Mel Evans and Kevin Smith interviewed Jonathan Smucker about Hegemony How-To and the current political context for the latest issue of Red Pepper, a UK-based magazine of “left politics and culture.”
Jonathan summarizes two central interventions of the book:
One is that politics is not a clubhouse. Politics is messy. It is meeting everyday people where they are. It’s not an enclave. It’s not being the enlightened, ‘super‑woke’ people together, learning a special vocabulary, shaking our heads and wagging our finger at all these backward other people. That is a manifestation of the same social elitism that is actively structured by neoliberal society. Instead, politics needs to be woven into the fabric of all of our lives.
The other intervention is that we need power… if we are involved in politics, that is what we are signing up for. We are signing up for building, holding and wielding political power, and wrestling with all of the questions and quandaries that come with that. Broadly speaking, the project of the left is expanding who has political power. It’s saying political power should not be concentrated in the hands of the few, the wealthy, or an elite technocratic class.
Jonathan also discusses the “ninth chapter” of Hegemony How-To, which didn’t make it into the final edit of the book.
Jonathan discusses Hegemony How-To and the need to take on the current corporate-friendly leadership of the Democratic Party, if we want to win the future. He also explains why he never says, “pull the Democratic Party to the left.” Listen to the full podcast at Lush Left.
The central tension [Smucker] struggles with is that people become radical activists out of a desire to change the world, but often find the subculture of radicalism to be an attractive refuge from the unjust world. This undermines their capacity to connect with people outside their small subculture — but it is only by aligning themselves with substantial portions those outside people that they can actually hope to change the world.
Sherman agrees with the advice of Hegemony How-To, but concludes with an important question about the constraints and limitations an ascendent Left faces today, even if all of this advice were heeded:
Anarchistic emphasis on building “prefigurative” relations in the here and now developed out of a pessimism about the liberatory potential of attaining state power. The first few years in this period of renewed interest in the state-oriented approach haven’t exactly proven them wrong.
In his recent talk at the Personal Democracy Forum, Jonathan Smucker expanded upon a key theme in chapter one of Hegemony How-To: why and how to avoid the “activist” label. He goes on to discuss how Lancaster Stands Up has been integrating this approach into its organizing practice since the November 2016 election – with remarkable results.
Rebecca Tarlau writes a reflective review of Hegemony How-To for the Berkeley Journal of Sociology, discussing the book’s concepts through the lens of the organizing work of Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement (MST).
For example, while Smucker is highly critical of Occupy Wall Street’s “prefigurative politics,” Tarlau argues that prefigurative politics and strategic politics can be complementary, as demonstrated by the MST:
…prefigurative and strategic politics can feed off of one another. Every institutional space that the movement occupies and constructs—from autonomous movement schools, to public universities, to agricultural cooperatives—becomes a space for the prefiguration of the movement’s political and economic goals.
(To be clear, Smucker also advocates that elements of prefigurative politics can complement a strategic political intervention, for example, SNCC’s lunch counter sit-ins.)
Tarlau agree’s with Smucker’s goal of the left abandoning its purism in order to develop broad-based political power, but she reflects that “building this type of broad-based political alliance can produce a serious tension: how to grow a movement, without losing the ideals that began its struggle” – again lifting up the case of the MST as a challenging example of this tension.
Jonathan Smucker was among ten grassroots organizers and advocates who contributed to a VICE Magazine featured forum on “effective activism.” The other nine contributors were Sister Simone Campbell, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, George Gresham, David S. Johnson, Rosalyn Koo, Srdja Popovic, Mark Rudd, Ned Ryun, and Linda Sarsour.
All of the short pieces are worth reading. Smucker’s piece, Take the Main Stage, builds upon a central theme in Hegemony How-To:
With insufficient organization and political power, activism too often contents itself with the futile exercise of “speaking truth to power.” The hard truth is, the powerful are not overly concerned about our truth. They are perfectly OK with us standing on the sidelines protesting them, holding a righteous flame in the wind, shouting our truth until we are blue in the face. What they really do notwant is for us to arm our moral protest with political power.
Sam Adler-Bell has written the most in-depth review yet of Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals, published today at New Republic. Lucid, provocative, and beautifully written, Adler-Bell’s review is well worth the read, even if you’ve already read the book.
Here’s how it kicks off:
In its final months, Hillary Clinton’s campaign depicted the election in Manichaean terms: the forces of light against darkness, love against hate, the guardians of a virtuous public against a world-historical bully. In this story, we lost the election not because we did something wrong, but because we did something right in a world that’s wrong. We fought the forces of misogyny, xenophobia, and white supremacy, but they were too strong; they overwhelmed us. And how could they not? This is America after all.
The left—especially the activist left—makes this mistake all the time: imagining there is some meaningful consolation in losing righteously. In 1934, Bertolt Brecht wrote, “It takes courage to say that the good were defeated not because they were good, but because they were weak.”