A Leftist Canon?
by CT student, Wed Jan 17, 2007 at 08:15:54 PM EST
This is my first diary and, it seems from comments on an earlier thread, I'm probably about to start off on the wrong foot. So while I hope I spark a big debate, I'd appreciate a few comments on the format, too.
I want to extend a tangent of the TPMCafe discussion of the netroots and in particular Max Sawicky's argument against the netroots. After making a very good historical argument about the ideologies of SDS, he makes the following claim:
The 60s left read Marx, Trotsky, Luxembourg, Lukacs, Chomsky, Franz Fanon, Malcolm X, C.L.R. James, Ernest Mandel, Joan Robinson, Herbert Marcuse, Michael Harrington, Saul Alinsky. What does the netroots read? Don't Think of an Elephant?
A lot of people rightfully took offense at this comment. The netroots are largely well read, as Chris pointed out, and Sawicky's style was condescending and antagonistic. I think, however, that there is an important implication of this comment when coupled with his history of SDS.
I read a lot about how the netroots aren't particularly ideological but rather an organizational form and a set of tactics and technologies. What Sawicky made me realize, however, is that forms of organization are completely intertwined with ideologies. Leftists read Trotsky and Luxembourg and then, based on their arguments about spontaneity in the proletariat, created different organizations to create change. You couldn't have Saul Alinsky's tactics without his ideas on ends vs. means or on the role of the individual. These great philosophical questions led him both to his radicalism and to that radicalism taking the form of community organizing. So understanding and discussing ideology matters to me if just for the purpose of understanding the structures of the netroots.
Ideology has another important part to play, I think. When the right talks about their canon - Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, especially, though there are more - it's because it really worked at creating a movement. The dominant economic discussion today is completely different from that of forty years ago, because the right got these guys out there. They did it in different ways, of course. Not everyone has read Hayek, but they might have read the pamplets about his ideas that conservative organizers handed out in workplaces or heard about him on the radio. The right is still doing this. The Fair Tax Book, for instance, is widely disseminated by various right-wing organizations because they want it to become part of the accepted discourse.
The reason this is so important is that ideology provides a frame of reference. By putting out these ideas, conservatives were able to do more than just create Republican voters, they created ideological conservatives. Someone who read and bought into Milton Friedman can take his beliefs on the economy and apply them to whatever the current discussion is without needing to hear a conservative argument against Social Security specifically.
For what it's worth, reading Marcuse et al. did create radicals back in the day - you read his ideas and had a lens to view the world that led to many of the actions the New Left took. We can argue over the results, but those books and ideas did help to create a movement that took action. Angela Davis was Marcuse's student, after all.
When I talk about a canon I really mean two things. First, what books should netroots members read to understand the issues that face the netroots? I need to think longer on this one, but we probably should have an intellectual discussion about what institutions are and how they exert control and one about some of the post-modern work on gender and race, which, though I'm really not an expert in, seems relevant to netroots discussions on those issues.
Second, what books should we try to promote nationally in order to create liberals? (I don't mean anything centralized, as some talked about in the comments, but what we as individuals think would work.) I'd definitely recommend A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, anything by John Kenneth Galbraith, What Do Unions Do? by Freeman and Medoff, Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, Towards a Feminist Theory of the State by Catherine McKinnon, and A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold to start. It's incomplete, but gets to ethics, labor, feminism and environmentalism.
Just to preempt some comments, I'm not the kind of college student who sits and reads. I led a record-setting VR and turnout operation in November while getting over 200 volunteers into CT-2, CT-4 and CT-5 over the semester. Now I'm working on City Council elections, plus a bunch more. I think doing is really important, I just think we need to talk about ideas and books, internally and externally, to do as best as we can.