#LeftTurn tackled by Socialist Alternative

The following review of #LeftTurn appears in Socialist Alternative by Tom O’Lincoln:

Review:… Left Turn: political essays for the new left.Antony Loewenstein and Jeff Sparrow (eds), Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2012

Capitalism is complicated, and so are the challenges to it. So a book like… Left Turn, offering an array of agenda-setting arguments, is bound to be ambitious.

Some of the essays tackle structural questions like analysis of the media, something that will be important in battles to come. Many explore the forms of oppression that capitalism generates: sexism, race prejudices, homophobia, refugees and most horrible of all, the relentless attacks on Indigenous people. Some of the chapters about oppression made me think, some are inspiring, and I was struck by how many controversial issues could fit into one book.

In addition to Tom Bramble’s expert discussion of trade unions, quite a few other authors bring out the class dimensions of everything from the media to race. The 17 chapters are all admirably concise, yet at a total of 250 pages there is a lot to think about – the book will provoke valuable debates.

There is a price to the wide scope, however: It’s too diverse to hold together neatly, so despite having two top-notch editors there is a degree of confusion. Why call Elizabeth Humphrys’ and Tad Tietze’s essay “The Science Cannot Save Us”, when the chapter says little about science, but is overwhelmingly about how the… market… can’t save us? In Rick Kuhn’s penetrating discussion of Marxism and crisis the section called “Solutions” contains no solutions at all.

Be that as it may, Tietze and Humphrys do a good job debunking the vogue for market solutions to environmental crisis, while Kuhn knocks some suitably jagged holes in conventional economics.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 are all fairly powerful, as we might expect from three leading writers with anti-capitalist politics. Guy Rundle writes about how capitalism colonises time and space. The system puts a logo on every speck of territory, and takes away our free time as the working week gets longer. Rundle want to fight to seize back both time and space. .

Christos Tsiolkis explores the middle class left’s tendency to act superior; and I was delighted to see someone hammer people who dismiss working class folk as “bogans”. Antony Loewenstein exposes hypocrisy in the media, for example over Afghanistan, and Emilie Howie exposes it in the human rights fields. Our rulers are never short of hypocrisy.

Larissa Behrendt and Chris Graham writing on Indigenous struggles are the highlight of the book. Behrendt at the academic end cites data that damns the Northern Territory Intervention. Graham courageously writes in defence of Aborigines driven to violence: at Wadeye, on Palm Island and elsewhere. Sick of hearing from political leaders that “violence is never a solution”, Graham points out how the same people support violent solutions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even more daring, he shows how riots by Indigenous communities have led to tangible gains.

But while we defend, even celebrate, riots by the oppressed, they aren’t a solution. Many readers of… Left Turn… will come to this looking for a strategic way forward, but they won’t find it, except in fragmentary form.

Jeff Sparrow tries to pull some threads together in an ambitious chapter. Just a touch too ambitious, perhaps. Sparrow is a powerful writer but, like the book generally, he crams in an incredible number of arguments. He dashes from the Occupy movement and Janet Albrechtson to Bakhtin and Bakunin, from Pinochet to Bono, and from Zizek to William Lane. One ironic transition after another, he does make valuable points – but they are easy to lose track of.

The Occupy movement and the fate of Chilean singer Victor Jara – murdered in Pinochet’s military coup – are important themes in the chapter. They represent different utopian strands reaching for the future, and a refusal to be co-opted into the flattened culture of neoliberalism.

One of the singer’s most thrilling lines is: “Now is the time that can be tomorrow.” To this, Sparrow responds: “The achievement of Occupy was to provide a context in which Jara’s revolutionary optimism once more becomes real.” The singer called for a “strike at power”, a philosophy Sparrow rightly endorses.

More needs to be considered – despite the fact it would mean removing other material from this crowded discussion. If we take a critical look at the politics of Jara and the Communist Party, we find that his version of the song actually took the socialism out. Jara’s lyrics were designed to win an election for social democrat leader Salvador Allende, not make a radical social transformation.

Jara and his comrades never contemplated a strike at power. That was empty rhetoric. They and Allende trusted the military, and harvested a ghastly defeat. This was the crucial lesson from Chile, and from Indonesia 1965, and from many other experiences.

More needs to be considered, but this slightly crowded book isn’t a bad start.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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