Left Culture and Movement Prospects

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Have you ever heard a fellow progressive, leftist, radical, or revolutionary say, “I remain on the left despite the left, not because of it”? We have.


The Left Has a Problem

The left, writ large, is a kind of community. It has an array of traditions, rituals, and norms which diversely appear in leftwing organizations, projects, campaigns, and movements. Of course, there are many variations. But it turns out, even those on the left who practice a fair share of the expected language, traditions, rituals, and norms often dislike parts of the whole. In fact, isn’t it the case that many who leave or even don’t join in the first place progressive leftist, radical, and revolutionary projects, organizations, parties, and movements – which is a whole lot of people over time, with many never returning – leave largely because of the interactions they have encountered on the left?

So we might reasonably ask, what is it about some left behavior that repels many who would otherwise identify with left politics?

Most people who become involved with progressive, left, radical, or revolutionary (hereafter just called left) political projects and movements do so because they have a genuine desire to change the world for the better. Left ideas resonate with them. But if so many good people get involved with the movement to improve the world, why do so many of them not stick around for the long haul?

First, you might reasonably wonder, is that really true? Do that many really leave? Well, tally all the folks who have been in anti-war, feminist, anti-racist, no nukes, climate, labor, community, and other movements over, say, the past five decades. Millions. Perhaps tens of millions. How many of those people remain to this day actively engaged in left projects and movements? Undoubtedly, the answer is a very small percentage. This is a major issue. Indeed, it may be the most serious issue we face on the left. We are continually refilling our movements because people are continually leaving them at roughly the same

To be fair, fighting against the most powerful institutions in the world isn’t easy and can wear on anyone. This, of course, explains why some leave. Political work can be difficult, stressful, and taxing. It wears people out. The thing is, that kind of burn-out is a fact. Why can’t we do a better job of supporting people who are enduring such pressures?

Being a progressive, leftist, radical, or revolutionary ought to mean wanting to attain a better world, finding obstacles to attaining a better world, understanding the roots and mechanisms of the obstacles, communicating the ensuing insights, and developing campaigns to overcome or transcend the obstacles.

Obviously, we don’t sufficiently identify the problems at work, communicate them, initiate campaigns to overcome or transcend them. Why not? Is it because self-assessment, especially with the aim of identifying correctable flaws, is uncomfortable? Is it because we know it will offend some? The left is more than ready to identify problems in the mainstream world that obstruct our success, but why do we hesitate to do so regarding our own practices?

Perhaps we can identify some consequential issues.


Bringing Working-Class People Into The Movement

Sometimes it seems that activists think new people should just hear the truth, hop off the couch, get involved with, become immersed in, and rise to lead political movements. Of course, for the majority of Americans who live in poverty or can barely make ends meet, that’s not reality. For them, reality looks like multiple jobs, risky housing, health problems, and mounting bills and debt. Their daily life pressures are enormous. If we’re serious about actual poor and working-class people joining much less becoming immersed in and leading, we must first understand how different their day-to-day lives are than those of established left writers, activists, organizers, and commentators, and beyond understanding, we must act in light of the understanding.

To programmatically reach poor and working-class people the left should in considerable part focus on the sort of reforms and legislation that would allow poor and working-class people more time to participate in political activities. Immediately, this would include seeking student loan abolishment, a living minimum wage, free housing, Medicare For All, childcare services, expanded Social Security payments, free and universal daycare and health care, and especially a shorter workweek, plus a better climate for union and general labor organizing and reform.

Quite often, these issues are part of the commitment and thus rhetoric of activists, but are not so successfully emphasized in many leftwing organizing efforts. Is it in part because many of the people who occupy important roles within these movements do not come from poor and working-class communities? Hence, they don’t immediately feel as urgently the needs of poor and working-class people?

More, when we do manage to attract overworked, time-stressed working people to get involved with the left, often they eventually leave. Perhaps a major reason is that many left institutions, organizations, and movements don’t share existing resources, however, limited they may be, to aid and empower those most in need. Not only is it rare that we practice serious mutual aid for members to advance within organizations and movements, but each of our organized efforts often competes with others for a limited pool of resources. Perhaps the left would be better served coming up with ways to share resources equitably between various groups, movements, parties, projects, and so forth and also within them, among members who have very different material circumstances. Perhaps that could reduce the pressures causing people to leave.

Another factor curtailing growth is that most of the time we preach to the choir. Yes, the choir needs practice, but the left spends far too much time speaking to itself. And not just speaking to itself, but repeatedly telling itself what it already knows. We call for a protest. We issue social media blasts. We call for another protest. All the while we wonder why our numbers aren’t growing. We write, give speeches, just talk face to face, but very often we don’t find a way to reach beyond our own circles with what we have to say – or, when talking in our own circles, we say what we are all already in tune with.

Part of the reason is we don’t have tools that reach further. Part of the reason is that it is comfortable. But another part of the reason is that we confuse mobilizing with organizing. The left doesn’t spend enough time organizing, which is reaching out to people who don’t self-identify as leftists.

Even left writing is mostly directed at ourselves. This problem is both about methods and awareness. Might it help to spend more time seriously and sincerely hearing and addressing those who don’t yet agree with us, indeed, even those who disagree with us, so as to cross divides and develop deep relationships and personal bonds?

In the end, organizing should be about engaging massive numbers of ordinary people and bringing them into the left and then sustaining and empowering them inside the left. That requires speaking and working with people who don’t already agree with us. Sometimes our numbers don’t grow because we aren’t, in fact, trying to grow our numbers.


The Socially Inept Left

This problem isn’t new. If we had a greater rate of member retention and development from the 1960s through all the intervening years to now, or even from the 1990s to now, there would be tens of millions of organized, committed, and trained activists with shared vision and strategy all working together. That is incontestable. And that we don’t have that is also incontestable.

The sad truth that follows is that many people leave leftwing movements and organizations and even the most cursory survey of such folks tends to suggest it is overwhelmingly often because they grow tired of left behavior patterns that mirror those we abhor in society at large.

How many leftists do you know who’ve never sincerely and meaningfully asked how your day is going (not perfunctorily saying “have a nice day”), or never asked how your loved ones are coping with the pandemic? Many people on the left jump on meetings, phone calls, or attend events, and the only thing they want to discuss is the business at hand: ‘transactional relationships.’ It’s off-putting, and to some degree, antisocial.

Winning requires sacrifice and especially trust and for that, we must develop deep personal bonds with those we’re working with. That can only happen through one-on-one conversations, breaking bread, sharing personal stories, dreams, desires, and fears. It happens through dancing, talking, and playing games. If we’re serious about building a radical much less a revolutionary movement, we must be serious about building intentional and deep relationships, especially with those we’re trying to bring into the movement.


Why Left Culture Turns People Off

Okay, but is the absence of actively caring relations the only reason people leave? No. It is an important aspect, but it is far from the only cause. Everyone has of late heard of the term ‘Cancel Culture’ or earlier, “political correctness.” While of course the terms have been cynically used by elites to justify a wide-range of their undesirable behavior, that doesn’t mean there is nothing to the observation that ‘Cancel Culture’ deters many poor and working-class people from joining or staying in left movements. It even prevents people from thinking about why other people leave, from identifying reasons, and from calling for efforts to address the reasons, overcome the reasons, transcend the reasons.

We believe there’s a legitimate debate, as but one current example, to be had about trans women participating in female sports leagues. Many liberal and progressive women have brought up the issue, yet they have been shamed, denounced, and attacked for doing so.

Meanwhile, in non-left spaces, many Americans are having that exact discussion. Go to a tattoo parlor, barbershop, or local dive bar and you will hear people talk about the issue. The same is true of Thanksgiving dinners or family birthday parties. In left circles, it’s a forgone conclusion that existing left orthodoxy is correct, hence the discussion is over: trans women should be able to compete in female sports leagues. Anyone who disagrees risks being labeled a ‘transphobe.’ This kind of interaction turns people off rather than communicating substance about important issues, both people within leftwing movements, and those watching from the outside, that is, the people whose views we should be most concerned to reach.

Consider there is also a legitimate debate to be had about gun culture in the U.S., which is inherently tied to a conversation about violence vs. nonviolence. As everyone knows, many people in the U.S. love and own guns, in fact, millions more since the pandemic started. Gun culture is a central component of U.S. culture. Regardless of any analysis, It’s not going away anytime soon. So should the left simply denounce gun owners? Of course not. Blanket denunciation of guns and gun culture isn’t the best political route if we’re hoping to bring people over to our side. Both liberals and leftists would be wise to keep this in mind.

The same is true of any discussion about violence vs. nonviolence. Both sides caricature the other. It’s unhelpful. Pacifists often see violence as a terrible means that will never lead to our intended end. On the other hand, those advocating for violent revolution often see pacifists as sell-outs who, if given the opportunity, will get us all killed. Of course, neither caricature is true.

While we think that nonviolence is almost always superior to violence, we also understand that many people understandably conclude that violent revolution is the answer. Right now, that’s the case more than any other time in recent memory. The left should be willing and able to engage in such debates and conversations without demonizing those who disagree.

And the examples go on, and on. Elections, as another example, tend to bring out the worst in leftists. Those who advocate for strategic voting, which usually means voting for the Democratic Party candidates, are painted as “apologists for imperialism and capitalism,” while those who refuse to vote for Biden are portrayed as “unthoughtful buffoons and fringe radicals who aren’t to be taken seriously.”


Etiquette or Strategy?

When leftists battle each other in ways often avoiding substance and railing at presumed motives, often degrading and insulting one another with little or no room for serious discussion of alternatives, that is part of what causes folks to leave.

Over the years, we’ve seen leftists castigate newcomers for eating meat, drinking CocaCola, driving pickup trucks, listening to country music, and a whole host of personal behaviors that people make within a limited framework of choices in a totally corrupt and terrible system. What people choose to eat, drink, smoke, or who they choose to sleep or not sleep with becomes fodder for high school-like vendettas. Surely, that a person has some habit, or practice that others have rejected shouldn’t preclude someone from being welcomed into the movement or treated with empathy and understanding.

All of us come from very different geographical, cultural, economic, political, and social backgrounds. What we know, what we’ve experienced, varies greatly. That the variation becomes a pretext for attacking and being attacked, instead of understanding and being understood drives people away. People’s backgrounds should be respected, as long as they are not directly threatening anyone with violence or intimidation, overt and explicit racism, sexism, or homophobia, not to mention classism, which is arguably even more prevalent.

And that brings us to another albeit closely related point: the policing of language often seen as sexist, racist, and so on. Let’s look at this from a practical and constructive angle. Many of us have been involved in campaigns that require coalitions.

Here, we’re thinking of a real-world example that one of us has experienced. The campaign in question was an environmental campaign. At its outset, the campaign included rural whites, urban blacks, and college-educated whites and blacks who self-identified as leftists. None of the groups had interacted much or even at all with each other prior to the campaign, yet in order for the campaign to work, they needed to build relationships.

Interestingly, urban blacks and rural whites tended to interact much easier with each other than the college-educated radicals interacted with either group. Incredibly judgmental from the first moment, the self-identified leftists were appalled by much of the language used by both other groups and their cultural habits. Designer beers, hipster clothing, hostility to pop culture and sports, plus coffee house music didn’t jive with poor whites from the countryside or urban blacks from the ghetto.

At times, things got heated. Some of the rural whites used racial slurs and other words that people found troubling. But that was also true of the black group. The college radicals floundered over how to respond. All their preconceived notions about how those groups should’ve responded to their well-wrought arguments and their preferred issues proved irrelevant. What they realized, at least when they took time off from judging, is that they were the ones living in a cultural and social bubble. That, in fact, many poor and working-class blacks and whites have no problem interacting, but their interactions, language, and behaviors often don’t fit into the existing left culture.

These issues were dealt with by having more thoughtful and down-to-earth, calm conversations about issues and people’s habits and beliefs, the sort of discussions people have at BBQs and family parties, but not the sort that radicals experience in college seminars and leftwing conferences much less when tweeting and Facebooking each other to oblivion. But is this type of mutual learning and respectful change the norm for progressives, leftists, radicals, and revolutionaries? Is it the vibe our writing, speaking, gathering, campaigning gives off?


Moral Appeals Won’t Cut It

Moreover, simply being on the ‘right side of history’ isn’t enough to continually enlarge and maintain membership. Our goal should be to bend and change history, in short, to win. And our practices should reflect that desire. This is certainly the case for most poor and working-class people. Indeed, for them, there is no other reason to be on the left, at least as it typically operates. In our experience, campaigns, movements, and organizations that are growing in vibrant, creative, and interesting ways, while also winning, are the sort of projects that keep most people who connect with them engaged over the long haul.

Telling people they’re bad people for not being involved with the movement isn’t a winning outreach strategy. Hammering people for their habits, mannerisms, or tastes is not conducive to any kind of change by anyone at all. Hammering people with how bad things are in the hope that they’ll somehow just snap out of their survival patterns and start a revolutionary insurrection (as if that’s ideal) or even join a sensible and sober movement (which would be damn good), is not a strategy.

Constant appeals to the pains we share and the moral virtues we advocate have limited success bringing people into movements and even less success keeping people in movements. Morality is critically important, of course, but not used as a club and not used without clarity about what to do, why to do it, what to attain.

If we operate under the assumption that most people are good people, then we probably don’t need to badger them with calls to be good people. The issue is, “What can actually achieve social good?,” not “What is deemed behaviorally good?” People will join and stay in the movement if they believe the movement is serious, committed, disciplined, accessible, and has good winning prospects. People will stay in if they would be proud and eager to bring their friends and families in.


Our Movements Can’t Reflect the Dominant Culture

On the other hand, if a movement has good demands but seems internally as racist as your town, workplace, or school, you have reason to doubt its commitment. If it seems as sexist as your town, workplace, or school, again you have reason to doubt its commitment. With very few exceptions movements understand these two observations. It, therefore, becomes important to identify the problem of racism and sexism in the left, communicate it, and address it to overcome it, transcend it. But if your movement is as classist as your town, workplace, or school, again you have reason to doubt. Yet with very few, if any exceptions, movements don’t identify the problem of classism in the left, communicate it, and address it to overcome it or transcend it.

Movements that don’t elevate people from poor working-class families into full participation and leadership are classist. Movements whose internal culture – tastes and preferences – revile working-class life practices, are classist. Movements that are tone-deaf to working-class needs, are, again, classist. And arguably most of all, movements whose internal role structures divide their members into those who make decisions and those who abide by decisions that others make, are classist.

Seriously joining movements requires our commitment, time, and focus. It may involve tensions with family or friends. It may even risk our jobs or state repression. Suppose someone manages to overcome all the above pressures, there remains another factor that causes diminution of morale and finally disassociation: lack of vision, which leads to a lack of hope. What works against staying is being in a movement that has so little belief that a long term vision – another world – is attainable that it spends nearly no time clarifying what it would be, what seeking it would entail. Why bother, if you can’t get there?

Movements tend to do a very compelling job of explaining how existing institutions and relations are powerful, but they do almost no job at all of making a case that another world is possible. We believe another world is possible. And we believe that history shows people are willing to fight to attain another world, but only if they feel welcomed and deeply connected to the movements, projects, campaigns, and issues they’re fighting for. In order to make that true, we’ll need to overcome the barriers discussed above, or others. Yes, the left gets attacked from all sides. Yes, it can feel like raising concerns and criticisms is piling on. Yes, it can feel like criticism goes too far, or casts too wide a net. But while avoiding all these ills is worth the effort – it really is quite secondary. The point is to find problems, so we can overcome them. We believe that’s possible, otherwise, we wouldn’t have written this essay. Let’s get to work. And let’s support each other through these increasingly difficult times.

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Joe H November 24, 2020 6:04 pm 

    An additional point on this. I remember a large anti-austerity meeting in London at which, after a talk or two, a newcomer posed a question to the group. I think it was about attitudes towards the police, maybe I mis-remember. I do remember that it was a genuine question from a sympathetic person who had gone to the trouble of turning out — although those inside the “left culture” might consider it a bit naive. This was met by some leftist present with a contemptuous slap-down, as if David Cameron had burst in and asked the question. Then we were delivered back to the comfort of a stream of Lenin quotes from one of the usual suspects (which probably seemed completely outlandish to the curious newcomer).
    In the context of this article, the problem here is clear. As well as castigating people for putting cow’s milk in the fridge (another real example from my experience, sadly) we also lack patience, tolerance and self-awareness when handling unpolished opinions. This doesn’t mean turning a group with a defined agenda into a chaotic free-for-all. It just means encouraging forward instead of pushing out. In the above situation, the veteran could simply have disagreed in a more respectful way. The newcomer might have come back (I’d be amazed if she ever did, as it was).
    Some people are just cantankerous, maybe long-time activists more than most. But a lot of this could be fixed by shining a light on this bad behaviour and improving the culture. Thanks for the contribution to this.

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