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Taking the Helm: Hegemony How-To and Left Strategy

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People walking around the reflecting pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial

Jonathan Smucker’s book, Hegemony How-To, has received considerable attention among left and progressive organizers. Most of the reviews have been positive (for instance, here and here): readers have generally found it to be timely for a left licking its wounds after Trump’s catastrophic election victory, as well as the impressive but limited achievements of Occupy, the Movement for Black Lives, and Standing Rock. As Ravi Ahmad notes in her discussion of the book, Smucker is part of the growing numbers of movement thinkers trying to chart a path towards power.

Chris Maisano’s review in Jacobin, however, offers a decidedly different assessment. While agreeing with Smucker’s account of Occupy Wall Street, Maisano concludes that Hegemony How-To is fundamentally flawed because Smucker does not ground his strategic prescriptions in an analysis of U.S. society and politics. This allegedly leads Smucker to substitute “technique for strategy.” But even the techniques, for Maisano, are wrongheaded. He claims that Smucker stresses the importance of developing appealing stories when what is really needed is a deeper connection with social forces powerful enough to transform society. Smucker believes that it is more effective to recruit pre-existing social groups (church congregations, student clubs, neighborhood associations) into political activity, rather than recruiting individuals. But, according to Maisano, this reinforces the pre-existing fragmentation of identity and interests, whereas the left must seek to foster a collective political identity. Smucker does not advocate for the centrality of class identity because it is not experienced as a real identity; Maisano disagrees and additionally emphasizes that ruling class power relies, above all, on its control of the workplace. Smucker also goes too far in ‘meeting people where they are at’, by encouraging an identification with U.S. society and its culture. Finally, Maisano asserts that Hegemony How-To neglects the significance of building political organizations such as DSA that can develop radical organizers with the proper political perspective to guide mass movements when they emerge.

In some instances, Maisano’s criticisms rest on clear misreadings of Smucker’s book. For example, Maisano believes that Smucker’s emphasis on politicizing and activating pre-existing social groups – “bloc recruitment” – will reinforce fragmentation. Yet most readers would see bloc recruitment in the context of what Smucker calls ‘social unification’, the creation of a new sense of collective identity that transforms and builds off of individuals’ prior sense of identity. In fact, the entire final chapter explores this process. It makes more sense, then, to see bloc recruitment as part of the process of overcoming social and political fragmentation, rather than a concession to it.

Likewise, Smucker’s discussion of cultural symbols revolves around the need for the left to contest dominant values by attempting to revise the meaning of those symbols; identifying with contemporary US culture in the way Maisano suggests is clearly not part of his agenda. It also seems strange to suggest that Smucker neglects the significance of political organization when the book repeatedly lauds the work of SNCC, and seems off-the-mark to suggest that Smucker is uninterested in the development of organic links to social forces capable of transforming society, when Smucker’s entire project is motivated by precisely the lack of those connections. These evident – to me, at least – discrepancies are uncharacteristic of Maisano’s usually incisive book reviews.

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I tend to agree with Maisano on the importance of workplace struggles and the capacity of class identity to acquire the texture of a lived and felt reality; no surprise, given my background in the labor movement. I also agree with Maisano’s claim that strategy must be grounded in social and political analysis. Yet I disagree that we are left with a “politics without politics.” Smucker offers a useful approach to political strategy even though Hegemony How-To is not a complete roadmap for the left.

The crucial section of the book for me is chapter 5, “Aspiring Hegemonic.” Here, Smucker argues that radicals must get serious about taking power. Aspiring for hegemony requires the left to have its eye on the political alignments that determine who controls the institutional sources of power, especially state power. Although I’m not sure this chapter will persuade my anarchist friends, I think this unapologetic stance on the importance of electoral politics makes the book an even more essential read today compared to when it was first published. Hegemony How-To argues that organizing to assemble a political force large enough to “take the helm”, and to shift the politics of country, means orienting ourselves to the constituencies we feel are the crucial drivers of social change. To me, that means our work is first and foremost immersing ourselves within the progressive political motion already existing in those constituencies. Right now, resistance to the far-right agenda is taking place both in the streets and at the polls, as we witness both the success of diverse, progressive candidates as well as the victories of moderates against extreme right-wing candidates.

If we take Smucker seriously, and truly want to engage with people on the scale that can shift U.S. politics, the left cannot respond to this situation with either “resigned sideline criticism,” or focusing only on the (extremely important) grassroots campaigns to organize unions or promote left demands, or choosing only those electoral struggles that reinforce our sense of righteousness. Not, at least, if we aspire to hegemony and leadership within a social base capable of contending for power. My own sense is that much of the left has yet to take this to heart. Rather, the impulse is to chart our strategy based on either an unrealistic sense of our own importance, the belief that the main task of radical politics is to win adherents to our own analysis, or that the job of defeating the far right – especially when the Democratic candidate is a moderate – can be left to liberals even when most of the people we struggle alongside put that at the top of their agenda. Smucker is there to tell us otherwise. That’s what makes Hegemony How-To a valuable guide to politics today.


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