Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: [email protected]
Dear Your Sorry Ass,
I am a working-class guy from a small town in Nowhere, America. I’ve always had vaguely left-wing leanings because I never liked working for other people and being told what to do. Regardless, I was raised on certain ideas of masculinity and have a particular sense of humor that I think would put me at odds with much of the left on a personal level. (I was a product of the internet humor of the oughts; what can I say?)
This year I came to college and now that I’ve adjusted to life here I’ve been branching out and looking into the political side of things. I went around to the local radical left-wing student group for a meeting. They were nice enough, but Christ, are we different kinds of people. I can just kind of tell these aren’t the people I’d be hanging out with on a regular basis if I had no left-wing leanings.
I don’t think this would really be a problem normally—nobody’s gonna be friends with everyone. But the way some of them talk about it, it’s like they have an almost spiritual connection to each other. One of them was saying how he was willing to fight and die for his “comrades.” Even if I could establish that kind of connection with these people, I don’t know if I’d want to.
Is this just age-appropriate college LARPing? Or should I be honestly looking for people I can be very good friends with to organize?
There are countless creative and compelling ways to structure a political organization; unfortunately, only a few of those are actually capable of functioning. The rest tend not to produce healthy working and/or social dynamics, which means the odds that we flawed humans can get them and running are limited at best. I’m not saying you won’t form close bonds in a political setting. People make friends, fall in love, even start families from within their self-selected pools of “comrades.” But ultimately you will find that political affinities built on friendships and shared culture (rather than concrete goals and practical projects) will collapse, and it’s usually not a pretty sight when it happens.
You have stumbled upon one of the organizing models that does not work. And my advice is simply this: Buddy, run.
That kind of dick waving is alienating to me, and I am a socialist!
There is an anecdote in Richard Wright’s must-read 1944 autobiographical essay “I Tried to be a Communist” that illustrates one of the most disturbing tendencies of socialist groups. His time in the Communist Party was fraught with paranoia, scandals, and opportunistic coups. At one point, a new member and aspiring artist named Green accused a loyal member (and coincidentally, one of the best artists in the club) of being a traitor. Later, Wright and a comrade snuck into the club and dug through Green’s papers. They found a portfolio of art and writing, and a letter from a mental institution.
There were long dissertations written in longhand: some were political and others dealt with the history of art. Finally we found a letter with a Detroit return address and I promptly wrote asking news of our esteemed member. A few days later a letter came which said in part: —
In reply to your letter, we beg to inform you that Mr. Young, who was a patient in our institution and who escaped from our custody a few months ago, had been apprehended and returned to this institution for mental treatment.
I was thunderstruck. Was this true? Undoubtedly it was. Then what kind of club did we run that a lunatic could step into it and help run it? Were we all so mad that we could not detect a madman when we saw one?
One of the red flags alerting you to a bad organizing culture is an insularity so extreme that members forget what “normal” is. Everyone has hidden depths of eccentricity and whatnot, but for socialism to have broad appeal, it must be accessible to the “Normies”—i.e the people for whom politics is not an identity or subculture but merely the means to an end. The “fight and die” dude who thinks he’s leading a regiment of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War clearly does not get this, and appears unconcerned that his hyper-intense posturing might be alienating to people who are not socialists, which is . . . most people. That kind of dick waving is alienating to me, and I am a socialist!
“The left” has to acknowledge that in its current iteration—mainly centered on campuses and largely divorced from any semblance of a workers’ movement—it is a subculture. But the goal of socialist politics is to crawl out of the cultural ghetto and create a mass movement, and that means engaging with the masses.
So don’t waste your time with that stuff and seek out the work. The solidarity will follow.
Looking for an organization or crowd before a campaign often puts the cart before the horse; healthy, functional organizations are built through work, and the best work is based on shared struggle. So go out and find a promising project, and please consider looking off campus. Universities are—by design—more segregated from their surrounding communities than ever before. Campus politics have become extremely inward-facing, and barring tuition activism or some kind of solidarity work with dining and physical-plant workers, what you’re most likely to find on campus has little potential to affect anything in the larger world. (At elite schools it’s even worse, and most of the activism at the Ivies is about as radical as a country club renovation.)
And don’t worry about your lack of wokeness; it’s an organizing advantage. Most people don’t consider masculinity or a sense of humor a bad or insidious thing, and if you don’t offend people in your daily life, you probably don’t have much to worry about. There’s a whole category of people whose charisma is rewarded by the masses but punished by “the left.” Just as Wright struggled to explain the aesthetics of the Communist Party to his mother, it can be difficult to explain the LARPing intensity of “the left” to normal people. So don’t waste your time with that stuff and seek out the work. The solidarity will follow. Don’t lose your sense of humor—or your bearings—and stick with the normies (or at least people who can talk to them without scaring them).