slogans, seemingly fearful of what would happen if they energetically delivered a more sustained critique of the US.  Aronowitz has some kind words for the ambitions of anarchist youth, but is also frustrated by their anti-intellectualism and overemphasis on resistance and protest.

What is the alternative to dragging on in this half-hearted manner, while watching various authoritarian elements of the US state become stronger?  For Aronowitz, the alternative is a “new party.”  The party’s activities would include education, coordinating support for struggle, producing policy proposals (including developing serious alternatives to capitalism), and producing daily, weekly, monthly websites and journals with left analysis.  Above all, it would fight the fragmentation inherent in the single-issue approach, developing a holistic analysis that would show the parallel roots of diverse problems.  Aronowitz also mentions that the party might become an electoral vehicle, although he offers no analysis of why the results would be any different from the Green Party experience of the last ten years, which foundered on the dilemma of trying to sustain a third party in an unreformed two party system: i.e. if the response is strong, it is likely to act as a spoiler for the Democrats, ushering in right-wing Republican rule; if it is weak, why bother? 

He does offer a vivid example of how such a party could intervene in a struggle, describing the difficulties faced by New York City transit workers, who, after a successful strike action, rejected a contract that gave back much of what they hoped to win: “Imagine if, on the day after the vote to approve the contract was announced, there appeared at subway stations and bus stops a four-page bulletin discussing the reasons for the rank and file’s rejection of the deal.  Tens of thousands of MTA riders would have gotten a viewpoint different from that of the MTA, the union leadership, and the commercial media.”  Of course, many of these activities are already being conducted, by institutions like the Brecht Forum, websites like CounterPunch and MRZine, single-issue advocacy groups, left think tanks like the Institute for Policy Studies.  Aronowitz believes, and I think he is entirely correct, that these activities would be much more potent if linked together as part of a national project.  Furthermore, a national party would create a space for ongoing engagement, both social and intellectual, for those on the Left, rather than the periodic bursts of activity, followed by retreats into private life, that we now see in the US.  However, it should also be said that all existing groups would likely be very uneasy about sacrificing any autonomy to a national party, and building up a new parallel group of institutions would be extremely difficult.  Another problem, which he doesn’t really address, is how to ensure that this latest effort to launch a new Left does not sink into one more sectarian grouplet.  For this reason, I wish Aronowitz had been more specific about how to launch such a project (I have offered a few ideas on this elsewhere).

There are other challenges to getting an effective third party off the ground, which I wish Aronowitz had spent more time addressing.  One is the soft apartheid of race/class segregation in the US.  A college-educated, predominantly white middle class is largely isolated from the working class.  Right-wing populists have scored many points deflating the liberal pretensions of the former, given their isolation from the latter.  But this problem is even more profound for middle-class radicals hoping to participate in a mass movement that includes the working class, rather than liberals who simply hope the working class will vote Democratic.  The working class is itself divided, particularly along racial lines.  This is not only because of overt racial animus (which has been declining for forty years) but because of the different relations that Blacks, Latinos, and whites have to the US state and labor markets.  Consider questions like who gets what jobs, who is considered a citizen, who winds up in prison. . . .  Concrete efforts to overcome such divisions are required if we are to construct a genuinely unified movement.

Aronowitz also downplays the sources of consent to the current US state.  He often lapses into a rhetoric in which practically everyone is besieged by US capital.  Yet much of the US upper middle class (perhaps 20% of the US population, and a much larger portion of the electorate) see their interests aligned with Wall Street and real estate markets, in large part because this strategy has paid off well in the last twenty years (whether it will continue to do so over the next twenty is another question).  Similarly, a very large part of the US public gets something from the psychology of contemporary US nationalism — the belief that the US has a unique role to play in the world spreading freedom — and this produces a substantial barrier to a deeper discussion.  Another challenge involves the relationship of existing working-class and single-issue groups to the Democratic Party.  Given the relevance of Democratic Party (and Democrat-dominated foundations) to virtually all major unions and single-issue campaigns, it is not an exaggeration to say that the situation (for the Left) is practically like that under a one party state, such as the Mexican PRI about twenty-five years ago.  Perhaps the most daunting challenge facing a revitalized left politics in the US is how to navigate between the Scylla of demanding autonomous, pure movements (and thus placing oneself on a terrain that is isolated from working-class institutions and engaged citizens) and the Charybdis of simply capitulating to the status quo of compromises with reality as defined by the Democrats.

Steven Sherman maintains the website <Lefteyeonbooks.org>.

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