A Leftist Canon?

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.

Tags: books, Ideology, netroots (all tags)

Comments

21 Comments

Re: A Leftist Canon?

Ideology <-> Praxis <-> Organization

The Netroots organize around electoral strategies, supporting democratic candidates in the Democratic primaries, supporting Democratic candidates in the general elections, and supporting incremental reforms in political policy.

The Netroots cannot, therefore, include much of the left: those who doubt the effectiveness of electoral strategies, those who doubt the effectiveness of incremental reforms, and those who deny the legitimacy of state action (e.g. those who doubt the possibility of democratic oversight of rogue agencies and rogue policies).

It sometimes seems there are three lefts, sometimes bumping into each other, but rarely talking with each other. Each has its own canon.

I suppose these canons include the following kinds of texts:

(1) Foundational Theoretical Works - (e.g. I'm honestly not sure for the Progressives; Proudhon's, Bakunin's, and Kropotkin's for the anarchists; Marx's, Engels', Trotsky's for the (current, western) Marxists) - which gradually develop the core theories.

(2) Related Theoretical Works - (i.e. foundational theoretical works of other related philosophies, e.g. Locke's, Paine's, and Ricardo's for most leftist groups; Marx's or Bastiat's as more doubtful and more adversarial.)

(3) Alternate Theoretical Works - (e.g. Gompers' for the Progressives, Tucker's or Tolstoy's for the anarchists, and Bukharin's or Kautsky's for the Marxists) - which also develop the core theories, but in different directions from the main tradition.

(4) Summaries - these range from slim introductory works to multi-tome reference works which describe the philosophy, its main tenets, its various strains, and provide portals to the above.

Some Marxists have put the first three categories together for Marxism; the Marxists Internet Archive is an excellent resource as those things go. And anarchists have done the same for the fourth category for anarchism; An Anarchist FAQ is an excellent resource for its purpose (though the primary works are more widely scattered).

I don't recall seeing comparable resources on Progressive Liberalism. The DKosopedia might have been a start but seems to have slowed down (as have some similar projects for other political philosophies).

Kos' Libertarian Democrat these prompted some theoretical discussion, but there doesn't seem to be much consensus on core values or core positions.

by Left for the Left 2007-01-17 11:45PM | 0 recs
Re: A Leftist Canon?

I guess my arguments in the previous post that a canon is not needed hinged on the belief that the netroots is really about action and not necessarily ideology, and also a suspicion of what kind of ideology might wind up in such a canon.

The netroots is progressive and liberal, but not necessarily radical.  Radicals do have their canon, of which Marx, Marcuse, more recent academic writings that came out of the 60s and 70s, and maybe some of the practical handbooks like Rules for Radicals have been a part at various times in history.

But this movement isn't "leftist", at least I hope not.  It's progressive and liberal.  The distinction, I hope, is an important one.  That doesn't mean we don't need some core values and points of agreement.

by Old Yeller 2007-01-18 01:30AM | 0 recs
Re: A Leftist Canon?

But saying it's not "leftist" or "radical" and is "progressive and liberal" is drawing an ideological distinction, no?

And as for action, this quote is inscribed above Humboldt University in Berlin:

"The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it." - Karl Marx

by CT student 2007-01-18 09:55AM | 0 recs
Re: A Leftist Canon?

that's a weak translation of the quote, and it's not above the university, but rather in the main entrance hall at the staircase:

"philosophers have merely interpreted the world in various ways; but it depends upon you to change it."

hard to translate the second half of it, so it's inexact.

by beyondo98 2007-01-18 09:24PM | 0 recs
Re: A Leftist Canon?

It's a distinction, but not so much an ideological distinction as it is a distinction between those who are ideology-driven and those who are driven by pragmatic needs and goals.  An overemphasis on ideology has historically tended to work against liberal democracy and open political debate.

by Old Yeller 2007-01-19 02:31PM | 0 recs
Re: A Leftist Canon?

But valuing "liberal democracy and open political debate" is ideological - many on the left don't support liberal democracy. Pragmatism is ideological - there must be some reason you aren't a revolutionary.

You might not be conscious of it, but you have a political ideology. That's part of what I'm getting at. We should understand why the netroots generally support open dialogue, what forms of hierarchy we find acceptable and so on. These are the big questions of political organization.

by CT student 2007-01-20 03:26AM | 0 recs
Re: A Leftist Canon?

I think the netroots movement has a healthy understanding that the real world is a complicated place and you can't fit our knowledge of it into a canon without dangerous distortions. Canons encourage - almost require - closemindedness, purity tests, and factionalism - and we're better off without that. We're a well-read and reality based movement and I think that works very well.

The most successful method for learning about the world is the scientific method and I find it telling that sciences don't have canons. A science is a large body of ideas and evidence, but it's based on the evidence from the real world being primary, not a group of opinions or summaries, which is what a canon is. With the indexing of the internet, we can largely just go to the source, like scientists do, and I don't see a canon as providing any great benefits to balance out the detriments it encourages.

by curtadams 2007-01-18 02:45AM | 0 recs
I'm Afraid You've Got A Bill Bennet View of Canons

A real live canon doesn't give you a set of pre-fab answers to take on the world.  It presents you with a vivid understanding of important questions.

There will always be Bill Bennets around to misunderstand canons--there were plenty of sectarians on the left who did this in the 60s--but the problem isn't the canon.  It's how people misunderstand its importance, and trivialize it to serve their own inadequacies.

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-01-18 05:57PM | 0 recs
Re: A Leftist Canon?

You might be confusing the 60's left with 60's intellectuals.

LBJ was a member of the 60's left. It's leader actually in some of the most progressive actions by government in US since New Deal. The Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights, integration, EPA etc. etc.

I was a member of SDS, VVAW etc. (well gave them money and went to the parties ;) and never read any of that...just Macolm X's biography which was more visceral than intellectual.

by BrionLutz 2007-01-18 06:37AM | 0 recs
I just have to ask

You were a member of the SDS in the 1960s and you considered Lyndon Johnson a member of the left?

Wow.

by FDRDem 2007-01-18 07:13PM | 0 recs
Re: I just have to ask

"You were a member of the SDS in the 1960s and you considered Lyndon Johnson a member of the left?"

It's a big tent...no fight was bigger or more central to America and the 60's left than Civil Rights...that is LBJ's legacy as much as Vietnam.

War on Poverty...it would be called "socialism" today...and was then by Birchers et al.

If it wasn't for Vietnam, LBJ would have put through universal health care.

by BrionLutz 2007-01-18 08:01PM | 0 recs
He's Also Leader of The Obama Mafia Around Here

So the bar continues to be lowered. Down, down, down...

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-01-19 06:46AM | 0 recs
Re: A Leftist Canon?

I respect Lukacs and Chomsky as thinkers who have come to grips with philosophy, but in that list, only Marx is really a philosopher, and his way of thinking has the most direct application to the present day.

The means of American production have unexpectedly been relocated to China. This affects American capitalists and American culture. Our capitalists are insulated by the Chinese Communist Party from labor itself. It is in effect the ultimate lockout. On the other hand, our "big-box" stores are stocked  with Chinese products (80% of WalMart's stock). These products are not designed by Americans for Americans. They are designed by Chinese for maximum profit and for the acceleration of the product replacement cycle - that is, they are designed to be thrown away.

We are categorically unable to face up to the people who make the things we buy. We are categorically unable to face up to the things we buy, and the essential Chinese-ness they possess more of every year.

These blind spots turn out, surprise surprise, to  occur right at the place where our economy and society are experiencing difficulty. No one can foresee any but disastrous consequences of our trade deficits. No one contests that millions of Americans have become addicted to cheap discardable consumer products of every kind from China.

In other words - actual basic Marxist theory could not possibly be more directly applicable to the contradictions of advanced capitalism in the United States. And you don't have to wade through a lot of detail to see this.

It's just that no one is prepared to believe it.

So - you don't need a canon. You just have to see the train wreck coming. It would be a damn shame to see the New Left repeat the mistake of the Old Left - to lose the initiative. But "the initiative" is not just a matter of electoral success.

I consider that I'm saying this in executive session. Markos snorts (officially) when he hears people talking about reading Marx; no American politician should admit to having read Marx. And I don't care if people read him or not. But there's no doubt about how Marx would analyze our present situation. Anybody who says it is "okay" for Chinese peasants to manufacture our plaster Jesuses (thirty stores devoted to that item in the Great Mall of China) is dreaming.

Marx has a way of breaking into dreams.

by frenchman 2007-01-18 12:58PM | 0 recs
Canon? It'd Sure Be Nice, But...

Max makes a very good point, which I think is skipped over too quickly.  You really do need some deep core works to give a critical movement some heft.  And Don't Think of An Elephant ain't it.  It's a popular book, intentionally so. The fact that many have read it, but nothing else by Lakoff is part of the problem.

We are, quite simply, not big book-readers as a whole. Heck, people had a hard time reading Billmon's posts. They complain about Glenn Greenwald's too. Anything longer than a standard-length op-ed seems to be too much. This is a real problem, because some ideas can only properly be developed over a larger span. If you aren't exposed to ideas like that, you can readily fall into the habit of judging all ideas by their Cliff Notes versions, or in comparison to the Cliff Notes versions of other ideas.

This is not really a problem for the right, because their ideas are at their best in Cliff Notes bumper-stickers. But it's a problem for us.

Another problem: we are a far more heterogeneous lot than the 1960s New Left. Some of us are quite conservative, many more are simply middle-of-the-road. The sorts of folks who didn't turn against the Vietnam War until 1968 or later.  That's what happens when (a) the tools (more than ideas) play a leading role in the organizing process and (b) you're organizing in response to reactionary lunatics that want to toss out the Magna Charta, while the whole planet goes up in smoke.

In light of the above, I think it may simply be unrealistic, at this point, at least, to talk about a canon of deep central works.  But I could suggest some important books that could help ground us in common frameworks for important work of the sort we already seem inclined to do.  So here's a few suggestions:

(1) For understanding terrorism: Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror by Mahmood Mamdani.

(2) A big-picture framework on fundamentalism: The Battle for God by Karen Armstrong.

(3) The Third World economic order:Masters of Illusion: the World Bank and the Poverty of Nations by Catherine Caufield.

(4) The Reagan Era (and after) attack on the Welfare State: The Price of Citizenship: Redefining the American Welfare State by Michael B. Katz.

(5) An historical/philosophical examination of what's wrong with American media: Good News, Bad News: Journalism Ethics and the Public Interest by Jeremy Iggers. There are lots of books on the media. This one shows how journalism ethics is a big part of the problem.

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-01-18 05:53PM | 0 recs
Re: Canon? It'd Sure Be Nice, But...

But what about works that help define how to structure society in the future?

I mean the whole point of the term "progressive" is that we're progressing to something better right? But I feel that many people use that term without having a clear understanding of what that "something" is.

For some people, I get the impression that they think America is A.O.K., we just need a goo-goo government much like Obama is proposing.

For others, such as myself (and Bernie Sanders for instance), that "something" is a social democratic society where all have the ability and support to realize their full potential as humans and where we live on a sustainable and environmentally sound planet.

For others, progressivity may just be turning the clock back to the pre-Bush days (which, ironically  means they are actually conservatives). Maybe these are the people you talk about that didn't turn against Vietnam until 1968. I think my dad would qualify in this category. He's a hard core Democrat now, but was a Republican from probably 1972-1996. He got drafted into Vietnam in 1970 and thought it was a dumb war, but was either ambivalent or somewhat cautiosly supportive until probably 1968.

My point is that the books you mention may all be great books, but do they describe where we should go, or do they describe where we should NOT go? They sound like books that get at the problems with today's society. But is a positive vision for society part of it too?

Generally though, I also don't know that you have to get a canon solely through philosophy books. For me, it would be just as important for people to have a DEEP understanding of history in this country and around the world. At the same time though, I do think Marx and espeically what has come SINCE Marx are very important in allowing people to see the world through a much deeper and more meaningful lense than simply through the tired neo-classical lense of supply-and-demand.
Texts on discourse analysis can be helpful in cutting through the crap and understanding the world as well.

Going back to the history issue, I think it's important for people to read about times when people tried to make a better society, and what went wrong. The Populist Moment by Goodwyn (sp?) is an excellent start for this country. Books about Soviet history and how they implemented the economic plans are very useful in this regard. As are a few books on the war on poverty in this country and what went wrong there (I'm thinking specifically of Nick Lemann's book "Promised Land").

To me, knowing your history is key. Not repeating mistakes of the past and all that.

by adamterando 2007-01-19 04:53AM | 0 recs
So Make A Book Suggestion!

To restate my point: I don't think of these as canonical books.  Just books that would help us get on the same page more than we already are.

They are offered completely in the spirit of your closing line.  It seems to me that we need a shared understanding of what's wrong in order to undergird an shared understanding of what's to be worked for.  So it makes sense that it's easier to come up with the sorts of books I named.

So, what book would you recommend for setting out a vision of what we want?

OTOH when you say this:

At the same time though, I do think Marx and espeically what has come SINCE Marx are very important in allowing people to see the world through a much deeper and more meaningful lense than simply through the tired neo-classical lense of supply-and-demand.
Texts on discourse analysis can be helpful in cutting through the crap and understanding the world as well.
I have to repeat, "It'd Sure Be Nice, But...." We need to start with where people are.  I just don't see a critical mass of folks online picking up those sorts of books.  It would be hard enough to get them to pick up the ones I've mentioned myself.

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-01-19 07:01AM | 0 recs
Re: So Make A Book Suggestion!

Maybe Gramsci would be a good combo of what to look out for and what to strive for?

by adamterando 2007-01-19 07:11AM | 0 recs
Re: So Make A Book Suggestion!

I'm too naive and not well-enough read to suggest works. I just know what I've come across. I'd suggest for those that still have the opportunity though, to take Geography, philosophy, sociology, Ecology, and Math/statistics classes. I think a solid grounding in these "canonical" fields would probably give people a solid grounding in an ideology that could further a progressive vision for the world.

by adamterando 2007-01-19 07:45AM | 0 recs
Re: So Make A Book Suggestion!

Oops. And history classes of course, too!

by adamterando 2007-01-19 07:47AM | 0 recs
Re: Canon? It'd Sure Be Nice, But...

"You really do need some deep core works to give a critical movement some heft."

Ah...the Reagan Revolution...sort of blows that theory all to hell ;)

by BrionLutz 2007-01-19 07:30AM | 0 recs
Re: A Leftist Canon?

A Canon can present a starting point if the reading of the text is non-naive.  Marx, for an obvious example, is a starting point for a analysis of economic domination of one class over others and how that domination plays out in non-economic ways.  But it's only a starting point!  We know more, or at least we can, should, know more, because of the 120 years of additional research conducted in sociology, cultural anthropology, Deconstructionism (despite all its sillinesses, x-ref: the Social Text affair,) psychology - in particular the Milgram 'Obedience to Authority' experiments, logic, the cognitive sciences, and - to irritate Old Yeller - even Chaos Mathematics.  

And that is only a brief list.

If you want a text discussing 3rd world development are you going to use Frantz Fanon or Brian Arthur as the standard?  Are you going to use Hegel as the source for logical methodology or Wittgenstein?  Or Quine?  Dynamic Systems theory wasn't developed until the latter part of the 20th Century, should we ignore it?  Bifurcation mathematics is still inchoate.  Does that mean it's unimportant?  These are questions previous writers cannot answer.  They didn't know about them.  

My position is we need to bring the Left into something resembling intellectual respectability in our own time implying we need to work on writing our own Canon.  

by ATinNM 2007-01-18 09:57PM | 0 recs

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