Ambitious Effort to Map Future of Canadian Progressive Movements Falls Short
Next New Left: A History of the Future by Alan Sears (Fernwood Publishing, 2014)
Next New Left: A History of the Future by Alan Sears
Alan Sears’s Next New Left presents a unique analysis of the past, current and possible future Left, post social democracy. There are thoughtful and constructive components here, but there are also profound weaknesses. It comes out of a post- Trotskyist political milieu centred on organizing on campuses, around identity-centred issues and struggles and marginalized workers, set apart from unions, mainstream political parties and engaging with the state.
A central concept in the book is “infrastructure of dissent,” a phrase Sears, a sociology professor at Ryerson University, developed and popularized. It covers a number of disparate but related concepts: centres/networks of collective resistance in workplaces and communities; counter-hegemonic thinking and organization; forms of resistance and struggle; political organization, etc. It is used in ways that are specific and very useful, yet it also tends to cover too much and risks becoming a kind of catchphrase that obfuscates as much as it illuminates.
Sears’s continuous use of the term anti-capitalist is very vague. The so-called anti-capitalist movement is not really a movement at all and the term can obscure a lack of understanding of and unwillingness to challenge the capitalist system. Moreover, many of those who identify themselves anti-capitalist as such have little interest in building a base within the working class. Without such a base, it is difficult to imagine a movement that can be sustained, never mind grow. The term becomes a slogan inviting a deeper discussion, but that discussion is not taken up.
The definition of the working class is simple and precise and quite succinctly covers all of the periods in the book. Sears does an impressive job of analyzing and describing working-class life and forms of resistance in earlier eras, along with elements of previous radical Left projects. He also describes the factors that have led to the defeat of the older infrastructures of dissent. But when it comes to exploring what a “next new Left” would look like, the book’s biggest weaknesses are revealed.
Sears overestimates the ability of short-term struggles and single-issue social movements to generate this new Left and underestimates the potential contribution of socialists in bringing a longer-term and system-challenging perspective.Enamoured with new forms of tactics, the political weaknesses of current and recent movements are not addressed. Whether he simply doesn’t want to take on such criticism of the movement he is part of, or doesn’t see it as important to do so as part of the process of building, is not clear.
Political organization is marginal in this narrative and emphasizing its role is seen as an erroneous holdover from an earlier era. Certainly, activism is the cauldron for developing radicals, but socialists — activists committed to actually transforming the system we live in — don’t spontaneously develop without some kind of exposure to socialist ideas, organizations or approaches.
He offers almost nothing about the ideological, political or organizational characteristics of potential political parties or movements that we need to build, let alone references to debates about challenging, engaging with or transforming the state, electoral politics, or the necessity of breaking with the NDP.
Sears clearly reflects on the radical segmentation of the working class in this period, but it seems that only those in the most disadvantaged and marginalized corners of the labour market or communities matter and can serve as a basis for his next new Left. All of the (appropriate) examples of narrowness and sectionalism come from waged or trade-union members, while there is a rather patronizing characterization of the unemployed and workers from oppressed communities as seemingly immune from forms of narrowness and sectionalism.
Significantly, Sears calls for integration of class struggle with various forms of anti-oppression as part of the struggle against capitalism. But the book places anti-oppression and social identity issues in contradistinction with class, and gives primacy to the former. His superficial (and erroneous) description of the reasons for the eclipse of the Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly (which he somehow likens to the gross sexual episode in the British SWP) is one reflection of this perspective.
Written by a respected and committed member of the Toronto Left, one hopes that The Next New Left will at least bring to the table certain major strategic differences and questions within the left that need to be debated if we are to build a broader unity and move forward.