If you’re on the left and if you’re doing serious political work, coalition politics, building a united front effort or doing some kind of mass work today you are encountering lots of liberals, and perhaps a few libertarians as well. If you’re doing good work you are engaging with liberals and liberal-minded people and trying to move them leftward. Perhaps you have decided that working with people who are politically engaged and moving them in our direction is the right path, or perhaps you’re more focused on the disengaged folks and trying to politicize them. This post is intended more for people in the former category than in the latter, but all solidarity goes out to people working with the disengaged!
Prior to the election I had a number of run-ins with liberals who were strong on Clinton and quite opposed to Sanders. These were frustrating conversations and I lost a few contacts and friends as the arguments deepened. Looking back, I could have done much differently and better, but the liberals I was talking to were dogmatic, often less than honest and absolutely convinced that their candidate was a genuine progressive and certain to win. Today many of them are at the front lines, and some are moving leftward, but they continue to blame us for their failures.
This is a problem on both sides. We didn’t grasp the essence of united-front politics and methods, which is our responsibility as a left. They operate in a top-down context which has real practical and pragmatic limits by inhibiting their work and putting distance between themselves and the working-class. We couldn’t find a way to serve the people and put aside our baggage. They couldn’t hear even mild criticism of Obama and their candidate. Neither side knew how to correctly assess Obama and the Democratic Party and build from the positives while correcting the negatives. I hoped that after the election we could coalesce around a progressive set of ideas based on the great work done by the Sanders campaign, but locally we have not seen a unifying program emerge from the Sanders folks and the local Democratic Party establishment remains largely in place. We entered the presidential campaign without programatic clarity and we ended it without clarity. The left owns these setbacks. Today liberals are an absolutely essential component of any united-front strategy, but it’s likely going to be up to us to build that strategy and invite them in and then on them to accept the invitation or not.
The cost of not building a united-front fightback against the right with a strong socialist component at its heart is deepening barbarism. The right-wing probably gets this and will use a strategy and tactics to divide the people and isolate the left. Provocations are likely and may be happening now. Under these conditions liberals and liberalism become almost contested terrains. I have put aside my “Socialism or barbarism” pin because a few people have commented that they favor barbarism and have assumed that I do also.
This post is occasioned by a number of conversations and e-mail and Facebook encounters I have had lately with local liberals and libertarians and by attending rallies and meetings daily in our community. Liberals are often at the center of these conversations and activities, but they come to the present moment in crisis. I do not believe that the full measure of this crisis can yet be seen. It is not inevitable that this crisis will move people leftward. The hard work of patiently talking to people, organizing and mobilizing and engaging people for the long haul is in our hands, but we have competition. Some of that competition comes from the liberal establishment, some from the “hard right” and some from the libertarians.
Progress in the Mid-Willamette Valley is uneven. A rally goes wrong but a School Board meeting knocks the ball out of the park. A racist City Councilperson is unseated but an incompetent libertarian steps up to take his place. A Black candidate running for the City Council position could run and win on a progressive platform, but he is a restaurant owner who doesn’t support a higher minimum wage. The “progressive” candidate in the race comes out of the establishment and doesn’t work here. Right-wing hate radio spins a fantasy of a local left-wing conspiracy but the cashier at the supermarket wants to talk to me about protest strategies and tactics. The immigrant rights and people of color movements advance but white progressives don’t always learn from them. These oppressed immigrant and people of color communities and their leaders need allies, but where are the allies? The ridiculous third bridge idea gets trounced but moves ahead anyway, and a Starbucks with a drive-through goes in on a downtown corner where traffic accidents seem certain to occur---and the attention remains on downtown Salem while our neighborhoods suffer. The state is facing another budget crisis, Kate Brown arrives late to the table on immigration and environmental issues and Tobias Read goes off on his own on the Elliott State Forest.
The following notes are not in good order and reflect this uneven progress. The intention here is to help people talk about things that matter and mobilize and organize.
* Gut check yourself before you start having conversations or debates with liberals and libertarians. Are you having the discussion or argument in order to win people over, neutralize them or score points? Can you have the talk or argument without making it about you and your particular problems? Can you make the case that it is the system which needs to go?
* Do criticism and self-criticism constantly with others. Discuss what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong. Take guidance from the people you’re in solidarity with; don’t speak on their behalf or do things for them, but work from a place of humble solidarity alongside of them.
* Show up. Be at those community meetings, get there early and hang-out afterward. Know the people. Love the people.
* Make every conversation an organizing conversation with liberals. What can engage people at the base and hold their interest and create involvement? It’s right to debate issues, but it’s also right to challenge values. At some point we need to need to say, “Look, we both believe in (issue or cause). Will you join us in (action)? If you can’t do that, what will you do to help?” Follow up with people later. And at some point challenging values---your own values and the values of others---has to be dramatic in order to be effective. It’s okay if the person leaves angry after you have tried to engage on equal, non-authoritarian terms around their values and yours.
* Forget trying to find common ground with the right and with the libertarians. The left should not be about defusing conflict, peacemaking while injustice is institutionalized, abstract love and getting along. Our strong suit should be in principled unity, confronting injustice directly, organizing for power and demystifying and overcoming oppression and decolonizing ourselves and our communities and workplaces.
* Don’t be afraid of believing and saying that there are rights and wrongs, correct and incorrect ideas, things which can be rationally and productively debated and things which don’t merit discussion. Fascism, for instance, cannot be rationally debated. Racial, ethnic or national superiority cannot be rationally debated. Misogyny cannot be rationally debated.
* Encourage others when they get it right and encourage yourself when you get it right. We all have a great deal to learn. If you have been involved in organizing and mass work, you have a responsibility to teach as well.
* We hear more often now that arguments are for the benefit of people watching or listening, not for the people arguing. That may be true, but in a wide audience you don’t know everyone or what will move them. Stick to your principles without being dogmatic or sectarian. Our left-wing, socialist tent should be big and have a wide-open door with a welcoming committee of every group committed to the working-class and the people in line.
* Understand the contradictions. Liberals are in crisis and the Democrats are caught between competing tendencies. The libertarians aren’t fascists, but their theory and actions open the door to authoritarian rule. One wing of capital backs authoritarianism and fascism, another uses a neoliberal framework. Be familiar with the liberal and libertarian contexts, be able to anticipate their arguments and refer to the theories they’re operating from.
To be continued...