Whenever I read an article, I try to figure out what problem it is trying to solve. When I read “Ultraliberalism: The Dominant Tendency of the American Left,” I found the problem here: “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.” (Emphasis added)
The author, Ramsin Canon, defines ultraliberalism as a form of liberalism imported into the left from the non-profit industry which “rests on the policing of personal identity and on constructing communities for the purpose of monopolizing power and breaking up solidaristic politics.” Canon claims that, as socialists, we must “differentiate our project from the ultraliberal project.” Otherwise, we risk being in an organization that is “…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.”
But does this approach actually help us deal with the problem of conflicts within socialist and radical membership organizations? Does it help us avoid organizational catastrophe? Or maybe we need to zoom out and look at the problem in a different way?
“Ultraliberalism” or “under construction”?
Canon tries to make the case that ultraliberalism’s primary function is to police members of organizations. He claims that they police “your right to be heard, listened to, or lead,” as well as “political personhood,” and your “authenticity.”
This feels like an attack against forms of identity politics. The reality is that in an organization that is predominantly white, cis, and middle class, there are often instances of genuine grievance by oppressed groups that are disregarded as simply “policing” debate. The fact of this constant and real dismissal is manifested in groups like AfroSOC, which wouldn’t need to exist if regular spaces within DSA didn’t regularly ignore and silence BIPOC comrades. Sadly, this isn’t a new dilemma, as it is well documented in “A People of Color’s History of DSA.”
To be clear, we have all witnessed debates where people try to out-legitimize one another. But this seems less a political tendency rather than a sign of political immaturity. Not “immaturity” in the sense of “being a jerk,” but in the sense of not being politically prepared to engage in battles over theory. It’s easy to forget that the vast majority of our current membership have only been politically active since 2016. Rather than labeling people as “ultraliberal,” I would label most people’s anti-oppression politics and political education as “under construction.”
My sense is that ultraliberalism isn’t hard to identify because “few people would identify themselves that way.” It’s hard to identify because it isn’t there. What is there is either legitimate frustration from oppressed comrades or simply the same frustration we all deal with when we first become socialists: the impatience to organize the revolution while still being new to politics.
I would add that people trying to undercut each other’s legitimacy, authenticity, etc is an unfortunate part of growing up in a society where the standard mantra is “never talk about politics or religion.” We have been deliberately unprepared for things like generative disagreement for the same reason we’re kept in the dark about socialist history: it would hurt the ruling class to have a bunch of dialectical debate masters controlling the levers of society.
Rather than trying to label “ultraliberalism,” it would be more beneficial to set up regular spaces for debates, free from Robert’s Rules, to get people to practice generative disagreement. I’ve suggested as much in the past and I think that, in Chicago DSA, there is a proposal for this. In general, we need to work free-flowing debate into all of our organizing spaces, both to collectively reach better outcomes but also to regularly exercise our debate muscles.
Canon’s essay misses the fact that the solution of labeling “ultraliberals” is identical to the problem it tries to solve. For example, while we’ve all witnessed debates where people try to out-legitimize each other, we’ve also all witnessed debates where people try to de-legitimize each other by labeling the opponent something “negative.” I call this: “ultra-labelism.”
Much like ultraliberalism, ultra-labelism can appear “invisible” because few people would identify themselves that way. Yet they’re easy to spot. A person that disagrees with an idea or proposal will throw out labels like “entryist,” “Stalinist”, “Trotskyist,” “liberal,” (now also) “ultraliberal” to shut down debate. Similar to the political immaturity referenced before, this is how people that have learned just enough political theory to learn some labels use them to de-legitimize their opponents instead of actually engaging whatever topic is at hand. Let’s not forget: it was only a year ago that people were hurling “anarchism” and “ultraleftism” at people trying to organize mutual aid during a pandemic.
Labels remind me of high school. In high school, I remember writing band names, and drawing band logos on my notebooks, etc. When you encounter a new scene that interests you, you can’t help but learn as much as possible. But you’re inherently limited by time and resources to learn everything all at once. So as you learn bit by bit, you start to adopt the labels you find and identify with. Overnight, you label yourself “punk.” Anyone that disagrees with your music taste is labeled a “poser” or a “loser.” Labels are used to elevate yourself and to shut others down.
But over time, as you learn more, you start to appreciate the nuance of different bands, other music scenes, etc. Suddenly, you’re not concerned about the music you’ve labeled yourself with. You’re only concerned about what sounds good and how it matches your mood or needs.
The Actual Problem: A New Political Period
While I disagree with Canon’s assessment of what the problem is, and especially his solution, I do agree that there is a problem. It is undeniable that the mood in any DSA chapter around the country is very different today than it has been at any time between 2016-2019.
The years of explosive growth are over. At last year’s convention, Maria Svart had to admit that recruitment is down to a trickle. In chapters all over the country, there are fault lines being drawn around mutual aid, orientations on electoral politics, ditching or defending the Defund movement, etc. The feeling of euphoria and invincibility in the air when I joined in 2018 is now replaced with a dread of who will set off the next unproductive argument among the same groups of people. This is a new political period and we need to recognize that so we can adjust our expectations, strategies, and tactics accordingly.
In other words, Canon is right to identify “conflicts” within the organization as the problem. But we need a materialist analysis to identify why that problem exists in the first place. The problem isn’t simply that too many members have wrong-headed ideas. The problem is that this organization and its membership were forged during a period of explosive growth. Explosive growth was normalized. But those of us that radicalized before 2016 know that 2016-2019 was the exception, not the rule. The tremendous frustration and confusion of only knowing success and then suddenly having it disappear hasn’t been dealt with. Worse, the frustration has only been compounded by the pandemic.
Unable to confront the reality of this new period of contraction, conflicts arise from the desperation to get back to the growth we knew. While we should do more to retain as many members as we can and put them to meaningful organizing, we can’t simply will thousands of members back into action. I hope to write more on the topic of this new period in a later article, as I don’t think I have the space here to give it the detail it deserves. Though there are other articles on Midwest Socialist and Medium where I’ve started to analyze the topic.
The End of The Big Tent?
As much as I disagreed with the bulk of the article, I agree with this line: “It is therefore necessary for a mass organization… to mold these disparities towards a particular theory of change and strategy…” Except that this is a big tent organization.
The reason DSA was able to explode in 2016 is precisely that it lacked a particular theory of change and strategy. Its blank-slate politics allowed anyone that Googled “Bernie Sanders democratic socialist” to find DSA, sign up, and attend a meeting. In the political period where there was 1) explosive growth, 2) re-emergence of pro-electoral politics, and 3) recruitment of people new to socialist politics: having a big tent allowed DSA to ride the wave in a way that no one else could. The big tent that had been a weakness for DSA before 2016, because it wasn’t seen as “serious,” was turned into a strength.
Now, with the end of the period of explosive growth, there is a real question of how DSA should carry on. If we can’t count on thousands of new people joining every month, then it seems like it is time to re-orient ourselves to the radicals and radicalizing minority. A major part of that would require kicking off a process, possibly over months, to democratically debate and iron out what DSA’s theory of change and strategy should be. In practice, this will likely involve losing and turning away some people that disagree with the outcome. But in the process, we’ll recruit and develop people with higher levels of commitment and determination. We have to adapt our political perspectives and organizational structures to match changing political periods. Otherwise, we risk devolving into permanent feuds and getting left behind by history.
Special thanks to Bettina J for their contributions to the article.