Book Forum: Leftism Reinvented by Stephanie Mudge

One of Mudge’s theoretical claims is a refraction approach to political parties. This takes off from articulation theory with its party downward approach, with five points:

(1) Parties exist on a relational terrain;

(2) Parties have complex goals of winning office, representing constituents and perhaps their own consciences, and claiming the truth;

(3) Parties are anchored to state, administrative, civic, economic and cultural terrains;

(4) Parties are especially focused on cultural infrastructure including education, socialization, knowledge production, and producing experts on the economy and other policies; and

(5) Party experts engage in intermediation often between Bourdieusian fields.

The refraction approach incorporates articulation theory from the party to their publics, but still maintains the reverse flow from constituents or the public in terms of influencing party experts and politicians–sometimes called reflection theory. The metaphor of lenses or prisms makes one recall their physics courses, but prisms or mirrors reflect light (interests), and refracted devises introduce a large measure of distortion or redirection into the process (expert theory).

On the Bourdieusian field note, one might note that ‘political economy’ itself is an intermediation between fields that has been done for centuries. And in Mudge’s book, the cultural explanations (point 4) are much smaller than the focus on political economy. To test the refraction theory, one would have to measure both the top-down and the bottom-up effects. One can see arguments for both. But for all of the “let there be light” approach of reflection and refraction, the refraction approach does seem to be much more reasonable and balanced than the reflection (or interest conveyor belt) theory and the articulation (or top down imposition of policy by party leader) theory. The three-part complex goals view of parties (win, represent, and truth telling) is useful in recognizing that parties are often hard to figure out, especially if one assumes that they only have one goal (a point made by Richard Walton and Robert McKersie about labor unions in A Behavioral Theory of Labor Negotiations (1965, ILR Press)). All in all, refraction theory is the most comprehensive and potentially accurate approach to political parties that I have seen.

[1] One other book by Binyamin Appelbaum, The Economists’ House: False Prophets, Free Markets, and the Fracture of Society (Little Brown, 2019), explores the role of the rise of economists even in the third period of Mudge’s work. But this is more in the vein of economic journalism.


Review of Mudge’s Leftism Reinvented

By Gabriel Chouhy Algorta, Tulane University


Stephanie Mudge (2018) has written a superb and much-welcome book that certainly makes a groundbreaking contribution to our understanding of the great transformations in western capitalist democracies during the 20th century. Much has been already said about this impressive attempt at explaining the two historical reinventions of leftism-–from socialism to Keynesianism, and from Keynesianism to neoliberalism–through a historical-comparative analysis of the changing role of different types of party experts in four major Left parties of the West: the German Social Democratic Party, the Swedish Social Democratic Party, the British Labor Party, and the Democratic Party in the US. A standard review would certainly fall back on providing a balanced, dispassionate assessment of how greatly or poorly this book fares in advancing existing knowledge in political sociology. Hence my choice here is exactly the opposite: to highlight Mudge’s contribution not to the sociology of leftist politics but to the politics of leftist sociologists.