The Long Detour: The History and Future of the American Left

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James Weinstein, a socialist and former member of the Communist Party, is currently the editor of In These Times and is a former editor of Studies on the Left and Socialist Review. Given his experience with such publications, he certainly seems qualified to write a history of the American left, although his attempt fails in numerous ways. The Long Detour: The History And Future Of The American Left, focuses on both the historical successes and failures of the American left in addition to providing his recommendations for the future of the left. By evaluating the historical development of the left and attempting to learn lessons from it, Weinstein offers the potential for this generation of “leftists” to avoid one of the biggest mistakes of previous lefts–the failure to learn from history and adjust strategy accordingly.

In analyzing the history of the left in the United States, James Weinstein makes a series of arguments that have become rather common knowledge to those identifying with “the left.” Weinstein primarily focuses on the Populist, Progressive, Socialist, and Communist movements and their legacy for both the left and the United States as a whole. He recounts the achievements of the Populist movements in running candidates that were able to win office and make concrete changes, the achievements of Progressive reforms, and the successes of the Socialist Party. The Socialist Party’s success, according to Weinstein, was in its ability to get large portions of its program adopted by the two major parties, despite its failure to seize power. While this can be an effective short-term strategy, the failure of the Socialist Party to establish itself within the government shows the limits of this strategy. The piecemeal and distorted implementation of socialist programs by non-socialists attempting to “pacify” the population has resulted in the lack of a developed socialist left as seen in Europe and a failure for left ideas to get mainstream attention. Much of the rest of Weinstein’s history focuses on the failures of the Communist Party and the failures of Bolshevism, points that have been argued to great length over the past forty years, and indeed, little new insight is offered.

Moreover, rather than engaging the activity on the left by this generation, Weinstein instead seems to belittle them by either not mentioning them or throwing out thinly veiled insults at contemporary organizing methods. After first coming to prominence in this country in June of 1999, the anti-globalization movement has been arguably the most dynamic and energetic movement on the left, and the only movement that has achieved sustained participation over the past few years (large summit protests still attract thousands). However, Weinstein barely mentions this movement, making only passing references to creating “fair trade” policies. He also dismisses anarchism, a decentralized system of organizing that has gained considerable currency in the anti-globalization movement, as having a “lingering appeal” to “newly radicalized young people” despite what he claims is its complete inability to achieve any meaningful change. Weinstein also neglects to mention other expressions of the anti-globalization movement such as the World Social Forums and the large number of “counter-summits” that have been organized–many along anarchist principles–to develop an alternative vision of what a better world might look like. While Weinstein talks about the need to focus on “universal principles” and the need to develop an underlying framework for the left, he ignores some of the more serious attempts to do that over the past five years.

It is with his recommendations for the future that the book falls completely flat. While Weinstein highlights the successes of the trade union movement and the socialist movement of the early twentieth century, he rejects any attempts to create similar movements in the contemporary period. Weinstein, expanding on an argument advanced in his historical analysis, argues that the best way to win victories is to work within the two major parties. He rejects what he terms “love affair” the left has with creating their own party, arguing that such efforts are a “serious impediment to the creation of a coherent and effective movement to humanize our society.” Instead of creating a party which would truly represent the desires of those on the left, and quite likely, resonate with many others, Weinstein proposes a strategy of competing in local congressional districts as either Democrats or Republicans and using these campaigns to push the two parties towards the left while working within the existing Progressive and Black Caucuses in the United States Congress. He identifies areas in which successes could be achieved–health care reform, education, and the domestic and foreign policy ramifications of the military-industrial complex–although there is no explanation of concrete ways in which the two major parties might become more responsive to these issues.

The left is clearly in a dismal state in the United States, as there has not been an effective left movement in quite some time. However, Weinstein’s suggestions would do little to improve the status of the left. While it is nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly what needs to be done to move the left to a position where it can win victories and make concrete achievements in peoples lives, at this point it seems pretty clear that participation in the two corporate parties will not do that. Sadly, Weinstein’s opinions are representative of the arguments emanating from books written by many older leftists, and while they do represent one side of a debate, they often fail to take into account the more salient points of opposing arguments. With the future portion of the book lacking and the history featuring a fairly common analysis that can be found in any number of books, most on the left interested in learning from the past will have either already heard these perspectives or will be able to learn more valuable lessons by looking elsewhere.

James Weinstein, The Long Detour: The History And Future Of The American Left, (Westview Press, 2003).

Author: mediamouse

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