Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Death and Rebirth of American Radicalism

    By Stanley Aronowitz

    New York: Routledge, 1996. 221 pp. $16.95.

    The term "radical" is ill-defined in the mass media and is frequently used to describe individuals and groups outside of the mainstream, regardless of political ideology. However, in The Death and Rebirth of American Radicalism, author Stanley Aronowitz makes it clear that he is referring to the political Left. He traces the actions of the Left in the United States, up to and including a recent example from the AIDS action organization, ACT-UP. Aronowitz provides the reader with a concise and critical assessment of the impact of radicalism. He refers to radical journalist Dwight Macdonald in establishing the premise of what he believes represents radical political dissent:

    I am persuaded that Macdonald is right: to be a radical does not, in the first place, require a historical estimate that capitalism will collapse. What it requires is the elementary belief that even if the answers remain somewhat elusive, the prevailing system of political, economic and cultural power, late or advanced global capitalism, is opposed to individual freedom and happiness. (p. ix)

    Aronowitz does not dwell or lose his purpose in a reminiscent literary journey that starts with the death of the Left in U.S. politics. He clearly states his path in the introduction:

    [The Left] persists in repeating to itself the fiction that there was nothing wrong with left political ideology and program; it was simply defeated by the superior forces of Capital. On the conventional account, the right controlled the media and other means of communications, captured the legislative branch and neutralized the executive branch of the federal government. Transnational corporations simply decided to avoid the constraints of national and local politics, which tended to expect a measure of social justice.

    In this book, I contend the reverse. The defeat itself requires explanation, not only in terms of what Capital does, but in relation to the specific history of the various components of the political Opposition. (p. 3)

    In tracing the path of radical action, Aronowitz is honest and analytical about both his own actions as a radical organizer beginning in the 1960s and the actions of others. This volume is packed tight with a summary of past radical activities in the United States, an analysis of their connections and interrelationships, and their consequences in both the public sphere and the inner sphere of the radical activists. In the first three chapters of the book, "When the Left was New," "The New Left," and "The Situation of the Left in the United States," Aronowitz offers a concise historical context for U.S. radicalism.

    Beginning with chapter four, "Against the Liberal State: ACT-UP and the Emergence of Post-Modern Politics," I sensed a shift in tone. Aronowitz weaves an exuberance into his text as he describes and analyzes the actions of ACT-UP in response to New York City's mayor Rudolph Giuliani's 1993 efforts to close some homeless shelters and eliminate the Department of AIDS Services. Growing out of grassroots efforts in New York's gay community for the rights of people with AIDS when the disease was still represented as the "gay plague," ACT-UP has become a prominent political force. Aronowitz clearly describes the political climate during ACT-UP's ascension while avoiding the trap of overloading the reader with "asides" and superfluous information. He then describes and analyzes ACT-UP's actions within a political framework that takes into account the relationships among the various political groups in New York City.

    Aronowitz uses ACT-UP's opposition to Mayor Giuliani's cutbacks as an example of the rebirth of radicalism in American politics. He points out the victories and pitfalls that radical organizations have faced and would still likely face in taking action. In a 1997 speech given at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, MIT professor Noam Chomsky made the point that social justice must come from the people who are suffering the consequences of political decisions imposed on them, and that they must move beyond the feeling of helplessness. As Chomsky stated, "Things don't have to be this way. We are not helpless. We can change the course of events if we organize and take action." Aronowitz moves beyond Chomsky's call for people to organize; he establishes a framework of theoretical considerations that individuals should take into account in order to organize and sustain a radical movement for social change. As a former union organizer and steelworker and now as a professor of sociology, Aronowitz brings multiple perspectives to the issues surrounding radical action by those seemingly without power in our capitalist political structure. One of his messages in The Death and Rebirth of American Radicalism is that social justice can be reached through organization and collective action.

    In chapter five, "Towards a Politics of Alternatives, Part One," Aronowitz reviews and analyzes the historical development of the Communist movement on an international scale, including the limited role of U.S. Communism. Based on this analysis, he notes that "despite considerable historical and biographical scholarship to reveal the hidden history of radicalism we remain victims of the wall of resistance and the pervasive public silence to radical and revolutionary ideas, including those that originated in our own history" (p. 158). Incidents in our history, such as the "Red Scare" of the 1950s, and existing public policy, such as the continued embargo of Cuba, serve to substantiate the limited scope of political options from a radical perspective. Clearly, it is time to open up more options.

    The present U.S. political system consists of two major parties, and from the results of recent Presidential elections, when on average only 50 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, many of us don't feel that we are invited to either one. Aronowitz points out this fact in his final chapter, "Towards a Politics of Alternatives, Part Two." He lays out "practical conditions for popular participation which . . . would significantly shift the conduct of everyday life" (p. 184). One of these conditions is popular control over technological development, which would be subject to the criterion of democratic participation as well as economic advantage. This would mean that labor-saving aspects of technology would be weighed against whether this technology would "hurt or assist people to develop their own capacities" (p. 185). In our present predatory culture, the workers are often the prey, while humanity and social responsibility are considered signs of weakness.

    The common thread that runs throughout Stanley Aronowitz's "practical conditions" for significant social change, and indeed this entire book, is his attention to humanity and social responsibility. However, his argument is not to be mistaken for the liberal fluff that garnishes the cold steel of federal public assistance cutbacks. He argues for real changes in the social and political structure of the United States. He is not merely proposing changes in how money is spent by the government; he is proposing changes in how the American public participates in government. This book begins by recounting the role of radicalism in the United States, but the real purpose of this volume lies in the final chapter. Rather than succumbing to the "helplessness" that Chomsky warns us is actually an illusion, Aronowitz makes his plea to us, the American public, to begin to organize movements for social justice in situations relevant to us.

    R.H.T.
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    Further Comment
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    Book Notes