Unfulfilled Promise | The Nation


Unfulfilled Promise

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Jim Weinstein has spent most of his adult life writing about the failures and possibilities of the American left. He has done so in many books--among others, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, The Decline of Socialism in America and Ambiguous Legacy: The Left in American Politics--and countless articles and editorials, most appearing in publications he helped found, fund and edit: Studies on the Left, Socialist Review and In These Times. His questions have always been these: How should we understand the past century of the American left, particularly the fate of its more explicitly socialist elements? And how can we now advance a distinctively American democratic socialism?

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Weinstein's answers to these questions, over nearly half a century of writing, have demonstrated an amazing, not to say worrisome, consistency. Sometimes expressed in elegiac tones, sometimes with near belligerence, his answer to the first question is that the American left actually had substantial public influence and stature in the first quarter of the twentieth century, but then squandered it through a series of bad strategic choices. On the second question, the answer is to develop a practical electoral strategy that will allow the left to connect to the mass public and get some power in the state.

How the left blew its early-twentieth-century prominence, and kept blowing it, comprises much of The Long Detour, and most of it reprises arguments Weinstein has made elsewhere. To telegraph this sorry story, as Weinstein tells it: First the left came under the influence of Communists enamored of a Russian Revolution already turned worse than rotten. Their error was not merely in identifying socialism with Stalinist terror, but in ever hoping that a country as economically backward as the Soviet Union would, even under more democratic conditions, ever hold much instruction for socialist practice in rich countries like the United States.

Then, under the influence of many of the same characters, the left blurred its voice to the point of unintelligibility in the "popular front" politics leading up to and through World War II. Afterward, with the commencement of the cold war and more or less complete discrediting of Soviet Communism, the left was numbly defensive, and barely tried to offer a homespun alternative. The New Left of the early 1960s actually began this project, but never matured as an organization, and soon began tearing itself apart in sectarian disputes and "can you top this" acts of radicalism. In its worst and bleakest moments, like the Weathermen, it even succumbed to the fatal appeal of violent anarchism.

After Vietnam, the left spent most of the 1970s and early 1980s pursuing identity politics. This made inclusive organization more difficult, and its worst excesses offended the mass public. Then we had the Clinton years, when the left (outside trade disputes) largely faded out again, at least until Clinton's scandalous near end. The 2000 election brought some resurgence, but in the wrong direction: Prominent parts of the left identified themselves with the Pied Piper candidacy of Ralph Nader, whom Weinstein squarely blames for having thrown the election to Bush, and the shameful disaster that is our present national government.

But now, Weinstein argues in Detour, we can put these failures behind us. Lessons have been learned. The key historic forces preventing the emergence of a vital American socialism--the pull of Soviet Communism and the push of the cold war struggle against it--are no longer present. The productive forces have continued their steady advance, relieving material constraints on our happiness and pressing political ones into sharper relief. America has also become a far more tolerant place on race and sex and sexual orientation. So the possibilities of articulating a new popular politics, and new social relations and solidarities to harness those more advanced productive forces, are in fact greater than ever. Like a radical Rip van Winkle, American socialism could finally wake up from its long sleep, revived and potentially stronger than ever.

To realize this hope, however, Weinstein argues once more that the left needs an electoral strategy, which it does not have at present. With American politics hardwired against third-party efforts, that will require building an election-minded organization that is not a formal party. Such an organization could enter the primaries of the major parties with identified candidates of its own, but without the baggage of maintaining and defending its own party line. On the right the Christian Coalition is a recent example of such a non-party party. Nebraska's Nonpartisan League, which successfully dominated that state's politics for half a century, provided an earlier and very important, if understudied, example on the left. Weinstein thinks we should build a modern equivalent.

This bare-bones summary of its core argument does not do justice to The Long Detour, which is chock-full of colorful profiles of different personalities on the left, and instructive extensions and asides to the core argument on matters as diverse as Marx's theory of history, early American utopian experiments, the path of corruption in the Soviet Union and the peculiar culture and romance of American Communism.

But this is the core: The long detour of left engagement with the essentially irrelevant case of the Soviet Union is over. This wicked old witch is dead, and the munchkins can reclaim Oz--but only if they reinvent the Nonpartisan League in new millennium garb.

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