26 December 2014
For Christmas Marie gave me Glenn-Moss’s The New Radicals, which Peter Vale had recommended after my lecture at Gordon Institute for Business Science and dialogue with Xolela Mangcu in July. I read it yesterday. It helped me to see what was missing from my talk, and also the potential for fertile, cross-country intellectual and practical dialogue between South African and American interested in deep, democratizing changes.
Moss shows that white radicals did not simply ignore the BC challenge to whites “to go back to their own communities to organize,” when SASOS broke away from NUSAS. What I had argued at GIBS was that the problem was simply avoidance of home communities, which others had also argued. Thus, Martin Legassick had proposed that “Since radical white students regarded with contempt…the idea of engaging with racist whites…they turned to the black working class as an alternative.”
This is too simplistic, as Moss shows both through his personal experiences and accounts of the theoretical debates of the time.
Young white radicals were searching for a positive philosophy which addressed a real weakness they saw in BC – its inattention to questions of class. Key figures Moss, Steven Friedman, Barbara Hogan and many others supported the BC critique of liberalism and multiracialism, and BC’s claim to black leadership of the anti-apartheid struggle, but they sought to ground the larger social change project in a humanized Marxism or socialism which made class central. It is important to note that there is another dimension of BC which Moss neglects - its epistemological critique of Enlightenment rationality and triumphalist science, a critique which shaped the thinking of intellectuals such as Mahmood Mamdani, Xolela Mangcu, Enver Motata, Sabelo Ndlovu Gatsheni and others.
A telling debate took place among white radicals in December 1973, at the semi-annual theoretical workshop of NUSAS, the student union. While Geoff Budlender argued the BC position, Eddie Webster, a young sociologist at Natal, part of a key group of new left intellectuals which included Rick Turner, countered that the BC, while correctly insisting on black leadership of the struggle and strategies for the psychological liberation for blacks, had an insufficient analysis of class and also the crucial role of intellectuals in consciousness-raising. This consciousness-raising role had been stressed by Gramsci, and also African revolutionaries such as Fanon and Cabral.
An action programme took shape out of Webster’s position which promoted work on campuses in research, documentation of injustices, in large campaigns to raise student awareness of the oppression of blacks, and also in support efforts for workers. Steven Friedman and the Wages Commissions played critical roles. As this programme developed it included worker education efforts and various roles in supporting and organizing workers, especially in ways that integrated politics with union organizing and crossed divides of industries and community. I should note a personal parallel here — my formative experience as a young man in the civil rights movement was organizing student support for the maids and janitors union campaign at Duke University.
There are many other parallels, as well as differences with my own radical generation in the US, in the same time period. In the early 1970s in the US, young activists sensed that the tide of social change was dramatically ebbing, especially in the aftermath of Nixon’s overwhelming victory in the 1972 presidential election. But there continued to be ferment all around the world. Building on the spirit and theme of “participatory democracy” from the 1960s New Left, a group of us founded the New American Movement, a participatory socialist effort to “bring the new left back home” in both theoretical and practical terms. We saw NAM as an alternative both to Black Power and its offspring, who were arguing white irrelevance; and to the Stalinist and state-centered social democratic old left. By the mid-1970s, some of us had begun to argue for the merger of NAM and Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, a breakaway from the old Socialist Party, to produce something in the vein of Moss’s “Movement for Social Democracy,” even with questions about the state-centered politics of DSOC’s social democratic approach. This transpired in 1980 in the Democratic Socialists of America, which Cornel West continues to head.
But another development in America, the growth of large scale community organizing, also began to shift the debate and attention (community organizing has no large scale counterpart in South Africa, though there are powerful examples such as Ishmael Mkhabela’s Interfaith Center for Community Development in Soweto, or the Abhalali movement among shack dwellers).
Associated with the growth of community organizations and drawing on leading intellectuals in the civil rights movement like Ella Baker and Bayard Rustin, some public figures – the community organizing leader Geno Baroni, the historian Lawrence Goodwyn, Senators Fred Harris and Barbara Mikulski among others –were calling for a “new populism.” I had first argued for socialists in NAM/DSOC to merge in order to take leadership in the “new populist movement” but as the decade progressed I began to argue that populism is its own, distinctive political tradition which can be distinguished from left and right. It differs from socialist politics not only on the grounds of socialism’s statist bent but also because of socialism’s fiercely modernist, anti-traditionalist biases, which create marked hostility toward settled institutions like churches, ethnic groups, local community organizations, etc. Populism’s vision of cooperation and “the commonwealth” also mark it as different from market-oriented politics, what today has become varieties of “neo-liberalism”. Populism, in this account, not only infused the 1880s-90s farmers’ movement but also the 1930s union and cooperative and rural movements.
Eric Foner in a famous Radical History Workshop essay, answering Sombert’s question, ”Why Is There No Socialism in America” made a parallel case, arguing that it wasn’t the absence of radical sensibilities but rather the presence of an alternative radical sensibility, grounded in small property and civic autonomy. Gerald Taylor, the community organizer and public intellectual with a civil rights movement background, has subsequently developed this line of argument, pointing to its translation into professions as a source of power in the black freedom movement after the failure of the Populist Party. African American historian Frederick Harris has similarly argued the centrality of autonomous “free spaces” to the black freedom movement. Political theorist Thomas-Spragens, in Getting the Left Right, traced the shift in progressive American politics from a populist faith in workers and common people, with an emphasis on popular agency in the New Deal, to pity for the dispossessed and distributive justice delivered through the state in modern liberal and left politics. Populism has the sensibility of the best of the Popular Front of the 1930s – rather than being a polarizing politics, it seeks to win over the broad “middle” of the society. Seeing every cultural group – like every person – as immensely complex and contradictory, it is attentive to the democratic currents and potentials in different communities and anchoring institutions like congregations, union locals, local businesses, ethnic groups and informal settings.
In addition to arguing for populism as a distinctive politics (especially in “Populism versus the Left,” in Sheldon Wolin’s short-lived but influential magazine democracy ) I worked with feminist pioneer and women’s historian Sara Evans to develop these arguments about populism through the concept of “free spaces,” which we argued can be found at the heart of every democratic movement. Free spaces create sustainable sites for transformative democratic politics different than either the state or mass movements, in settings like religious congregations, schools, clubs, reading groups, local unions, settlement houses, sometimes colleges. They can also be seen as “mediating institutions” with particular qualities, including space for self-organizing, democratic intellectual life and cultivation of democratic skills. I should note that such spaces are almost entirely invisible in most treatments of the anti-apartheid movement, as Paul Weinberg (head archivist at UCT) and I discussed last August.
Meanwhile, other young intellectuals were also making their own contributions to a “new populist” politics, sometimes using the term populism and sometimes not. These included Benjamin Barber with Strong Democracy, Jane Mansbridge, Beyond Adversarial Democracy, Craig Calhoun with his work on “the radicalism of tradition” and also later on Habermas and the public sphere (Calhoun introduced Habermas to American audiences with his edited collection, Habermas and the Public Sphere, to which I contributed), Derek Shearer and Martin Canoy, Economic Democracy, and Frances Moore Lappe, Diet for a Small Planet. Young populists and radical democrats found allies among an older generation such as Christopher Lasch, Lawrence Goodwyn, Sheldon Wolin and others. Eventually, through the auspices of the Good Society journal, an intellectual home for engaged political theorists, we connected with the work of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom on governance of common pool resources (for which Ostrom won the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics). We also connected to the work of Esther Thelen and her students like John Spencer who were developing an agency based science of infant development, integrating complexity science. This partnership eventually led to “civic science,” ethinking the role of science in democratic terms, the topic of a National Science Foundation workshop last-October. Peter Levine and others in the civic studies field have also made considerable contributions to concepts of populist politics, public work and an epistemology of civic agency.
I described populism’s real world expressions in citizen groups in my first book The Backyard Revolution, published in 1980 (new community and neighborhood organization, the Ralph Nader networks, consumer politics and environmentalism, the enormously influential Midwest-Academy founded by Heather Booth). Shortly after, populism took shape in a Congressional Populist Caucus. A new unionism represented by Teamsters for a Democratic Union, eventually, SEIU, were in this tradition, as well as mayors like De Blasio in New York. It is noteworthy but rarely noticed that both Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama drew on populist themes of agency in their presidential campaigns.
It is important to note that this populist history has been “uncovered” by conservatives like National-Review reporter Stanley Kurtz,-whose best-selling “expose” of the supposedly secret influences on Obama in his Radical in Chief, has been a best seller on the right. All conservative historical treatments stop in the early 1980s, before populism became clearly established as a different politics.
There is another chapter to the story. Populists like Christopher Lasch and Sheldon Wolin (and his students especially –Andrew Polsky, The Rise of the Therapeutic State), as well as historians like Thomas Bender, Intellectuals and Public Life, John Jordan, Machine Age Ideology, and Ellen Langemann, The Politics of Knowledge, described the hollowing out of institutions and civic life (and thus the shrinking of free spaces, though they didn’t necessarily use the term) by the spread of technocratic modes of thought and organization, “the gospel of efficiency,” and—in Bender’s terms – the transformation from “civic” to “disciplinary” professionalism. In my writings on populism, I also tied these dynamics to an epistemological argument, the overwhelming primacy which thinkers descended from Enlightenment modes of thought have given to scientific rationality, the resultant devaluation of relational and cultural ways of knowing, and the erosion of free spaces. This argument, made in the CommonWealth book (1989), called for action in response, exploring how what Xolela Mangcu calls “technocratic creep” might be reversed.
This took shape in the work of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship and our partners over the years, translating the populist politics of broad-based community organizing ( which we called “citizen politics”) into institutional change efforts in schools, a Catholic woman’s college, cooperative extension, a nursing home, and nonprofits. All pushed back against technocratic creep.
Part of the work also included meetings, in Minneapolis and Washington, bringing together reflective practitioners and community organizers with intellectuals --Benjamin Barber, David Mathews, Ernie Cortes, Gerald Taylor, Bob Woodson, Jane Mansbridge, EJ Dionne, Robert Bellah, Frankie Moore-Lappe, Heather Booth, Will Marshall, William Schambra, William Doherty, and many others. On the ground organizing and intellectual discussion about the need for “a different kind of politics” formed the foundation for the “New Citizenship” initiative with the White House Domestic Policy Council for the first two years of the Clinton administration.
Over time the concepts of “public work” and “civic agency” emerged out of such organizing and discussions, complementing “free spaces” and “populism.” Public work highlights the crucial importance of rethinking work itself as a civic and democratic organizing site (crucial, we realized, for the creation or revitalization of free spaces). Civic agency, developed through public work -- collective capacities, or power, to act across differences to meet challenges and negotiate a democratic way of life -- helps to concretize a vision of an empowering democratic society.
The work also merged into higher education change efforts, especially the project of revitalizing the democratic narrative of higher education. Civic science, expressed in “citizen professional” practice, pioneered by Bill Doherty and his colleagues at the UMN Citizen Professional Center an also the political theorist Albert Dzur, is key to this effort. I think of civic science as potentially a democratizing civic solvent not only in higher education but across technocratic systems generally.
Along the way Scott Peters, a former colleague at the CDC and partner in civic science, Tim Eatman, Julie Ellison, David Mathews, and others have unearthed rich histories of the “democracy” traditions of higher education. We have seen and, to varying extents, participated in large change processes at several colleges and universities, including the College of St. Catherin, the University of Minnesota, Augsburg College, Northern Arizona University, Syracuse University, the University of Maryland Baltimore County, and Lonestar Community College.
We have found that higher education change is difficult, but possible. It is also upstream, since experiences in higher education shape the career identities and conceptual frameworks of almost all leaders in modern “knowledge societies.” Democratization of higher education is central to the survival and deepening of democratic societies as a whole. The new collection, Democracy’s Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities helps to make the case. Some of the intellectual journey described on the American side here is in the book.
Harry Boyte is a long-time public intellectual and activist. He is Senior Scholar in Public Work Philosophy at Augsburg College title, and has recently edited Democracy's Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities.