Comrades and Cronies
Who are your comrades?
The more time I spend in the political space that involves ground-up building of resistance and alternatives to capitalist hegemony — call it activism, call it organizing, whatever suits you — the more I begin to notice the patterns that we use to trip ourselves up just as we start to gain momentum. It’s easy to attribute these things to difference of ideology, particularly on the famously contentious left, but I don’t think it’s really as abstract as that. What hobbles us more than anything are simple human foibles that tend to be hugely exaggerated for the very reasons of sensitivity and empathy that drive us to organizing to begin with.
So how do we solve a problem whose origin takes us back to the very tendencies that made us want to do this work? We could look to the great names of the past, to Frederick Douglass who told us he would ally with anyone to do right and with no one to do wrong: but this may not be enough anymore. Aside from being seeded with the landmines that are short but contentious words like ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, it may come from a time and place where the ‘anyone’ was easier to manage. Today we have liberals citing the likes of Louise Mensch and Bill Kristol, with whom no one should be allied, just because they’re poorly disposed towards the current President. We may need the normies to win, but even if a fascist agrees with us on some issue or another, there’s always someone better than a fascist advancing the argument. We should always be careful about what voices we choose to amplify, even when we agree with what they’re saying.
It should be obvious, though, that choosing our battles should remain an important part of the left’s overall strategy. Here is where I once again recall the words of Fish, Rorty, and others who dismiss the importance of metaphysical concepts and their linguistic translations: we should always keep our common goals first and foremost in our sights, with arguments over where they came from and how they should be achieved reserved for when we have time. To put it more concrete ways: when the revolution comes, my religious comrades and I are going to have some very serious talks about whether or not their faiths and the preferred expressions of those faiths have any part in our new socialist paradise. Those talks may turn ugly, and we might find ourselves on the opposite side of a very nasty and uncrossable line. But until that time, talking about it is just spending money we don’t have. It’s a fantasy that creates pointless rancor and keeps us from doing the work we all have to do to get to the revolution in the first place.
And how do we get there? I don’t have a lot of unshakable beliefs; I was poisoned at the altar of postmodernism and drank deep from the well of relativism a long time ago. So I don’t believe that there is one right way to organize. I think there are more and less effective ways, and I think any specific way will work better or worse for someone depending on her ideology, personality, and psychology. Because of this, I think it’s counterproductive to insist on a single approach to our work of reaching out to, building relationships with, forming political bonds with, and making a solidarity movement with the working class. There is no one way to organize, but there is one direction in which we should be organizing: from the bottom up, an arrow aimed straight at the eyes of the bosses.
Likewise, I try to be careful defining what I mean by organizing. I think there are two aspects to our work: organizing in the streets (that is, going directly to the working class elements that are the natural constituency and beneficiaries of socialism and building them into an effective political movement), and organizing within the organization (that is, building the infrastructure and tools this political movement will need to do its work effectively). Both of these elements are vitally necessary. A group of people without a structure is just a mob; a structure without a strong and broad popular support is just a dream. But not everyone is equally suited to both kinds of work. There are passionate organizers who don’t have the patience for bureaucratic work, and there are brilliant organizers who don’t have the skills for face-to-face movement-building. They don’t have to do both, and it’s our job to find out the kind of talent and inclination each person in the organization has. But a strategic genius shouldn’t dismiss the vast importance of tactics just because he’s no good at them, and a tactical mastermind must recognize that hers is just a very useful tool that must fit inside of an overall strategy. Ignoring one over the other, in whichever direction, is how you lose a war. We must cultivate our strengths, and learn not to hold people with different strengths in contempt.
And here we reach what may be the most important lesson that we face, one that’s so critical it’s spelled out in our own organization’s guide to effective and respectful communications: give your comrades the benefit of the doubt. When every oversight is taken as evidence of a conspiracy, and every request for openness is evidence for the necessity of a conspiracy, we don’t have to worry about how to accomplish our goals, because we’ve already lost. Segregating ourselves into factions based on our self-perceptions of effectiveness and righteousness is a wound to the indivisibility we need. It’s fine to question our comrades over the clarity or effectiveness of their approach, but to question their comradeship is to isolate and enervate ourselves much more effectively than outside forces ever could. We don’t need faith, but we at least need confidence, and when we move with confidence and unity, we move with power. Our enemies are not imaginary. They are real, they are ruthless, and the second we get within sniffing distance of truly accomplishing anything on the socialist wish list, they will try their best to crush us with all the many tools at their disposal. Let’s not do their work for them.