Gabriel Kuhn's Blog

Getting on with the Game

By Gabriel Kuhn

A review of Jonathan Matthew Smucker’s Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals (Chico et al.: AK Press, 2017). Originally published on Alpine Anarchist Productions.

There is much to admire in Jonathan Matthew Smucker’s Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals. It adds another layer to the internal criticism of activist culture that we have seen in releases such as Matthew Wilson’s Rules Without Rulers: The Possibilities and Limits of Anarchism, J. Moufawad-Paul’s The Communist Necessity, and AAP’s Revolution Is More Than a Word: 23 Theses on Anarchism.

Essentially, Smucker challenges us to get over the temptations of complacent, identity-based self-marginalization and to think of political engagement in terms of effective means and broad social change. Some of his observations are precious enough to quote them here:

“If critiquing power is the forte of the modern American left, contesting power – let alone exercising it – surely is not.” (p. 133)

“I argue that to eschew political power is to commit political suicide…” (p. 49)

“There is nothing ‘radical’ about an attachment to outsiderness and marginality.” (p. 254)

“…our actions were collectively performed rituals to express our values and ourselves. …. Going to a protest felt a lot like a worship service.” (p. 30)

“Millions of Americans already think the issues are important. Often the problem is not that they do not care. The problem may be that they don’t think out actions are effective. And they may be right!” (p. 169)

“If we want to inspire people to stick with social justice organizations for the long haul, then we absolutely must make them feel valued and appreciated. It’s really basic. People like to be around people who are nice to them and who make them feel like they belong.” (p. 177)

“How many times, I wondered, had I favored a particular action or tactic because I really thought it was likely to change a decision-maker’s position or win over key allies, as opposed to gravitating toward an action because it expressed my activist identity and self-conception? How concerned were we really, in our practice, with political outcomes? We often seemed more preoccupied with the purity of our political expression than with how to move from Point A to Point B. It felt as if having the right line about everything was more important than making measurable progress on anything.” (p. 28)

It is for interventions like these and the book’s overall thrust that I’d recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in these matters, especially if they are part of the milieu Smucker is describing. I also agree with the author that it is worth to “reconsider our relationship to electoral campaigns and political parties – thinking about how we might take advantage of such structures and moments as part of a long-term progressive hegemonic operation” (p. 170-171); should anyone care, I recently discussed this in an interview with members of the Black Rose Anarchist Federation.

Before this review deteriorates into fan mail, however, let’s offer a few thoughts on what I consider weaknesses of this fine publication.

* * *

Let’s start with some minor things.

Sometimes, Smucker seems to shy away from the consequences of his own arguments. His discussion of leadership, for example, ends with a rather toothless plea for “leaderful” (instead of “leaderless”) movements, instead of driving home the point that if leadership inevitably arises in social movements we need to develop useful and transparent forms of it rather than reproducing nontransparent and unchecked ones. Smucker claims that “there is a crucial difference … between the idea of no leaders and the idea of all – or many – leaders”. (p. 185) But no matter how hard he tries, this simply isn’t true. There certainly isn’t a crucial difference between no leaders and all leaders except for the feel-good rhetoric, and while there might be a slight difference between no leaders and many leaders, it remains largely rhetorical and opens up a somewhat problematic category of … well, what exactly? A minority of folks incapable of achieving leadership?

I get a similar feeling when Smucker talks about how to reach out to possible allies. “At the risk of utilizing a condescending metaphor, you don’t drop a college textbook on a kindergarten class”, he writes, before explaining that “a teaching metaphor is only condescending here if you think of students (or young people, for that matter) as inferior or lacking agency”. That, however, isn’t true either, despite a predictable reference to Paulo Freire and the truism that “every teacher has something to learn and every student has something to teach”. (p. 188-189) That is certainly the case, but we aren’t talking about a give-and-take situation in an enlightened and egalitarian educational environment. We are talking about mobilizing the masses to political action in a form that we – radicals – deem appropriate. No matter how much science teachers have to learn from their students in sports, they aren’t teaching sports, they are teaching science – and if they didn’t assume that they knew more about science than their students, there wouldn’t be any point in teaching them. In Smucker’s analogy, we are the science teachers. And if this is the path we want to follow, we are “condescending”, because we assume that we know more about appropriate political action than the masses do. You can turn this assumption into a political position. It is called vanguardism. If you want to argue for that position, that’s fine, but it’d be useful to spell it out. And if you don’t want to argue for it, you should use different metaphors to argue for whatever you want to argue for. Doing a little dance – one step forward, one step back – doesn’t help.

Perhaps related to the above, it is sometimes not entirely clear who Smucker is talking for and who he is talking to. Early on, he explains: “I use the pronoun ‘we’ without hesitation throughout the book, to refer to groups and movements of which I am a part, and also to refer to a far larger ‘we’: the project of society itself.” (32) It’s good to be all-inclusive, but vagueness on that level can leave folks wondering where a critique is coming from and where it is heading. I asked myself that several times while reading Hegemony How-To.

Finally, on the most minor of all notes, Smucker includes a comment in his critique of postmodernism that could be read as disrespectful: regardless of the idiocy of today’s academic pomo circles, it should not be suggested that all people associated with the term sit in a “comfy ‘revolutionary’ armchair”. (p. 219) A fair number of figures commonly referred to as “postmodernists”, such as Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, or Félix Guattari (none of whom ever used the term with positive connotations, by the way), were life-long militants engaged in various social and political struggles. Whatever we want to think of the legacy of their work, it is not right to disregard that history.

* * *

A more general problem is that, in my opinion, Smucker’s book turned out too long. It has all the potential of being a thought-provoking manifesto calling for a fundamental change in activist culture, but different things seem to get in the way.

First, there is the matter of style. I think that certain passages could have been tightened up significantly. Smucker uses, for example, an entire page to explain a very simple thing, namely that his book is about tactics and strategy rather than beliefs. (p. 44) In this and similar instances, I would have preferred straightforwardness over unnecessary elaboration.

Second, I don’t feel that any of the theoretical coating that Smucker presents his reflections in – from Jürgen Habermas’s “lifeworld” to Pierre Bourdieu’s “worldmaking” to Antonio Gramsci’s “articulation” – adds any substance to his work. To the contrary, I find it distracting. Smucker’s book is at its best when critiquing movement practices and offering suggestions on effective organizing based on personal experience. This should have been the focus throughout. Smucker’s account of organizing the Lancaster Coalition for Peace and Justice, for example, is brilliant and should be required reading for any aspiring organizer. (It’s a figure of speech; I am not in favor of required reading lists for organizers.)

Third, Smucker follows a somewhat problematic trend that seems popular with radical U.S. authors, namely the inclusion of plenty of biographical detail and personal anecdote. Not to be misunderstood: it is good to be personal, and, as I have just pointed out, the personal experience that Smucker’s observations in Hegemony How-To are based on makes it such a strong book. But when biographical detail and personal anecdote no longer relate to the book’s contents, they stop being relevant and the question arises why they are there. The same is true for extended lists of projects people have been involved in, issues they are aware of, or people they are acquainted with. Whether we are knowledgeable in what we are writing about comes through in our writing; dropping too many credentials can make folks suspicious. Or, at least, certain folks. Maybe we are just dealing with cultural differences here…

In a recent edition of Germany’s longest-standing anarchist periodical, Graswurzelrevolution, literary theorist Martin Baxmeyer penned a scathing critique of blurbs used to advertise books. He concludes: “In Germany, the ‘blurbing’ of new releases is still fairly uncommon. In English-speaking countries, however, it has become routine, and U.S. publishers have taken this routine to Olympic heights. … There is a simple rule of thumb: the more blurbs, the lamer the book.”

More than once, European publishers have rejected books by U.S. radicals that I had suggested for translation with the argument that they were too “self-involved”. Apart from the tendency to include mini-autobiographies (no matter the topic), the judgment derives from the frequent usage of phrases such as “what I call [this or that, usually something very smart]”; phrases we regularly encounter in Hegemony How-To as well. The problem is: anyone can make up fancy words for what they have to say, but that doesn’t mean it’s original or even of interest. I feel that Smucker’s book would have been stronger had the personal touch been used consistently to support his arguments rather than to, at least at times, overshadow them.

* * *

Smucker opens his book with a reference to his friend Carmen Trotta who once asked him: “Do you ever think we came to the game too late?” In Smucker’s words, Trotta meant to raise the question of whether “we had literally been born too late to do anything to stop humanity from destroying itself completely”. (p. 9) It seems that just about any radical of my generation must have asked themselves that question. Apart from the brief period between the anti-WTO protests in Seattle in November 1999 and the brutally suppressed anti-G8 protests in Genoa in July 2001, there has hardly been a time of optimism among the radical left in the industrialized nations for about forty years. This, however, must not lead to despair. Otherwise, we are really out of the game. To remind us of this is one of Smucker’s most important achievements, along with his many astute observations and splendid suggestions. Work like Hegemony How-To is needed to bring us forward, and I hope that as many radicals as possible will read, discuss, and build on it. (June 2017)

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