The Liberal-to-Ultraleft Pipeline: Breaking the Cycle

I have been in DSA since the spring of 2016. Like many, I was tired of feeling politically lonely and isolated. I saw DSA as one of the only places where I could find others that shared my anger at the state of the world, but with a focus on doing whatever possible in our area to improve things. By joining in early 2016, I was fortunate to watch as wave after wave of new members came into the chapter. Each new group helped propel the organization forward and continue our momentum.

Regardless of the particular circumstances around each new wave of members joining, I found one trend that repeated itself over and over again: the “liberal-to-ultraleft pipeline.” This discovery is not my own and I have heard it talked about in chapters across the country, so I don’t believe it is unique to my own chapter either. Many people are familiar with Peter Camejo’s work on the subject, but he was fortunate enough to organize before the existence of online aesthetic leftism. Almost a year after the zenith of the Sanders campaign, this pipeline has become increasingly relevant as prominent left podcasters declared that they “radicalized so quickly over the past year” that they “basically skipped DSA.” I hope to talk about the pipeline briefly so we can identify it when it is happening, specifically address it in our organizing practices, and hopefully, break the cycle from repeating itself over and over again.

Identifying Ultraleftists: Liberals with Radical Aesthetics

It is funny to use the term ultraleftist in 2021 when thinking back on what it meant historically. To the Bolsheviks, an ultraleftist was typically someone that wanted to do a bombing or assassination campaign.  In the contemporary US left, this phrase refers broadly to the amalgamation of anti-capitalists whose entire ideological motivation and self-conception is that they are “to the left” of XYZ, typically DSA. While there are organizations that participate in this sort of branding, it is most commonly done on an individual level. We can disagree on whether ultraleftist is a helpful term, seeing as it is best defined by an “I know it when I see it” approach, but I think the title applies to enough of a grouping that it is worthwhile. Terminally online, constantly accusing others of being sheepdogs or sellouts, and rarely working with others to expand the socialist movement through mass action are some of their calling cards. Their actions speak to wanting to be King of the Smallest Kingdom.

The liberal-to-ultraleft pipeline is often accompanied by an obsession with labels that have no applicability outside of branding on internet forums. What’s the difference between a De Leonist, Council Communist and a Syndicalist when none are able to fill the room they reserved at the library with working people?

So why are newly radicalizing liberals so susceptible to ultraleftism?

First, because it allows them to continue their sense of superiority felt that they had from being the furthest left in the room and most moral for most of their lives. For many newly radicalizing liberals, their political beliefs have always been deeply tied with their sense of self as a good person. This is described by Ben D., another MDC DSA member, as the liberal tendency to imagine politics “as something you have and not something you do.” With this approach, having the correct position, the most moral one, or the one that stakes out the furthest left position, is practically the same as being a good socialist.

A common meme that floated around following both the end of the Sanders 2016 and 2020 campaigns

Secondly, because newly radicalized liberals develop an obsession with “radical tactics.” Many radicalizing liberals look briefly at the history of organized mass movements of working people and correctly gather that we need to learn from their successes. But instead of recognizing the steps in between where the US left is today and where we need to be, it just becomes an army of internet leftists tweeting #GeneralStrike and saying that anyone who has skepticism of its effectiveness is a scab. This also applies to electoral abstentionists, many of whom were loudly and proudly part of the mass support for democratic socialist candidates in the past. These newly radicalized liberals then abandon the very mass work that brought them and countless others into the movement in favor of “more radical tactics.” The obsession with radical tactics comes from the fact that liberals believe that they had always been armed with the right morality and analysis but had simply lacked the right tools to succeed. This ignores the fact that there is no such thing as an inherently radical tactic. Almost all tactics have been used by various political actors of differing opinions throughout history to fit the needs of their strategy at the time.

Thirdly, a skepticism of mass politics. This was ultimately Camejo’s thesis. But the major distinguishing point between those with a socialist analysis and those without one is the role of the masses. Socialists, even those with vanguardist politics, unquestionably support mass politics and do everything in their power to deepen their ties with mass movements with the goal of one day leveraging those connections for revolutionary change. Liberals and ultraleftists view many of these efforts as opportunism or betrayal. For socialists, we recognize that change is only possible with the masses on our side. So even if we have the correct ideas, we are powerless to enact them unless we engage in mass politics.

It's difficult to tell if this image is satire or something else. When asked whether he agreed with the labels, @ProudSocialist shared this image in early February, adding that "It’s not a perfect chart, but it’s not wrong either. The only thing I’d say is the far left box needs more socialists/communists. This moment in history demands revolutionary change so I wouldn’t trust anyone peddling the status quo right now."

Fourth, a view of “the left” as a consumer subculture and not organizations. Many newly radicalized liberals approach politics as if it's about what podcast you listen to or magazine you subscribe to. This thinking promotes acting as a fandom rather than an organization. This can be seen most recently with leftists on social media circulating their own rankings of other left twitter accounts and podcasters as if the left was a fantasy sports league. Whether it's flag emojis in their bio, revolutionary symbols in their handle, or even coordinates on a political alignment chart, all of these are an attempt to signal to others that they’re part of the in-group of real revolutionaries. Think of how many people online spout off how they’re “not a SocDem” as if there truly was any organized coherent social democratic movement in the US currently. What they mean by it is “I’m not a sellout, I want a revolution, unlike those other guys.” But it’s as relevant to modern politics as saying “I shop at Target, not Walmart like those other guys.” It's an attempt to cultivate a unique brand of having correct politics, even if those politics have no bearing or influence on the world at all.

How We Got Here

For the past five years, Democratic Socialists of America has unquestionably been the natural place for the left wing of the movement that supported Bernie Sanders to coalesce. This was key to DSA’s explosion of growth as millions became aware of democratic socialism through Bernie and tens of thousands ultimately joined DSA. The American “Progressive” movement has almost always been extremely incoherent in its beliefs due to its lack of a uniting organization or specific base as is the case for the left in other countries. Though the Sanders campaigns helped shape this progressive movement into having a more clear message around class politics, it was unable to fully convert the existing progressive movement into a democratic socialist one. This meant that many new members of DSA were joining as liberals. This is nothing we should be ashamed of, in fact, it's something that we should be proud of. DSA, through political alignment, branding, and its campaigns was able to bring many liberals into the tent. The issue is thinking about what happens (or doesn’t) next.

DSA is a multitendency socialist organization. From its inception, as the merger of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee and the New American Movement, it was conceived explicitly so. This was meant to distance DSA from the sectarianism and splits that were so common during that time. But, this multitendency nature was importantly not meant as a rejection of its socialist identity or place within the socialist tradition. During the upsurge of growth from 2016 onward, many took multitendency to mean “anyone believe anything” and that the organization was not explicitly a socialist one. This hampered efforts to provide coherent socialist education to our members. This problem was exacerbated by the fact that many of our new members were liberals. I want to clarify that I don’t mean this in a derogatory sense. They were liberals because we as an organization were failing to do the education necessary to get them to think and act in a socialist framework.

This lack of education left a void. There comes a time for many people on the left where they realize that Sanders’ platform might not be enough to avert climate catastrophe, enough to root out systemic oppressions or enough to redistribute power in society. It’s at this time that these “former liberals” go exploring for answers. Our members were looking for a “political” political education curriculum but it was nowhere to be found. If there is one thing that can be said about those on the fringes of the socialist movement, is that they often focus on political education and readings to a fault. These groups swooped in. Podcasts, YouTube and caucuses became some of the primary providers of political education within the organization. There was no systematic approach to helping members break with their liberalism. In its place was a Twitter-driven, clout-based media ecosystem that rewards outlandish opinions and is completely disconnected from the way membership organizations function or how to think like an organizer.

Potential Solutions

I wish I had a magic bullet to solve the problem of the liberal-to-ultraleft pipeline. Luckily, for those that stick around in DSA, many of them eventually develop socialist politics based on concrete analysis of concrete situations. I really can’t emphasize this enough, some of DSA’s best organizers are former ultraleftists that developed better politics. But a wait and see approach is not fast enough when we are trying to build DSA into a mass organization. It would be a recipe for an SDS-style disaster, where one half of the room is chanting for Warren and the other is chanting for Hawkins.

I have a few suggestions: one based in political education, one based in recruitment, and the final in mass organizing.

Regarding political education, we really can’t shy away from a DSA-focused approach to political education. This means a curriculum that we strive to get all new members through that doesn’t avoid talking about what we believe, why DSA is different, and how our organization works. We shouldn’t apologize for our work and shouldn’t hide the fact that the US left has been a largely marginal force for decades and our job is to end that. We should also try to explain some of the many dead ends the left has fallen for in the past with the goal of steering our members away from those in the future.

Regarding recruitment, we have to recognize that the era of Sanders-branded passive recruitment might officially be over. The Sanders coalition, especially in the second campaign, was incredibly diverse and fundamentally rooted in the working class. Despite this, DSA’s primarily online approach to recruitment has disproportionately brought in its overly online segments. We need to commit ourselves to recruit less through online outreach and more through organic relationships in our communities and workplaces. The DSA100k campaign was an incredible expression of how powerful our members can be when we collectively prioritize recruitment. Efforts like this should be a natural part of all of our work.

Lastly, we should always prioritize winnable campaigns that place members into direct contact with other working people. Campaigns that involve canvassing or speaking with workers outside of the left are the ultimate antidote to ultraleft opinions. It’s hard to believe that the General Strike is just a few weeks away when you meet a worker at their door who will only vote for your socialist candidate if they ban 5G. These campaigns shouldn’t aim to dispirit the newly radicalized or curb their ultimate ambitions, but show them how well planned and strategic collective action can help make a difference.

These proposals may seem insufficient to the scope of the problem we’re facing. But I am confident that this organization and movement, with more members and supporters, will be able to win bigger and better victories until the day when revolutionary questions are actually relevant. I am confident of this future because I am a socialist and I believe in mass action.

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