Left Turn: Forging a New Political Future

Stanley Aronowitz, Left Turn: Forging a New Political Future (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2006)

Stanley Aronowitz is distinguished, among other things, as an intellectual link between the many historical, political and ideological incarnations of the U.S. left. In Left Turn, he confronts the critical condition of left politics in the post-Soviet, post-welfare-state era. He describes the exhaustion of 20th-century Communism and Social Democracy, offers explanations for their collapse, and confronts the abyss where once stood dynamic parties setting direction for mass movements affecting and moving millions.

Aronowitz has taken on some of the left’s deepest and most delicate problems. What he condemns as “the retreat to postmodern politics” might be better described as a retreat from politics altogether. While internationally the left lost political credibility after 1989, in the U.S. it could find no organized vehicle at all. Worse, many activists embraced this development as a relief from the clumsy, failed attempts of “Leninist vanguardism” (Maoist and Trotskyist cadres) to impose political direction on still-maturing social movements from the mid-60s through the 80s. In the 1988 Jesse Jackson campaign, their last attempt to intervene in a presidential contest where winning was even a possibility, left forces could bring nothing to the table but sweat equity and the goals of stymied movements.

Totalities such as ‘the movement,’ the working class as the primary agent of change, and social transformation were quietly abandoned by activists. Aronowitz finds an intellectual exemplar of this paralysis in Sheldon Wolin, “arguably the leading left-liberal political philosopher in the United States.” After groundbreaking work introducing social theory into the study of politics, Wolin’s liberalism, “his misreading of Marx and contemporary marxism [sic] prevents Wolin from taking the point of view of the totality and produces only a fragmented vision,” Aronowitz argues. Whether Wolin’s thinking influenced social movement activists or simply mirrored their emerging rhetoric and practice, the result is the same: an inability to formulate an opposition politics that can give content to the “new grassroots radicalism” that Aronowitz sharply observes as the contemporary embodiment of a left effectively devoid of parties.

From 1989 to 2006, social movements’ aversion to political organizing and strategic thinking exacerbated left fragmentation and powerlessness, in the face of resurgent conservatism and unprecedented freedom of motion for capital. Meanwhile, promoters of rightist campaigns — like tax-cutting, opposition to abortion rights and affirmative action, and church control of public education — have become major power brokers. In turn, activists have practically embraced marginalization and segregation by issue and constituency, often accompanied by dearly guarded insular subcultures. The rejection of the Marxist concept of class from social movement thinking (replaced, if at all, with the superficial concept of ‘classism,’ i.e., snobbery) results in activists’ mistrust of the feasibility or even desirability of government by working people.

Left Turn also targets the strand of populism based on economic demands promoted by Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, and by even the most left-leaning Democrats. This approach focuses on ‘middle-class’ economic concerns in hopes of retrieving the votes of ‘Reagan Democrats.’ The appeal to populism is presented as an alternative to the supposedly divisive demands of social movements, such as affirmative action and aid to dependent children. Aronowitz takes on this approach for effectively ditching social movements, whose radical content inherently threatens liberal bureaucratic strongholds at the heart of the Democratic Party project.

Aronowitz’s biggest political concern is the ever-recurring question of whether to build the left within America’s two-party electoral system, or outside and against it. For some this question is settled every time the Democrats betray their fear of association with social movements and their constituencies (coded as ‘special interests’). Yet even anarchists find it hard to resist pushing for the Democrats when faced with the stark horrors of the 1980s and the present decade. In the last century, the Socialists and the Communists played an in-and-out game with the Democrats. The principle of independent action was weighed against buttressing the power of the labor movement (and the SP’s and CP’s’ own influence in unions). As well, repeated threats to the left’s existence, in periods when the far right held sway over centrists and liberals, made electing Democrats seem the only available option. The third party vs. boring-from-within debate continued in the New Left, but numerous attempts to form third parties were never able to galvanize support among social movement activists and supporters.

Aronowitz argues the need to break with the Democrats as do-or-die for the left. In this he lines up with the unwavering stance of Trotskyists, some Maoists, and anarchists and other antiauthoritarian tendencies, who have consistently opposed the Democrats as irredeemable agents of corporate capital. Aronowitz’s proposal differs from the Greens, as well as various Bolshevik-inspired strategies, in his rejection of the state as an arena for emancipatory projects, either under or after capitalism. The capitalist state, he argues, “has been transformed so that its coercive, police functions overwhelm the ‘legitimating’ functions such as social welfare.” He poses as “the main question”:

How can a new series of social arrangements transform the state from an institution of hierarchical repression and control into a series of agencies of coordination of a series of self-managed cooperative enterprises that organize the production and distribution of material goods and the dissemination of knowledge and information -– in which case the state is no longer the state but something else?

Aronowitz poses such a ‘high concept’ goal with no apparent illusions that it might be achieved in short order, or even that it would hold together as a programmatic vision were it to be embraced by the left. His purpose is not to carve a new tablet for the left, but to encourage broad thinking and discussion that could lead to the formation of a radical party.

This party would seek no strategic alliances with liberal leadership figures or groups, less because of their class position than because of the liberals’ programmatic commitment to bureaucratic state solutions. But Aronowitz seeks to bring together the traditionally alienated sectors tagged ‘working poor’ and ‘middle class’ –- an insight that should seem obvious but which rarely occurs to activists, probably because in day-to-day practice, such solidarity seems less likely than, say, the end of the world.

Another crucial insight is introduced regarding the organization question. Distinct types of left formations serve particular functions, none of which engage politics strategically. Outside the vanguard party model, there are diffuse, multi-tendency umbrella groups -– coalitions that mobilize far-flung local groups and individuals at critical moments -– and small groups focused on producing and disseminating propaganda. Left Turn proposes an alternative model. The radical party’s practice would include ongoing linkage of the fragmented left in its varied forms, and horizontal coordination of efforts nationally, in order to deepen political consciousness and enhance political strength. Aronowitz calls for centralization -– a dreaded term in the contemporary anti-hierarchical mood -– as “the accumulation of human, financial, and physical resources of organization without which, in complex societies, effective interventions are next to impossible to implement.” The process would require “organs of discussion and analysis,” including independent media, schools, and think tanks.

The contributions of Left Turn stand out, but its flaws are real. Aronowitz’s mind races, and in trying to juggle political theory, philosophy, sociology, recent events and scarcely recorded history of the left, some fumbles can be embarrassing. He gives short shrift to the experience of the post-SDS ‘party building’ movement, whose participants numbered in the thousands, and who broke socialized racial segregation patterns that still plague the left. He declares that “only the Weather Underground made an effort to rethink the traditional party form” -– and goes on to disparage the entire New Left for failing to “address the specificity of the United States.” On both counts, anyone familiar with the journal Radical America –- which would undoubtedly include Aronowitz -– knows these assertions are wildly off the wall.

Precious little attention is given to the threat of fascism as a distinct, autonomous phenomenon in society. This is, in fact, a driving force behind the perpetual rallying to the Democrats, and for good reason. Under Republicans, religious fundamentalists (including dominionists and violent anti-abortion rights groups) and white supremacists in various guises (including the nativist Minutemen and Confederate nationalists) enjoy greater leeway and access to power. Most leftists and liberals would prefer the short-run safety of Democrats in office –- for all the broken promises -– to confronting violent haters on their own turf. What would a new radical party be prepared to do?

Another area that needs more attention is the role of militarism in social control. This has proven to be a major weak spot in the matrix of bourgeois hegemony, yet with or without a draft, young people will be forced into the service by the lack of jobs. Furthermore, the unprecedented concentration of military power will move domestically if it finds itself threatened by hostile mass sentiment. Again, here is a problem where constituencies are in jeopardy and their representatives must be prepared to defend them.

The biggest problem that Left Turn bypasses is the historic role of race in defining class politics in the U.S. Aronowitz tends to view black movements as one more sector that needs to be addressed and included, but this is disingenuous: the black community’s awareness of the consequences of capitalism is far ahead of other sectors’. Yet society’s implacable racial separation has infected and hobbled every social movement and independent political effort. Lacking allies, the black community has sought influence in any institution that would allow them to exercise it, i.e., the Democratic Party. Aronowitz outlines “the three core domains of struggle and alternative”: the deteriorating economy, the ecological crisis, and the breakdown of democracy. How will this framework address the reality of a working class stratified economically, politically, and socially by a seemingly permanent color line? Any approach that pleads color blindness would end up falling in neatly with the populism Aronowitz sets out to challenge.

It is to Aronowitz’s credit that he has produced a platform for discussion broad enough to evoke these questions. Left Turn is serious enough to win attention from activists, and visionary enough to stimulate the left’s imagination.

Reviewed by Ethan Young
Brooklyn, NY
ethanyoung@earthlink.net

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