The US Left doesn’t quite exist.
Everything you might call “the socialist movement” — anarchists, Marxists, democratic socialists — is on the edges of a bigger phenomenon. A few months ago a multi-year study was published, finding that the strongest predictor of an individual’s politics isn’t demographics, party affiliation, or even self-identified ideology. Rather, the US has seven distinct segments with their own ideologies, demographics, social networks, and “basic values” (for instance, how they raise children). US politics happens through that set of political subcultures.
US socialism exists inside one of them: the “Progressive Activists.” Members of that subculture are far more likely to self-identify as liberal than as radical or revolutionary. However, they are the people that socialists hang out with, live next door to, and have friendly debates with at parties. They go to the same protests and the same colleges. They engage with the same media outlets (and use social media much more than other segments). They share the same values (not to mention the same backgrounds: Progressive Activists are 80% white, whiter than any segment except the far right, and 3% Black — the least Black of any segment, including the far right. They are concentrated in coastal metropolises and have much higher rates of college education than the population at large. A quarter of them make six figures — twice the national average and more than any other segment — and they’re less than half as likely as the average to make less than $20,000/year).
Leftists may not self-identify as Democrats, but the perennial “lesser evil voting” debate always assumes that Democrats are the lesser evil. Radicals treat liberals as errant friends, misguided, but friends nonetheless. Why shouldn’t they? They’re all in the Progressive Activist social scene. They literally are each other’s friends. In practice, Libertarians are an alternative face of conservatism, a dissident faction of the Republican base. Similarly, socialists are dissident progressives within the Democratic base.
Campus activism bleeds into online social justice, real-life protest culture, intersectionalist NGOs, the DSA, and the DSA’s critics from the left. Individuals drift back and forth between those subcategories, but they never leave the Progressive Activist ecosystem. To understand the US Left, you have to understand that context. At 8% of the population, Progressive Activists are a fringe. There are fewer of them than any other segment (except the far right). Radicals, then, are on the margins of the margins.
The differences I described in “The US Left Has Only Four Tendencies” aren’t imaginary. But, I misunderstood their significance (or rather, the lack thereof). Looking from inside what I viewed as a new and different base-builder tendency, I missed the larger picture. I overstated some distinctions and what’s worse, I missed the overwhelming importance of the social context the entire Left shares. Sure, leftists go about progressive activism in different ways. That matters less than the fact that they’re all progressive activists. And while there are many things that individual people from the typical leftist’s class background can offer to the work of organizing the dispossessed for revolution, no movement or organization with the Left’s class base can bring about revolution. The Left and its constituent groups intrinsically, structurally can’t accomplish their goals.
With that in mind, though, there are still three distinct angles to leftism: the Scene, the Sects, and the Serious. They aren’t necessarily competing with each other. Plenty of people and groups exist in more than one of them at once. But, they’re still separate enough that their differences form the basic contours of the Progressive Activists’ radical fringe.
- The Scene is more organized than it looks. Most of its forms are amorphous: friend networks, anarchist and antifa affinity groups, Leftbook/Left Twitter/social-justice Tumblr, and certain cultural producers’ fan bases. However, it’s full of the type of informal power structure Jo Freeman critiqued in “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Maybe you and your friends go to a protest now and then (though you aren’t bringing any organization’s flag). Maybe you follow radical meme pages or hang out with anarchists at parties and shows. Maybe you took some classes in college on critical race theory or women’s studies. The Scene is more metapolitical than political. You don’t have to join an organization. It’s about friendships and culture, online and off, instead. There is no clear line between the Scene and the larger Progressive Activist milieu.
- The Sects believe they are real alternatives to the Democratic Party. Each of them has its own unique ideology and a formal organizational structure, unlike the Scene’s loose networks. Some of the Sects call themselves Leninist vanguards. Others call themselves activist organizations (like the Socialist Party) or even labor unions (like the IWW). The biggest Sects are the Green Party and the DSA. Whatever work the Sects do, they do to express their ideas. That usually means empty gestures like sign-waving demonstrations and “What Socialists Think About [News Item]” events. Sometimes, it means actual organizing. But either way, Sects are beholden to the organizational logic of their ideas-first approach. Even deep and sustained mass work can’t overcome that. The group’s existence, after all, is in the end conditional on its ability to express its members’ ideas. The Sects recruit overwhelmingly from within the Scene.
- The Serious are qualitatively different from the Scene and the Sects. They have access to real power. Although they privately (or, rarely, publicly) identify as socialists, anarchists, or whatever else, they are part of the Democratic Party’s cadre structure (a semi-public network of politicians and staffers that runs their Party’s extensive network of nominally-nonpartisan front groups and constituent organizations, runs for office, raises funds from donors and foundations, etc. It’s the hard core that manages the institutions on which the entire “progressive activist” subculture rests. While many factions of Democratic cadres exist, they still practice de facto line discipline, never deviating from their Party’s core commitments). The Serious are sometimes union leaders and sometimes “community organizers.” Often, their skillful organizing cultivates genuine bases of support among the dispossessed. So, they’re generally less white, less insular, and less oriented towards the professional-managerial class than either the Scene or the Sects. (Ironically, their very lack of professional-managerial class insularity limits their social connection to the rest of the Left. People in the Scene and the Sects can sometimes go years without coming across the Serious except in passing.) Sometimes, they educate their constituents in Marxism and use militant tactics to win their demands. Many of them are descended from the New Communist Movement or other Old Left and New Left groups. However, they are not ultimately revolutionary, although their mass organizing puts them closer to it than any of the Sects. Their access to power has strings attached. They depend on their working relationships with other Democratic front groups and politicians. Often, they rely on grants from the government or wealthy liberal philanthropists. The Serious are dangerous precisely because of their often-authentically-mass character and truly revolutionary ideas. The Democratic Party keeps them around for a reason: the mass movements of the 60s and 70s were recuperated, not just suppressed. Now they’re an undead and reanimated mass Left. They consume and tame any popular upsurge that might threaten the ruling class, and they’re good at it because they believe they’re doing the opposite. Their actions shore up the system they think they’re tearing down. A few of them are in Sects, especially DSA, CPUSA, FRSO/OSCL, and Solidarity (or LeftRoots, to my knowledge the only public Marxist organization formed entirely by the Serious). Usually, though, they don’t openly declare their aims or existence. The communist leadership of UNITE-HERE doesn’t publicly call itself anything but UNITE-HERE. The revolutionaries profiled in this LeftRoots article don’t have any public presence besides their mass organizations.
If you want a revolution, none of these will get you there. The Progressive Activist subculture is not and never will be for the dispossessed. Its professional-managerial class composition and demographics aren’t statistical accidents. They’re inherent features. Having nominally leftist ideas doesn’t give Progressive Activists any revolutionary potential. Revolution comes when the dispossessed are organized, able to exercise power directly, consciously opposed to the ruling class, and positioned to take advantage of the liberal order’s periodic crises of functionality and legitimacy. That means mass organizations with communist leadership actively destabilizing the liberal order to provoke a crisis (comparable to the “creative provocation” strategy of antebellum abolitionists). At the same time, it means developing the organizational capacity to govern. The vision here is mass rule: governance by mass organizations directly, coordinated and defended by the democratic organs of a revolutionary “semi-state” and communist political organization.
That’s where the Serious fail. De facto Democratic affiliation offers advantages so appealing that the Serious choose not to have class independence. I don’t know how to prevent that. It happens consistently enough that there must be more to it than simple ideological confusion, opportunism, or misleadership. The Scene and the Sects, though, never reach the point where recuperating mass struggles is a danger. After all, they’d have to be organizing mass struggles in the first place. They’re not even opportunist. They’re simply irrelevant.
The organizing methods used by the Serious are sound as far as they go (for that matter, they’re basically the same ones US socialism used in its heyday, preserved by Alinskyite community organizations and a few CIO-derived unions). But, those techniques by themselves clearly don’t prevent liberal recuperation. More disturbingly, combining them with revolutionary ideology apparently doesn’t either.
Something more is needed. I don’t know what it is. It’ll take a lot of experimentation and, likely, plenty of failure to figure it out. I suspect that it may include “strategic sectarianism” against Democratic front groups, burning both personal and organizational bridges with Democratic cadres before they can be built. It might also involve networked relationships between multiple projects with different social bases so that no one project will be susceptible to recuperation by itself, like a two-star solar system in which each star’s gravity holds the other in place. Over the longer term, some sort of Party-building will also likely be necessary. But all of that still might not be enough.
The Scene, the Sects, and the Serious are not the way forward. For years, I’ve been on the Sect road. Base-building and the dual power strategy, as I’ve understood and promoted them, have been attempts to save the Left from itself. That was misguided. So, when I criticize the Left I’m also self-criticizing. Plenty of us are in the Left because we truly do want to see imperialism and capitalism end — to be part of the historic project of the liberation of the dispossessed. We’ve accomplished real victories along the way. We’ve been on the wrong path even so.
Leaving it is easier said than done, and there are plenty of comrades I hope to keep organizing with for a long time. But what we’ve been doing isn’t adequate to our task. It’s time for something different.