Some Thoughts on Leftist Organizational Culture

This Reddit post is making its way around the internet.  I don’t usually talk about Reddit on here, but since it is now being reposted on some serious Leftist websites, I figured it’s worth saying something.  I apologize if this is not well structured.  I wanted to get some thoughts out there while anarchists are having this long overdue conversation. 

The post is titled “Things That Anarchists Say to Me in Private But Never Repeat Publicly,” but many of the issues brought up apply equally to and have resonated with the anti-capitalist Left more broadly.  The author asks if anyone can relate to the following comments:

  1. “Call-out culture was developed to allow activist groups to confront leaders who abused their privilege, but now it is being used to settle petty scores on the level of interpersonal politics. I now have a hard time believing some people when they make call-outs because I have seen too many that were based on nothing. Call-outs have become a way to acceptably inflict social violence and rarely are followed up in any way resembling transformative justice because people are not interested in doing the hard work of working with those who are called out.”
  2. “As a white person, if I don’t automatically agree with whichever person of color is directly in front of me, I run the risk of being labelled a racist. This is a result of good intentions where we want to center people of color and their experiences, but it makes no sense because people of color are not a monolithic block who all agree or share the same experiences. I am basically forced to perform a kind of double-think where I am expected to be able to agree with multiple conflicting viewpoints at the same time – or at least pretend to.”
  3. “The line, ‘it’s not my responsibility to educate you, educate yourself’ is being used too frequently. People should only say this when it would be seriously difficult to help educate someone. Otherwise as an anarchist it is your responsibility to help educate people who want to learn, or to help find someone who is willing to do it. Furthermore, refusing to explain yourself contributes to a form of classism in which people with less formal education and access to information are marginalized within anarchist communities. As well, this line assumes that there are ‘correct’ resources to be reading that are available, and that the person in question will be able to find them among thousands of conflicting resources.”
  4. “Excluding straight/cis/male people makes sense in queer/trans/women’s spaces, but often these people are informally excluded in anarchist spaces that are not any of these things. This hurts our ability to cultivate meaningful popular social power. It’s also related to a dynamic where men of color, native men, immigrant men and other groups of marginalized men are severely underrepresented in anarchist spaces. It also assumes that straight/cis presenting people have the option of being ‘more queer’ or ‘more trans’, which is often not the case depending on their circumstances.”
  5. “Calling people out for using the wrong language, for example saying ‘biological female’ instead of ‘person assigned female at birth’, is harmful and makes no sense because not everyone has access to the same information, they’ll never learn if they’re excluded, and the ‘correct’ languages changes every couple of years anyway. People don’t want to be associated with us because they see how punishing we are to each other and it turns them off.”
  6. “People use ‘unsafe’ when they mean ‘uncomfortable’ way too often and it diminishes the meaning of the word ‘unsafe’ to the point where it’s not very meaningful anymore.”
  7. “People’s obsession with identity politics means the only people who can say stuff like this out loud have to be able to identify themselves as multiply marginalized, and then everyone immediately agrees about how problematic it all is.”
  8. “Who cares about who you personally fuck when we’re talking about a broad political movement? Get off the ego trip. What we want is health care, affordable housing, jobs, prison abolition, immigration rights, sex workers rights, and the end of capitalism. ‘Queer’ has become so fashionable that it’s being confused with ‘radical’.”
  9. “People have no interest in actually changing things anymore. Talking about class and economics isn’t fashionable, and in some cases it’s downright dismissed and labelled as racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic. Anarchists don’t want to build coalitions with working-class people because they don’t want to be ‘triggered’ by having to explain their politics to people who disagree with them.”
  10. “We’ve completely failed to build frameworks for accountability and transformative justice, and instead rely on callouts and social exclusion that replicate the prison system without the benefit of having trials.”

Predictably, this post was met with mixed reactions.  While there seemed to be a lot of agreement with some or all of the 10 points, many posters in that Reddit topic and elsewhere on the internet resort to saying the very things the author found problematic.

Let’s put aside the specific issues mentioned by the author and ask ourselves why this post resonates with so many Leftists.  I think the answer is obvious although it will surely be denied by those who perpetuate many of the problems in our movements.  There are two serious problems in Left Wing organizational culture: strong, pervasive anti-working class attitudes among our organizers and a borderline criminal lack of discussion about the efficacy of our tactics.

In the following video, Michael Albert talks about some of these anti-working class attitudes.  It’s only 10 minutes, so I recommend watching the whole thing when you get a chance.

To summarize, Albert gives an illuminating example of the general Leftist view of sports.  There is a near ubiquitous and visceral disdain of organized sports in the United States among Leftist activists.  The Left Wing anathema is epitomized in the view of American football.  I don’t need to quote numbers or any specific anecdote.  Pretty much any honest Leftist will tell you the same thing or have experience with his or her fellow comrades making some version of the following comments: Football and organized sports in general are to be hated because it keeps the stupid, ignorant masses from focusing on important things.

Of course, rarely is the underlying anti-working class sentiment spoken so explicitly.  Rather, it’s masked by calling sports a trivial distraction which keeps the uneducated workers complacent and unaware of widespread socio-economic injustices.  As if the sports fans, to paraphrase Michael Albert, did not know that the quarterback makes more in a single game than many of them make in several years.  The implicit assumption behind these comments is that viewers watch sports not because they genuinely find them entertaining, but because they’re too intellectually deficient to go read Marx’s Capital or read Jacobin.

Michael Albert’s example begins with sports, but I think it can be carried further.  Take a look at the third point in the list quoted above.  Anyone who has been around Leftist groups whether on the internet or in person has heard the phrase “it’s not my job to educate you.”  What kind of nonsense is that?  The entire point of our organizations is to raise the political consciousness of the working class.  An activist who renounces their educational role makes the following hidden declaration:  I, who is well-read on political, gender, and race theory, occupies a superior position to you the less learned.  You are not worthy to be educated by me.

The irony of this should not be lost. An organization whose purported mission is to eliminate class society that contains members who often and openly express blatant classist ideas will only alienate the very people who need to hear and understand their message.  Alienated people who are otherwise receptive to our ideas will not take the time out of their schedule to facilitate the day-to-day activities of our organizations.  Predictably, attendance dwindles, the efficacy of the organization declines, and what’s left is a group of “pure radicals” who care more about “radical” gestures than seriously organizing for social change.

All of this is closely related to the lack of serious discussion about tactics on the Left.  Earlier I called this “criminal” and I meant it.  If we truly care about ending imperialism, racial and gender hierarchies, and economic inequality, then not talking about our tactics is tantamount to complicity in the very things we want to abolish.

It is difficult to formulate this thought into words so I will give a personal anecdote.  Several years ago, I was talking with a rather prominent student activist who now works in D.C. He is your typical, garden-variety liberal (the relevance of this will be apparent later on).  Somehow the discussion turned to the demands of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement on campus at the time.  I don’t remember the exact words, but I said something like this: BDS is an important movement.  Targeting universities and corporations that are involved in the occupation of Gaza and the settlements in the West Bank is a good start.  But the American movement for justice in Palestine needs to break up the political, economic, and diplomatic support that the United States government gives to Israel without which Israel would be severely limited in its imperialist capabilities.

The liberal activist’s response to this was simple: “This does not concern us.”  I was kind of shocked.  What did he mean by this?  He clarified saying that the discussion of what tactics are appropriate concerning the liberation of Palestine are not for middle class white males like us, but for the Palestinian people themselves.  It did not occur to him that in fact what I had said was nothing new.  It certainly did not reek of middle class white male colonialism, as I believe he called it.  This kind of discussion of tactics was (and is) ongoing within the Palestinian community itself.  Rather than seeking to understand the diverse conversation about tactics that was going on within an oppressed community, the liberal viewed Palestinians as one unified person.  More importantly, saying that tactics about Palestinian liberation “does not concern” Americans is tantamount to ignoring the complicity of the United States in the ongoing oppression of Palestinians.  It fragments the movement instead of building international solidarity.

I recount this anecdote because the same liberal nonsense spouted by that activist infects our movement today.  The Left routinely views minorities as a monolith composed of one single opinion: usually that of the speaker who benefits most from this view.  Is it any wonder that Leftist organizations tend to be so white and male, when they often don’t view minorities and women as individuals with different experiences and ideas?

A further comment before ending this post.  The lack of discussion about tactics does not just surround women and minority issues.  It permeates every aspect of our movement.  It’s why at Occupy Wall St in New York City, activists were able to propose and get people to go to the financial district in town, dance, sing, and “serve dishes of debt and inequality” to capitalists trying to eat lunch.  This isn’t a fake right-wing news story.  I was there when that happened and many dozens of people joined that group to do “acts of performative radicalness.”

I did not speak up at the time, so I am as complicit in that ridiculous display as those who pranced around entertaining finance executives on their lunch break.  The positive reception that the Reddit post has enjoyed is hopefully a sign that the Left can begin seriously thinking about tactics and its organizational culture.  The history of the Left is filled with tactical discussions.  The First International famously debated the attitude the Left should have towards the State.  Pre-World War I socialists vigorously debated the place of reforms.  And so on.  The Left is historically no stranger to self-reflection on tactics and organizational culture.  If we care about winning, it’s imperative that we now we enter into one of these moments of serious self-reflection.

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