An International Perspective on Jonathan Smucker’s Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals

Rebecca Tarlau

Rebecca Tarlau reviews Jonathan Smucker’s Hegemony How-To, and argues that in addition to building stronger working-class, anti-racist, feminist, LGBTQ, anti-imperialist movements in the United States, the political alignment we build should be international, connecting with the many other working-class groups that are fighting against the same oppressive political and economic system.

Photo CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Darwin Yamamoto

Jonathan Smucker’s[1] Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals is a must-read for anyone who cares about how to organize for more progressive social and economic policies in the current U.S. political terrain. The book is based on Smucker’s 20 years of experience working in and with social justice organizations, from Occupy Wall Street to the anti-War movement, and it draws on both historical examples of U.S social movements and many theoretical and academic concepts for understanding society and social change. As others have noted, Smucker’s book is one of the many recent publications offering practical advice to the Left about how to be more effective and relevant. The book’s subtitle “A Roadmap for Radicals” is a reference to Saul Alinsky’s[2] Rules for Radicals, however, the book goes beyond simply offering a set of prescriptions. Instead, Smucker draws on an eclectic group social theorists, including Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci and German sociologist Jürgen Habermas, to develop an argument about how to form a broad-based political alliance that can shift U.S. power relations and make real economic and social gains for marginalized communities. And of course, this book could not be more timely, as Trump’s electoral victory and the accompanying surge of white nationalism are unfortunate reminders that the left’s current strategies are not working.

In the first part of the review, I highlight what I see as Smucker’s three most original proposals for strengthening the Left in the United States: promoting strategic over prefigurative politics, prioritizing political engagement rather than the “life of the group” or exclusive political identities, and continually building out and expanding our movements. In the second part of the review, I describe six of my own reflections about this ongoing conversation, based on my experiences and research in Brazil working with the Landless Workers Movement (MST). My first two points question Smucker’s assumptions that strong identities and prefiguration are necessarily in contradiction to strategic politics. The third point is about the historical importance of occupations as not simply a tactic but also a strategy for obtaining economic redistribution. The fourth and fifth points build on Smucker’s suggested strategies for building a Left hegemony in the United States, emphasizing the importance of developing political education programs and building economic alternatives. Finally, the sixth point highlights the real contradictions that emerge when Left political alliances and social movement organizations take power. The goal of this review is to build on Smucker’s book and continue advancing the conversation about how to build stronger working-class, anti-racist, feminist, LGBTQ, anti-imperialist movements in the United States.

The book starts off with Smucker’s reflections on his own political trajectory, and his realization that most of the political groups that he has participated in have a communication strategy that speaks to “itself” (i.e., already-allied groups), with no strategy for growth. He discusses Occupy Wall Street as an incredibly powerful potential force, in that it created a new “floating signifier,” the idea of the “99 percent,” which was “amorphous enough for many different kinds of people to connect with and to see their values and hopes within the symbol” (p. 57). Thus, Occupy Wall Street had the potential to build a broad-based political alignment, but Smucker claims that it failed because a powerful current within Occupy Wall Street was allergic to power and refused to seize the opportunity to align with the many organizations that arrived at their doorstep.

Provocatively, Smucker argues that the prioritization of prefigurative over strategic politics was the downfall of Occupy Wall Street.

In response to what Smucker sees as the Left’s self-defeating tendency to disavow power and isolate, he offers a series of recommendations. The first recommendation is an unequivocal defense of “strategic” over “prefigurative” politics. In Smucker’s definition of prefigurative politics, he writes that “prefigurative politics seeks to demonstrate the better world it envisions for the future in the actions it takes today. Connected to contemporary anarchist movements, prefigurative politics represented a major tendency within Occupy Wall Street” (p. 266). Smucker critiques the promoters of prefigurative politics, who viewed democratic decision-making processes and the physical occupation of space as manifestations of a better future, rather than tactics in a broader political strategy (p. 112). Smucker is not against prefiguration, or “manifesting our vision and values in our internal organizing,” but he argues that these types of actions and organizational forms cannot substitute for a strategy that engages political power (not just electorally, but in other institutional realms). Provocatively, Smucker argues that the prioritization of prefigurative over strategic politics was the downfall of Occupy Wall Street.

A second major intervention is the idea of the “political identity paradox,” which Smucker summarizes as follows: “while political groups require a strong internal identity to foster the commitment needed for effective political struggle, this same cohesion tends to isolate the group” (p. 96). Instead of creating a movement sub-culture based on strong but exclusive political identities, Smucker argues that the goal is in fact to become hegemonic, or to make our movements’ moral and intellectual vision of the world dominant. Rather than righteously condemning “common sense,” the popular and contradictory ideas people hold about the world, he argues that we must engage and transform it. It is important to build each other up rather than prove that you are the smartest person in the room. Smucker describes Slavoj Žižek’s apt warning to Occupy organizers: “Don’t fall in love with yourself” (p. 116).

Finally, a third major intervention is Smucker’s assertion that the goal of every political organizer, or member of a social movement core, ought to be to grow the movement’s base by winning over new allies, continually plugging new people into movement tasks, and articulating a broad-based and diverse vision. This takes skilled leadership, which is why Smucker argues we need “leaderful movements” not leaderless ones. How do we do this? Smucker’s answer is a pedagogically appropriate communication strategy, which engages people’s interest by tapping into their common narratives and building points of connection between those narratives and concrete, winnable political campaigns. Smucker refers to this as “strategically branding” our movements, although he acknowledges that this term may grate against the ears of anti-corporate organizers. The other strategy to build the base of our movements is “to name a common enemy and simultaneously frame a different kind of solidarity as a basis for political mobilization” (p. 239). In other words, the left must articulate the type of “we” that can unite diverse groups, like the “99 percent” did during Occupy Wall Street. Smucker acknowledges the difficulty of doing this, given the class- and race-based fissures in U.S. society, but he argues that connecting disparate groups and individuals “with fractured loyalties,” is the key to “constructing a broad-based challenger alignment” (p. 247).

These are all critical suggestions. The aim of the rest of this review is to build on these interventions and offer some additional reflections about social movement strategy based on my experiences with the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST). The MST is an important case study for anyone who takes seriously the arguments of Hegemony How-To, because the MST has arguably had more success than any other contemporary global movement in implementing its economic and social goals in diverse political institutions, through a Gramscian strategy of continually engaging the state—although the movement is still far from achieving its goals of agrarian reform and social transformation.[3] Over the past thirty years, the MST has helped over 350,000 families access land through the organization of land occupations. In addition, the movement has established agricultural cooperatives in these new communities, developed educational programs for its members, created alternative media sources, and invested in public health, youth activism, and women’s and LGBT rights. I think there are six lessons that the MST offers, which speak directly to Smucker’s arguments about social movement strategy.

The first reflection is about Smucker’s idea of the political identity paradox. Smucker correctly asserts that, especially in the U.S. context, our lefty political identities often turn us into a subculture, which by its very name is limiting for making our politics mainstream and thus hegemonic. The case of the MST suggests, however, that the development of a strong class identity might be one of the most important strategies for building a mass-based movement. Indeed, the primary goal of the MST is to construct an identity among poor farmers as sem terra (landless people), even after these farmers have won land rights. The movement promotes this identity among hundreds of thousands of people across the country, through rituals such as singing the sem terra national anthem, producing music about being sem terra, publishing a sem terra newspaper, and even organizing sem terra soccer tournaments between different MST communities. This is implicitly a Gramscian political strategy, as Gramsci argues that the role of the political party (or in this case the social movement) is “ensuring that the members of a particular party find in that party all the satisfactions that they formerly found in a multiplicity of organisations”[4]. The movement also coordinates annual festivals of sem terrinha (little landless children), which brings children between 4 and 14 together to participate in activities that help construct a sem terrinha identity. Even LGBT organizers within the movement promote their identity as LGBT sem terra. The fact that the MST has succeeded in constructing such a strong identity does distance itself from the broader Brazilian society—and promote the “life of the group”—but it does not prevent the movement from continually integrating new people into its ranks. Why does the political identity paradox not apply in this case? I would argue that—similarly to the identity of being part of the “99%”—the sem terra identity is not a paradox because it is inherently a class identity that includes all rural, working-class people, and implicit in this identity is a critique of the historical process of land concentration. The MST is doing exactly what Smucker suggests, constructing a strong “we” that unites diverse groups, and promoting this political identity through rituals, cultural practices, and social events. The success of this strategy suggests that political identity is not itself a paradox, but that the identities we construct for our movements have to be based on a broader working-class consciousness.

I argue that prefigurative and strategic politics can feed off of one another. Every institutional space that the movement occupies and constructs—from autonomous movement schools, to public universities, to agricultural cooperatives—becomes a space for the prefiguration of the movement’s political and economic goals.

The second point I want to make is about prefiguration. Smucker writes that, “expressing values and living principles is not the same as strategically engaging society and political structures in order to win systematic change.” The book convincingly argues that in Occupy Wall Street, the focus on prefigurative politics became a barrier to more strategic political action. However, the case of the MST contradicts Smucker’s assumption that prefigurative and strategic politics are always in opposition to one another. To the contrary, I argue that prefigurative and strategic politics can feed off of one another. Every institutional space that the movement occupies and constructs—from autonomous movement schools, to public universities, to agricultural cooperatives—becomes a space for the prefiguration of the movement’s political and economic goals. This process of prefiguration is not just an expression of principles, but an attempt to practice building the type of socialist society that the movement hopes to construct in the future. How will we know what type of participatory democratic system we want to promote, if we do not attempt some trial and error right now? How will we know how to work collectively, if we do not start completing our daily tasks in groups? These types of prefigurative spaces, from alternative school curriculums, to daily work tasks, to agroecological farming, are critical practices for movement members and allies to learn about the type of social world the MST wants to build. As a friend in a U.S.-based community organization expressed to me about the MST’s national school, “the movement tells you the type of world it wants to create, and then it invites you into that world to show you what it looks like.” The MST’s construction of real utopias,[5] or spaces that prefigure the movement’s social and political goals, is both an educational experience for its members and a political strategy convincing other potential allies of the importance of the MST’s political struggle. Thus, although the push for prefiguration within Occupy Wall Street might have inhibited more strategic politics, this experience is not generalizable to all movements and global contexts.

A third point is about the power of occupations. Smucker offers a list of reasons (p. 58-59) why Occupy Wall Street’s tactic of occupation, which was powerful in terms of its value as a “popular defiant symbol,” eventually became unsustainable and ineffective. Smucker argues that we should not be tied to the tactic of occupation, as tactics are just our choice of action that should be connected to planning and long-term political strategy and vision. The MST, however, reminds us that the occupation is not simply another symbolic movement tactic, like a march or a rally. At this very moment, millions of people across the globe are engaged in occupations of housing, land, factories, and other assets. For them, the act of occupying is about reclaiming economic power, not simply a symbolic act. Certainly, successful occupations will have to be combined with other actions; however, occupying land, or the means of economic production, is not just another tactic. The MST’s land occupations in Brazil have resulted in more than 350,000 families receiving land access, while also serving as a space for the movement to prefigure political and economic goals (i.e., to govern itself and eat). Perhaps Occupy Wall Street functioned differently, because Zuccotti Park never represented a space of dispute over people’s economic survival. However, by characterizing occupation as one of many tactics in a long-term political strategy, Smucker dismisses the historical and global role occupations have played in struggles for economic redistribution.

The fourth reflection is about Smucker’s prescription for becoming hegemonic, which he argues is a symbolic contest of winning over common sense. Smucker writes, “An important aspect of a hegemonic contest then is the contest of the contents of common sense . . . common sense organizes the ‘ground’ of popular meanings. A political order’s ability to resonate with and shape popular meaning is the basis of its legitimacy” (p. 145). Smucker argues that we win a “contest over common sense” by engaging in the field of culture, meaning, and framing. Smucker’s suggestion for engaging in this process is to construct a pedagogically appropriate communication strategy that attracts more allies and wins over supporters. I agree, but I want to build on Smucker’s suggestion and emphasize the equally important role of education in this ideological contest, not just communication. I have written previously about how the idea of framing, or strategic social movement communication, often undermines the importance of developing a collective, critical consciousness.[6] In addition to effective communication, we need to offer grassroots educational programs that teach about the global political economy, the history of social struggle, geopolitical relations, and imperialism. These educational programs, like our communication strategies, must be based in a Freirean approach. This means not simply telling people what they should know, but rather, drawing out the “good sense” in people’s popular, common sense understandings of the world, and turning this into a critical analysis of our political and economic history. For example, if the white residents of a working-class community believe that Latin American immigrants are stealing their jobs, and that this explains their unemployment, the “good sense” is that there are not enough jobs for everyone. The fact that the residents are blaming the immigrants for their unemployment is most likely a consequence of the dominant racist and nationalist ideologies. An effective educator will not simply critique this ideology, but rather, draw on the good sense of the original residents—that there are not enough jobs—and link this belief to a coherent political and economic analysis of why unemployment in that region exists, thus “renovating and making ‘critical’ an already existing activity [perception of the world].”[7] This type of educational program is not simply focused on training people in organizing and communication strategies, but teaching them the basics of political economic analysis. Building this type of educational infrastructure, which exists among many movements throughout Latin America, should be a major goal of our U.S. movements.

Fifth, and directly following this point, it is also important not to focus entirely on the terrain of ideological struggle, whether through communication or education. For Gramsci, common sense and ideology is in a dialectical relationship to the economic base, constantly shaping and being shaped by each other. Therefore, to become hegemonic there has to be a simultaneous struggle for alternative economic enterprises, from workers’ collectives to agricultural cooperatives. Smucker gets at this a bit in his discussion of the interplay between symbolic and institutional contest, but I think it is still necessary to emphasize that changing people’s economic opportunities has to go hand-in-hand with any symbolic and ideological struggle. This is why the occupation of economic resources and the means of production is both a tactic and potentially a strategy for building political power.

Smucker makes a convincing case that we need to move out of our righteous corners and grow our organizations, but how do we know if and when it is justified to shift our political ideals to take power?

Finally, my last reflection is about the concept of political alignment. As Smucker writes, “Effective political challengers, in order to assemble an insurgent force strong enough to unseat or win substantial concessions from elites, must construct their own universalizing frames of a differently imagined unification—a differently framed we” (p. 246). I agree, but I also want to suggest that building this type of broad-based political alliance can produce a serious tension: how to grow a movement, without losing the ideals that began its struggle. The Brazilian Workers Party (PT), a left-leaning political party that was in power from 2003-2015 in Brazil, is a perfect example. The party began as a social movement party in the 1980s, with a committed base of grassroots movements and unions that defined the party’s political and social goals. Throughout the 1990s, in order to grow electoral clot, the party began to make alliances with other non-movement actors, including other parties and groups that were tied to elite economic interests. Before the 2002 election, the Workers Party (PT) presidential candidate, Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva, wrote a “Letter to the Brazilian People,” communicating to his potential allies that he was not too much of a radical for them to vote for him (i.e., he would not change the fundamental economic structure of the country). It was this letter, and the diverse political alliances that the PT made over the previous decade, which allowed Lula to become president in 2003. While in power the PT was able to implement some of the most impressive social programs in the country’s history, which transformed the lives of millions of people. However, the party did not attempt to transform Brazil’s fundamentally neoliberal economic structure, and instead, invested heavily in a primary export economy and monoculture agro industrial production. What this meant for the MST was that the movement was able to deepen its social proposals in many state institutions, and implement alternative economic projects in local communities; however, the PT redistributed much less land than the previous, neoliberal government. The PT became hegemonic, made many important social interventions, but lost its radical ideals. For some people on the left this was a necessary strategy to win concrete gains, for others Lula is a sell-out. Smucker makes a convincing case that we need to move out of our righteous corners and grow our organizations, but how do we know if and when it is justified to shift our political ideals to take power? The concrete experiences of the Left in Latin America suggest that taking political power is not sufficient for implementing the structural reforms needed to challenge the basic pillars of capitalist, patriarchal, and racist societies.

Smucker’s Hegemony How-To is a timely call for us to think collectively about social movement strategy and how to build political power. I agree with Smucker that the most imperative task for U.S. organizers is to rebuild our social movement infrastructure. This book has already started to facilitate a discussion about how we should proceed in this process. Following Smucker’s own recommendation that the Left not become to inwardly focused, I think it is also critical to draw on the many lessons from other social movements and the infrastructure these movements have built globally. Most importantly, it is critical that the political alignment we build in the United States is an international alignment, which connects with the many other working-class groups that are fighting against the same oppressive political and economic system.

References and Footnotes

  1. Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals (Chico, CA: AK Press, 2017).
  2. Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals (New York: Vintage Books Edition, 1989).
  3. Miguel Carter, ed., Challenging Social Inequality: The Landless Rural Workers Movement and Agrarian Reform in Brazil (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015); Rebecca Tarlau, “Coproducing Rural Public Schools in Brazil: Contestation, Clientelism, and the Landless Workers’ Movement,” Politics & Society 41, no. 3 (2013): 395–424; Rebecca Tarlau, “Education of the Countryside at a Crossroads: Rural Social Movements and National Policy Reform in Brazil,” Journal of Peasant Studies 42, no. 6 (2015): 1157–77.
  4. Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Notebooks, ed. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith, trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffry Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 265.
  5. Erik Olin Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias (London: Verso, 2010).
  6. Rebecca Tarlau, “From a Language to a Theory of Resistance: Critical Pedagogy, the Limits of ‘Framing,’ and Social Change,” Educational Theory 64, no. 4 (2014): 369–92.
  7. Antonio Gramsci, The Antonio Gramsci Reader: Selected Writings 1916 – 1935, ed. David Forgacs (New York: New York University Press, 2000), 332.