Michael Brooks Made the Left Brighter

Amid the pettiness and factionalism that so often plague the Left, Michael Brooks’s socialism was warm, vibrant, and intellectually omnivorous. We can all learn from his example.

Michael Brooks (1983–2020) was a true radical in the very best sense.

It was with a lacerating sadness that I received the news of Michael Brooks’s sudden passing earlier this week. In the days before his death, we’d been making plans to discuss his recently published book Against the Web: A Cosmopolitan Answer to the New Right, on my podcast.

Both in style and argument, Michael’s book is a testament to the kind, generous, and inclusive vision of socialism that he championed — one willing to stare down the often overwhelming injustice of the world with grace, irony, and good humor. As I quickly discovered after first meeting him in 2016, Michael embraced this sensibility as an operating principle in both an individual and a political sense, his personal warmth and socialist compassion being intimately intertwined.

Anyone who has spent time in the left media sphere knows that it can sometimes be a dispiriting and humorless place. But in an environment prone to competition and factionalism, Michael’s reputation seemed as ecumenical as his politics, a fact that has been all too clear in the tremendous outpouring of grief that has come in the wake of his death. An ever insightful and well-informed voice on all matters political, he was also a paragon of empathy and comradely behavior.

Michael’s life and legacy will mean different things to those who knew him — personally, professionally, or by way of the endless stream of videos and commentary he produced at an almost jaw dropping rate. But in thinking about what they mean to me, I find my mind drifting back nearly twenty years to my earliest days as a teenage leftist.

Officially at least, history had ended sometime around the year of my birth and the Left, insofar as it still existed, was often lonely and depressing. Even at its best, a general aura of misanthropy seemed to seep through everything and the many vibrant currents that make up the socialist heritage often felt more like desiccated remnants than living traditions.

Weak-tea social democracy and anarcho-liberalism were on offer in magazines like Adbusters, whose outlook was invariably grey and leaden. Though the angst of adolescence probably bears some responsibility, the very idea of a leftist politics that included any form of joy was basically alien. The socialist movement, simply put, was not a space most ordinary people would want to enter.

The Left today has plenty of problems, but its culture has inarguably improved since those dismal days and we have people like Michael Brooks to thank. Mixing curiosity, analytical rigor, and an unmistakable sense of humor, his work has been an invaluable contribution to the wider effort of building a Left that people actually want to join.

Remaining above the fray of petty media beefs and sectarian rivalries, Michael’s socialism was warm, vibrant, and intellectually omnivorous — bringing together the very best of leftist traditions around the world. From Sweden’s labor movement to the life of Thomas Sankara to Latin America’s Pink Tide, his interests and influences were eclectic and his outlook doggedly internationalist.

With a serious mind, an infectious grin, and a Dave Rubin impression that somehow sounded more like Dave Rubin than the real thing, he educated while he entertained — a precious rarity in political media, and something made abundantly clear by these heartwarming remembrances from his listeners.

Fittingly, the closing chapter of Michael’s book is an eloquent sketch of the cosmopolitan socialism he believed in, leaping effortlessly in a few paragraphs or less from subjects as varied as Antonio Gramsci and the Bengali Marxist M. N. Roy and the African National Congress’s 1955 Freedom Charter. “What we need,” he writes:

…is a cosmopolitan socialism premised on real material needs that expresses itself in criticism, art, movement building, and anything else that drives politics…following Gramsci, we need an integral approach that fuses universal desires, aspirations, and material concerns with a recognition that we do in fact live in a globalized, interconnected, and neoliberal world still defined by grotesque inequality, ecological crisis, and resurgent right wing authoritarianism.

A true radical in the very best sense, Michael Brooks had a loving heart, an open mind, and a hatred for injustice as pure as any I’ve known. In word and in action, he lived the values of the kind of society we all want to build. I’ll miss him, and so will the Left.