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Issue No. 71 (July 1, 2005) -- Mark Satin, Editor
“Take Back America” -- or All Together Now, America?
Lessons from Joshua Muravchik’s Heaven on Earth and James Weinstein’s The Long Detour
As soon as I showed up at the Washington Hilton to attend portions of the mainstream left’s annual Take Back America conference last month, I knew I didn’t want to be there. I felt I’d stumbled into some 21st century version of Dante’s Purgatorio.
Ho! There goes one of the least popular activists in all of Washington DC, a real backroom back-stabber, playing one of the most significant roles at the conference. Ho! There strides someone who obtained her position through a vicious “palace coup” and now writes eloquently about the need to be positive and compassionate.
And MoveOn.org was everywhere. The shrill anti-Bush Democratic attack-machine Website, that makes even Michael Moore’s rhetoric seem cerebral and wimpy, not only had a representative at a featured plenary, but had its own reception in the Map Room -- the only individual organization to have been so honored.
On the bright side, its minions were virtually all young. On the less than bright, many of them reminded me of the sorts of Sixties activists that later ended up in groups like est and Scientology.
The adults’ rhetoric was often indistinguishable from that of the “kids” (if you can call twentysomethings kids). Howard Dean told us that “a lot of [Republicans] have never made an honest living in their lives.” Actually, I’d have loved to know what percentage of people at the conference were receiving annuities or legacies. I suspect a lot higher percentage than the national average.
Arianna Huffington raged that the current Congress is our “most corrupt” and it’s time to “clean the stables.” In real life, as every genuine reporter in this town knows, nearly every member of Congress cares deeply not only about winning the next election but about doing what’s good and what’s right.
The president of NARAL told us we’re confronting an “assault on privacy.” What she meant is that many Americans have been prodded through public debate to reconsider whether a woman should have an unconditional right to do away with a seven-month-old thinking, feeling being in her womb.
Speakers like UC-Berkeley's George Lakoff inspired participants not to begin thinking about fresh alternatives to abortion policy, but to begin thinking about cleverly persuasive words to substitute for unvarnished words like “abortion” and “choice.” “Choice” was considered especially bad because it allegedly positively reinforces the concept of the consumer society, which nobody sitting in the air-conditioned splendor of the Washington Hilton seemed inclined to defend. (Perhaps they felt it had been given enough defending during the Second World War and Cold War.) Another George -- Orwell -- must be spinning in his grave.
Few positive proposals were discussed in any depth. Probably about 80% of the time spent on policy was Anti-this or Anti-that. Wal-Mart was a favorite target. No one seemed to mind that radicals in medium-size cities are now able to amble over to fabulously well-stocked Borders and Barnes & Noble stores. But it gave everyone fits to think that time-stretched working people are increasingly able to drive to fabulously well-stocked Wal-Mart stores and buy plates for a dollar and fulfill all their shopping needs in record time.
Last month I devoted a thorough review to Tom Friedman’s The World Is Flat in part because it can help introduce political activists to such here-to-stay 21st century commercial breakthroughs as “supply-chaining” and “insourcing” -- breakthroughs that make super-stores possible (and potentially quite wonderful). And Friedman himself praises the work of activists who are -- increasingly successfully -- putting pressure on corporations like Wal-Mart to become responsible global citizens.
But “Take Back America” didn’t invite Trillium’s Shelley Alpern or Calvert’s Wayne Silby or any of the other leaders of the Corporate Social Responsibility movement to speak. That might have been perceived as too meliorist, too (ugh) radical middle. It might have implied “All Together Now, America,” with every segment of America doing its part of the pushing and pulling, radicals and Wal-Mart execs alike. Better, far better, to Take America Back from the bad guys.
And the Anti-Wal-Mart stuff was the passionate, supposedly cutting-edge stuff at the conference!
Jim Wallis, touted as the great new left-wing evangelical hope, said exactly the same things he’s been saying for the last 25 years -- e.g., that young people are finally discovering that some religious folks believe in peace, environment, and civil rights. What hooey. Then Jesse Jackson was brought on to give the final stemwinder despite his embroilment in years of sexual and financial scandal. I love Jackson speeches, but this one was almost totally incoherent, as if he’d spent one too many hours standing in the spotlight. (See for yourself by clicking HERE.)
Symbolically, though, it was a perfect way for the gathering to end. A figuratively punch-drunk speaker, preaching to a gray-haired choir that had heard it all a hundred times before, along with smiley young people who’d managed to inject into the gathering zero intellectual curiosity or independent thought (but boy was their MoveOn MILITANT). The truest believers then went off to demonstrate -- not for a new approach to retirement security, but “Against Social Security Privatization.”
A necessary re-membering
Conferences in Washington come and go, and even this one had its moments, particularly in some of the side sessions and in conversations along the corridors.
But I was pretty depressed afterwards. After all, I’d devoted over 30 years of my adult life (1964 - 1995) to working in the left in various guises. Had it all been a mirage, a rebellion against my middle class childhood, a giant waste of time and energy and lifeblood? How could I not have seen -- in my thirties! forties! -- what I saw at the Hilton?
What is compelling about the left, once you strip away the dross? And what do good people need to learn from the left, if they hope to create a holistic new political movement that’s relevant to the 21st century?
Fortunately for me, two recent books by people of integrity address exactly these questions. To say I read them eagerly -- even ravenously -- is putting it mildly.
Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism (Encounter Books, 2002) is by a conservative, but not your usual conservative. Joshua Muravchik may be happily ensconced at the American Enterprise Institute, but for five turbulent years (1966-71) he was Executive Director of the Young People’s Socialist League, the U.S. Socialist Party’s youth branch.
And I’m convinced of his integrity. First, he has Jewish socialist parents -- always a good sign. Second, he’s a scholar as well as an activist, author of several well-received books on American foreign policy. I tend to trust those who think carefully and deeply and put their lives on the line.
Third, and most compelling: when David Horowitz and David Collier staged their “Second Thoughts Conference” at the Grand Hyatt Hotel here in 1987 -- a defining New Right event funded by Olin and Coors and Scaife, an event designed to induce former New Leftists to say “Goodbye!” to the left and “Hello!” to the galaxy of well-funded think tanks and foundations that were awaiting them on the other side -- Muravchik was one of the few people who spoke conspicuously and completely from the heart. I have no doubt he’d have given exactly the same speech to his former YPSL colleagues, or his parents.
The second book, The Long Detour: The History and Future of the American Left (Westview / Perseus, 2003), is by a socialist, James Weinstein. But he’s not your usual socialist. He was originally a Communist, when communism was socialism’s #1 enemy. More recently, he started and edited two key socialist periodicals, Socialist Review (1969-1974) and In These Times (1976- ), still a flourishing biweekly magazine.
I am convinced of Weinstein’s integrity too. Like Muravchik, he’s a scholar as well as an activist -- in fact, his first book, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State (1968), is still regarded as one of the best history books ever written by an American New Leftist. He’s incurred many Greens’ and Socialists’ wrath for advocating that radical activists work within the two-party system. Most persuasive of all, though, he shared the same editor at Westview as I -- the heroic Jill Rothenberg -- so I know how painstakingly he worked getting everything in his book just right.
If this were a normal review, I would tell you how terrific each book is as a brief (approx. 300 page) and eminently readable overview of the socialist project from the utopian socialists to now. I would praise their sophistication, their wry humor, their deep learning, their panache. It’s so much fun reading books when the authors are, “despite everything,” so much in love with their subjects!
I would also tell you that they have to be read in tandem. Muravchik’s focus is more on Europe than the U.S., and it assumes socialism’s fall is complete (thank God we don’t seem to need a political substitute for religion any more, he says in so many words). Weinstein’s focus is more on the U.S. than Europe, is more sympathetic to the long-term socialist project (though not to actually existing socialist theory and practice!), and assumes U.S. socialism’s “long detour” will someday come to an end (but only after U.S. socialists “get serious” and stop trying to create feel-good third parties).
But this is not a normal review. I don’t want to praise or compare or summarize these books. I want to tell you how they reminded me that aspects of the socialist tradition are essential to a brighter future, and that I didn’t waste 30 years of my life.
The things we carried
Holding tightly to Muravchik’s and Weinstein’s helping hands, I will spotlight 10 things I carried with me during my leftist days and that I hope we’ll all choose to carry with us into a radical middle, 21st century future.
1.) A feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood with all humanity. There was a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood in The Movement that was beautiful, and sustaining, and real. And it didn’t necessarily extend only to those of us in The Movement; often it extended to the entire human species. Muravchik quotes the great U.S. literary critic Irving Howe on the “call to brotherhood and sisterhood” many of us felt. How different, how very different that call was from the Take Back America conference’s implicit call for identity politics that helped give the Washington Hilton its constant chill. Only a vague sense of shared victimhood held the people there together.
2.) A conviction that our cause is international in scope. Weinstein reminds us that the first socialist party was known as the International Workingmen’s Party, and Muravchik waxes eloquent on the first years of the Second (or “Socialist”) International, founded in 1889. According to one delegate at the 1893 meeting of the International, “The spiritual unity of socialism shone out bright as day from among the peculiarities of individual nations.” Muravchik also tells how the Second International tried to play a mediating role in many factional disputes, including -- most dicily -- among the various radical factions within pre-revolutionary Russia. By contrast, some speakers at the Take Back America conference flirted with protectionism or broke into a cold sweat over China and India.
3.) A willingness to address not just material needs but psychological needs as well. Both Muravchik and Weinstein devote separate and fascinating chapters to the early utopian socialists, who taught the socialist movement that people don’t live by bread alone. Weinstein laments that modern-day socialists have spent little time articulating socialism’s non-material goals; as if to prove his point, the plenary at the Take Back America conference called “The Vision Thing” (the only one of its kind) consisted of three talks: “Spreading Wealth,” “Building a Democratic Economy,” and “What’s Good for Workers Is Good for America.”
4.) A belief that our movement has to address its members’ own needs and not just those of the most oppressed. According to Muravchik, the genius of early U.S. labor leaders like Sam Gompers and George Meany is that they focused relentlessly on meeting labor’s self-defined needs, rather than needs manufactured for the labor movement by well-meaning scholars and activists. According to Weinstein, the student movement had become so out of touch with its own interests by the late 1960s that maverick activists like Greg Calvert were pleading with it to “stop apologizing for being students” and start recognizing your role as a “key group in the creation of the productive forces.” Flash forward four decades: The people at Take Back America seemed more interested in “doing good” than figuring out how to change their own lives.
5.) A belief in our eventual success within the democratic process. Muravchik tells how Eduard Bernstein struck a blow for socialists everywhere when he convinced a majority of the German Social Democratic Party to support his “evolutionary socialism” rather than Lenin’s and Rosa Luxemburg’s more revolutionary brand. Muravchik also tells how Clement Attlee, Britain’s first socialist prime minister, felt that the difference between socialists and Communists was primarily one of “method.” Weinstein, too, is at pains to portray socialism’s “belief in the possibility of ultimate success within the framework of American democratic institutions.” That’s why Lani Guinier’s critique of the “one person / one vote” legal standard -- a topic of interest to some Take Back America participants -- is so explosive, and dismaying.
6.) A desire to bring about a better future rather than hold onto a remembered past. Weinstein usefully reminds us that U.S. socialism (as opposed to populism) always had an “aura of social progress” about it. Both Muravchik and Weinstein emphasize that Marx saw capitalism as progressive and couldn’t wait for it to proceed to its high-tech stages, when it would be most amenable to conversion into a system that could benefit us all -- in part by giving us more leisure time. Weinstein goes so far as to try to resuscitate Oscar Wilde’s period piece The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1904), which held that after capitalism nobody would have to “waste his life in the accumulation of things.” Weinstein then laments, “The technology and productive capacity [now] exist, but the vision is missing.” He could have been reporting from Take Back America, where Wal-Mart was seen as something to be STOPPED not creatively enhanced.
7.) A willingness to adjust to -- even welcome -- the fact that society is becoming more high-tech and more complex. Muravchik locates this turning point as early as 1869, when young Sam Gompers lost a strike against the introduction of cigar molds and concluded it was self-defeating to resist the advance of technology. Weinstein praises the far-sightedness of some early socialists, but notes with uncharacteristic asperity that “as capitalism moved into its current period as a post-industrial, consumer-driven society, socialists have had little new to say.” Later in the book he’s even more damning, saying that socialists today have “difficulty seeing the need to understand the changes” brought about by modern technology. Everyone who attended Take Back America should be force-fed the magisterial 125-page Chapter Two of Thomas Friedman’s book The World Is Flat (2005), “The Ten [Technological Advances] That Flattened the World.”
8.) A willingness to develop and express a coherent, shared vision of a better future. Muravchik praises the role played by big-think pamphlets like The Communist Manifesto (1848) and Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1878) and by visionary books like Clement Attlee’s The Labor Party in Perspective (1937). Weinstein observes that early U.S. socialists often promoted visions of what a “humane, egalitarian, post-capitalist” America might be like. By the late 1960s, though, he argues, our movement had begun to break up into militant single-issue groups -- anti-war, anti-death penalty, pro-environment, pro-busing, pro-abortion, etc. -- and by now that balkanization is complete. The Take Back America conference could be seen as Exhibit A. (If you want coherent political vision today, look at the five radical middle books I’ve reviewed HERE.)
9.) An insistence on expressing the shared vision in the form of a few clearly stated policy goals. All serious-minded socialists have done this (until the present period). Muravchik gives inspiring examples from the Second International’s various “Programs” and Attlee’s Labor Party in Perspective. Weinstein gives equally inspiring examples from early U.S. Socialist Party documents: “compulsory health, life, and unemployment insurance; . . . legal protection of labor’s right to organize . . . ; nationalization of industries organized on a national scale. . . .” The reason you rarely see this today is that the far left’s goals tend to read like laundry-lists -- desultory and autistic -- there’s no overriding vision (case in point: the cacophony of “demands” made by the speakers at Take Back America). For a contemporary version of the real thing, see the the policy goals rooted in vision in Halstead and Lind’s The Radical Center (2001) and in my own Radical Middle (2004).
10.) A desire for some competent organization to play a unifying and galvanizing role. Muravchik stresses the creative role played by the Second International in welding the early socialist movement together. Weinstein stresses the unifying role of the early U.S. Socialist Party, and says we need a “loose organization” (not a party) that can help us bring our efforts together again -- from traditional electoral activities in both major parties to outreach efforts we haven’t dreamed of yet. There is no chance that such an organization could come out of the Take Back America conferences; the vision-and-values “glue” just isn’t there. But there’s a good chance such an organization could come out of the radical middle organizing being done by young people like John Avlon (author of Independent Nation) and the authors of The Yellow Line blog. It is ironic that the far left, which disdains “excessive” individualism, is basically unorganizable, but the radical middle, which celebrates Enlightenment-inspired individualism (as well as the common good), is getting its collective act together.
Which is, in the end, what gives me hope. And convinces me I made a positive contribution to our evolutionary future, after all.
Conclusion: “All Together Now, America”
We don’t need to “Take Back America.” We need to find honorable roles for everyone here, and then ask or encourage or induce them to play their separate parts. Even Wal-Mart executives. Even far-left activists.
Anyone up for an “All Together Now, America” conference?
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