The US Left Has Only Four Tendencies

by Sophia Burns

Objectively, most inherited tendency divisions are obsolete. For instance, your evaluation of the USSR (and its rivals) mattered 50 years ago, because the right line could get you Soviet or Chinese money (with strings attached). Today, the USSR is not a live issue with practical implications, and the PRC no longer funds revolutionaries. Nearly all 20th-century tendency demarcations emerged from the contingencies of 20th-century geopolitics. Nearly three decades after the end of the Cold War, though, those geopolitics have ceased to be a driving force behind the US Left’s internal dynamics. There are differences between leftists that matter, but the nature of those differences has changed. (Obviously, much of the Left defines itself in 20th-century terms, but that’s for reasons other than their actual applicability.)

Leftist theory must be materialist. It must begin with empirical investigation into how social phenomena play out in practice, rather than beginning with the ideas that people have and assuming that social dynamics flow from there. The history of ideas is a reflection of the history of actual events, not vice versa. As Marx said, “social being determines [people’s] consciousness.” The subjective beliefs Organization A and Organization B have may differ profoundly. They may claim radically different tendency heritages. However, if their internal organizational sociology and real-life practice are the same, then from a Marxist perspective, their ideologies are equivalent.

In fact, the more emphasis a group places on idea-based lines of demarcation, the more likely it is that there’s some feature of its social existence that leads it to an idealist consciousness — that is, wrongly believing that ideas have more impact on what groups do than the dynamics of their internal structure and external activities! Ironically, many such organizations claim to adhere to a strict materialist analysis. However, they never realize it; their de facto idealism prevents them from turning that materialist analysis on themselves.

If you look at the actually-existing US Left in material terms, then, the divisions you see aren’t the ones that existed during the 20th century. It contains four tendencies (which don’t cleanly map onto the inherited categories of Maoism, anarchism, Trotskyism, etc). Obviously, they only rarely exist in “pure” form — groups that are largely within one of them often contain minorities aligned with another. Many organizations (such as DSA) find themselves pulled in more than one direction, and a few (such as the IWW General Defense Committee) are hybrids. However, what they all share — even those with ambivalent positions — is an overall landscape defined by the following four tendencies:

  1. Government Socialists — Government socialists are pragmatic above all else. They exist either explicitly within the “grassroots progressive” Democratic Party faction, or else as local-level political players within its broad sphere of influence. While they disagree about the ultimate goal of the reforms they pursue (some want outright communism at some unspecified future point, while others think a Sweden-style system is enough), they are united in their policy-focused, realpolitik approach. Winnable reform fights are their bread and butter. They would rather impact policy by “getting their hands dirty” than retain “ideological purity” at the cost of actual influence. Notable examples: DSA Momentum; FRSO/OSCL (; CPUSA; LeftRoots; certain Green Party chapters in places like Richmond, CA; the leadership of many UNITE-HERE locals; certain so-called “identity politics” supporters within the nonprofit-industrial complex who oppose the dominant Clinton wing of the Democrats.
  2. Protest Militants —These view government socialists with contempt, seeing little difference between them and the outright liberals with whom they collaborate. Protest militants tend to stay away from policy campaigns and electoralism, since in their view, protest and “power in the streets” is what really matters. Further, during protests, they push for confrontational and disruptive tactics, since they consider less-aggressive protesters to be moderate by definition. For them, it’s how you protest that divides the revolutionary wheat from the reformist chaff. Notable examples: most Black Bloc and antifa practitioners; the Red Guards collectives.
  3. Expressive Hobbyists — Many expressive hobbyists attend the same demonstrations as protest militants, but for them, the point isn’t exciting “revolutionary” confrontation. Rather, they’re the alphabet-soup sects that bring their own signs and start their own chants to “raise consciousness.” They hold academic conferences to talk about the latest developments in radical theory, form endless study circles, and start online journals to read each other’s analysis. Different sub-tendencies prefer social-media arguing and meme-making, seeking faculty or progressive-media jobs, selling newspapers at whatever protest is in the news this week, or making zines with their friends. However, what they all share is the lack of a concrete material stake in the “organizing” they undertake, which they define entirely in terms of the ideas they spread. Notable examples: the established Marxist sects; most of the anarcho-punk social scene; certain charity-style projects, such as Food Not Bombs, that don’t organize their beneficiaries into durable organizations; radical academia; most leftist publications and media outlets.
  4. Base-Builders — Base-builders start by recognizing that in the US, the working class exists in economic terms, but does not exist as what Marx called a “class-for-itself” : a class organized through its own infrastructure of institutions, capable of consciously contesting with other classes for social power. Because such an organized base for mass socialism is absent, base-builders think the top leftist priority should be to establish one. While mutual-aid projects are often characterized as the signature base-building activity, this is a distortion. Rather, most base-builders prioritize workplace and/or tenant organizing outside of pre-existing unions. Mutual aid serves as a way to consolidate those newly-organized people into a durable framework of new institutions, but the heart of base-building is organizing the unorganized and avoiding activist networking. While FRSO/OSCL (’s Left Refoundation strategy resonates with base-building philosophically, base-builders differ from FRSO/OSCL in their rejection of the activist subculture/nonprofit-industrial complex as a suitable basis for refoundation. Notable examples: the Marxist Center network; Cooperation Jackson; Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation; many parts of the IWW; DSA Praxis; much of DSA Refoundation.

Government socialists and base-builders usually have a sense that 20th-century tendency divisions are obsolete. For the former, the need to gain influence within the “progressive grassroots” Democratic faction means they can’t afford to scare off liberal allies with public displays of sectarian hostility. For the latter, the sheer scale of the work of organizing the unorganized and the lack of inherited resources relative to the other tendencies means that they can’t afford not to work with each other, opinions about Mao notwithstanding.

Protest militants and expressive hobbyists, though, generally have a highly developed sense of their tendency heritage and a lot of “team spirit.” After all, they’re playing for neither influence within the establishment (like government socialists) nor direct social power outside it (like base-builders). So, they’re by definition marginal and powerless. As a result, their participants never have an actual material stake in their work. People join unions and co-ops out of enlightened self-interest, but protest militants and expressive hobbyists only have ideas to offer. So, they have to distinguish themselves from each other philosophically however they can. They’re competing, after all, for an extremely small pool of recruits; most people have neither the time nor the inclination to get involved with them. So, sectarianism and factionalism are rampant among expressive hobbyists and protest militants not in spite of, but because of their underlying sameness.

Arguably, protest militants and expressive hobbyists could be considered different factions of the same tendency. While their style differs and most groups in either come down firmly on one side or the other, they’re closely related and have significant overlap. Thinking of them separately is useful inasmuch as they go about existing on the fringe of liberal activism in distinctive ways. Further, only the expressive hobbyists bleed over into the government socialists. But, their differences shouldn’t be overstated — in most ways that count, they are more the same than not.

Government socialists, protest militants, and expressive hobbyists all exist entirely inside the activist subculture. They differ only in their relative degree of powerlessness within it. Most base-builders currently have at least one foot in the subculture. Generally, that’s due to either the personal backgrounds of base-builders who’ve become disillusioned with another tendency, or the organizational affiliations some of them share with non-base-builders. (For instance, the IWW and DSA both contain currents from all four tendencies, even though government socialists are rare in the IWW and dominant in DSA, while protest militants are rare in DSA and common in much of the IWW.)

However, only the base-builders have the potential to break away from activism. Should they succeed in refounding mass socialism, then parts of the other three tendencies will jump ship for the newly-constructed social base. After decades of failing to get much traction by piggybacking off of the Democrats, some of them will want to try their luck piggybacking off of someone else, instead. However, they don’t want to and couldn’t take the plunge on their own. Because they are structurally incapable of organizing a social base themselves, they have to depend on those who can.

The objective conditions are more favorable than they have been in generations for refounding mass socialism in the US. Base-builders are right that organizing the unorganized and rejecting activist networking is the only way to do it. However, base-building is slow and patient. Activists — in all three of the other tendencies — promise quicker and easier results. Leftists shouldn’t buy what they’re selling, though. The activist subculture is institutionally inseparable from the Democratic Party and the capitalist state. Refoundation can’t happen inside it, and the Left shouldn’t squander its chances.

Check out Jean Allen’s reply, “How Many Tendencies?

5 replies on “The US Left Has Only Four Tendencies”

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