Radical Politics in a Reactionary Time




Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images, c/o AM New York

A commentary by ISE faculty member, Peter Staudenmaier, November 13, 2016

A friend of mine asked me this week to explain my perspective on the disorienting and dismaying rise of Trumpism. In my view, our focus at a time like this should not be so much on elections or politicians, but on the underlying social currents and the longer term historical factors that have brought us to this impasse. Taking a cue from Murray Bookchin’s 1989 essay “Radical Politics in an Era of Advanced Capitalism,” here are some of my thoughts.

I think we face three main tasks in the months and years ahead: to put forward a revolutionary political outlook; try to make better sense of the current historical moment; and support and defend people who are most vulnerable right now.

Putting forward a revolutionary political outlook: Many of us will disagree vigorously about how to maintain political perspective in a time like this, and that is a good thing. Diversity and debate are crucial to a vibrant left. My own view is that a politics adequate to the present challenge will need to be ecological, feminist, and internationalist; it will be both anti-capitalist and anti-authoritarian; and it will reject populist palliatives in favor of grassroots direct democracy and a fundamental transformation of society as a whole.

Make sense of the current historical moment: Understanding a perplexing situation means working harder to figure out how we got here. In the context of the United States, this will require taking a long hard look at race and racism, from the history of race to its conceptual underpinnings to its convoluted political manifestations today. It also means acknowledging the persistence of misogyny as an ongoing factor in our society. Above all, this can be an opportunity to pay closer attention to the right and build a critical understanding of the confluence of authoritarianism, populism, and nationalism with economic dislocation and cultural resentment.

Support and defend people who are most vulnerable right now: Coming to the aid of people under attack by a reactionary regime – whether communities of color or immigrants or religious minorities or others – is an ethical obligation that radicals should take seriously. It is also a way to learn more about the broad array of lively social struggles that form such a conspicuous counter-weight to the seeming ascendance of the right. This may be the most important lesson of the hour.

Try as we might to foresee its twists and turns, history is always unpredictable. It is nonetheless tempting to blame ourselves for failing to see this coming. Some on the left underestimated Trump; others underestimated the irrationality of the American political system; some never paid much heed to the dynamics of right-wing populism and resurgent nationalism in the first place. But rather than casting blame for the present predicament, we could see it as an opening, an occasion to strengthen and sharpen the emancipatory visions that drive our movements, and look ahead to the chance to put those visions into practice.