On Debate, Criticism, and Comradely Behavior: How Marx Failed Us

by Jase Short of Solidarity on July 30, 2012

This originally appeared at the author’s tumblr. We are reprinting it here with his permission.

There is one component of the work of Karl Marx that is undoubtedly an abysmal failure. It is this legacy that continues to haunt the left, above all other intellectual problems with his work.

No, Althusserians, I’m not talking about his “historicism” or his “early” humanism. No, those who understand historical contingency, I’m not talking about the creeping mechanistic language that pervades the sloppier and shorter pieces.

I’m talking about his tendency—indeed, his full-fledged immersion in—slander and vitriol for his opponents.

Nothing could be more expressive of a general lack of a comradely spirit than the practice of lacing every criticism with vitriolic slander of the most personal type. Although we may find these creative insults from a beautiful mind to be entertaining, we have to separate this affect from the simple reality that Marx’s behavior is reflective of the kinds of mental states appropriate only for patriarchal forms of intellectual competition; it is not fit for constructing a revolutionary mass movement capable of overthrowing the powers of global capital.

Every day I enter into the world of the cyber-left I am treated to new and astounding ways in which political differences are articulated by rude, un-comradely monologues which serve more to stroke and strike our egos than the purpose of criticism. That comrades simply cannot accept that there are those on the left who are intellectually wrong about something in spite of their good intentions and yet still worthy of being called comrades seems to be an impossible concept for the left to swallow.

We might look to our enemies for instruction here. With the exception of our contemporary period which has seen the rise of a one-party tendency among Republicans (finding its greatest expression first during the Bush years and now with the Tea Party), the ruling class in the United States has generally been able to carry out debate within its ranks and still present a united front to the world. Through competition and careful manipulation of public image, these two great political expressions of the ruling class have been able to present an image of difference while maintaining (more or less) continuity between different management teams.

In other words, even those who run an authoritarian system are able to function at a level of manageable differences and remain “on the same team.” What the left (as a whole) manages to do is present itself as competing factions of authoritarians who not only cannot present a united front, but rather cannot seem to understand that there is an ocean of difference between intellectual and political error by a small minority and the machinations of capital and empire.

For instance, to claim that comrades who oppose the revolution against the regime of Bashar al-Assad are equivalent to that regime is false. Likewise, to claim that those who support the Syrian opposition are equivalent to imperialism simply because of the opportunistic relationship between imperialism and some of the opposition is also false.

Now, one or the other points of view here is the “correct line” so to speak, or at least some nuanced version of the two, but failure to adhere to this correct position ought not to be a condition of a comradely relationship. One can see well-reasoned arguments on both sides combined with a general lack of good information can yield smart, good people to end up on different sides.

In general, we ought to practice one of the most elementary forms of democratic practice: majority rule with the formalization of loyal oppositions organized as formal tendencies who utilize debate and forums of various kinds to argue their points. That no organization in the U.S. left really has this structure is a testament to our political immaturity.

There are of course limits to this. If one faction or another feels that essential principles are being compromised, then of course one must move on from the right to dissent to the right of secession and leave whatever formation one is currently in. Even here, however, is there a role for personal attack and vitriol?

Indeed, in general, is there a productive role for personal attack and vitriol in any way, shape or form for our lives in general, and in particular for our political activity?

Of course some may see no harm in this kind of activity within their personal life, and for those who feel this way and engage in political work I feel that they will have to engineer a deeper separation of their personal and political activities than most.

But for those of us who feel that such slander and vitriol directed against individuals does nothing to harm the target (well, most of the time) and does everything to harm ourselves and those around us who are exposed to such poison, where does this leave us? What are we to do when we enter a political space dominated by personalized slander and vitriol, the paragon of which is the classic works of left-wing political thought themselves?

What this does to people like me is that it basically closes off the space for political interaction in a very immediate and material way. If participating in debate about how a revolutionary should view the Cuban government or how we ought to relate to the Democratic Party means diving into a swamp of personal attacks and toxic slander, then I usually opt out. Countless others—particularly (but not only) female comrades of mine do the same. Whether the words come from a male or a female mouth (and mostly they tend to come from males) they are harmful and implicitly patriarchal in their very structure. Their goal is to strike, to drive a wedge, to whack with a club when our goal ought to be to carefully and surgically influence one another and the course of discussion.

When I bring this point up, undoubtedly there are some who say that those of us who hold this position are simply not “tough enough for revolution.” I would retort that if petty, personalized attacks are the only packaging in which political debate can be expressed by someone, then that person’s argument likely has some intellectual weak spots and the person likely has some personal issues around their ego that they need to resolve before they try to build a mass movement of selfless comrades dedicated to establishing a world of liberty, equality, and solidarity.

Tomorrow’s revolutions today.

So see this as a cry for comradely behavior between each other, among different organizations, and so forth. If every faction of the left is armed to the teeth with vicious arguments against one another, it makes us only appear to be petty, squabbling siblings, not the courageous leaders of tomorrow’s revolutions.

Postscript: Upon posting this, my argument was misunderstood by many who felt that what I was claiming was that Marx was the source of this kind of behavior. I do not wish to make that point and should have strongly emphasized this in the transition from a critique of Marx to a critique of ourselves. This behavior, I feel, is a result of a variety of sources including impulses that arise among individuals to belittle others in a personal way so as to drive a substantive criticism deeper than it might otherwise be driven, or alternatively as something to stand in the place of a substantive criticism that is lacking. I feel it is mostly part of the communicative patterns common to people in a society grounded in competition and a subculture that values intellectual rigor, one that is profoundly structured by the impulses of patriarchy.

Another misunderstanding is that I was claiming Marx’s criticisms of Stirner, Proudhon and Bakunin—to name a few—to be identical with these personal attacks. Far from it. I agree with Marx’s substantive criticism of these figures and feel that the lacing of these critiques with personal attacks detracts from his arguments and spins them off towards a petty form of masturbatory intellectual saber-rattling.

Finally, for those who saw this as a passive aggressive attack at things I refused to name, the prime motivation was the acrimony and intellectual blood spilt over the Libya and Syrian crises. Although I’ve seen these flare-ups over other circumstances (most notably Cuba, the nature of the class nature of the former Soviet Union, the relationship of radicals to the Democratic Party, the nature of intersectionality, and so on), it was the vitriol expressed among members of a variety of left organizations including Solidarity, the International Socialist Organization, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, Freedom Road Socialist Organization/Fight Back,  Socialist Party USA, Kasama Project, the Socialist Equality Party, and even some comrades abroad concerning the Libya and Syrian crises that was the immediate cause of my writing.

This is not isolated to debates between these groups but rather what I feel to be the more vicious internal spats on various listserves and so forth, something that I personally experienced in conversations with individuals during the Libyan crisis.

In the last estimate, I would say that those who fight for a better world alongside me are my comrades, and largely the people in these formations fall within that grouping, even if the respective organizations as a whole have irreconcilable differences. Furthermore, this extends even beyond the circle of Marxists to include anarchists and many militants who regard themselves as the stewards of no particular ideological tradition. It is my sincere hope that, when the dust settles over the struggles over austerity and economic crisis over the next few years, there will be a large new left party with a significant following in the U.S. that will allow us to look back on these days as a time of immaturity, as a time when we were all children and that once we have become adults, we will put away those childish things.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp July 31, 2012 at 10:59 am

As a leftist internet gadfly, I plead guilty on all charges.

What’s amazing to me is that some of the people who are so quick to ex-communicate others from the socialist movement also can’t seem to figure out why we’ve been on the losing end of the class war for four decades now.


Arthur July 31, 2012 at 12:08 pm

Personal abuse is designed to shut down critical thought.

But debate among people all claiming to be “left” or on the side of the people does not have to be “comradely”.

Many who pretend to be comrades are not comrades. Struggle with them should be sharp.

Sticking to political issues instead of personal abuse does not require pretending that they are comrades.


Brian S. July 31, 2012 at 1:36 pm

I largely agree with these views. There has been some interesting work by green political theorists recently on democracy and listening. While this is concerned with democratic relationships in the wider polity, I think it has even clearer application within particular communities, like “the left”. A great failing of the left is that is so preoccupied with talking that it overlooks the importance of listening. And that creates a huge waste of precious resources. Imagine how much energy could have been saved if Lenin has listened to Trotsky in 1905?
I don’t think its just a question of distinguishing between “personal abuse” and “political discussion” – we need to carry the latter on in a different way, one which views discussion as dialogue not serial monologues. And that means seeing listening as a prerequisite toserious talking. In my experience, once you start really listening to someone the need for “sharp struggle” with them diminishes significantly .


Arthur July 31, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Yes, political discussion also needs to be different, and to be based on listening and dialogue rather than monologue. I agree that is more than simply avoiding personal abuse.

But that should not be counterposed to “sharp struggle”. Nor need it be “comradely”.

Debate with political opponents should be a normal part of political life. Naturally such debate is far more useful when based on listening and dialogue rather than dogmatic posturing. Inability to listen to and consequent inability to debate with political opponents is a hallmark of the pseudo-left. Lacking any experience of such dialogue naturally results in the same symptoms internally.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp July 31, 2012 at 6:52 pm
Brian S. August 1, 2012 at 7:56 am

Especially like point 11.


Mark B July 31, 2012 at 7:59 pm

I think you need to examine the effects of Stalinism on the workers movement to get to the root of the problem. Having a mass organised Political party on the left which was prepared to use Gestapo tactics against its opponents in some instances, and general thuggery most of the time, meant comradely debate went out the window. The fact that a significant chunk of cadres from the Trotskyist movement were ex-CP, combined with the fact that they were in constant political struggle, left a big scar on most comrades methods of political debate and dialogue, which we are still dealing with today.

There is a Trotsky quote from the 30s where he urges his followers to emphasise democracy and debate in their movement to cut against the horrible effect that Stalinism was having in the workers movement, and the effect it was having on the lefts culture of debate and dialogue. Will try and find it cause I think. It’s quite relevant to this.


James August 2, 2012 at 11:50 pm

While it is quite true that we could all be a little more respectful with one another, I think this entire piece completely misses the point. Focusing on “uncomradely behavior” is silly in light of the fact that the problems with the left go WAY deeper and that such behavior is only among the shallowest, most obvious symptoms.

Regarding “the correct line”. The author argues that although others might not tow the correct line, that we should still treat them with respect. Okay, well you’re missing the point here. The reason behind someone who supports the Assad regime calling someone who opposes it an imperialist are on the belligerent concluding a violation of fundamental political principles on the part of the opposer.

Now, the author goes into a very closely related point, which I am happy he brought up in the context of this first point. He says the following twosentences:

“That no organization in the U.S. left really has this structure is a testament to our political immaturity.”

“If one faction or another feels that essential principles are being compromised, then of course one must move on from the right to dissent to the right of secession and leave whatever formation one is currently in.”

Now, here we are at the crux of the matter. The REAL problem here, the one the author has not really clearly identified (and certainly not stated or analyzed) is in these two simple statements. These two statements are, in the context of the current US left, contradictory. How so?

The first of these problems is an inability to differentiate between a political or tactical position, one whose basis lies in the present and which is transitory, and one which is of fundamental importance and uncompromisable. The second of these problems are the division of the left into their own tiny sects. These two problems are necessarily bound up in one another. As organizations get smaller and more insignificant, the personality of members increases. So, to, does the need of the group to further consolidate organizationally; this includes ideological and theoretical cohesion.

As sects get smaller, the issues deemed fundamental become more numerous and more important criteria for membership. In order to justify its existence, the sect must differentiate itself ideologically from others. “Towing the line” becomes of fundamental importance. Any dissent is downplayed, criticized or “self-criticized” or ultimately dealt with administratively, as many on this site have experienced, either firsthand or through others’ accounts. In other words, the ideological beliefs of a given sect, its theoretical positions and therefore its actions all stem from its “social” basis – namely, its complete insignificance socially, its diminuitive membership, its organizational structure, its members’ personalities, and its social existence (i.e. in opposition to the other sects).

Do we really think that all of this can be solved by simply being “more respectful”? Let’s move on with all of this in mind.

He then makes a point about how disrespect “closes off the space for political interaction”. I think this is true to an extremely limited extent. Nobody really likes engaging in disrespectful behavior; it’s simply our nature. But this in my opinion has little to do with the “clos[ing] off [of] the space for political interaction”.

This is easily proven by the fact that groups don’t even need to be disrespectful first between each other to have absolutely no communication at all. Quite a few Trotskyist organizations have wonderful relations with each other, but in many cases even while this is true they simply don’t talk. Why? Because they have no need or desire to. Here in Wisconsin when the capitol occupation was going on, for example, there were three different meetings (perhaps more, I don’t remember) for three separate calls for a general strike by the ISO, Socialist Alternative and PSL. Now, these groups don’t have the best communication, but they didn’t even attempt to communicate with one another. Why is that? Is it because they all feared being disrespected? Of course not, that would be silly. It is because of the power relations between the groups and the fundamental mode of production of the sect form of organization. Sects don’t work together because they don’t need to.

And this is why I find the piece rather silly. It focuses on something that pales in comparison to the big problem, to the point of now making the entire article sound rather silly. Instead of analyzing the underlying causes, the author just essentially whines about name calling.

Organizational and theoretical dogma go hand in hand. The two are necessarily bound up in each other. Regarding his postscript, the issues of Syria and Libya are great examples, with both sides calling each other names – imperialist, Stalinist, etc. – and hiding behind their analyses of the situations founded in their dogmatic, mechanistic, outdated and fundamentally wrong theories of imperialism.

I find the blaming of “the effects of Stalinism” on the rise of sectism to be sort of silly; this man can’t get past a century old piece of history. He is clearly living in the past.

Now, with my “disrespect” (I sort of am being harsh here, it’s just my nature) stated, this problem has existed since before the Stalin-Trotsky split, so blaming it on that is silly. That is sort of a deviation from the topic at hand, though it is a common Trotskyist dismissal of the problem of sectism.


Brian S. August 3, 2012 at 7:44 am

I agree that the problems of the left can’t simply be reduced to the question of “respect” (which is, in any event, a shorthand term for a whole host of malpractices). But it remains an important issue – and if we are looking not just for a diagnosis of our troubles but a point of entry for trying so do something to correct them, then its a pretty good one. What is invoved here is not just the sectarian atmosphere that obstructs relations between groups, but the recurring dynamic that causes far left groups to constantly break up in factional disputes (which of course then set the scene for the previous problem). The contributors to this debate agree that there are points in the development of a political debate when one side may legitimately draw the conclusion that a fundamental point of principle has been breached, and that a degree of organisational separation and distance is essential. True: but that begs a host of questions – where exactly do those “principled” dividing lines lie? What determines whether or not someone has breached them? If erstwhile comrades in arms now feel the need to go beyond established principles what are their arguments for doing so and why are they wrong? If organisations do move apart what might be the conditions for them moving back together again once the world and they have moved on?
Few of these questions are seriously addressed when political current fall out, and a precondition for them being addressed in future will be the creation of a new kind of political culture on the left in which what Jase refers to as “respect” and I have termed “listening” is a central feature.


James August 3, 2012 at 8:30 am

Brian, I think you are missing my point. The problem isn’t simply in the actions of the belligerents; the problem is in the very structure of the organization itself. The sect form of organization sets the scene for the entire host of problems we are here discussing. A new “culture” isn’t merely what is necessary, but an entire fundamental restructuring of these organizations if they do not want to remain irrelevant.

As I have also stated in my previous post that organizational and theoretical dogma go hand in hand, so too, then, does theory need to be seriously reconsidered. For example, the debate on Syria has its basis in differing interpretations of classical Marxian imperialism theory; Trotskyists strains as well as the various strains of Stalinists have completely different interpretations of the theory, leading to different analyses of the situation in Syria and therefore different conclusions. The two sides cling to their interpretation unwaveringly, when comically the problem is not simply with their various interpretations but the theory itself; anyone that has studied it knows the limitations and problems with it and, more relevant, the fact that Lenin’s pamphlet is horrendous as a theoretical dissertation (as it was not even meant to be one).

This, I feel, is where projects like this website or Proyect or Ely fail. They have come very far, and I enjoy reading all of them, but they still cling to the old dogmas. What is required is “a ruthless criticism of all things existing hitherto”. So the entire basis for a socialist movement is nonexistent, and to lay a foundation we have to lay out a ruthless criticism of not only organizational structure and methods, but theoretical as well.

The determination of what is fundamental political principle and what is not has its basis in material reality, and this is why as sects have become smaller and more irrelevant they have increasingly deemed issues of “fundamental” importance. Within the organization it then becomes a dogma. And respect between different organizations which have different positions on a “fundamental” principle will be nonexistent as that is implied to be “bourgeois apologism” of some sort.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp August 3, 2012 at 10:06 am

– I’m all for a materialist analysis of the left and its problems; however, we should not pretend that rudeness and sniping is the unconscious, automatic result of the sect form of organization. People still have to consciously make the choice to go that route in political debates and they bear the political responsibility for handling themselves and mishandling their comrades. Paul D’amato did not have to call me a “leftist internet gadfly” in his (hilarious) attempt to refute the points I raised on Libya and Syria, but nonetheless he did.

The whole point of that little exercise was to inoculate the ISO’s membership from being influenced by me, especially on the party-building question where their arguments are beyond threadbare, so I’ve been labelled “pro-imperialist” because I “side with the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” (I never knew the Libyan revolution killed more people than U.S. imperialism; I learn something new every day reading Socialist Worker). D’amato could have just as easily ignored me just as the organization ignored its “competitors” PSL and Socialist Alternative during the Wisconsin capitol occupation.

– ” the debate on Syria has its basis in differing interpretations of classical Marxian imperialism theory; Trotskyists strains as well as the various strains of Stalinists have completely different interpretations of the theory, leading to different analyses of the situation in Syria and therefore different conclusions.”

I couldn’t disagree more. The debate on Syria and Libya has nothing to do with particular interpretations of imperialism. It has to do with the inability of the Western left to deal with situations that have more than two actors or sides; when the U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan, it was right to oppose the action of imperialist powers and support the right of self-determination. These invasions gave rise to powerful national liberation movements which we supported (or should have).

The Arab Spring is an altogether different situation. Here we have revolutions and counter-revolutions and different imperialisms vying to influence the outcome of the Arab Spring’s civil wars; in Libya, it was a three-sided struggle between revolution, counter-revolution, and the imperialist powers grouped around NATO. NATO (belatedly) attacked the counter-revolution, i.e. the Ghadafi government and its military, and the Western left objected, Stalinists, Trotskyists, and non-Marxist alike! Now, we see the same thing happening over Syria, except this time there are no imperialist airstrikes on Assad’s forces, and yet the Western left is still going on and on about “hands off Syria” and “non-intervention,” as if Britain’s decision to block Russian arms shipments to Assad is a bad thing!

This has nothing to do with the theory or interpretation of imperialism and everything to do with the left’s inability to deal with actually existing revolutions that have totally upset the balance of power in the Middle East and “normal” correlation of forces.

– “This, I feel, is where projects like this website or Proyect or Ely fail. They have come very far, and I enjoy reading all of them, but they still cling to the old dogmas.”

The North Star has existed for what, six months, and it’s already a failure? Unfortunately politics, especially left politics, is not a T.V. dinner you can throw into a microwave and get near-instant results. Successful projects take years of hard work and failures before they can succeed. We know sects do not work if our goal is to create a broad-based party of radicals or something that could properly called a revolutionary movement, so we have to explore and develop other options and paths, even if they seem to fail at first.

You are welcome to contribute to The North Star theoretically. Just email [email protected]


Arthur August 3, 2012 at 10:44 pm

Side issue but “leftist internet gadfly” doesn’t strike me as particularly abusive (cf “Cruise Missile Marxists”). My impression was that the ISO article helped draw attention to and open up the debate (from the other side) whereas ignoring you would have been more likely to “inoculate”.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp August 7, 2012 at 3:30 pm

Trust me, it’s the best they could come up with. CMM was my invention. I can get pretty creative when I want to. Sect “leaders” tend to be anything but.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp August 3, 2012 at 10:15 am

One thing I forgot to add in my previous comment is that the problems Short discusses are not a monopoly of the Marxist sects. You run into the same thing with some anarchists (instead of calling you “counter-revolutionary” you’re “authoritarian”), left nationalists, liberals, and many other political trends. The entire American left has a real problem with engaging in vigorous, sharp, comradely debate, not just the sects.


Arthur August 3, 2012 at 10:18 am

I broadly agree with James.

Taking it further, I think the claims to be speaking for different dogmatic interpretations of classical Marxist theory are basically bullshit. As well as the style of debate being sectarian because the organizational structures are sectarian the latter is true because they are not in fact part of a genuine mass movement for progressive change at all. It would be unreasonable to blame Marx for the martians or Lenin for the lemmingists. (Blaming Stalin for the stereotype behaviour of Trotskyist sects goes beyond unreasonable to comical).

The point of ruthless criticism is not to restructure organizations to clear away the rotting debris of the zombie undead so that something alive can grow.

Nevertheless I am more positive about a site like this where people can actually admit having been wrong and debate is welcomed. (As opposed to kasama where they lie about enthusiasm for debate but in fact exclude opponents of their “anti-imperialist” dogmas).

It is inevitable that people starting to break with the pseudo-left will initially still be clinging to old dogmas. But however belated and limited it might be, breaking with the pseudos over Syria is a real break which must rapidly confront people with the reality that they don’t really have very much in common with their opponents in the pseudo-left at all (as is indeed loudly proclaimed by the pseudos at the first sign of independent thought).

I come back to the point that people learn to debate by debating. The pseudo-left doesn’t attempt to engage in actual political debate with different mainstream views but merely denounces them. So naturally it has no capability for internal debate either.


James August 3, 2012 at 11:41 am


I suppose calling this place a failure was unwarranted as I really just found it. I guess I’ve just seen a lot of projects like this that end up on the ropes because of what I said before. So I take that back.

The inability of the left to analyze the Syrian situation is directly related to any theory to which it adheres. The problems with classical imperialism theory are too numerous to be laid out here. In short, classical imperialism theory as covered in Lenin’s pamphlet (and this is all that is mostly relevant as the vast majority of self-proclaimed Marxists have not even heard of Hilferding, nor have they read Bukharin or Hobson) doesn’t cover a few questions and in fact leaves gaps in the theory into which various ideological tendencies have filled with their own self-serving views.

One of these questions, for example, is in the relation of the state to the classes. This is best summed up by the unexplained relation/conflict between “The division of the world among capitalist associations” and “The division of the world among the great powers”. Something that Lenin does not directly address is, what is the relation of the capitalist associations with the great powers? What in imperialism theory does it mean to be an “imperialist” or an “imperialized” state? What is the relation between state and class? Between the bourgeois state and the bourgeoisie? Between imperialist bourgeois state and imperialized bourgeois stated? Etc.

On one side of the spectrum you have interpretations like FRSO who for all intents and purposes view imperialism theory through the lens of the “imperialist/imperialized state”; on the other end you have left communists who view imperialism primarily through the lens of class (some even either reject imperialism theory or dismiss it by proclaiming all states to be imperialist).

Different ideological strains will fill these gaps differently to serve their own interests, arriving at their own distinct theory of imperialism on which they base their analysis.

With all of this being said, yes I think that the analyses of most leftists are rather simplistic, but it is because they are attempting to fit the facts into their own world view and so it is definitely related to theory. They’re essentially trying to square a circle and so end up with all kinds of wild and delusional conclusions about situations. It also doesn’t help that they are utilizing a theory that has been redefined to fit contemporary issues, again attempting to square a circle.

Sorry if this is rambling I’m at work.


Arthur August 3, 2012 at 12:17 pm

James, left supporters of the Syrian revolution here do not strike me as having “deduced” their position from some abstract dogmas but but responded to concrete events. Your latest comment introduces a much stronger element of abstract theorizing that was previously present.

When Pham Binh repeats that the Iraq war was completely different and the Baathist and jihadi “resistance” was a national liberation struggle he is ignoring concrete analysis but not claiming to dervie his position from scrutiny of Lenin’s texts.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp August 3, 2012 at 1:08 pm

I don’t see how any particular view of imperialism, positive, negative, flawed, or perfect has anything to do with the Western left’s abandonment of the Syrian revolution to Assad’s death squads. The role of imperialist powers is relatively marginal to the power struggle taking place between the revolution (and its associated classes, parties, and social forces) and the counter-revolution (and its associated classes, parties, and social forces).


Christian August 5, 2012 at 10:32 pm

Hey you know what the most interesting thing I’ve done politically has been?

It’s to not live around organized, political people. Moab, UT has about 4500 residents. Green River, UT has about 850. Durango, CO has about 15,000. None of these places have had any of the left groups whose names have been mentioned in this article active in them. Organizations of other left tendencies, like liberals or anarchists, are also lacking.

That is the world most people live in. They don’t care if you are an anarchist or a Marxist. If you know the right way something should have been done 100 years ago or not. And it is pretty refreshing. You don’t have a big, huge, anonymous city full of people, with so many people you can just throw some away today because there will be more there tomorrow. You’re not in a huge city where it doesn’t matter how personally disagreeable you are, because you won’t have to work with these people again. These towns are small, and you see the same people everywhere, and you can be pretty sure that after a while, anywhere you go, a lot of people around will generally know a bit about who you are.

At that point you really start to appreciate people. Instead of members of this group, and that group, and then anarchists over there, you instead get a population, a minority within that population that cares a lot about the world and injustice, and a tiny fringe of that minority that is just about ready to do something about it.

People don’t have memberships in organizations and you don’t automatically know which ones not to listen to or which ones are wrong or mischievous. Instead you listen to people like people. If you can find someone who cares about the world, then you are very lucky and you are going to value that person and want to hang out with (and hang on to) them. Instead of pretending you know who you are dealing with because you know someone’s stated affiliation, and thus, the reasons why they are wrong and on which they must be argued, you are in a much more natural process of being two (or more) people, influenced by various ideas more or less prominent, and trying to figure out how to apply what you have to the current situations you are in.

Because that is who we all are. Whatever organization’s card is in your pocket (or used to be there until they discovered you had the wrong idea about Libya, or you were an internet gadfly, or whatever other terribly heresy you committed), you are still a person. You are influenced by the mainstream media, anarchist, marxist, liberal, humanitarian, and even selfish ideas. These things are all spinning around in our heads, and we don’t any of us know what is the right idea or the right position. All we can do is hope to be able to figure it out, using the brains we’ve developed, the things we’ve learned, and the capacity of others’ to see what’s wrong with our ideas and suggest other ones.


Arthur August 6, 2012 at 12:29 am

Thanks, this is an excellent description of how refreshing dialogue with mainstream views in a small town can be compared with the sterility of the pseudo-left sects.

It can be just as refreshing in big cities and on the global internet.

Actually winning over the mainstream is where it’s at.

On the question of air strikes in support of the people of Syria, arguing with the mainstream is where we’ll encounter the minority who care a lot about the world and the even smaller minority ready to take action about it. It’s also where we’ll resolve any doubts about what stand is progressive from the vehement opposition of the people who don’t give a damn about the world,


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp August 7, 2012 at 3:36 pm

It’s these people who made the Arab Spring and it’s not hard to figure out why the organized left in the West has zero political influence with them.

Your experience is something that the two of us have in common, although my context was in a big city rather than a rural area. The same dynamics apply but you are right, there is not an endless new stream of fresh, politically inexperienced, and uneducated pool to recruit from. Witness the inability of sects to build influence in actual workplaces over the course of 1-2 decades, despite strikes and other forms of workplace militancy, where, as you say, “you see the same people everywhere, and you can be pretty sure that after a while, anywhere you go, a lot of people around will generally know a bit about who you are.”


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