Ultraliberalism is the predominant politics of the left, and so long as the left, in its personnel and political expression, is rooted in the political logic of nonprofit industry and academia, it will continue to be an obstacle to building a mass socialist organization with the purpose of forging a working class conscious of itself.
The dominant politics of the Left in the United States is a form of liberalism, a superficially radical liberalism that gets its political logic from the nonprofit industrial complex. As the concrete conditions of U.S. society and the dysfunction of mainstream politics make people hungry for answers further away from the center, this form of liberalism allures them. It is familiar because of its liberal nature, but it is also seemingly much more radical than mainstream politics.
However, this politics is not a break from the consensus liberalism of the U.S. state; it is merely an incrementally different type of politics, which keeps many of the same premises of U.S. liberalism, just in a heightened form. This ultraliberal political tendency keeps the liberal hostility to power and authority, preserves the emphasis of individual moral worth, grants and withholds political personhood and political agency, and maintains its intolerance toward socialist mass organization politics. The ideology of ultraliberalism is often invisible, just like the consensus of U.S. liberalism, and its political practice comes from the non-profit industry that arose in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
While the practice of ultraliberal politics has benefits in dealing with bourgeois institutions, it is destructive for the socialist project. It rests on the policing of personal identity and on constructing communities for the purpose of monopolizing power and breaking up solidaristic politics. It is in this way essentially elitist and therefore hostile to mass-action socialist politics. As part of the liberal spectrum that makes up U.S. politics, it will be incapable of fundamentally changing social relations in the United States and will always prove itself much more effective in policing, undermining, and disciplining radical socialist and revolutionary politics.
It is a powerful political practice, one that undermines the socialist goal of mass-participation and politicization of the working class to see itself as a class and to act for itself as a class, that reinforces liberal forms of white supremacy and will ultimately regress to more mainstream forms of liberalism when pressure is applied to it. Socialists should recognize ultraliberalism as dominant, and as latent in most radical politics.
II. Liberalism is the Consensus US Ideology
Liberalism and Political Personhood
The U.S. is a “liberal” country, in a broad sense, and its general political consensus is composed of forms of liberalism, between progressive liberalism, neoliberalism, modern liberalism, and so on; at the right edge, historical forms of classical liberalism. The two-party system maintains the ruling class by housing the competition between these small-l liberal tendencies within and between themselves. Other political tendencies beyond liberalism periodically attempt to enter the mainstream of political competition by realigning one of the two parties towards their orientation, to varying degrees of success: for example, the “religious right” represents an illiberal “dominionist” political tendency, as does the elements of the Trump coalition’s ultranationalism.
On the right, the non-liberal ideologies are types of hard conservatism: ultranationalism, fascism, and theocracy. On the left, there are various socialist formations. The right fringe has been significantly more successful in seizing the machinery of mainstream politics because of the entwining of these hard right ideologies with elements of the ruling bourgeoisie. The left has been significantly less successful, because of (among other reasons) the collapse of socialist connection to the labor movement.
In the liberal view, individuals must be guaranteed freedom to act and equal access to social safety as a representation of that liberty. A society’s nature will be a reflection of the sum total of those individuals’ personal choices. The rhetoric of liberalism can vary between this language of “equality of opportunity” and an emphasis on equity, but in practice the fundamental liberal aversion to power and coercive institutions means that even champions of equity often recoil at the types of policies or institutions that could actually transform social relations. This is the contradiction between ensuring equality and liberty while protecting the individual from social coercion. The pathway to equity requires coercive state power to tear down institutions, set public priorities, eliminate the exploitative forms of social power, and redistribute commodities and wealth.
Liberalism strives to create and maintain systems that guarantee individual rights and enforce a “rule of law” that treats individuals equally, based on universal legalistic and metaphysical principles of rights. As a result, liberalism struggles with how to deal with pre-existing and historical conditions in which individuals actually exist, and with the social nature of individual beings, i.e., that every actual individual is inherently defined by their social aspect. In order to make its formal, idealistic systems accommodate the actual-existing social conditions and ruling factions in a society, liberalism has historically fumbled with who “counts” as a political person. In other words, while professing all varieties of idealistic principles, liberalism cannot deal with the type of power and organization necessary to achieve these outcomes. And so, liberal ideology develops a variety of ways to “count” people as worthy of political personhood and social safety. This is true all along the liberal spectrum—including ultraliberals.
This is why the history of liberal societies is a history of the periodic admission of different categories of persons into political personhood, and why even down to the present day, people have to demonstrate their political personhood, their personal moral worth, to “count” for purposes of political agency and social protection. This explains why a common component of different civil rights movements are so-called “respectability” politics: a belief in the need for demonstrations by marginalized groups that they are in a sense worthy of political personhood, because they are just as “mainstream” or acceptable in their beliefs and conduct as the bourgeois majority.
Major fights over political personhood are well known to most people: the civil rights struggles of U.S. history were essentially this struggle, as Black Americans, people of color more broadly, women, indigenous peoples, LGBTQ+ people, etc., struggled for admission to political personhood. Forms of this process continue in various forms today: incarcerated people, people experiencing homelessness, and gender non-conforming people, to name a few.
The liberal faith in meritocracy is one echo of this principle. The right wing of liberalism extols the liberty of the U.S. system but functionally excludes entire categories of identity from the political personhood that ensures social safety, for example by arguing that “cash is speech,” and insisting that freedom of speech includes hate speech meant to terrorize marginalized people. The center and moderate wings of U.S. liberalism substitute qualifiers having to do with individual merit, for example via an attitude that “anyone who works forty hours a week should not go hungry,” or through an emphasis on education as a measure of a person’s political value.
Ultraliberals merely take another step along this same spectrum; instead of wealth, or “playing by the rules,” it is in degrees of suffering or privation.
This feature of liberalism is important to understand because it has immense implications for the U.S. left once it reaches its ultraliberal form. Ultraliberals simply make the error that by inverting the classical liberal form of rating personal personhood (property equals personhood), they will achieve the opposite result, i.e., they will ensure a fair and equitable society, where classical liberals simply protected the wealthy and powerful. We will see why this mistake has such destructive effects on the socialist movement.
Liberalism, Power and Democracy
Liberalism is characterized by hostility to power in the abstract. The liberal precept is that power and authority are themselves the cause of human misery, the source of oppression. Freedom is understood as the absence of power. In his critique of liberalism, Marx wrote that liberalism’s idea of liberty as absence of authority “leads man to see other men not as the realization, but the limitation of his own freedom.” This holds to various degrees along the liberal spectrum.
The liberal notion of democracy is abstract. It focuses on the rules and formalities of democracy, on the trappings of accountability and transparency, confusing the fact of rules being in place for actual democratic practice. This follows from the highly individualistic and meritocratic nature of liberalism: that an individual’s choice not to participate is their own, an idea blossomed in their own mind, is their choice alone and so long as they have the option, democracy has been achieved.
This hostility to authority and the use of power is connected to why liberals—from the classical liberal right through ultraliberals—focus on “consciousness raising,” slogans, right-thinking, and demonstrations of moral conviction. The liberal vision is that rather than an organized political instrument taking power and reordering society through positive action, sufficient moral quality and raised consciousness throughout a society will itself transform that society. This theory of change is among the reasons there can be the appearance of harmony between ultraliberal politics and more orthodox left-communist and anarchist politics: because ultraliberal hostility to formal structures of power and belief in the cumulative effect of raised individual consciousness can be mistaken for left-communist and anarchist theories of the erosion and abolition of the state.
III. Cutting Labor Ties
Between the Progressive Era and the Cold War, the U.S. Left was deeply connected to the labor movement (though not solely to “unions” as institutions). On a practical organizational level, labor formations of various kinds were prime vehicles, in size and resources, for progressive and leftist politics. These connections were everywhere: from the Pullman Porters forming a bedrock for the early civil rights movement, through early experiments in cooperative economics and mutual aid theorized at Brookwood Labor College and popularized by, among others, Ella Baker, to the early funding and founding of the Students for a Democratic Society and the explosion of public sector worker organizing in the late 1960s exemplified by the Memphis sanitation workers strike, through organizations like the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. These practical connections made the political logic of the labor movement the political and organizational logic of the broader left because the labor movement was the engine, in terms of morale, vision, funding, and personnel, of other movements of the left.
The political logic of the labor movement is specific. It is built up from the concrete realities of organizing the so-called “shop floor”: the disparate and varied people in a given workplace and industry have an objective common interest and an objective common adversary, it is incumbent on the radical layer of workers to build the maximum degree of actual solidarity of action and strategic agreement among the people in that workplace or industry in order to take real power from their adversaries. To borrow a formulation, the challenge is always, “how do you organize the 100 people in this room,” rather than “how do you organize 100 people into this room.” This is a difference with profound implications.
The labor/capital adversarial nature is objective: not because employers or managers are mean-spirited, but because the nature of capitalist enterprise requires exploitation of workers. In other words, capital cannot simply choose, in response to pressure, to not be exploitative. It would be choosing its own death. This “objective” quality is different from the adversarial quality of the public to the state, for example: a state’s monopoly on power can be made democratic, it is not inherently exploitative or oppressive.
The Cold War, McCarthyism, the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, which required purging of Communists from union office, and the institutionalization of the labor movement, which brought unions into the more conservative U.S. political mainstream, dragged the labor movement further and further away from broad left politics. The general plenty of the postwar years gave labor an incentive to “cooperate” with capital, thus requiring rejection of its radical wings. This was the loss of the “militant minority.” The purging of socialists from union leadership and their marginalization in the rank and file, institutional labor’s “cooperative” turn towards management, increasing coziness with the Democratic Party and their hawkish cold war policies, turned young radicals off of labor.
What’s more, as unionization rates plummeted—and fewer and fewer working class people had unions through which to organize, and as an organizational base to build from—NGOs became the most attractive, or only, avenue for engaging in formal radical work.
This culminated in a deep organizational rupture: the basic political logic of the radical labor movement became severed from the broader left. Where once the labor movement and the socialist and radical left shared a radical layer and a political logic, now the two drifted apart as the remains of the radical left retreated into the non-profit industrial and academic sectors.
As a result, “the left” as broadly construed took on the characteristics of nonprofit industrial politics, and those who came up through left politics, even where they did not do so formally through NGOs, adopted the premises, political logic, and analytical lens of that industry.
IV. Nonprofit Industrial Politics
“Nonprofits” includes a huge range of entities: membership associations, churches, charities, massive health care corporations, insurers, community organizing groups, community development corporations—the list goes on. For purposes of this essay, as with essays I have written on nonprofits (or “NGOs”) in the past, we are concerned with a particular segment of the NGO industry. The segments we are concerned with are social good and service NGOs: policy groups and think tanks, community-based organizations, organizing nonprofits, and, to a certain degree, social service providers, the “civic sector” of the NGO industry. This is because these types of organizations are prevalent on the left; they form much of the political infrastructure of the broad left. However the entire nonprofit or NGO industry in general does have one big thing in common: it represents the privatization of public goods, civil society, and civic participation. The nature of the NGO industry as the privatized expression of public goods and civic participation means that even seemingly non-political entities are often interwoven with left-leaning politics or liberal-left political strata in cities and states.
To make this more concrete, it is helpful to start from the fact that NGOs raise money, employ workers, provide services, distribute goods, and secure influence from the state and the public. While by definition they do not generate profits, they nevertheless employ and supply the livelihoods for millions of people, including hundreds of thousands of managers and executives who can often be high earners with significant social power and prestige, particularly in local contexts. They compete with one another, sometimes indirectly and sometimes directly, for influence and resources. As with any industry, a politics grows up around the industry to protect, advance, and justify it. This is true of just about any industry you can think of: health care, defense, green energy, finance, nutrition—whatever it is. The modern bourgeois state compels industries to develop politics around them, because the state has so much power to intervene in, protect, and regulate industries. Therefore the state needs instruction to understand the instruments, property relations, and structure of an industry. At a more complex level, the industry needs to intervene into the regulatory state by providing expertise.
As with these other industries, the nature and needs of the NGO industry conform the politics. The defense industry, for example, funds foreign policy think tanks and gives to hawkish politicians, builds facilities in strategic districts, gives grants to academics to provide theoretical and research justification for the U.S. empire. The NGO industry is more variable and less pernicious, but it, too, nevertheless has a politics. And for the segment of the NGO industry we are concerned with, that politics is related to their function in civic engagement and the provisioning and distribution of social goods.
In order to accomplish these functions, certain things are needed: funding, labor, expertise, and political influence. On a day-to-day level, the civic sector NGO requires that it be seen as an adequate representative of a community or constituency. If it is not an adequate community representative–or indeed, the sole adequate representative–why should it win in the competition for funding, and why should powerful institutions (like the state or large corporations) grant its demands? Or incorporate it into decision-making on how resources are allocated or policy is designed and implemented?
Community-based organizations (CBOs) organize residents to participate in urban planning decisions; issue groups organize constituents to pack meetings and demand the implementation or end of a particular government program; community development corporations (CDCs) organize residents, small businesses, and other groups to receive public funds for businesses, housing, clinics, etc. They choose issues and constituencies to some degree based on what will appeal to institutional or even large groups of individual funders.
Taken on their own, these are good things. Within a capitalist system of limited resources and a bourgeois state, these processes require some demonstration not only of well-crafted plans, but some justification for why one organization should be listened to over another, or why a private organization of any type should be given weight on par with, e.g., elected politicians. In essence, an important dynamic of NGO politics is the ability to generate or fabricate the appearance of authentic community representation: of being the voice of a community or constituency, as being the primary or sole legitimate actor within a given political “space.”
It is a daunting challenge: by their nature, the terrains on which these organizations are fighting are large, and the people on those terrains are complex individually and situated within a complex range of social relations. A person who lives in a given neighborhood may not only be a “worker” but may also be a property owner, or landlord; small business owners live alongside those they employ; within a constituency, there are professionals alongside those who cannot work, long-time residents averse to change alongside newer residents eager for new development, etc.
Civic sector NGOs have a significant challenge, because the terrain of struggle is not one amenable to objective results. There is rarely a degree of solidarity, a number of people, or a type of action that can objectively take power, e.g., through a strike. Instead they must demonstrate support (“How do we organize 100 people into this room?”) or engage in disruptive actions that require a high degree of planning and even risk, and which are therefore particularly difficult to engage in and to sustain, like occupations, boycotts, disruptions etc. Chronically low resources and the difficulty of maintaining engagement compels a need to maintain or monopolize legitimacy—to construct the boundaries of legitimacy.
The particular challenge of the NGO terrain results in a “policing community” politics, a politics that is informed and buttressed by the liberal principle of a sort of “means-tested” political personhood.
In Constructing Community, his ethnographic study of community groups involved with redevelopment of Black working class neighborhoods in Boston, Harvard sociologist Jeremy Levine took up the inherent weaknesses of “community nonprofits,” concluding: “There will never be a definitive answer to the question of true, authentic community representation, because there is no such thing as a single, cohesive community voice.” This is a problem for a variety of reasons, but in particular because community-based organizations live and die on their ability to fabricate the appearance of community representation.
What Levine observed in practice—and what anybody with experience in urban politics can testify to—was that this tension resulted in a politics of policing authenticity:
“As conflicts arise, the discursive tactic of policing community representation is used instead of countering competing claims directly; to be classified as an outgroup member is enough to have one’s substantive comments invalidated for not representing the common good.”
In other words, because there is no feasible objective point of representation (or solidarity) an organization can hit, and rarely any objective sort of power they can flex (i.e., stop working to immobilize the institution they are fighting), they have to blend the appearance of near-unanimous support with intermittent disruptive action. But they are always at the risk of being undercut by other organizations organizing in the same community or constituency. As Levine’s study shows, if the powerful institutions they are fighting can turn to other community representatives to participate in or justify their programs, civic-sector NGOs are at great potential risk of losing their legitimacy, and, eventually, the funding from funders who expect measures of their effectiveness. This feeds a chronic insecurity within the sector. And this insecurity, this jealous sense of ownership over having the “authentic” community voice, pervades the political logic of the NGO sector. Ultraliberals recreate this politics, unmoored from the specific challenges of a given organization, which sharpens and intensifies it.
As discussed more specifically in this previous essay, the nature of so-called “movement jobs” is to draw a distinction between us and them—between staff and constituencies. This is another distinction between the political logic of the “militant minority” era of the labor movement: a fulfilling job “doing good” with an NGO is treated, particularly by management, as a sort of blessing. You are not the same as the downtrodden people you are helping. There is a sort of social anxiety about us staff over here and “the people” or “the community” over there. Echoes of this logic sound throughout the ultraliberal tendency.
Chronic Insecurity of Movement Jobs
Movements and organizations which do not defer to or follow the lead of existing civic sector NGOs organizations (or the individuals who run or are associated with them) represent a tangible problem because the survival of those organizations relies so heavily on their perceived legitimacy in representing a community or constituency. NGOs that cannot show some degree of control, management, or sufficient influence over the political activity are at risk of losing their influence with institutions and decision-makers.
What all of this means is those in the leadership layers of the NGO complex—those with “movement jobs,” or adjacent to them—are in a state of constant insecurity. They maintain their position as a function of their ability to influence and even manage social movements. When movement politics leaves them behind, their positions are at risk. This can feed a subconscious insecurity and fear that as left-wing politics is democratized to mass formations, their roles become either trivialized and at risk of elimination, or transformed into a conduit for bourgeois money into the movement.
This is where the liberal tool of policing political boundaries, of “policing community” and defining political personhood shows its value. The development of political modes around industries is organic; it is closer to a law of development than it is a result of peoples’ ill intent.
The politics itself is liberal, but at its “left edge” incorporates aesthetics and superficial elements of traditionally “leftist” politics.
V. The Ultraliberal Tendency
The contradiction which ultraliberals contend with is that they understand instinctively that they cannot keep formal power—the cause of oppression—out of the hands of others if they do not themselves monopolize soft power. This dovetails with the other feature ultraliberals share with the rest of the liberal spectrum: requiring people to meet some rubric of moral political worth to “count” as political actors. That is, using the “discursive weapon” of attacking the authenticity and bona fides of others, eliminating them either one by one or in whole groups at a time from political legitimacy and, importantly, concentrating the power to do so with themselves, and so terrorizing others out of fear of being disqualified from political personhood themselves.
The “Ultra Pipeline”
The radicalizing years since the 2008 financial crash and Occupy Wall Street, in the absence of a strong U.S. socialist tradition or socialist organizations, has resulted in quirky bespoke politics, and something some people have identified as the “liberal-to-ultraleft pipeline.” The phenomenon of people “hopping” from liberalism over the more orthodox and mass-action oriented democratic socialist Marxism to “ultraleft” political tendencies—sometimes anarchism, sometimes the more sectarian forms of Trotskyism, sometimes Maoist traditions, but styled in any number of ways (“I’m an anarcho-Gonzalo-ite!”)—is often just people taking the step from mainstream liberalism to ultraliberalism, but adorning this still essentially liberal politics with the aesthetics of more radical political traditions. At any given moment, these ultraliberals will champion very radical or “maximalist” demands, and express frustration with serious discussion of the steps to get there as somehow undercutting support for an idea. Embedded here is the idea that the force of one’s commitment is the primary measure of an activist. Because ultraliberalism, like liberalism, is not rooted in material analysis, but rests on the moral quality of the activist, either through their high degree of consciousness or their high degree of suffering.
As frustrating as it may be, the phenomenon should be sympathetic: as people experience pressure from racist and capitalist exploitation, and are repeatedly let down or betrayed by bourgeois liberal politicians and political formations (like the Democratic Party, PACs, or NGOs) in whom they place personal hopes, they move away from the “middle” consensus forms of liberalism that represent the ideology of the ruling class. At a certain point, however, they will reach the edge of political tendencies to which they can put a name, and which have some accessible organizational form. “I used to be a centrist, but after the Obama years I became more liberal, and when Trump got elected I became much more progressive. Then when Bernie lost to Biden I went full X,” where X is whatever term they associate with extreme radical politics.
The political education of most Americans, even highly politically literate Americans, does not tend to include things like communism, socialism, Marxism, anarchism, or even hard-right illiberal ideologies. So a person leaves the sign-posted path and enters a wilderness; but the instincts and presumptions of U.S. liberalism tend to remain.
The Ultraliberal Meritocracy: Worth and Authenticity
Members of left organizations see a certain recurring dynamic: people questioning the authenticity or relative worth of other peoples’ experience, identity and motives. This is a function of the policing of political boundaries, a sort of vestigial tool of the NGO political practice. It is a practice that can escalate into bullying, and generates a cycle of destructive organizational conduct.
Ultraliberalism is a predominant strain of the radical left, and is found frequently even in nominally socialist organizations. Conflicts within socialist and radical membership organizations are often a function of this “invisible” ultraliberalism. Part of the reason it is invisible is because it is attributive: few people would identify themselves that way. Yet they’re easy to spot. Ultraliberals have an aversion to plans and strategies that require discipline and leadership because they are adverse to the liberty and genius of individuals or informal cliques of activists; they are hostile to power in the abstract, for instance comparing political power within an organization with the authority of the state or employers; they see an organization not as an inherently hierarchical entity meant to fulfill a specific function, but as a cordoned-off space where no power exists and therefore no ideology or strategy is allowed to predominate, a walled-off Eden where a million flowers may bloom. This discomfort is with majority rule that could trivialize their expertise, special relationships, or preference of place and it harmonizes with their intuitive sense that individual worth determines one’s political agency.
So they seek to monopolize the authority of giving or taking authenticity or moral worth, to shift organizational practice away from democratic decision-making in open forums, and towards more informal small group interpersonal processes, while throttling the ability of formal political leadership to lead.
For ultraliberals, your right to be heard, listened to, or lead—in fact, your very worthiness as a political actor in the world—is based on a set of qualification they create, a version of the general liberal tendency to set the boundaries of political participation and the NGO political logic of policing community authenticity. The important point is that it is not simply assumed, it has to be bestowed; it is not a result of objective social relations, but subjective merit. This is certainly effective, and may even be beneficial for certain organizational forms. But it is a fatal flaw in any formation aspiring to draw in masses of people and politicize them. For ultraliberals, it is not a matter of the working class and their objective adversaries. Rather it is based on a sort of means-testing. You see this expressed in a variety of ways.
One, as discussed in the liberal-to-ultraleft pipeline article, is in their radical aesthetics: radical statements, maximalist positions, intolerance of nuance. This demonstrates a high level of commitment that earns their political rights. Another is through engaging highly symbolic and even dangerous tactics, or unqualified support for such tactics (in past eras, this was a kind of “propaganda of the deed”). Personal danger, violence, and vandalism are lionized not for their strategic function so much as because they indicate a strong moral character: it demonstrates that the person has earned their political being.
Political personhood, or agency, can also be bestowed through various aspects of a person’s identity, whether that is a fabricated “working class” identity of the “straight-talking” blue-collar worker, or “only the poorest,” or based on a person’s place of residence, their ethnic or racial identity, or any other element of a person’s identity.
But—and this is the essential defect of this ideology—this always comes with a sinister asterisk, because the nature of contingent political personhood means some individuals can always decide on the authenticity of any other person, and therefore their political agency. Yes, so-and-so might appear to belong to this or that demographic group, etc., but they do not quite qualify as “true,” they are not “really” to be listened to, because, because, because, and here they will always find some denominator meant to dilute their authenticity.
They will always find a way to cut away a person’s legitimacy, because of the contradiction they create: if one’s political agency comes from some list of qualifications, a person who meets those qualifications but disagrees with them becomes the most dangerous threat to their soft power, and so cannot be tolerated and has to be undermined.
Ultraliberals can always find some reason to disqualify somebody else but excuse themselves. The internal contradiction here is that ultraliberals will often be the loudest voices insisting on focusing on or centering some segment of the working class, while at the same time reserving the right to qualify or define political agency. They have to jealously guard their exclusive right to bestow political agency, to rate authenticity. It cannot be allowed to slip from their grasp for even a moment, because absent this power, their politics reduces to liberal moralizing and intransigent opposition to big-picture organizational programs.
This is the cause of the startling but common phenomenon of ultraliberals freely, even cruelly, willing to attack, undermine, and question the legitimacy of people’s identity.
In other words, they seek to enforce their own domination by stripping people of their agency, disqualifying them from the exact same centering they insist on, by generating arbitrary rules for political authenticity. The ultraliberal tendency defines who is a valid political actor and who is not, and they will try to dictate who can genuinely speak from their experience of workplace, racial, gender, or any other form of social oppression. In this way, the ultraliberal tendency recreates a pernicious form of interpersonal oppression, white supremacy, and bigotry.
This political practice of policing of boundaries rests on this liberal notion of political personhood and uses the “discursive tool” of policing community belonging rooted in the nonprofit industry. Within political organizations, it justifies the preeminence of particular leaders and activist layers by drawing boundaries around who is an authentic actor and who is not.
This ultraliberal political practice in membership organizations of the left is destructive. It depoliticizes membership and demoralizes them, finds excuses to exclude members from political participation, and actively discourages organizational work meant to make the bulk of membership feel empowered. It also encourages ostensible comrades to put one another under the microscope, dig into their backgrounds, sift through personal histories: where they were born, when they moved from this place to that, who they date or married, and perhaps most astoundingly, to sit in judgment of the authenticity of one another’s racial and ethnic authenticity—anything they can use to chip away at the agency, even humanity, of their political rivals of the moment.
With these as the terms of the debate, it creates a hopeless race to the bottom, where members are terrified of having their own authenticity questioned and so feel compelled to demonstrate their political value through reckless acts, cruel attacks, or obedient loyalty to the most effective bullies. It plays on psychic guilt about their own background, their degree of personal connection to their background, moving them to prove themselves in ever-more spectacular feats of projection and deflection to keep the bully’s eye from landing on them. This is very similar to the atmosphere created at NGOs, where staff are trained to view themselves as essentially different from “constituencies,” as both their self-sacrificing saviors and as less authentic outsiders.
It is a needless dynamic that ultraliberals stoke instinctively in a demoralizing and internally destructive pattern that is ultimately based on pointless political principle.
The Function of Ideological Pluralism
Ultraliberals express a sincere devotion to ideological diversity, but there is more than meets the eye. For Marxists, a political culture of ideological debate serves a dialectical purpose, it is functional. It is not because ideological pluralism is a good in and of itself. That is to say, the value of open debate is that it forces analysis to advance through a dialectical clash, it improves results. So debate, in other words, should have a result: an outcome that establishes a definitive organizational direction. Ultraliberals, on the other hand, are more interested in ensuring that there is no definitive result, that ideological pluralism is maintained no matter what, and that an organization serves merely as an open space. In this way, formal power of democratic decision making cannot overcome the soft power of setting political boundaries. Open debate without resolution can also lead to that debate being abstract—unattached from practical organizational tasks—and when debate becomes abstract, it becomes much more vicious.
This is another reason why ultraliberals so readily resort to interpersonal acts of stripping others of their political personhood: because while they need ideological pluralism in order to avoid any degree of discipline, they also want to be able to smother ascendant ideological tendencies at any given moment. Thus the promiscuity in ultraliberals’ political allies: last month anarchists, this month revolutionary sectarians, and next month generically “anti-capitalist” community organizers or elected officials: whatever alliance has the most use in preventing the emergence of any predominant tendency. Minority tendencies naturally are drawn to these alliances, unaware or self-denying that they will never last long enough to develop into a majority ideological view.
VI. Marxist Socialism and Mass Organization
At the core of the distinction between ultraliberal NGOism and the socialist mass orientation is the interpretation of the balance and behavior of forces in society according to Marx’s historical materialist method. For socialists of this type, strategy should result from an evaluation of existing or concrete conditions and the best points of intervention. This would involve, for example, tactically focusing on segments of the working class in an opportunistic “location” in the capitalist mode of production and systems of coercion to win lasting victories. In these locations, working class people should have particularly favorable conditions to organize and act to rebalance or take practical power for themselves. In prior generations, this was in industries like steel, energy (coal mining), or auto production, and in the communities situated around these industries, where their exploitation intersected with other forms of oppression or repression. In contemporary times, strategic locations are thought to be production of social goods, like public schools and health care, as well as logistics—particularly e-commerce and air travel.
The system’s sensitivity to disruption in these arenas, the acute nature of exploitation of the workers, and issues that connect the “shop floor” to the broader community makes visible peoples class position and the value in true solidarity presents itself. This isn’t a moral analysis about which workers are most deserving or in need of intervention by selfless activists, or a generic preference for “labor.” It is a conclusion that capitalist social relations are most vulnerable there. In these places, conflict increases the chances that people will see their power, get radicalized, and act on their class-wide interest. This means socialists can build organizational strength “up and out” from the shop floor (in the formulation of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers) into communities; with this stability and power, they can anchor a vast array of work, including mutual aid societies, cooperative economic projects, and radical educational institutions. In this way, workers build the type of concrete power that can immobilize capitalism’s actual functioning: it is a type of power capable of not just extracting concessions from the ruling class, but of forcing fundamental power shifts away from capital and into the hands of workers.
Naturally this raises a number of practical questions for an organization: who works in these industries, demographically, and where? What are their issues, and how do these issues intersect with other issues faced by the working class? How do we state our vision for such organizing work, how do we make initial approaches, where do we start, how do we grow? These are practical questions with practical answers.
The strategic focus is not a moralistic one about who is most deserving of help (from a third party vantage)—and by inference, about how good of individuals we are for sacrificing our time, energy and money to help. It’s based on how we grow the political instrument that the working class itself can act through, rather than the tool of a network of activists to win hearts and minds through demonstrations of commitment.
The difference is an important one for the day to day culture of a mass socialist organization. It is a plainly logical answer for example that shop-floor workers need to lead shop-floor action, and that people need to build credibility or trust to extend that work out into communities. It is simply not practical to build an organization that does not account for the differential experiences, needs, and challenges of different segments of the working class. These things need to be a part of this “materialist analysis.”
But these are practical problems to solve, starting from a sober analysis of what is currently available and the step-by-step process of getting to where we need to be.
For example: white supremacy offers material advantage to white workers. While white supremacy advantages them, it also disadvantages them precisely because of the institutions it creates and because it inhibits working class solidarity on the micro and macro levels. The Marxists’ task is to move white workers into struggle to understand this problem viscerally, to see it in action, to come to identify their self interest as synonymous with the class interest in solidarity. A similar dynamic exists between citizen and undocumented workers: borders and naturalization and work laws benefit citizens in one sense (cheaper goods and services, for example) but by that same very fact segregate workforces and impair solidarity, keeping the class as a whole weak. A mass organization can overcome this. The challenge is not to convince anybody to be selfless, but to move people into seeing clearly that systems of oppression, even if they in some ways benefit them, in fact hurt their class interest and, thereby, their self-interest. This requires politicizing people, it requires encouraging people to see themselves as political agents, and subjects who share an interest with others.
The Marxist fixation on mass organization is about politicizing the working class to feel worthy of political participation and like meaningful participants in their own liberation capable of, through collective action, forging solidaristic bonds throughout the class. The working class has been ceaselessly and relentlessly de-politicized, demoralized, segmented and means-tested, convinced that they are not worthy of liberation for this or that reason. The mass organization is the vehicle which can undo this programming.
So long as the working class is segmented by race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, types of jobs, levels of education and income, family types, forms of housing, debt servitude, etc, the mass organization’s strategy needs to make tactically productive decisions that teach people to move together, side by side, for their common self-interest. Without that, a single working class with a unity of interest and solidarity will not emerge.
A person’s political view will be informed by their experience, and their experience is therefore relevant to the quality of that view, and a mass organization should value that experience, because experience tends to better inform practice. But this is not a hard rule, and we know this intuitively: police officers have a lot of experience dealing with criminals, but we do not privilege their opinions on criminal justice. Doctors have immense experience in health care, but we do not automatically credit their opinions on how to structure health care. People who have lived in a city for generations have a lot of experience of city politics, but that does not itself translate to good politics.
VII. Ultraliberalism and Socialism
Ultraliberalism is the predominant politics of the left, and so long as the left, in its personnel and political expression, is rooted in the political logic of nonprofit industry and academia, it will continue to be an obstacle to building a mass socialist organization with the purpose of forging a working class conscious of itself. It is simply not a politics that can accomplish this end. It generates a culture based on undercutting political agency and personhood, skepticism of solidarity, depoliticizing people, encouraging organizational self-loathing. It interferes with big plans and strategic visions in the name of superficial ideological pluralism, reduces members to volunteer labor and piggy banks, and privileges people with movement jobs as well as high-profile activists.
A mass organization will by definition bring in people in variable states of political development, with vastly different experiences, different identities, different theories of change, and different interests. It is therefore necessary for a mass organization, in its structural and ideological DNA, to mold these disparities towards a particular theory of change and strategy, to see itself as a working class organization that is conscious of the differing struggles of the various segments of the working class, but never setting itself apart from the working class. It cannot have an internal culture of questioning the authenticity of its own membership. It is not realistic that an organization can, at some indeterminate point in the future, simply flip a switch and become an organization that treats its members as political actors. It cannot hope to grow a meaningful, participatory, democratic structure that inculcates a particular strategic understanding of the need for diversity and tactically flexible decision-making, if it also grows a politics that immobilizes its leadership and regularly robs its members of their political personhood.
If socialists do not make a commitment to differentiate our project from the ultraliberal project, the outcome is predictable: an organization in name only, grasping in hundreds of different directions, tolerating an interpersonal politics of conferring and cruelly withdrawing authenticity, incapable of making binding, collective, strategic decisions. That result is not inevitable; it will not be something done to us; it will be the result of our anxiety, of latent depoliticization, of our unwillingness to build a strong organization with a unified theory of change resulting from dialectical process; of our succumbing, for yet another generation, to the dominant liberal politics, expressing itself from behind a radical mask.