The Future-Past of the Next Left

Michael Harrington occupies an increasingly small space in the imagination of the contemporary Left.  I think this is a shame; for, Harrington prophesized our moment, when the Left would have to face the possibility of the failure of its failure, that is to say, the possibility of success, and confront real opportunity for social and political change.  Yet Harrington knew that to “confront the possibility of political power…in no way guarantees that the Next Left will successfully respond to the opening” (1).  Indeed, many of his writings are characterized by a struggle to “forestall such a failure and, in some small way, to help the Next Left seize its coming opportunity” (1).  In this sense, Harrington is a cautious prophet, telling us what will happen if we will fail.  The grammatico-rhetorical form of such prophecy is future-past or post-anterior.  So, in this short essay, I propose to discuss three possible future-pasts of the Next Left as described by Harrington in his 1987 book, appropriately titled, The Next Left: The History of a Future.

Harrington writes that “the next Left could fail for a number of reasons…”

I. “…because its political base is eroded by the very evolution of society;” (10)

Spinoza knew that it would be impossible to end tyranny simply be chopping off the head of the tyrant.  The body must desire freedom.  For Harrington, the first possible failure of the Next Left involves the triumph of incessant sadness—where sadness is defined precisely in the Spinozist sense as limited thought that stalls out around old solutions and the accompanying affect of powerlessness.  Something about his point seems to ring more true to my generation—which awakened in the mass convergence protest of Seattle in 1999.  For many of us, Seattle represented a turning point, a challenge to the hegemonic order of global capitalism and empire.  In the wake of the triumph of the Obama campaign can we still speak of the erosion of the political desire of the Left?  I think so.  Harrington is not simply referring to a political realignment of the Democratic Party or even of the Red/Blue map that we are all too familiar with.  For the Left to be “a mighty historic and democratic force,” requires more than an ideological shift among key demographic populations.  We must effect a profound and fundamental transformation at every level of social organization toward democratic participation, self-organization and direct action.  Through such transformations the social base of the Next Left will emerge in the process of becoming the historic force that we hope it will have been.

Harrington also predicted that the Next Left could fail…

II. “…because it does not understand that a radical increase in popular participation in economic and social, as well as political, decisions is a practical necessity” (10).

That is to say,

“the Left could also fail because it does not understand its distinctive role in coping with the radical future now underway.  It is not simply the proponent of economic planning, of public priorities as opposed to private profit, of a new productivity through tapping the suppressed creativity of the people.  It is for these things in a unique way: through the transfer of power to men and women at the base, to ‘ordinary’ citizens” (12).

Harrington’s point is well-taken, especially in the dawning era of Obama.  While it is important to protect the right to participation in the current space of popular political decisions, we must push for democratic governance of economic and social matters.  In this sense, we must find ways to implement non-reformist reforms, that is to say, reforms that fundamentally open social and economic organization to increasingly democratic control.  In the abstract, this sounds difficult.  Yet I see this happening more and more often at the level of the shop-floor, for example, through the model of solidarity unionism.  In this model, workers build relationships of trust and rely on each other in order to take collective action (with or without being recognized as an exclusive bargaining unit).  As the balance of power between workers and bosses is altered through the process of self-organization and direct action, workers increasingly feel their power-- they feel the falling away of isolation and helplessness that characterizes not only the modern corporation, but also many modern business unions.

Finally, the Next Left could fail…

III.“…simply because it isn’t sufficiently creative and/or lucky” (10).

And why should we leave it up to chance?  Harrington, does not propose a little luck “as flippant truism but as the result of careful reading of the ideological history of the leftist surge of the thirties…[In this case] the West improvised, muddled, and blundered its way into the greatest expansion ever” (16).  I think the point here is simply that even under favorable conditions, history is never determined in advance (i.e. as a structural necessity) and a good “idea or two might nudge the odds a bit” (16).

I do not know whether or not Harrington was fan of Billy Bragg but I am probably sure that he would have laughed at idea of “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward.”  In The Next Left, and many other texts, Michael Harrington was concerned with describing “a future, not the future” (17).  In this formulation, the present consists of multiple futures the most favorable, democratic, or humane of which are not guaranteed in advance but must be made. I believe that this is a profound and important contribution to the history of ideas in the Left—which we may (or may not) do well to recognize in our own present.

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