Have you ever heard a fellow progressive, leftist, radical, or revolutionary say, “I remain on the left despite the left, not because of it”? The left, writ large, is a kind of community. It has an array of traditions, rituals, and norms which diversely appear in leftwing organizations, projects, campaigns, and movements. Of course, there are many variations. But it turns out, even those on the left who practice a fair share of the expected language, traditions, rituals, and norms often dislike parts of the whole. In fact, isn’t it the case that many who leave progressive leftist, radical, and revolutionary projects, organizations, parties, and movements—which over time is a whole lot of people with many never returning—leave largely because of interactions they have encountered on the left?
In that light, we might reasonably ask, what is it about some left behavior, or at a minimum about people’s impressions of some left behavior, that repels those who would otherwise identify with left aims?
Most people who become involved with progressive, left, radical, or revolutionary (hereafter just called left) political projects and movements do so because they have a genuine desire to change the world for the better. Left ideas resonate with them. But if most people get involved with the movement to improve the world, why do so many of them not stick around for the long haul?
First, you might reasonably wonder, is that really true? Do that many people really leave the left? Well, mentally tally all the folks who have been in anti-war, feminist, gay and lesbian, anti-racist, no nukes, climate, labor, community, and other movements over, say, the past five decades. Millions. Even tens of millions. How many of those people remain to this day actively engaged in left projects and movements? Incontestably, the answer is a seriously small percentage. This is a major issue. Indeed, it may be the most serious issue activists face. We continually refill our movements yet they don’t grow much. After any sudden intense growth, which periodically happens, movements shrink back because people leave the left at roughly the same overall pace as people join the left. It is like the water level in a bathtub with the drain open and the faucet on. The water level stays static.
Without a doubt, fighting against the most powerful institutions in the world isn’t easy and can wear on anyone. This, of course, explains why some who join the left, later leave. Political work can be difficult, stressful, and taxing. It wears people out. Burn-out is a fact. But why can’t we do a better job of supporting people who are enduring such pressures?
Being a progressive, leftist, radical, or revolutionary ought to mean wanting to attain a better world. It ought to mean revealing obstacles to attaining a better world. It ought to mean understanding the roots and mechanisms of the obstacles, communicating the ensuing insights, and developing campaigns to overcome or transcend the obstacles.
So, do we do that regarding the reasons our size seems to be capped by the fact that people join, excited and eager, but all too often leave, worn out and depressed? Do we sufficiently identify the problems at work in that phenomenon, communicate those problems, and initiate campaigns to overcome or transcend them? If not, why not? Is it because self-assessment, especially to find correctable flaws, is uncomfortable? Is it because we know it will offend some? Where the left is super ready to identify problems in the mainstream world that obstruct our success, why do we hesitate to find problems within our own collective practice? Is it due to not wanting to pile on, to not wanting to undermine, to not wanting to be called to task as not a team player?
Perhaps we can here identify some consequential issues. Recognizing that what is important is not whether the issues mentioned here are true of everyone on the left, or even of most on the left, or ultimately, in some sense, even of anyone on the left. What is important is do the issues mentioned here identify reasons people leave or don’t join the left in the first place.
Sometimes it seems that activists think new people should just hear the truth, hop off the couch, get involved with, become immersed in, and rise to lead political movements. Of course, for the majority of Americans who live in poverty or can barely make ends meet, that’s not reality. For them, reality looks like multiple jobs, risky or no housing, health problems, and mounting bills and debt. Their daily life pressures tend to be all-consuming. If we’re serious about actual working-class people joining much less becoming immersed in and leading campaigns for change, we must first understand how different their day-to-day lives are than those of most established left writers, activists, organizers, and commentators, and beyond understanding that difference, we must act in light of that understanding.
To programmatically reach and involve working-class people, the left should in considerable part focus on the sort of reforms and legislation that would create more conducive circumstances for working-class people to participate in political activities. Immediately, this could include seeking student loan abolishment, at least a living minimum wage, ample affordable or free housing, Medicare For All, free or affordable childcare services, expanded Social Security payments, free and universal daycare and health care, and especially and most obviously, a shorter workweek with increased pay, plus better conditions for union and general labor organizing and reform.
Quite often, these issues are indeed part of the overall commitment on the left and thus the rhetoric of activists, but nonetheless, they are not so successfully emphasized in many organizing efforts. Is it in part because many of those who occupy important roles within left movements do not come from working-class communities? Hence, they don’t immediately feel as urgently the needs of working-class people?
In recent times, some modest advances have been made on these issues, for instance, shorter working weeks in countries such as Spain and Iceland; at least $15 per hour minimum wage in US states such as California and Washington. Most notable and perhaps most impactful have been the mass strikes by the labor movement over the last couple of years. These have been across continents and across industry sectors and have involved millions of workers. What does it say about the left though, that these strikes have been largely organized by (not necessarily left-identifying) workers themselves who, no longer able to endure endless workplace violations and abuses, have fought for unionization, better pay and better conditions? And how many of these striking workers, who did not originally self-identify as leftists, now see themselves as part of the left?
Unfortunately, history shows us that when left movements do attract overworked, time-stressed working people, most eventually leave. Perhaps a major reason is that many left institutions, organizations, and movements don’t internally share among participants existing resources, however limited they may be, to aid and empower those most in need. Not only is it rare that we practice serious mutual aid for members to advance within organizations and movements, but each of our organized efforts often competes with others for a limited pool of resources. Perhaps the left would be better served to come up with ways to share resources equitably between various groups, movements, parties, projects, and so forth and also within them among members who have very different material circumstances. Perhaps that could reduce the pressures causing people to leave.
Another factor curtailing growth is that much of the time we preach to the choir. Yes, the choir needs practice and reinforcement. It needs to refine and sustain its song. But the left spends far too much time speaking to itself. And not just speaking to itself, but repeatedly telling itself what it already knows. We call for a protest. We issue social media blasts. We call for another protest. All the while we wonder why our numbers aren’t growing. We write, give speeches, talk face-to-face, but very often we don’t find a way to reach beyond our own circles, mailing lists, and online contacts with what we have to say—and, when talking to our own circles, we say only what we already all agree on.
Part of the reason is certainly that we don’t have tools that reach further. But isn’t part of the reason also that not reaching further is comfortable? And isn’t another part of the reason that we confuse mobilizing with organizing? The left doesn’t spend enough time organizing, which is reaching out to people who don’t self-identify as leftists. Even left writing is mostly directed at ourselves. Sometimes that is sensible. But not always. This problem is both about methods and awareness. Might it help to spend more time seriously and sincerely hearing and addressing those who don’t yet agree with us, indeed, even those who currently disagree with us, so as to cross divides and develop new relationships and personal bonds?
In the end, organizing should be about engaging massive numbers of “ordinary” people and bringing them into the left and then sustaining and empowering everyone inside the left. That requires speaking and working with people who don’t already agree with us or who don’t already identify with us. Sometimes our numbers don’t grow because we aren’t, in fact, doing what it takes to grow our numbers.
But further, what about people leaving? If we had a greater rate of member retention and development from the 1960s through all the intervening years to now there would be tens of millions of organized, committed, and trained activists with shared vision and strategy all working together. That is incontestable. And that we don’t have that is also incontestable.
The sad truth that follows from this incontestable observation is that many people leave the left and even the most cursory survey of such folks tends to suggest it is very often because they grow tired of left behavior patterns that mirror those we abhor in society at large. How many leftists do you know who’ve never sincerely and meaningfully asked how your day is going (not perfunctorily saying “have a nice day”)? Many people on the left jump on meetings, phone calls, or attend events, and the only thing they want to discuss is the business at hand. It’s off-putting, and to some degree, antisocial. Is it you? Maybe not. Probably not. But don’t circle the wagons and ward off the observation just because it isn’t you. Is it people you know? Maybe not. Probably not. But don’t circle the wagons for that reason, either. The fact is, people do leave. The point is not to ward off wondering why that might be. The point is to find and repair reasons why that might be.
Winning change requires sacrifice and especially trust and to have trust we must develop personal bonds with those we’re working with. That can only happen through one-on-one conversations, breaking bread, sharing personal stories, dreams, desires, and fears. It happens through dancing, talking, and playing games. If we’re serious about building a radical much less a revolutionary movement, we must be serious about building intentional relationships, especially with those we’re trying to bring into the movement.
Okay, but is the relative absence of actively, explicitly caring relations the only reason people leave? No. It is an important aspect, but it is far from the only reason. Everyone has of late heard of the term ‘Cancel Culture’ or earlier, “political correctness.” While of course the terms have been cynically used by elites to justify a wide-range of their undesirable behavior, that doesn’t mean there is nothing to the observation that ‘Cancel Culture’ deters many working-class people from joining or staying in left movements. It even prevents people from thinking about why other people leave, from identifying reasons, and from calling for efforts to address the reasons, overcome the reasons, and transcend the reasons.
Consider the debate, as but one example, about trans women participating in female sports leagues. Many liberal and progressive women have brought up the issue, yet they have often been shamed, denounced, and even attacked for doing so. Does that mean everyone has reacted thusly? Of course not. But do those watching on get the impression that to differ with the left calls forth shaming, denunciation, and even cancellation? Can anyone, regardless of your views on the specific issue, really deny that?
Another example might be that in left circles, it’s a foregone conclusion that existing left orthodoxy is correct, hence all reason for discussion is over. Anyone who disagrees risks being shunned or shamed. This kind of interaction turns people off rather than communicating substance about important issues. It puts off people within left movements, as well as those watching from the outside. That is, it puts off the people we should be most concerned to reach.
Consider a further example, that of views of gun culture in the U.S. which is inherently tied to a conversation about violence vs. nonviolence. As everyone knows, many people in the U.S. love and own guns. In fact, millions more since the pandemic started. Gun culture is an undeniable component of U.S. culture. Regardless of any analysis, it’s not going away anytime soon. So should the left simply denounce gun owners? Of course not. Blanket denunciation of guns and gun culture isn’t the best political route if we’re hoping to bring people over to our side.
The same is true of discussion about violence vs. nonviolence. Both sides caricature the other. It’s unhelpful. Pacifists often see violence as a terrible means that will never lead to our intended end. On the other hand, those advocating for violent revolution often see pacifists as sell-outs who, if given the opportunity, will get us all killed. Of course, neither caricature is true. While, in our view, nonviolence is almost always superior to violence, we also understand that many people understandably conclude that violence is not only warranted but wise. Right now, that’s the case more than any other time in recent memory. The left should be willing and able to engage in such debates and conversations without demonizing those we disagree with. The demonizing or even just abrupt dismissal of others not only doesn’t make any headway regarding the issues, it creates an atmosphere that stifles all debate, stifles all listening to those who differ, and propels folks away or out.
Elections, as another example, tend to bring out the worst in leftists. Those who advocate for strategic voting, which usually means voting for one or another Democratic Party candidate, are painted as “apologists for imperialism and capitalism,” while those who refuse to vote, for example, for Biden last time around are portrayed as “unthoughtful buffoons and fringe radicals who aren’t to be taken seriously.”
When leftists battle each other in ways that avoid substance and instead rail at presumed motives, they often degrade and insult one another with little or no room for serious discussion of substance, and such behavior is part of what causes folks to leave.
And in one more example, over the years, perhaps you have seen leftists castigate newcomers for eating meat, drinking CocaCola, driving pickup trucks, listening to country music, and a whole host of personal behaviors that people make within a limited framework of choices in a totally corrupt and terrible system. Does every leftist demonize others like this? Of course not. But it can often be the case that what people choose to eat or drink, where they shop or what music they listen to, who they choose to sleep with or not sleep with often even becomes fodder for high school-like vendettas. Surely, that a person has some habit or practice that others have rejected shouldn’t preclude that person from being heard and treated with empathy and understanding.
All of us come from very different geographical, cultural, economic, political, and social backgrounds. What we know, what we’ve experienced, varies greatly. That the variation becomes a pretext for attacking and being attacked, instead of for understanding and mutually benefitting, drives people away. People’s backgrounds should be respected, as long as they are not directly threatening anyone with violence or intimidation, racism, sexism, or homophobia, not to mention classism, which is arguably even more prevalent.
And that brings us to another albeit closely related point: the policing of language. Let’s look at this from a practical and constructive angle. Many of us have been involved in campaigns that require coalitions. Consider, for instance, an environmental campaign. At its outset, the campaign may well include rural whites, urban blacks, and college-educated whites and blacks who self-identify as leftists. Perhaps none of the groups have interacted much or even at all with each other prior to the campaign, yet in order for the campaign to work, they need to build relationships.
Often urban blacks and rural whites in such campaigns interact much easier with each other than the self-identified leftists interact with either group. This group may often be appalled by much of the language used by both other groups and their cultural habits. Designer beers, hipster clothing, hostility to pop culture and sports, plus coffee house music don’t jive with poor whites from the countryside or urban blacks from the ghetto.
At times things get heated. For example, the rural whites may use racial slurs and other words that people find troubling. But this is also true of the black group. The college radicals flounder over how to respond. Their preconceived notions about how those groups should have responded to their well-wrought arguments and their preferred issues prove irrelevant. What the experienced activists realize, at least when they take time off from judging, is that they are the ones living in a cultural and social bubble. That, in fact, many working-class blacks and whites often have little problem interacting, but it can be that their interactions, language, and behaviors don’t fit into existing left culture.
These issues are best dealt with by having more thoughtful and down-to-earth, calm conversations about issues and people’s habits and beliefs, the sort of discussions people can have at BBQs and family parties, but not the sort that radicals typically experience in college seminars and leftwing conferences much less when tweeting and posting on social media. Is mutual learning and respectful exchange the norm for leftists? Is it the vibe our writing, speaking, gathering, and campaigning gives off?
Moreover, simply being on the ‘right side of history’ isn’t enough to continually enlarge and maintain membership. The left should want to bend and change history. The left should want to win. Left practices should reflect that desire. This is certainly necessary for attracting and retaining working-class people. Indeed, for them, there is no other reason to be on the left, at least as it typically operates. Experience tells us that campaigns, movements, and organizations that are growing in vibrant, creative, and interesting ways, while also winning, are the sort of projects that can keep most people who connect with them engaged over the long haul.
Telling people they’re bad for not being involved with the movement isn’t a winning outreach strategy. Humiliating people for their habits, mannerisms, or tastes is not conducive to any kind of change. Hammering people with how terrible things are in the hope that they’ll somehow just snap out of their survival patterns and start a revolutionary insurrection (as if that’s ideal) or even join a sensible and sober movement (which would be damned good), is not an effective strategy. Constant appeals to the pains we share and the moral virtues we advocate have limited success in bringing people into movements and even less success in keeping people in those movements.
If we operate under the assumption that most people are good people, then we probably don’t need to badger them with calls to be good people. The issue is, “What can actually achieve social good?,” not “What is deemed behaviorally good?” People will join and stay in the movement if they believe the movement is serious, committed, disciplined, accessible, and has good winning prospects. People will stay in if they would be proud and eager to bring their friends and families in.
So why doubt that a movement is serious, committed, disciplined, accessible, and has good winning prospects? We believe there are two more big reasons people doubt that.
If a movement has good demands but the movement seems internally as racist as your town, workplace, or school, you have reason to doubt its commitment. If it seems as sexist as your town, workplace, or school, again you have reason to doubt its commitment. With very few exceptions, movements understand these two observations. It therefore becomes important to identify the problem of racism and sexism in the left, to communicate that problem, address it and transcend it, not to cast blame or score ineffective points about it.
But if a movement is as classist as your town, workplace, or school, again you have reason to doubt. Yet with very few, if any exceptions, movements don’t identify the problem of classism in the left, don’t communicate it, and don’t address it to overcome or transcend it. Movements that don’t elevate people from working-class families into full participation and leadership are structurally classist. Movements whose internal culture—tastes and preferences—revile working-class life practices, are structurally classist. Movements that are tone-deaf to working-class needs are structurally classist. And arguably most of all, movements whose internal role structures divide their members into those who make decisions for others and those who abide by decisions that others make are structurally classist. Does this mean every member is classist? Of course not. But does it mean there is a problem that will impact the likelihood of working class men and women joining, staying, and leading, even if the movements have a good understanding and program regarding class relations in society? Of course it does. Seeing any of these classist features provides powerful reasons for people to not join, or to join and before too long, to move on. Having any and often all of these classist features means a movement will also not really understand working-class life and demands, and not really have a profoundly pro-working-class program.
Seriously joining movements requires our commitment, time, and focus. It may involve tensions with family or friends. It may even risk our jobs or repression. Suppose someone manages to overcome all the above mentioned obstacles, there remains another factor that causes diminution of morale and finally disassociation: lack of vision, which leads to lack of hope. What works against staying on the left is being in a movement that has so little belief that a long term vision—another world—is attainable that it spends nearly no time clarifying what it would be and what seeking it would entail. Why bother, if you can’t get there?
Movements tend to do a very compelling job of explaining how existing institutions and relations are powerful, but despite recent improvements they still do barely any job at all of making a case that another world is possible. Committed activists believe another world is possible. And they believe history shows that people are willing to fight to attain another world, if they feel welcomed and deeply connected to the movements, projects, campaigns, and issues they’re fighting for. In order to make that true, all of us on the left will need to overcome the barriers discussed in this essay, as well as many more.