In the time of chimpanzees, I was a monkey
When a journal called Jacobin publishes a lead editorial called “Dancing on Liberalism’s Grave,” one surely has the right to expect a good time: some music, or maybe steps. Instead one is treated to a small lecture about how one “should…be wary of slipping into a rhetorical posture of unrestrained invective.” Ain’t that some sad shit? It’s like your Quaker friend who wouldn’t celebrate when Reagan died, insisting that an old man dying with Alzheimer’s wasn’t any occasion for fun. But at least she didn’t call herself a Jacobin, for Christ’s sake.
So why should the left put away its boogie shoes when it enters the pet cemetery of liberalism? The editors quote Jefferson Cowie rehashing an old chestnut of Michael Harrington’s:
Unlike many leftists at the time, [Harrington] understood that the Left depended upon liberalism being strong in order to build upon. Others saw it differently, operating from the idea that if activists tore down liberalism then people would move to the “true” left.
Of course the view of the “others” is a bit caricatured here. Hitler certainly tore down liberalism, and no one save Stalin thought that Hitler was doing the left any favors. “Many leftists” don’t want to tear down liberalism just for fun (although it is a good way of having fun); rather, we want to build the left. And if lots of people are socialists, that’s a lot of people who aren’t liberals, isn’t it?
This brings us to Harrington’s notion that “the Left depended upon liberalism being strong in order to build upon.” Now there are two somewhat different, albeit not contradictory, ways of reading this. The first variant is the argument of “stages,” which says that people generally have to go through a liberal “stage” of ideas before being receptive to socialist perspectives. But this is a case of confusing what generally does happen with what generally has to happen.
When the socialist movement was large in the US, thousands of young workers simply grew up with socialist ideas, without passing through any liberal “stage.” Of course it’s far more common for people to be exposed to liberal ideas first, since liberalism is one of the “official approved” politics of bourgeois society, but just because something happens a lot doesn’t mean it’s necessary. It’s like saying that talking to the clerk at GameStop is a critical link in the chain of buying a video game–no it’s not, it’s just an annoying thing that unfortunately usually occurs.
The second, somewhat more sophisticated reading is that liberalism establishes certain institutions and expectations that create social and political space for the left. But that’s one of those arguments that sounds very good when you say it, and less good when you think about it. What are these institutions after all? Freedom of speech–but where was the liberal newspaper that defended WikiLeaks and Julian Assange in their entirely straightforward exercise of press freedom? Social Security and Medicare–but it’s Obama and his Democratic Party that are destined to inflict the first deadly blows to these programs, as indeed only they can. Thus the entire “contribution” of liberalism boils down to 1) political achievements that it no longer defends (eg, civil liberties); and 2) economic reforms that it’s trying to undo (eg, the New Deal/Great Society).
The real problem of how Harrington frames the issue–which is obvious if you ponder the nature of his political project, the Democratic Socialists of America–is that he conflates social-democratic reformism with liberalism. But these are really, in their “pure” forms, two different perspectives: the reformist accepts capitalism because overthrowing it is too hard, too risky, or impossible; whereas the liberal accepts capitalism because it’s good. In other words, the reformist has a negative defense of bourgeois society, while the liberal has a positive defense–or even offense. It makes a difference, just like it makes a difference if a stupid kid is raised by parents who know he’s stupid, versus ones who convince themselves that he’s a clever darling.
In general our political society suffers from a blurring of differences that are important (like left vs. liberal) along with a kind of displaced, pro-wrestling-type over-drama about distinctions that scarcely matter in practice (like Republican vs. Democrat). In specific the left suffers for it; for if the left isn’t eager to declare itself an enemy of liberalism, the public isn’t likely to be able to perceive the difference at all. This is why the pleas of the soft left always amount to something like that old Beck lyric: “In the time of chimpanzees, I was a monkey!” That is: I was someone that you probably couldn’t tell apart from anyone else.