When Politics Becomes Professional

All successful movements need leaders, elected officials, and, yes, even bureaucrats. The key is to remember the radical roots of those bureaucracies and leaderships — so they can sustain instead of squelch socialist politics.

Protesters march as they carry signs reading "Repeal Taft-Hartley Act."

The historian Josh Freeman has an excellent review of Michael Walzer’s Political Action, which came out in 1971 but has been reissued by NYRB Books. Freeman compares Walzer’s short pamphlet to the Manual of Practical Political Action, another how-to political guide, prepared in 1946 by the labor movement’s National Citizens Political Action Committee (NCPAC), one of the first modern PACs. Both texts were written at moments of political deceleration, when the velocities of change were about to alter dramatically or already had.

But here’s what Josh says about that earlier moment that’s relevant for today:

For NCPAC . . .  organizing requires strategies that are not inherently progressive. Somewhat apologetically, the Manual suggests borrowing techniques from commercial advertising, presenting detailed guidance, much of it derived from standard business practices, about newspaper advertising, radio spots, and direct mail. The Popular Front from which it had emerged well understood the mechanics of persuasion, with one foot in working-class movements and another in the creative professions, from theater to cinema to advertising and the graphic arts. The idea of organizing as a politically neutral enterprise requiring specialized knowledge has had a long afterlife. Perhaps its most influential reincarnation was through Saul Alinsky and his many followers. Glimpses of it can be seen in Barack Obama’s account of his community organizing days in Dreams from My Father.

But, of course, technique goes only so far. For all its meticulous cataloging of knowledge needed for effective organizing, from billboard advertising rates in thirty different cities to how to use skits to enliven meetings (include ones written by Arthur Miller about inflation and civil rights), NCPAC got creamed in the 1946 congressional elections. The Republicans, campaigning against the New Deal, organized labor, prices increases, and the ineptitude of the Truman administration, won control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1930. Among other things, the Democratic defeat opened the door to the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, the beginning of a rollback of labor power that has continued ever since.

How quickly and easily a Popular Front-inspired left-wing cultural politics got turned into, and ultimately reduced to, a Madison Avenue-style campaign of political advertising!

Radical organizers always know that the work they’re doing is not simply political; it’s also ideological and ultimately cultural. They really are transforming people in fundamental ways. (This fall, I’m teaching Plato’s Republic for the first time in many years, and it’s hard to think of a more concrete instance of the kind of soulcraft that Plato describes there than the labor movement in its heyday.) In the case of the left wing of the New Deal, that cultural politics had an additional side to it: left-wing cultural producers in Hollywood, on the radio and TV, and on Madison Avenue (of which there were more than a few), saw themselves engaged in a task of radical transformation, changing souls through the popular arts.

(For a wonderful look back on this moment from a different vantage, read this interview Josh Cohen just did with the economist Samuel Bowles, whose father, Chester Bowles, was in the Roosevelt Administration. After the war, Bowles wrote an economic pamphlet that sought to popularize and explain Keynesianism to a mass audience. Bowles, too, had his origins in Madison Avenue, and he sought to use all the skills of persuasion he learned there on behalf of a consumer’s republic.)

But like all politics, cultural politics has its ebbs and flows. The entire Left got creamed in and after 1946 — not just the Democrats in Congress but also the hundreds of thousands of strikers who launched one of the most massive strike waves in American history that year, only to see their efforts ultimately met by Taft-Hartley and the general repression of the McCarthy era. But in the case of cultural politics, we see demolition and winnowing, an efflorescence turned inward, the sprawling movements that connected labor to Hollywood to Madison Avenue reduced to professionalized advertising.

I’ve just finished a lengthy piece on the memoirs of the Obama administration, and one of the most striking elements of those reminiscences is how fluidly and fluently the Obamanauts channel the activist traditions of the 1960s into the professional (neo)liberal politics of the Democratic Party since the 1980s. That translation had already begun in the 1970s, with the election of black mayors and other black officials. Back then, however, there was more awareness that the electoral turn was a diminution (perhaps necessary but nonetheless a diminution) of the mass movement in the streets. As one representative publication of black activists put it: “The marching has stopped.” Professional politics was what replaced it. By the time of Obama’s election, that awareness of diminution had been completely lost. His election was viewed as simply another step forward.

If you read the Obamanauts too quickly, theirs can seem to be a story exclusively about race and the Civil Rights Movement and politics since the 1960s: how the motifs of the black freedom struggle are translated into the election of the first black president. But read against the arc of the New Deal, the Obama neoliberal story comes to seem part of something larger and longer. The labor movement, the Popular Front, the Left — they all had a similar moment of professionalization.

To be clear: all movements need leaders, elected officials, bureaucrats, and, yes, professionals. While bureaucracies and leadership get a lot of shit from the Left for shutting down radicalism, there’s a strong argument to be made (and that I largely agree with) that bureaucracies and leadership help sustain radical activism at its most powerful moments and that they help preserve the fruits of that activism long after it has died down.

The tragedy of the stories Freeman tells and I’ve read in the Obamanaut memoirs is how easy it is to forget the radical origins and roots of those bureaucracies and leaderships, how once the work of repression (and other political factors) is done (often with the help of those leaders and bureaucracies, as we saw during the McCarthy era), all we’re left with is a professionalized political class, who can’t even mix memory and desire, who have not even the wish, much less capacity, to stir dull roots with spring rain.