Toward the close of his extraordinary new book, "The Long Detour: The History and Future of the American Left" (Westview), James Weinstein ruminates on an all-but-forgotten tract by Oscar Wilde.
Weinstein, the eyes-wide-open historian and journalist who has been close to the core of American left-wing politics for the better part of 50 years, might not appear on the surface to be a Wilde man. But in the Anglo-Irish dramatist and dandy's classic 1893 essay, "The Soul of Man Under Socialism," Weinstein finds signposts that could point toward a brighter future for the American left.
In year three of what Jefferson might refer to as a "reign of witches," when American freedoms are under constant attack, when foreign entanglements threaten to drag the country deeper into the imperialist thicket, and when the loyal opposition to George W. Bush is so loyal that there is all too little organized opposition, few would dispute Weinstein's assertion that the American left is too frequently "directionless and leaderless."
Weinstein speaks with the authority of one who has, at many turns, offered both direction and leadership to the postwar left. The author of "The Decline of Socialism in America" and "The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State," Weinstein was the founder of the influential journal Socialist Review and the founding editor and publisher of the Chicago-based democratic socialist magazine In These Times.
An old leftist, a new leftist, a radical and a pragmatist, Weinstein has held the banner of progressive politics aloft through so many struggles that he has passed from being a historian to being part of history. And, ever the optimist, he has not given up on the prospect that the next great chapter in the history of the American left may be no more distant than the next turned page.
And Weinstein, wise as ever, has turned a page or so of Wilde in search of inspiration for framing the next left. Wilde's concern of more than a century ago, Weinstein observes, "was with the great majority of working people whose creativity, 'latent and potential in mankind generally,' was stifled by capitalism. By making financial gain rather than personal growth its aim, he wrote, capitalism had 'crushed true individualism.' It debarred those in one part of the community from realizing their individuality by starving them; and it confused the other part by measuring them in terms of what they possessed. Capitalism left people to think 'that the important thing (was) to have,' rather than 'to be.' "
When he wrote "The Soul of Man Under Socialism," Wilde's argument for the abolition of capitalism in order to free people "to be" was dismissed as unrealistic.
"Few socialists shared Wilde's take on socialism in 1900 because it was difficult to see a future where such a system would be possible," explains Weinstein. "But here we are, a hundred and fifty years after Marx wrote the Manifesto and a hundred years after Wilde wrote 'The Soul of Man Under Socialism.'
And while even now few envision such a future, the most advanced capitalist nations have nonetheless created the productive capacity for a society such as Marx and Wilde had in mind. The technology and productive capacity exist, but the vision is missing. The problem, then, is how to create a political movement with the will and the ability to realize that vision."
In "The Long Detour," Weinstein argues that the time has come for the left to renew a few of its utopian affiliations. Weinstein is no dreamer - he expects the building of a left that can compete in the marketplace of ideas and at the ballot box in 21st century America "will be a long arduous task, and there will be many false starts."
But, he suggests, the renewal will be rooted in an understanding that the left must articulate an agenda that speaks to the highest hopes and promises reforms. And those reforms need to be not merely radical but rejuvenating for the souls of Americans, who are increasingly battered by a consumer culture so omnipresent that it leaves little room for personal growth or societal progress.
Weinstein is saying something about the left, and about America's future, that matters quite a lot. He is worth reading, and hearing, in person - he'll be appearing at 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 9, 2003 at Canterbury Booksellers, 315 W. Gorham St.
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