How Many Tendencies?

by Jean Allen

This is in response to Sophia Burns’ article, “The US Left Has Only Four Tendencies”. In it, Burns makes an argument that’s been popping up more and more in the last two years, and one I generally agree with: that the geopolitical splits which defined US socialist politics during the Cold War (or even going further back, to the 3rd and 2nd Internationales) no longer hold, and that the US left is now defined more by the differences between groups who are increasingly converging around shared practices than around differences between ideologies.  This does not mean that past lines of thinking are useless (a point I made in Ideological & Practical Difference, and that Avery Minnelli and Eliezer Levin made in Where’s the Winter Palace), but that the boundaries between these analyses aren’t as hard as they were decades ago, and in many cases are indeed collapsing under their own weight.

How is it that ideologies are distinct as Maoism and Anarchism, or Marxism and Syndicalism, or the French ultra-left and social democracy, are able to increasingly coexist within one organization, or indeed be synthesized?  How is this possible when the history of US Marxism-Leninism has seemingly been a march into yet and yet further corners of orthodoxy?

Burns correctly argues that we cannot be caught up in these kinds of intellectual histories when talking about the Left:

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.

This is absolutely correct, as is the assertion that “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 ”.  The left all too often applies materialist analysis to everything but itself, or analyzes politics at extremes, where either systemic factors are determinant down to individual actions, or individual actions are determinant up to the system.  It is unquestionable to me that Burns is a part of a positive trend in the Left, which will allow us to finally analyze politics as being more than a morality play or a ballad of competing book clubs.

Burns then argues a line similar to my own, that the actual tendencies of the American left come out of the practices they engage in, and that the nature of our current situation has led to these tendencies coalescing along practical rather than in ways demarcated by texts, a trend I call the “practical shift”.  From this point, she presents what she views as the “four tendencies” of contemporary US leftism: government leftists, to whom “Winnable reform fights are their bread and butter.”; Protest Militants, who see a doubling down on militant protests as the only means to create revolution; Expressive Hobbyists, who see ‘building consciousness’ as the primary revolutionary activity; and the Base Building Tendency, which recognizes that “in the US, the working class exists in economic terms, but does not exist as what Marx called a ‘class-for-itself’.”

The difference between these four tendencies seems primarily to be one of outlook and temperament: the government socialists and basebuilders seem have come through the other side of the ‘practical shift’, knowing that the arguments of the last century no longer seem to hold, and primarily disagree over whether we should rebuild the left through taking the tactics and activists of liberal NGOs (government socialists), or through organizing the unorganized (base builders).  The other two groups, however, are stuck in the same loops of ideological conflict due to the fact that they recruit based on their ability to forward their ideas.

While I don’t have any existential issues with the categories as they’re presented, Burns’ outlining makes a kind of intuitive sense.  The problem is the function this taxonomy serves in her argument. Taxonomies can be used, generally, in three ways in a piece of rhetoric:

  1. As a way to explicate the presented argument
  2. As a way of presenting an intuitive argument which works through the categories but is not explicitly stated
  3. As a way of sneaking an argument past the reader, through the implication that one of the categories is worse than the other (like, for instance, this taxonomy)

Burns’ taxonomy includes parts of the second and the third, and this is not necessarily a negative.  Burns is a fantastic polemicist and rhetoritician and is prolific to an almost intimidating degree and her works are written with a keen eye towards persuasiveness, and this is a good thing: the left needs more writers like this. The degree to which I have seen “government socialist” used as a term after the paper was published shows that it was successful in its goal, to create a grouping of practical categories which point to one category as good practice.

But it is clear upon reading the article that it is aimed at forwarding base building as a good tactic, and those who oppose it as someway ‘limited’.  Even as someone who generally agrees with this, her rhetoric does not come without its shortcomings. The fact that these categories are more like caricatures without an interiority or an analysis behind it makes it impossible to know how these categories came into being, or by what means they might be transformed.  There is no better example of this than her ‘out’ to this situation:

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.

This seems to me to be a poor analysis of how political formations change.  But this ‘build the base and they will come’ mentality arrives from the relatively empty ‘backroom’ of this article, a product of this article’s nature as being more intent on persuading the audience than in analyzing the world around it.

But Burns’ work gives us an idea of where we should look.  She is absolutely correct that, regardless of all protestations to the contrary, the US left owes more to the period between Occupy Wall Street and Blacklivesmatter than it does to the Russian or Chinese revolutions.  While we may ideologically claim adherence to any historical movement we wish, practically a movement is limited by the organizational makeup and strategies of the movements that came before it. We may do what we want with this body we have, but sadly we have inherited our skeleton.

What we must understand about this skeleton the left has built on is that, as opposed to the 50s, the 30s, or the 1910s, the current era of radicalism is coming from an incredibly narrow range of organizations.  Activist orgs and intellectuals were the two forms of activism which predominated on the left, with some interplay between these two groups and electoral advocacy. In terms of what union work there was, it was scant and often guided one directly into the nexus of liberal organizations, and as for mutual aid, it was often focused on supplying the milieu with half-molded bread.  

This came to a peak at Occupy, and after that the slow collapse of the left of the Oughties became a far more rapid process.  In its place we began to see a series of different tendencies, marked by their shared oppositions to what they viewed as the failures of the last decade.  But these new tendencies did not spring up completely new; they were built on the organizations that existed before them. This led to a strange interregnum: the left was increasingly disgusted with itself after Occupy but its reactions could only manifest through the same kinds of organizations as the ones who produced Occupy.  A kind of magical thinking arose, where replacing the seemingly mundane forms of organizing associated with the anarchist left with some other form would lead to immediate success.

Excepting a titanic crisis or repression, it is relatively rare to see a rapid shift in organizational composition.  Even the period after WW1 did not so much see a shift in organizational composition as a change in the orientation of said composition.  Thus the following conclusion should not be surprising, that the current composition of the left is not radically dissimilar from the left in the decades before.  

The layout of the Left in the 00s and now

What has changed is that there are substantially more and deeper links between practices and kinds of organizing, which has led to different splits.  This change can most clearly be seen in the tendencies which have changed the least. This, to me, is clearly the protest militant/expressive hobbyist axis (which I will take after Burns in arguing that “[they] could be considered different factions of the same tendency.”).  Both saw the flaws of the last decade of leftist praxis and saw their only response to be doubling down. But what makes, for instance, Leftbook or Red Guards Austin different from the anarcho-punks of the 90s and 00s ? Regardless of what you’d say about their aesthetic or politics, the Anarcho-Punks managed to build and sustain a social base through subcultural communities and forms of mutual aid.  Participation in the punk scene connected you with friends, housing through squats, food through dumpster diving, and a variety of activities that actively bettered people’s lives, even if it was just at a local or sub-local scale. This created a social base for the kind of active and often dangerous politics that anarchists engaged in over the last three decades. Frankly it is a testament to the strength of the subculture that even now, decades after the height of punk as a genre of music or of the anarchist scene as an axis of US politics, any protest will have a couple of dudes with Crass t-shirts show up ready to respond to violence.

What do contemporary groups in the protest militant/expressive hobbyist tendency provide?  They provide a community, yes, but beyond that? Not much. As Burns says, “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…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.”  Burns attributes this to their powerlessness or their lack of desire for power, which I view as either tautological or voluntarist. Which came first, the scene’s powerlessness or it’s closed membership? The fact of the matter is that neither of these created the other: they are both products of this lack of and lack of interest in a social base. When your base comes to you online through agreement with your politics, or through a jovial love of your memes, you need to keep this same political-memetic stance for fear of losing this audience.  And make no mistake, an ‘audience’ is precisely what the militant-hobbyist tendency has, and since they do not have a social base who is able to follow them into actions or engage in the kind of reflection that can only occur in practical actions, they have no place to go but to double down on their politics, often to the point that their practice becomes unachievable, their theory merely a justification for their own purity-in-inaction.

While the militant-hobbyist tendency can be defined by the narrowness of their politics, the rest of the US left can be lauded for the expansion of its practices. While it is easy, from a taxonomical point of view, to differentiate between base builders and government socialists, there are only rare cases where this breakdown can be seen from an organizational standpoint.  Yes, there are groups who center electoralism over base building or vice versa, but as opposed to the 90s and 00s these groups are not shorn by some kind of absolute distinction; not only are they in conversation with each other, they are connected to each other, often within the same organization. The growth of the Democratic Socialists of America comes from the same fundamentals as the obscurity of the sects, only instead of doubling down on intellectual-activist practices, the DSA has (to a degree) combined the three major practical tendencies of the period before, standing astride the old splits between advocacy and activism, electoralism and base building.

This is obviously not an easy position for the DSA to be in, but the fact that there is an organization which brings these tendencies into direct contact with each other is, to me, an unmitigated success.  No practice is advantaged by purity, and even if base builders walk away from their interactions with electoralists in distaste, the movement as a whole is advantaged by their interaction.

This is the heart of my critique against Burns’ piece: that it creates this taxonomy only to find only one piece to be relevant.  This works as rhetoric but fails as analysis. The left is not a Battle Royale, and any situation where one practice emerges as the ultimate victor isn’t the sign of a newly invigorated left, but of a move into stagnation. Nor is the development of One Big Organization which does it all a good or sustainable trend; every time we have seen this happen, such an organization has inevitably narrowed its focus towards one practice.  Connection and interaction need not happen within the same organization; perhaps it is better if tendencies interacted with each other from distinct groups. But right now the answer is not to turn away from electoral practices (because without a counter-practice such a ‘turn’ would signify nothing anyways), but to expand the scope and depth of our work, ideally into the sphere of labor and reproductive organizing.

To out and say something that might be at the back of the minds of my readers: I do not think there is any one socialism, any true practice that will lead us to the City on the Hill. The discovery of socialism at the end of one’s term paper is not any more or less legitimate than the discovery of socialism in a picket line, a soup line, or a party line. But they are all narrowed by the fact that they exist on their own and without interaction with a wider variety of socialist practices. I don’t think that any leftist groups that exist in the United States are in anything close to what I would call an ideal situation. But the left has always had its strongest moments in times of diversity and conflict within that diversity, and it is weakened as that diversity narrows down to a single point or when these diversities silo themselves from each other. So to answer my clickbaity title, how many tendencies are there in the United States? I don’t know. All I know is that there should be more of them.

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