Some notes on Eric Alterman’s piece

Published online 16 December 2014.

Eric Alterman, the historian, journalist, educator and so on, has a piece titled “Why Liberals Need Radicals—and Vice Versa” now up on the webpages of the journal “Democracy.”  In it, Alterman “defends” radicals in a backhanded way while granting liberals more of a role in American political history than I feel they deserve.

As for my own opinion?  Well, speaking as a radical, it’s nice to read that I’m “needed,” but given Alterman’s argument I think I’d rather be criticized.  In this era, what liberals actually need is a philosophy which combines belief and action, a “praxis” if you will, rather than what they have, which is a philosophy borrowed from the Golden Age of Capitalism and applied to the economically conservative world of neoliberalism.  As for the radicals, I’m sure we have even less impact upon politics than the liberals do today.  Our role in the current era, if we are granted a role at all, is to bring to the world a semblance of theory, an essential element in political thought, which the likes of Eric Alterman can then ignore.  Let’s take a look at Alterman’s reasoning, to see why these two aspects of the present-day political situation are indeed so.

First Alterman tells us:

It should be obvious—at least it feels obvious to me—that the only way to get progressive measures accomplished in America is as a liberal working within the system.

I’m sure Martin Luther King Jr. and the good folks at the SNCC would disagree.  On the other hand, in the same era Lyndon Baines Johnson did indeed accomplish “progressive measures” within the system, but not as a “liberal.”  Rather, Johnson was a power-hungry Texas politician, definitely not a liberal in temperament, who did whatever it took to win votes and whose motivations for pursuing civil rights are in dispute.  But this isn’t the 1960s.  What precisely have the “liberals working within the system” accomplished in this era?  I can tell you offhand what the conservatives, both the corporate conservatives and the antipublic conservatives, have accomplished.  And where is the LBJ of our time, who should be busy about now getting our equivalent of the 1957 Civil Rights Act passed?So yeah, this isn’t the Golden Age of Capitalism.  Now let’s proceed to Alterman’s reasoning as to why we radicals are needed by liberals:

America is not, and never has been, on the cusp of revolutionary change. It is, as has been frequently pointed out, a conservative-minded country in pursuit of liberal goals. However, liberals have too frequently shown a willingness to grow overly comfortable with the conservative part of that equation. They need to be shaken up occasionally, and reminded why it is they are making all these necessary compromises in pursuit of the vision that animated them in the first place. And that is why we need radicals.

It’s nice to know that we occasionally “shake up” things, at least in Alterman’s opinion.  Frankly, however, I thought it was the mobilized populists who really shook things up.  You know, like those radicals on the Notre Dame women’s basketball team who wore “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts and who thus joined the growing movement against police brutality.  Mobilized populists don’t have to be radical.  Meanwhile the Obama administration, full of all of those awesome liberals working within the system, well….Alterman continues:

Cultural liberalism is clearly triumphing in America today, thanks in significant measure to a constructive alliance between liberals and radicals on issues related to civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights—

It looks good on paper I guess.  Cultural liberalism triumphs in America today because so many American non-liberals are in fact cultural liberals, and for the most part they’ve been this way since the cultural revolution of the Sixties and Seventies, which had “do your own thing” as its motto.  Nobody here outside of reactionary fundamentalism really wants a reversal of said revolution, but I suppose admitting this might clash with the author’s assertion that America is a “conservative-minded country.”  Alterman continues:

Along the same lines, albeit on a smaller scale, Zephyr Teachout’s recent campaign for governor of New York state also served to highlight the issue of Andrew Cuomo’s

etc. etc. — and whatever you do, don’t mention Howie Hawkins… Oh, right, see “Nader.”  Alterman later grants us the Ralph Nader myth.  “Nader and his followers helped to give us a Bush presidency,” he argues — never mind the 300,000-plus Democrats who voted for Bush in Florida at the end of 2000, or the ultimate 5-to-4 vote which decided the issue — “and nothing of significance upon which to build a better future.”  The Democratic Party is a neoliberal institution today.  What precisely are the liberals building upon?Alterman then continues to praise Ta-Nehisi Coates for his advocacy of reparations for slavery/ Jim Crow/ racism.  As follows:

The point of Coates’s essay—and, ultimately, the point of this conversation, despite the political impossibility of enacting reparations—is a broader understanding of black poverty as the product of public policy and private theft facilitated by racism.”

So the point of Coates’ advocacy of reparations was to persuade the likes of Alterman?  I think the real point of Coates’ essay is that if you say something in a popular journal like The Atlantic, more people will notice.  If you are going to create political traction for an argument, you first need publicity.  Joe Feagin said something similar in the Harvard BlackLetter Law Journal a decade ago, but it didn’t get much of an audience.  Also, of course, I suppose there’s still something to this idea that power concedes nothing without a demand.  I suppose it’s anachronistic, but are we counting Frederick Douglass as a liberal or as a radical?One thing is clear, though.  You don’t get to the mountaintop by denying the possibility of getting to the mountaintop.

Lastly, there is Alterman’s disorganized argument against BDS.  What I can pick out of it is something like “the Palestinians are bad, therefore BDS is bad.”  Is there more to the Zionist perspective than that bad people are bad because they claim ineffectually that they want to end a religious state?  Oh yeah and Zionists have been taking their land and periodically visiting collective punishment upon all of them.  Inquiring minds will investigate further, is what I’m saying.

I’m going to pass over the bizarre historical reference:

Choosing between enlisting in the Communist Party or the Socialist Party in the late 1920s and early 1930s may have looked like a more difficult choice for radicals back then than it does in retrospect; after all, the world economy was collapsing, fascism was rising, and the extent of Stalin’s crimes against humanity remained a well-kept secret.

This is true, but mainly it’s true because “in the late 1920s and early 1930s” the preponderance of Stalin’s crimes against humanity hadn’t been committed yet.  The real reason not to vote Communist in that era was that the Communist Parties of that time were directed from Moscow.  “Democratic centralism” was a bad idea from Lenin onward, though how would “radicals” have known that in 1929?At any rate, I found Alterman’s essay to be the sloppy construction of a political perspective in need of some real theory.  Theory is indeed the radicals’ gift to the liberals — and if you want my perspective upon it, I think this is a good place to start.  Theory offers a framework by which potentially everyone might understand the world, in a way conducive to effective action.  Theory has not produced a transformative movement to change the world, so far, either because the theories themselves were botched (see e.g. Lenin), because the conversation about theory had too few participants (see e.g. academic theory), or because the theories thus produced were insufficiently motivating.  These are indeed theoretical questions.  It would be nice if Alterman addressed them.

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