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A Tough-Love Letter to the Left

A new book urges activists to avoid insularity and purism—and to focus on winning.

Mandel Ngan / Getty Images

In its final months, Hillary Clinton’s campaign depicted the election in Manichaean terms: the forces of light against darkness, love against hate, the guardians of a virtuous public against a world-historical bully. In this story, we lost the election not because we did something wrong, but because we did something right in a world that’s wrong. We fought the forces of misogyny, xenophobia, and white supremacy, but they were too strong; they overwhelmed us. And how could they not? This is America after all.

AK Press, 290 pp., $16.95

The left—especially the activist left—makes this mistake all the time: imagining there is some meaningful consolation in losing righteously. In 1934, Bertolt Brecht wrote, “It takes courage to say that the good were defeated not because they were good, but because they were weak.” A lifelong organizer and educator, Jonathan Matthew Smucker has been hearing versions of this story his entire adult life. In his new book, Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals, he writes “I take no solace in the prospect of history listing me among the righteous few who denounced the captain of a ship that sank.” Being right about what is wrong in the world is no excuse for allowing wrong to proliferate. Those of us who aspire to a socially just world, says Smucker, must conspire to take the helm.  

Smucker’s is one among a batch of new books that offer practical advice to aspiring change-makers. There is Becky Bond and Zack Exley’s Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything and there is Mark and Paul Engler’s This is An Uprising, both of which came out in 2016. A Google doc titled “Indivisible: A Practical Guide for Resisting the Trump Agenda” went viral this past December; composed by former Democratic Capitol Hill staffers, it helpfully translates the practical lessons of the Tea Party for the anti-Trump left. All of them have Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals in their DNA, the “Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals” he published in 1971. Together with Smucker’s work, these new writings constitute a revitalized genre of “what works” journalism for movement building.

Since the election, the demand for such analyses has spiked. Every left-of-center magazine has issued a “guide to the resistance,” and every day, a new take on the appropriateness of this or that strategy circulates on social media. There’s a hunger among self-understood leftists and people new to movement politics alike for a roadmap, a blueprint for how we keep the worst from happening and start building something better. Smucker’s book is one of these, a roadmap, annotated with the insight of a traveller who has been down many roads and found himself at many dead ends.

At the age of 39, Smucker has lived the life of a left wing Forrest Gump, his face appearing in the crowds of countless left mobilizations large and small since the early 1990s, from the Christian pacifist Plowshares Movement, whose members symbolically “beat swords into plowshares” by hammering on military equipment (and earning impressive felony records in the process) to Occupy, to the Movement for Black Lives. Hegemony How-To is Smucker’s tough-love letter to this American left, a diagnosis of its self-undermining tendencies and an ambitious guide to overcoming them. Most of all, the book is a defense of power and a polemic against the left’s crippling ambivalence about contesting for and wielding it. We rightly criticized the excesses of power in the hands of our rulers. But if we want to build an egalitarian world where we are less subject to the whims of presidents, corporations, police, and bosses, writes Smucker, “we have to arm our critiques” with power. We have to win.

The term “hegemony” in the title signals Smucker’s theoretical agenda. Hegemony, as elaborated by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, refers to the meanings and values that define the dominant common sense, and to the structures of political and economic power that combine to uphold the existing order. To be “political,” for Smucker, as for Gramsci, is to pose a challenge to the existing order, by articulating an alternative, aligning existing social blocs behind that articulation, and building sufficient political power to instantiate our values as a new common sense. We must, in other words, replace the existing hegemony with our own. 

Hegemonic contest means being unafraid to engage with political structures and symbols that already exist. On this view, running in Democratic primaries is better than insisting on our own ballot line; changing the meaning of the American flag is better than burning it. It’s not that the Democratic Party is good or burning flags is wrong. Rather, it’s that the Party’s infrastructure and the flag’s symbolic potency are both too useful to cede to our opponents. As Max Berger, an organizer with “All of Us” recently told me, “The left will never control America the country if we can’t take control of ‘America’ the idea.” Donald Trump and Steve Bannon have a definition of America—who’s in it and who’s out. So do the Clintons. We need our own.

Building political power is not just a matter of telling the right story. It involves organizing, building numbers. On this front, Smucker offers some concise, practical advice: “Develop a core and a broader base; build a culture and a system of plugging new members into meaningful and capacity-building roles; maintain an outward focus so as to avoid insularity, and engage with existing infrastructure [and networks] rather than constantly starting from scratch.” This last point is crucial. We can’t recruit a mass movement one-by-one. We should think of our organizations as vehicles for mobilizing existing blocs, allowing people to take action as teachers, as union members, as Quakers, as students. These blocs will be compelled to take action with us if we have presented a compelling enough counter-narrative: a story about the world we want, an inclusive “we” in which they see themselves, a vivid “them” in which they see their enemies.

Hegemony How-To is addressed to self-identified “activists,” the sort of people likely to buy, read, and display a bright-red book subtitled “A Roadmap for Radicals.” Ironically, it’s one of Smucker’s early contentions that the existence of this clear category of consumers is emblematic of the left’s deficiencies. (Smucker, in this way, is the rare writer who wishes his readers didn’t exist.) The term “activist” Smucker writes, “tends to imply a voluntary and self-selecting enterprise, an extracurricular activity, a realm of subculture,” the idea “that an activist is a particular kind of person.” In this conception, activism is the hobby of a select few, rather than “a civic or political responsibility that necessarily traverses groups and interests.” Activism, Smucker suggests, might be better off without activists.

The existence of “activists” in this sense lets non-activists off the hook. It permits our opponents to negatively stereotype a category—smelly, carpet-bagging agitators—instead of addressing the content of our demands. Even worse, it deters potential allies who may be inclined to participate in, say, a movement for clean water, but who are instinctively turned off by “activism” as such. Perhaps most destructively, this thinking encourages “activists” to seek out other “activists” with whom to form communities based on their shared values. This self-selection, Smucker writes, causes many “collectively minded young people … to remove themselves voluntarily from the institutions and social networks that they were organically positioned to influence and contest.” Activists congregate with other activists and disassociate themselves from friends, family, religious communities, sports teams, and clubs that don’t already “get it.”

Of course, this self-isolation doesn’t always happen. When it doesn’t, when politically activated people remain embedded in their preexisting networks—and do not conceal their radical beliefs—they can be extremely effective. An acquaintance once told me the best organizers in her Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter were the Arab frat boys. Active members of Greek life and committed activists, the frat boys were not only extremely good at getting a rowdy action started; they were capable of mobilizing large numbers of their previously unengaged, white frat brothers to participate in SJP rallies and events.

If it’s hard for us to imagine a crowd of pro-BDS fraternity brothers, or middle-aged white suburbanites taking to the streets for black lives, that’s because this sort of organizing “beyond the choir” is uncommon. Instead, what often happens, Smucker says, is that “we build a scrappy little alternative clubhouse near the perimeter of the ever-advancing logics of capitalism and bureaucracy” filled with the usual suspects. In exchange for our clubhouse, we “give away the farm,” forfeiting the contest to organize society around our values.

This is what Smucker believes caused the failure of Occupy Wall Street: tension between the movement’s “strategic” and “prefigurative” aspirations. Occupy’s strategic tendency—of which Smucker was a vocal proponent—sought to build a movement powerful enough to effect political change in the rest of society. By contrast, Occupy’s prefigurative tendency sought to model (or prefigure) the values of participants’ ideal society as reflected in the horizontalist general assembly, the free library, the people’s kitchen, and the nightly lectures and music.

Smucker does not underestimate the importance of prefiguring a better society. But, unfortunately, the qualities that make an activist community compelling to the initiated can make them uninviting or even noxious to potential allies. Speaking in jargon, writing on endless reams of butcher paper, wearing black and smashing windows, these rituals by which we cultivate our group identity—and communicate our fluency with its norms—are often precisely the things that turn others away.

Worse, the maintenance of this community can come to take precedence over the task of effecting political change. Why bother with the impossible-seeming work of changing the world when we’ve already built a version of our ideal society in miniature? If these impulses are left unchecked, powerlessness and marginalization themselves become valorized; the aspiration to win, suspect. For many leftists, there’s a perverse logic to this thinking: “If society is bad, then marginalization within society must be good.”

As Occupy progressed, the activists’ rigid commitment to the group’s less-strategic internal norms (especially leaderlessness and consensus-based decision-making) and the elevation of the tactic of occupation to the movement’s raison d’être were ultimately their undoing. It’s not much, after all, to win a park and lose the world. The movement, Smucker writes, eschewed the “possibility of gaining ground … in the terrain of society,” opting instead to define the meaning, values, and culture of Occupy itself and no more. In this way, Occupy remained a clubhouse, one whose members satisfied themselves with interior decorating.

But strategic and prefigurative goals are not mutually exclusive. A positive legacy of Occupy is the “progressive stack.” This is the idea that in our communities, the perspectives of black and brown people, women, disabled, and trans folks should be prioritized over those who are less acutely constrained by the dynamics of racial capitalism. By bringing those voices to the fore in meetings, we’re prefiguring a more egalitarian society. But it also serves a strategic purpose: Without progressive stack, white straight male voices will inevitably dominate the space, set the agenda and terms of debate, and alienate non-white allies. We need the leadership of marginalized people in order to win. Avoiding exclusionary social dynamics and lifting up non-dominant voices, therefore, has both intrinsic and strategic value for our movements. A norm championed by Occupy, it is now used widely among leftist groups from the environmental justice movement to the Democratic Socialists of America. It helps us both to live our values and to spread them.

As the severity of Trump’s dangers deepens, the need to preach beyond the choir has become more pressing. Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza recently wrote for Mic about making common cause with white liberals, even those who haven’t shown up to the fight for black lives before. “Building a movement requires reaching out beyond the people who agree with you,” Garza writes, “More than a moral question, it is a practical one. Can we build a movement of millions with the people who may not grasp our black, queer, feminist, intersectional, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist ideology but know that we deserve a better life and who are willing to fight for it and win?” The answer, Garza implies, has to be yes.

We have arrived at a strange moment for the left. In the most basic sense, the world we want—a social order built on racial and gender equality, in which the needs of human beings are privileged over profit (or something like that)—is further off than ever. The Trump administration and the Republican majority will seek to defang the labor movement, destroy the welfare state, accelerate deportation and mass incarceration, empower police and prosecutors, undermine environmental protections, rollback civil rights, start wars, and criminalize our means of fighting back. Much of this is already underway.

At the same time, there have perhaps never been more people banging on the walls of our clubhouses, demanding to be let in. It is the left’s first responsibility to fling open the doors. And when we do, we’ll need to avoid the traps of insularity, purism, and fragmentation that have undermined our efforts in the past. We’ll have to meet these new allies, as Smucker says, “where they are, with the language they use, in the spaces they frequent.”

And we’ll have to offer them both a compelling moral vision and a believable strategic agenda for achieving it. In the words of historian Katrina Forrester, “Feminist and progressive politics can’t survive on defensive strategies alone.… A vision of a better life matters just as much.” The wisdom the left has to offer the Trump resistance is exactly this: that fear will not sustain us. “Fear might get people in the door the first hour,” I recently heard organizer and educator Mariame Kaba say, “but you’re going to lose them in the twelfth hour.” We need an alternative vision, a shared purpose, and a plan.

There are those who believe that articulating—and forcing the Democrats to articulate—an unapologetic left vision will divide the opposition. But history (including the history of the Tea Party) suggests the opposite strategy: the best way to obstruct the ruling party’s agenda is to intransigently embrace the values of the base. What’s more, the notion that a purely defensive strategy is adequate suggests that the hegemony that preceded Trump was acceptable. It wasn’t. The problem with a resistance movement organized exclusively around opposition to Trump is not only that such a vision is not sustaining; the problem is that America wasn’t “already great.” 

Political theorist Corey Robin wrote in Harpers, “It is easier to huddle around the campfire of our dread than to mass and march toward a distant light.” But we have to march, and we have to keep the glimmer of a better world in our sights. It seems to me that in building a movement powerful enough to stop the worst of Trump’s agenda, we are simultaneously building a movement powerful enough to instantiate an alternative. We have to hope so. In these times, as ever, it isn’t enough to be right. The point is to win.