How to Argue With Your Comrades

When faced with political setbacks like Bernie Sanders’s loss, it’s easy for socialists to blame our own comrades for our defeats. But those losses are more rooted in the powerful structures we’re up against than our own failures — and while vibrant debate is critical to the Left, intraleft attacks and recriminations just exhaust and dispirit us.

Crowd in attendance at Senator Bernie Sanders's rally at UNC-Chapel Hill on September 19,2019

There are a lot of hard feelings on the Left these days. Leaving aside the particular distortions of the Twitter world, where 280 characters often lend themselves to substanceless snark and woker-than-thou point scoring rather than healthy debate, left squabbling seems to be increasing on social media and in real life — a potential sign of disarray within our movement.

Socialists were riding high at the end of February. A political reality that most of us thought inconceivable a few years ago, or even a few months ago, seemed possible, even probable. Bernie Sanders had just swept the Nevada caucus, having already won the popular vote in Iowa and New Hampshire. A democratic socialist was the front-runner to win the Democratic nomination. Could the White House actually turn Red?

Instead, this series of events followed. With the help of a united Democratic establishment and media, Joe Biden resurrected his listless campaign. Bernie’s campaign and other left organizations were not yet strong enough or rooted enough to mobilize voters on the scale we needed to counter Biden’s advance.

These political setbacks happened just as a devastating public health crisis took hold, the likes of which, ironically, scream out for a democratic-socialist approach to health care, the environment, and the economy. But rather than propelling forward a democratic-socialist platform, the pandemic sparked high-pitch accusations that Bernie would have the blood of primary voters on his hands if he continued a “vanity” campaign. Without a reasonable path to victory, he folded before reaching the convention. Despite the awe-inspiring advances and victories his campaign achieved, it was no doubt a deflating result.

It’s a truism of organizing that when we suffer setbacks, we tend to blame comrades and assume subjective faults, rather than assess the structural challenges of building a socialist opposition within the belly of the capitalist beast. I witnessed this firsthand during the anti-war movement of the 2000s, which, facing a gargantuan uphill battle, collapsed in on itself. Much more dramatic examples dot the history of the US left.

The Left today is being reborn, but we are still very small relative to our tasks. We carry the scars of decades of neoliberalism, and of labor and social movements in retreat. I’ve been a part of this Left long enough to have learned that the way we treat our comrades really matters — especially the ones we disagree with, and especially when times are tough.

As a general rule of thumb, if you find yourself calling people out instead of arguing for positions, you’re likely on the wrong track. This is not to police tone or emotions — the gamut of which are certainly called for in these chilling times. It is a matter of how we build a movement that can maintain enough respect and collaboration within our ranks to withstand sharp and critical debate.

My own history within a Trotksyist organization taught me that favoring one (sharp debates) at the expense of the other (respect) creates bitterness that can fester for years, leaving long-term damage on individuals and organizations alike. We need all the comrades and allies we’ve got, and our disagreements and differences — if we’re not engaging in scorched-earth campaigns against one another — could actually strengthen us.

The big picture is that the vast majority of obstacles standing in our way to building a thriving movement are not individuals, or even groups or caucuses, but deeper structural problems that cannot be done away with in one fell swoop of tactical brilliance, let alone one salty tweet.

Sixties radical Max Elbaum has written and spoken powerfully about the tendency of movements that do not yet have a mass base “to lose [their] sense of proportion about theoretical differences and fall into self-destructive infighting.” As he explained in one interview:

Virtually every radical trend says somewhere in its doctrine that change is made by “the masses in their millions,” that revolutionaries need to be accountable to popular constituencies, that it’s a long haul. But especially at times when progressive movements do not exist on a millions-strong scale, and given that activists necessarily spend a lot of their time interacting in coalitions or meetings with one another, there’s a strong pull toward forgetting that. And of course we take (and should take) our views and our organizations seriously. But . . . there are pressures to forget the context within which we operate, and we can become prone to weighing our differences with others on the left far out of proportion to where they fit in the long-term struggle of millions.

For instance, debates waged within Chile’s Popular Unity government before Augusto Pinochet’s violent right-wing coup in 1973; or within the French General Confederation of Labour (CGT) during the 1930s Popular Front; or in the African National Congress (ANC) at the end of South African apartheid had great consequences for millions of people. The stakes were high, and differences that triggered splits or expulsions were certainly understandable.

Our battles today are urgent, no doubt, but we should have a sense of humility and proportion about our own experience and influence. As Elbaum argues, “It’s a constant challenge to retain our sense of proportion and respect for others we disagree with. Meeting that challenge isn’t helped by adopting frameworks — from whichever radical tradition — that imply there is only one way to do everything, only one true revolutionary pedigree, and that every difference of opinion represents the influence of the enemy class within our own ranks.”

Our movement is new enough, and most of us are still inexperienced enough in mass struggle, that we should be able to imagine scenarios where we try one tactic, are proven wrong, switch tacks, assess, and are still able to move forward collectively. Raising every disagreement to the level of Judas’s kiss only drives people from the movement and destroys our ability to have fruitful debates. In order to cultivate a political culture in which we collectively develop perspectives, strategies, and theoretical contributions, and which welcomes new organizers and comrades to do the same, we have to be able to debate one another without just trying to win a line or points. We have to actually engage with competing political positions.

That’s easier said than done, and the temptations of sectarianism and grandstanding are all the stronger when the way forward isn’t obvious. But the Left is growing today, the political winds are still at our backs despite the obstacles, and a vision for a much more fundamental transformation of society is more widely appreciated. As long as we don’t use one another as punching bags, the debates we have along the way could draw in more activists and train new and old comrades to think critically and collaboratively, as we work to win a more just society.