It’s a genre by now: advice for the powerlorn. The tone varies, from sermon to pep talk to strategy memo. Liberals are urged to be bolder; radicals are admonished to chill. We need more vision or more grit; more clarity or more passion; utopian dreams or common sense, or both. We must generate new ideas or rediscover old ones. We should preach pleasure or get serious about virtue. We must reaffirm the centrality of culture or ideology or class. We must think big but also get down to cases; win elections but also build a movement; speak truth to power but also take it to the grassroots. We must, in short, do everything—except, obviously, whatever we’re doing now.
I read these mini-manifestoes—in The Nation, The American Prospect, Dissent, Harper’s—with inexhaustible hopefulness. Surely so much intelligence and good will are bound to find a way? Surely the correct analysis and approved program will set the movement-building apparatus whirring to life, the way a password unlocks a computer or a smartphone?
The latest entry in the genre is Adolph Reed Jr.’s “Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals” (Harper’s, March 2014). Reed, a political scientist at Penn, is a veteran scold with an honorable track record of blowing the whistle early and emphatically on identity politics, neoliberalism, and Obama-worship. “Nothing Left” is shrewd and pungent, nailing the Clinton and Obama administrations to the wall, copiously illustrating their mediocrity and meretriciousness, mercilessly mocking those of us who wasted even a moment’s faith on them. Clinton was an “Eisenhower Republican”; in fact, it is “difficult to imagine that a Republican administration could have been much more successful in advancing Reaganism’s agenda.” Obama is simply a “human cipher,” a mere opportunist whose first and last impulse is to seek “the middle of the middle of the middle.”
Demoralized by conservative triumphs from Reagan through Bush II, Reed writes, the left has trailed dutifully behind the rightward-moving Democratic Party, its horizons shrunk to the length of each electoral cycle, eager above all to avoid further traumas by uncritically supporting whichever lesser evil clambers to the top of the Democratic greasy pole. Forsaken and forgotten are any “goals that require long-term organizing—e.g., single-payer health care, universally free public higher education and public transportation, federal guarantees of housing and income security.” The entire content of today’s “dessicated leftism” is “a very strong commitment to antidiscrimination.” Beyond that, we’re an empty vessel.
And let it be said: Reed is wholly persuasive about us—we are truly pathetic.
Well, what is to be done? Fifty-two hundred words into his 5,450-word essay, Reed suddenly turns to this question. His answer, in full:
The crucial tasks for a committed left in the United States now are to admit that no politically effective force exists and to begin trying to create one. This is a long-term effort, and one that requires grounding in a vibrant labor movement. Labor may be weak or in decline, but that means aiding in its rebuilding is the most serious task for the American left. … We must create a constituency for a left program — and that cannot occur via MSNBC or blog posts or the New York Times. It requires painstaking organization and building relationships with people outside the Beltway and comfortable leftist groves. … It is long past time for us to begin again to approach leftist critique and strategy by determining what our social and governmental priorities should be and focusing our attention on building the kind of popular movement capable of realizing that vision.
And there, precisely where Reed’s essay ought to begin, it ends. Admit you have no power; now go and get some.
Don’t expect me to fill in the program. I don’t know how to build a movement, and if Reed knows, it would have been nice of him to tell us, even if he felt obliged to scold us first.
One of these days, one of these essays will tell us, no doubt, or at least offer some definite suggestions beyond urging us to get out of our “comfortable leftist groves” (like, um, Penn and Harper’s). Should we form a third party? Try to take over state and local Democratic Party organizations, as the Tea Party took over Republican ones? Offer our services to organized labor? Join a civic or environmental organization? Demonstrate/occupy/leaflet? Form study groups or chat rooms? Start a magazine or a blog? Subscribe to a magazine or a blog? Give all we have to the poor and seek the Kingdom of Heaven? (What’s the address, we’ll meet you there?)
And what is Reed going to do, I’d like to know, now that he’s written this cogent, eloquent, definitive critique of the contemporary left? Not write another one, surely?