Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Demanding Democracy: American Radicals in Search of a New Politics

I have just spent an interesting day immersed in this new book by Marc Stears. I was looking for a recent work that combines political history and democratic theory with a radical bent, and I found it. Even better, Stears has insightful things to say about the “paradox of politics”, that the political forms that we would like to live under and the political life we would like to lead in an ideal world are inappropriate to the unequal world we live in today. This is always a central dilemma of radical movements, and it’s helpful to have it illuminated. From a historical vantage point, I like the linkages he draws between the radical Progressives (like Dewey), labor movement radicals of the 1930s, and civil rights and new left activists of the ‘60s.

I have some qualms as well. One criticism I would not make is that Stears was too selective in his choice of movements and political visions. It is true that he leaves out a lot: Marxists of almost every stripe, anarchists, and the fascinating parade of individuals and groupuscules which, even if they had little impact, often had ideas worth considering. If you are an afficionado of twentieth century American radicalism, you will probably find that some of your favorites are missing. But one can only do so much. Stears has arguably centered our attention on a core, continuous strand in American political thought and action. The book benefits from this clarity.

My real criticisms are these:

1. The most visible error in this work is to treat the 1950s consensus theorists as bearers of the radical democratic tradition. Some were reformers, but few members of the flock Stears identifies deserve to be called radicals; nor, more to the point, did most see themselves this way. In the end this does not undermine the book’s arguments, but it feels very wrong.

2. The most important lacuna is the linkage between movements to achieve greater democracy and those in pursuit of narrower ends. One aspect of Westbrook’s extraordinary biography of Dewey is its ability (through remarkable scholarship) to place the man in the context of his (long) times—all the crusades, from education reform to labor struggles to new forms of journalism and all the rest. This makes it possible for us to appreciate the substantive goals that lie behind the abstract formulations. Except for the most general references to the conditions of industrial workers during the ‘30s and segregation in the ‘60s, Stears gives us no indication of the issues around which the radicals were organizing, nor their relationship to those immersed in single-issue causes (immigrant rights, environment, etc.) whose struggles overlapped and gave meaning to struggles for fundamental political change. And, by the way, the women’s movement, both for suffrage and during the revitalization of the ‘60s and ‘70s is missing altogether—which means that feminist political theory is largely absent as well. Not good, brother.

3. The subtler problem is the framing of democratic theory as an “American” issue. This enables Stears to foreground the references that Progressives and later consensus theorists made to so-called American political values. But this is to give acquiescence to a myth, for the problems of democracy in America have never been insular. Every significant thinker/reformer in American history who has pondered democracy is closely tied, knowingly or otherwise, to ideas and experiences from abroad. The civil disobedience tradition has its origin in German idealism (via Thoreau), and nonviolent direct action was undergoing simultaneous experimentation in much of the world at the same time it was being tested in the US. Progressive reformers drunk heavily from European examples, as Dan Rodgers showed in Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age. (Everyone should read this book: the history of social policy becomes pure poetry.) The new left was a truly global phenomenon, which most of us in the movement knew in a general way, although we were constantly surprised by how global it turned out to be.

One consequence of the national frame is that Stears tries to shoehorn his analysis of radical democracy into a parochial debate between two camps in current US political science, the “deliberative” and the “realist” democrats. In one sense this is a distraction; in another, it obscures the much stronger connections between radical democratic theory and practice in the US, on the one hand, and the global exploration of radical democracy (particularly in the wake of 1989) on the other. That would have been a better frame entirely.

But I liked this book. I enjoyed reading it, and it helped me see the political issues I first struggled with in the ‘60s in a broader historical context. I think it could do some useful work in the classroom.

1 comment:

gordon said...

It sounds like an awfully narrow, insular book; I'll avoid it.

But if you're "looking for a recent work that combines political history and democratic theory with a radical bent...", you might try John K. Galbraith, or even Gunnar Myrdal.