Exchange: Get Thee to the Barricades!

Exchange: Get Thee to the Barricades!

Response to “Letter to The Nation From a Young Radical”


Fairfield, Vt.

Three ear-splitting cheers from an old radical to Bhaskar Sunkara for “Letter to The Nation From a Young Radical”! [June 10/17] There is no better statement about the futility of liberal moderation in the battle against the oligarchic juggernaut than Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” In defense of radical action in the streets, King wrote: “I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s greatest stumbling block toward freedom is not the White Citizens Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice…who constantly says ‘I agree with the goals you seek but cannot agree with your methods of direct action.’” 


Selinsgrove, Pa.

Nation, I have long loved you, and have longed for your analysis to head further left. Toward more “coherence and punch”: Is there any chance Bhaskar Sunkara could write a regular column?


New York City

When I was growing up, my parents’ subscription to The Nation helped shape my politics, leading me to a life of organizing, and when I left home, I bought a Nation subscription for the active liberal-left dialogue I found there. But about a year ago, I let my subscription lapse.

The Nation’s liberalism seemed increasingly, as Bhaskar Sunkara writes, “well-intentioned but inadequate.” The left is bursting with energy and ideas right now, but that is not reflected in this magazine. The renewed labor movement and struggles around climate justice, police brutality and austerity erupt with voices of every kind—young, working-class, female, queer and people of color, writing on blogs or speaking at teach-ins in our union halls and schools.

These young radicals are asking questions The Nation doesn’t ask. We fight and think so hard because we want a better future and know that it requires transformation. The Nation can be a magazine that young radicals like Bhaskar and I are excited to read. But it has to stop asking how to reform capitalism or save the Democratic Party and ask old, radical questions—and welcome the new answers.


New York City

I am sympathetic to critiques of liberalism and defenses of socialism. But Bhaskar Sunkara neither makes an argument nor takes a political position. His dismissal of Enlightenment debates as “a salon discussion between polite people with competing ideas” may be fashionable, but it is grossly inaccurate. More important, nothing in his essay actually explains how liberalism has failed. If he suggests welfare liberals have failed, he should tell us how. If he argues that radicalism provides an alternative, he should explain what that is. Political positions are meaningful only insofar as they can solve real-world problems.

Sunkara notes that liberalism is a “slippery” term. His use of socialism is just as slippery. Unless he has some non-Marxian variant of socialism in mind, it makes little sense to suggest that socialism provides answers without mentioning that those answers rely on the critique of capitalism developed by Marx. Still, one does not necessarily have to be a socialist to oppose austerity, debt or environmental degradation and support the rights of the working class, women, people of color, members of the LGBT community or immigrants. Many liberals have done all that quite well. So, if that’s what the fight is about, why the polemics about the failure of liberalism? Why bother calling yourself a socialist as opposed to a progressive liberal?

Unfortunately, Sunkara’s essay is a symptom of radical posturing. As desirable as the popularization of radicalism is, leftists should beware of radical rhetoric devoid of political content—even if we find the terms appealing. Sunkara can voice his grievances with Nation columnists, but at least I know what they stand for.

GREGORY ZUCKER, Managing editor,
Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture

Palm Harbor, Fla.

Liberalism, instead of needing “a jolt from its left,” needs a jolt from below. As an ecumenical Christian pastor and social justice activist, I have voiced a parallel lament for the church. Christianity has followed social trends instead of leading them; colluded with the state instead of acting loudly as its conscience; and accompanied, and even facilitated, society’s moral decline. Christianity is in need of radical reformation too!

Like the author, I was an early Occupy activist. For many reasons it failed, but it has left us with an understanding of the way forward: it must be a jolt from below, a grassroots uprising of people broadly angry about the world as it is, and just as broadly hopeful that all is not lost. They will be passionate and committed and, by the way (from a septuagenarian radical), not all will be young!


West Hollywood, Calif.

It was great to see Eugène Delacroix’s painting Liberty Leading the People illustrating the “Letter to The Nation From a Young Radical,” delivered on the very date that the barricades were erected. The painting depicts the July 1830 revolution, which left the 1832 Les Misérables revolutionaries unsatisfied. I’ve read that the boy depicted inspired Hugo to create his youngest radical, Gavroche. It’s easy to imagine that Sunkara’s thoughtful provocation—the call for a coalition— would cause the real flesh-and-blood students and workers who gave their lives on those barricades, “built from two heaps, a heap of ideas and a heap of woes,” to feel heartened and, at the same time (pardon my French) so fucking disappointed.


Sunkara Replies

Brooklyn, N.Y.

Gregory Zucker’s letter is welcome. Certainly one short essay wasn’t enough to convey the complexity of liberalism or its evolution in relationship to socialism. On his other points, I think the piece was pretty clear, and far from posturing. My last paragraph, especially, lays out a vision of socialism that goes beyond the limits of the liberal critique, a vision that would entail the radical extension of democracy from the merely political to the economic and social realms as well. That would end class society, a fixture of human civilization since the Neolithic Revolution or so.

Getting from here to that lofty there is difficult. For now, socialists in America must aspire to rebuild themselves as a small but visible opposition movement and a legitimate intellectual current through engagement in day-to-day struggles with the best of liberals without losing their distinct identity and history. The social forces that can help rebuild the welfare state today are the social forces that can go beyond it tomorrow.

Do I need to mention Karl Marx more to explain these aspirations? I’m not sure I do. As economist Joan Robinson wrote to a more dogmatic friend, “What I mean is that I have Marx in my bones, and you have him in your mouth.”


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