Correspondence: Response to Bob Guldin

Michael Hirsch

[from New Politics, vol. 9, no. 3 (new series),
whole no. 35, Summer 2003]


AFTER WRITING HOW "IT HARDLY NEEDS to be said," Bob Guldin says it anyway: "The only way progressives can gain any influence in the electoral arena is through unified mobilization. If, for example, a left formation commanded the allegiance of, say, one million voters nationwide, that would give the group significant clout."

It also hardly needs saying that if grandma had wheels, she's be the cross-town bus. Incanting truisms is easy, but answering the tough question -- how do you effect that mobilization -- is hard.

"Liberals Amid the Wreckage of the 2002 Elections" (New Politics #34) was a stab, or at least a pinprick, at answering the question. Appearing along with two unambiguously supportive pieces on the Greens -- one of which I solicited and edited -- it looked for common ground among some of the more astute liberals who, while not full-blooded independent socialists and far from ready to bolt Holy Mother Church, share deep criticisms of the Democratic Party, too. It was an effort to establish a frame of reference for identifying joint interests without letting party pedigrees do all the talking.

As much as supporters of independent politics need to collaborate with the Greens -- a party whose candidates most New Politics editors, including myself, have backed -- they need to engage left liberal critics and their supporters, too. Because these make many of the same astute distinctions as do radicals: viz, that the national Democratic Party stands for nothing good; that it is a creature of professional operatives and big corporations; and that class struggles, not electoral contests, are the motor force of history.

But loyalty to the Democratic Party paints these critics into a corner, so that the things they want to accomplish, from national healthcare programs and unions' rights to organize, to rational social planning, social and economic justice, a democratic foreign policy and an end to the American imperium, cannot happen with the Democrats. These desirable ends won't even be facilitated by trying to move the party left, even to where it can meet the current expectations of its core voters. I argued that these liberals were comrades we had to struggle with, but struggle with them on the merits.

What Guldin objects to is a footnote arguing that the day-to-day choices activists make require -- like chewing gum or scratching in public -- some forbearance. I wrote that what needs addressing instead are "the tough questions: what kind of electoral politics, when, how, and if ever, to back Democrats strategically; how to build an alternative, anti-corporate political center, and what role electoral politics plays in building that alternative -- (these are) the real questions of moment."

So what is Guldin's throw-away line? That my alleged agnosticism, "if taken seriously by the U.S. left, would completely demobilize the left as a force in electoral politics." In an otherwise measured communication, that is overreaching. It's also the sort of over-the-top hyperbole that litters the left. Because the idea that opponents are not just wrong or, at worst, obtuse, but endanger the course of history is just loopy. Others of course go much further, accusing critics of systematic bad faith or of being characterologically damaged, which expresses itself in -- what else -- incorrect formulations.

You don't have to treat Dostoyevsky's The Possessed as a blueprint -- and I do not -- to recognize that misplaced rage masquerades as passionate political discourse on all sides of the left. It harms our work, making a movement that deems to speak broadly and for the future seem narcissistic and dead-ended if not clownish. See the venomous response on so many listservs to the Campaign for Peace and Democracy's using a socialist standard to judge Cuban crimes. Its signatories -- including myself -- are not just deemed "wrong," or writing "out of context," some of the milder criticisms; we are denounced as sectarians and blinkered "Stalinophobes" when not agents of U.S. adventurism.

And on the other side of the street, among the self-satisfied "democratic" left, look at Fabian Society pamphleteer Ben Pimlott's unctuous obituary to the late Paul Hirst (Guardian, 6/20/03), the academic Marxologist who went from Althusserian high priest to rigger for what Pimlott calls "the intellectual scaffolding for New Labour." No upper-caste dilettante he, Hirst is said to have "joined battle with the New Left Review, whose leading writers he regarded -- with more than a touch of irritation -- as a clique of Trotskyite schoolboys."

Whatever one thinks of the New Left Review editors or of Hirst, this description is intellectual pornography. The rest of Pimlott's is a puff-piece (it is an obituary after all, and of a close University of London colleague) but also is in the nature of a slam at the radical left. It is all dish and no meat, all intellectual laziness and no rigor. But as Pimlott is ostensibly "democratic," and incrementally "left," there can be no flies on he.

The point is: neither of these schools' criticisms are in any sense political, and that's the context in which I was dealing with our homegrown liberals. Yes, sharp ideological struggle is good. It's the dull kind, the kind done with a hammer and torch in the "heat-it-and-beat-it" millwright style of polemical engagement, that needs to be replaced with something surgical and precise.

Every party and every movement is built on splits and fusions, and while the American left is more familiar with the former, it stands to reason that the movement of the future will be composed of comrades from all sides of today's divide. Those activists trying to build the Kucinich and Dean campaigns are as much a part of a movement for social change as are the Greens. We need to engage those folks now.

We already have a hint of the noise that will crescendo next year, after the Democratic standard bearer is crowned, and the Greens and other independents are smeared as wreckers for not rallying behind the nominee, no matter how loathsome. People who should know better are already likening the current period and the Bush ascendancy to pre-Hitler Germany. They warn that the failure of a united left electoral effort will be on the heads of the abstainers, and not on the fact that the Democrats cannot or will not mobilize and offer real choices

I think it is incumbent not to respond in kind, but to patiently demonstrate that, regardless of which major party wins or which side of the electoral line select militants end up next year, the struggle continues.

IN TRUTH, SOME GREEN SUPPORTERS are going beyond a "four legs good, two legs bad" catechism. Ted Glick, for one, has floated the idea of running Green campaigns in "safe states," i.e., states where a rigorous campaign will not bleed votes from a strong anti-Republican effort. That is not unlike the "tactical voting" strategy tried in the 1980s in Britain, which aimed to take control of parliament away from the Tories by minimalizing Labour and Liberal Democratic competition in select district elections. Other options will likely be advanced, too. They should all be explored, and with brio.



[colored bar]

Contents of No. 35

New Politics home page