Review of The Rise of a New Left: How Young Radicals Are Shaping the World of Politics by Raina Lipsitz (Verso 2022)
In this brief, yet thorough, history of modern U.S. socialism, Raina Lipsitz answers an important question: Where do DSA and the Left stand after 2020? She also offers a sobering yet inspirational record of what leftists have been up to post-Bernie, especially those within DSA or others who align with DSA values. To summarize her main points: a new generation is positioning itself to win working-class power for years to come, and it has already begun to make important gains.
Although DSA takes a starring role in the book, DSA is not the only player. Lipsitz does say that, of all the new left organizations in the United States, “[DSA] arguably offers members the widest range of opportunities to exercise power outside of the electoral realm.” But by highlighting the work of a diverse array of left organizations and their leaders, most of whom are women, Lipsitz does justice to the Left as a whole, not just DSA.
The organizations covered in the book were born out of Bernie 2020 and similar electoral campaigns or as responses to Trumpism, class oppression, the George Floyd Rebellion, and climate change. The first chapter opens with a profile of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) and her first campaign for Congress, because she is arguably the most famous face of the youthful new Left. Soon after, we learn about Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats, and her organizational path to successful left electoral wins. Each chapter offers at least one brief yet detailed look at a left organization and its young leaders. Among these are Rachel Gilmer and Naiiah Summer of Dream Defenders, Jonathan Smucker of Pennsylvania Stands Up, and Varshini Prakash of Sunrise. The diversity of these leaders, their youth, and the stories of their most successful campaigns help to give the book its optimistic tone.
But Lipsitz is realistic about both how far the Left has come and how little power the working class wields. She is straightforward about the Left’s worst losses and blunt about how the Left will continue to face immense hurdles. Near the end of the book, Lipsitz highlights India Walton’s crushed campaign for mayor of Buffalo as a prime example of how far capitalists will go to defeat and humiliate advocates for the working class. Lipsitz points out that “a stronger left could have countered it [the attacks] more effectively.”
Lipsitz is also realistic about how it will take years to create the institutions that leftists need to win power. Think tanks, progressive PACs, and socialist candidate pipelines are just some of the pieces of infrastructure that leftists have only recently begun building. The book makes a strong case for the necessity of building these institutions and highlights where that work is beginning.
But does the Left have the time to build these institutions when so many crises arise at once? Well, the Left doesn’t have a choice. We have to organize from where we stand, not just from where we want to be in the future.
Although Lipsitiz is serious about the hurdles organizations such as DSA face, she keeps the reader’s spirits up not just with her optimistic tone, but also by describing moments that have inspired her. Her detailed experience about AOC’s first campaign or the quick paragraph about a DSA Winter Holiday sing-along she attended are examples of endearingly candid moments. One can see in those candid moments how community in an organization is vital and why people need to feel like they are a part of something beyond just being put to work for campaigns. Socialists have to take this need for community seriously. The book points out that this is one of the reasons Donald Trump was so successful for so long: he built camaraderie among his followers, but his was a camaraderie of cruelty. There is much work to be done to make spaces such as DSA a camaraderie of love that can defeat that cruelty.
Further, the diversity of organizations, leaders, and causes in the book demonstrates how vital coalitions are to gaining working-class power. All of the organizations and leaders in the book have beliefs shared by DSA in some capacity, but not everyone in the book is a DSA member or self-identifies as a socialist. Lipsitz makes it clear that for most of these people it is not so much out of fear of the “s word” but out of a distaste for labels. There is no reason DSA can’t work with other organizations to win working-class power; ideological labels are incidental in that fight.
But Lipsitz never advocates for abandoning the term “socialist.” What she does do is imply that, for the working class to win, organizations like DSA must work in tandem with others who do not put ideology at the center of their work but still align with socialist values through their cause. In other words, DSA has plenty of allies if we allow ourselves to have them.
Regarding labor organizing, in Chapter 7, “Why the Left Needs Organized Labor,” Lipsitz points out the annoying reality that unions, although they are the best means for winning worker power, are often run by leaders with politics that hurt workers. Thus, many unions are rife with anti-socialist sentiments in both membership and leadership. If organizers are willing to navigate within unions hostile to socialists, while also building peripheral organizations, then we can reinvigorate the U.S. labor movement and create truly democratic unions built from the bottom up. But the Left and organizations like DSA have to offer something tangible for workers; socialists can’t just show up to unions and expect to be welcomed.
The book’s focus is U.S. leftists and U.S. socialism; the author does not address broader issues around socialism internationally or offer a theoretical analysis of the global fight for socialism. Lipsitz uses the approach of journalistic inquiry rather than theory to make her points and to keep the reader’s attention, while making the case that young socialists are on a road to victory as long as they continue to grow, reflect, and fight.
The Rise of a New Left explains how socialists have built and continue to build power thanks to a youthful new wave and how these inspired young people are positioned to continue this work for years to come. If this new generation of the Left in DSA can play the long game, maintain common ground with other organizations, and build strong coalitions, while also creating a space for community and a cohesive infrastructure, then this new generation can win.