Michael Albert’s autobiography, Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life After Capitalism, follows both the life of the well-known radical, a founder of South End Press, Z Magazine, and Z Net, and the life of the left in the United States over the past forty years. Albert’s book successfully combines personal reflections with a larger institutional reflections that make a valuable contribution to those seeking to build a radical left movement in the United States.
Albert begins the book with early reflections from his life, but quickly moves into more interesting material covering his political development. Albert shares his experience of getting involved with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at MIT in the 1960s and his election to class president, a position from which he advocated anti-imperialist politics. He discusses the movements of the time, his involvement with them, and their legacies. Unlike liberal apologists for the 1960s radical movements, Albert approaches the movements from an honest approach, evaluating them in terms of what was appropriate at the time and criticizing them where they fell short. A significant portion of the book deals with the 1960s movements, but Albert also explores the left in the United States after the 1960s with a similar amount of attention to detail and honest critique. Albert shares his efforts, from helping to found South End Press to being involved in the World Social Forum, with the approach that current movements are part of the same spectrum of leftist activity that took place in the 1960s. Throughout the book, Albert identifies his own failings, the lessons he has learned, and the lessons that he believes the left should learn from the past in a humble manner that shows a genuine concern for the state of the world and the movements aimed at transforming it.
Of course, part of what is interesting about an autobiography of a prominent leftist in the United States are stories of their interactions with other prominent figures in the movement. In this regard, Albert’s book is full of stories detailing interactions with prominent figures on the left, including his personal friend for over thirty years, Noam Chomsky. Albert shares not only stories about how they have worked together over the years, but he recounts Chomsky’s reluctantly giving advice, including Chomsky’s advice that Albert pass on joining Weatherman in the late 1960s. Albert shares encounters with numerous other prominent left figures including Dave Dellinger, Howard Zinn, Tom Hayden, and Barbara Erenriech. Rather than merely namedropping, Albert uses these stories as ways to address deficiencies and strengths in the left and to account for its successes and failures over the past forty years.
A good part of this discussion of personal relationships and indeed his own life are Albert’s reflections on how the left has functioned over the past forty years. Albert became politically active in a period of intense political activity for the left and spent his early years in movements that openly claimed to be revolutionary. While the militant resistance of the 1960s declined rapidly by the mid to late 1970s, Albert has remained a committed leftist and has spent much of his life working on revolutionary projects. Particularly in the area of media–with Albert’s role in forming South End Press, Z Magazine, and Z Net–Albert has made many important contributions to the left. Albert shares with his readers why he started many of these projects and how he believed that they would help to develop a stronger left, as well as how others can learn from his efforts and experiences.
Perhaps Albert’s greatest contribution to the left have been his contributions to the development an economic theory called “participatory economics” or “parecon.” The theory was developed as a model for both organizing a future society as well as a model that could be implemented in the existing society for left-based organizations. It has made improvements on what Albert has seen as the deficiencies of Marxism, anarchism, and other such theories over his years of involvement in the left. However, Albert’s writes that despite offering many theoretical innovations and providing what Albert considers to be a viable model to point to for the left, “parecon” has never gained much attention on the left. He recounts that there have been few serious debates about it within the left and explains that he has had few serious discussions about it with other people identifying as leftists. Not surprisingly, the corporate press has rarely touched it and even the independent and progressive media has made little effort to publicize or debate the theory. Interestingly, Albert relates a number of stories about being interviewed in the foreign press about “parecon,” explaining that he got more attention for the theory abroad than he has within the United States.
Albert’s work on “parecon” highlights a theme that underlies his entire book, namely that the left needs to move forward by learning from past failures and successes and articulating a vision for a better world. Of course, as anyone on the left cannot attest to, it is easy to critique capitalism, imperialism, racism, and patriarchy, but our movement has serious deficiencies in articulating what we are for. Moreover, Albert argues that as part of this work, the left must find a way to be fulfilling and meaningful to the lives of who are involved. Albert criticizes the fact that many on the left expect such an intense personal involvement from those who take part that many people burn out too soon or become completely isolated. This isolation from “mainstream” society and often self-imposed refusal to talk to those outside of the left limits the movement and develops a significant obstacle to achieving social change.
Overall, Albert’s book is a worthwhile read, both for his reflections on the left over the past forty years as well as his thoughts on where the left should go from here. Albert ends the book with a moving appeal to the many radicals with whom he worked in the 1960s that abandoned the left, arguing that the need for a revolution remains as strong now as it was then:
I can’t see how 2006 is different from 1968. Is there some compelling new argument against being a revolution that I’ve missed? Is there some new evidence that private ownership, markets, bourgeois democracy, racism, patriarchy, global empire, and ecological suicide offer people good lives? Is there some compelling moral or practical argument against seeking institutions that foster diversity, solidarity, self-management, and equity? Is the degradation of living out of garbage cans below a rock-bottom poverty line less now than 38 years ago? Do we want our kids subordinated to bosses and managers? Do we want them to be lifetime wage slaves?
We must show the defining roots of society’s defining faults. We must evolve a defining vision of a definable future. We must communicate a compelling analysis and vision as widely as they will reach. We must create, with whatever patience proves necessary, alternative fulfilling and effective ways of being. We must live lives that will help more and more people put distractions and sometimes even their own security aside. We must dare to win.
By ending this way, Albert leaves the reader with the challenge of “looking forward to tomorrow.” Albert has made his contributions and has explained his choice, the only question that remains is what unique talents can we each bring to the building of a revolutionary left and how can get serious about winning?
Michael Albert, Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life After Capitalism, (Seven Stories Press, 2006).