I'm Still Here

the same old materialist civil libertarian Marxist I've always been

Youths brandish the Freedom Charter in Soweto in 1986.
South African youth hold copies of the Freedom Charter, a statement of principles for the ANC and its allies developed in part during the 1950 “Defend Free Speech” conference, Soweto 1986

Nothing the internet has done, I think, has been more powerful or consequential than the vast increase in social conformity it’s brought about. Every incentive in 2021, every last one, pushes us to submit to the will of the crowd. Under those conditions it’s more important than ever that we remember who we are and where we came from.

New York Magazine asks, “What Happened to Matt Taibbi?” This is a recurring question among the kind of elite college graduates who discovered politics in 2016 and now speak with total confidence about all political questions - what happened to those of us who have remained committed to our core values? Taibbi’s defense, reasonably, is that it’s his critics who have changed and not him; the piece treats this with equivocation, regarding the issue as a rhetorical question rather than a question of fact. But the broader issue is a question of fact, and there’s no factual dispute to be had: today’s “left,” in media and academia and elsewhere, has abandoned absolutely core commitments related to goals, policy, and process, and slandered anyone who hasn’t. The avatars of this tendency mostly know nothing but operate in a social culture in which one must project an aura of knowing everything, and so we have never had substantive debates about any of this stuff, nor do we have communal history enough to know who’s changed and who hasn’t. Let’s run the big changes down.

Moral Universalism

Of all of the concepts that underlie left discourse, moral universalism may be the most central and essential, though it is little discussed. Moral universalism is the simple belief that all human beings are equal in value and dignity, and deserve political, legal, and moral equality. (It does not mean, and has never meant, that all people are equal in abilities, nor is it an argument for equality of outcomes.) This might seem like a pretty banal assumption, but remember that recognizably left-wing or socialist principles were first developed during a time when literal dynastic aristocracies were assumed to be of inherently higher value than the common person, to say nothing of various bigotries tied to race, ethnicity, and gender. Moral universalism was a powerful and radical idea relative to that backdrop. It was moral universalism that demanded an end to slavery, to sexism, to caste systems, to socioeconomic inequality: Black people deserve freedom because they are people, women deserve equal rights because they are people, the poor deserve material security and comfort because they are people. This is not merely an elegant philosophical position but the basis of left political strategy; stressing common humanity, rather than fixating on demographic differences, means we can have the biggest tent imaginable. All it requires is believing that we must leave no one behind, as a movement and society.

In contrast, today’s left-of-center is rabidly attached to moral particularism, though they mostly haven’t ever really thought this through. By moral particularism I mean the entrenched and widespread notion that certain classes of people are, by dint of their identity categories, more important than others, more deserving of political action, more noble and holy. People will deny that when asked directly, but all of their rhetoric and priorities demonstrate that tacit belief. In argument after argument, liberals today try to settle matters by insisting that a given group’s greater historical oppression means that they must be “centered,” put first, their interests elevated over those of others. A commitment to moral universalism of course demands that these historical oppressions be addressed, until these groups reach the position of equality, at which point their rights will simply be defended like everyone else’s. But today’s liberal practice, if not the explicit ideology, demands that we must relentlessly prioritize some groups over others, and that spending time or energy devoted to those outside of these groups is somehow to take the side of oppression. Debates within the coalition frequently amount to people trying to insist that they are speaking on behalf of the most oppressed, and that whichever position succeeds in that contest is necessarily the righteous cause. Moral particularism not only does not advance an ethic where everyone deserves equal consideration and equally fair treatment, it actively disdains that notion and calls it fascist.

If you don’t believe me, and your Twitter account occupies any kind of progressive space, go on there and tweet “I think Democrats and the left should work to improve conditions for poor white people as well. Their suffering matters.” The notion of the left working for poor people as poor people, rather than merely as an extension of some identity frame, would be totally uncontroversial among the vast majority of left-leaning people throughout the existence of the modern political spectrum. Today? Go ahead, tweet that out, if you have a lot of liberal and leftist followers. See how that works out for you.

I and others still cling to moral universalism, the idea that the vast inequalities between groups in our world are wrong not because the suffering groups are somehow more deserving but because all people are equally deserving and entrenched inequalities violate that ideal. Which means not that we respond to “Black lives matter” by saying “all lives matter,” but that we pursue a racial justice agenda and proudly say “Black lives matter; also, this impoverished white laid-off ironworker living off of disability payments in the Cincinnati suburbs, regardless of his political beliefs, requires our political support, as he is no less deserving of security and freedom than any other. And there’s not an ounce of contradiction between those two ideas.”

Civil Liberties

Perhaps the most glaring change in the left, in my lifetime, has been the abandonment of civil liberties as a core left issue - or, at least, of civil liberties for anyone who does not fall into a protected identity class. (Again, moral particularism.) Civil liberties have been a core element of liberal and leftist belief going back centuries, but have been abandoned by today’s social justice advocates, who have been educated not in organizing meetings or union halls but on Tumblr and in seminars at $80,000/year liberal arts colleges. They put free speech in sneer quotes every time they invoke it, call for greater censorship1 on the internet, and do so with absolute confidence that this is the way the left always has been. Which is flatly untrue.

Click below to access a PDF of a speech that was given on the occasion of my paternal grandmother winning an Illinois ACLU lifetime achievement award, given for her work in civil liberties and in the Civil Rights movement.

Grammietta Award
749KB ∙ PDF File
Read now
Read now

I would ask that you notice the inherent assumption in that document that the fight for civil liberties and the fight for civil rights are the same fight. Freedom of speech and other liberties were not assumed to be inherently antagonistic to the fight for racial justice; they were understood, correctly, as conjoined in the effort against establishment power, which restricts whatever freedoms it can when it suits the interests of the rich and powerful. But then, this has been the default assumption of the international left for centuries, that civil liberties are a core element of any radical project. That assumption was embraced by Karl Marx, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Luxemburg, Eugene Debs, Emma Goldman, Hal Draper, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Noam Chomsky, Harvey Milk, Ira Glasser, and many, many more. The political and social reform movement in the 1960s that would have such indelible influence on the left was called the Free Speech Movement for a reason. Radicals have recognized the essential place of civil liberties in our movement for so long because its members have understood that the purpose of left-wing practice is to liberate - not only from government oppression, the boogeyman of the right, but from poverty, from racism, from inequality, from injustice. The whole point is for everyone to get free.

Since this legacy is so long and essential, anti-civil liberties liberals take extraordinary measures to deny it. In his “Plea for Freedom of Speech in Boston,” Douglass said

Liberty is meaningless where the right to utter one’s thoughts and opinions has ceased to exist. That, of all rights, is the dread of tyrants. It is the right which they first of all strike down. They know its power. Thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers, founded in injustice and wrong, are sure to tremble, if men are allowed to reason of righteousness, temperance, and of a judgment to come in their presence. Slavery cannot tolerate free speech. Five years of its exercise would banish the auction block and break every chain in the South.

That and the rest of the speech define Douglass’s position on the matter, and there can be no good-faith disagreement as to his commitment to free speech. Sadly, today’s social media liberals get around this by simply asserting, with no evidence or argument, that Douglass didn’t really mean it. I have been on several occasions pressed to believe that, say, a 27-year-old grad student who discovered politics in 2018 and hasn’t read more than 500 words of Douglass’s work has some sort of intuitive understanding of what Douglass would believe now, in contrast to everything Douglass himself ever said. No. Douglass believed in civil liberties, as did most of the heroes of left-wing practice stretching back centuries, and the fact that the NPR set now finds that commitment socially inconvenient does not compel me to abandon it. In fact quite the opposite.

Mass Politics

Left politics is mass politics. There is no path to left-wing victory that does not depend upon rallying as many people to our cause as possible. The rich and powerful have the money and power and thus have little need for mass support. Those of us who speak for the powerless and the hungry have no path to victory that does not entail building a large, capacious, unruly coalition, one that will inevitably have warring factions and people within it with profoundly differing values - including the type of people who progressives now constantly try to eject from the movement. A healthy left includes some people who see other people in the movement as irredeemable bigots. (That’s politics, baby.) And far from the social justice movement’s assumption that the average American is some racist sexist transphobic protofascist, the left historically has recognized that the masses are our storehouse of wisdom, political and otherwise. Take it from Uncle Karl.

A country which, like ancient Athens, regards lickspittles, parasites and flatterers as exceptions to the good sense of the people, as fools among the people, is a country of independence and self-reliance. But a people which, like all peoples of the good old times, claims the right to think and utter the truth only for court-jesters, can only be a people without independence or personality.

Your average Twitter liberal wants nothing more than to be one of those court jesters, so clever, so incisive, looking down their nose at the rest of us.

Contemporary social justice politics are a niche politics. They favor tiny fringes rather than the great mass of the populace. They pursue niche goals not despite the fact that they are niche but because of that fact, as they see politics as a type of fashion which like all fashion doles out cool based on exclusivity. The real left, in contrast, sees politics as a means to enact material change in the world, to end exploitation and ensure the good of all, a means which we will gladly set aside when those goals have been secured. (Anyone who sincerely enjoys politics is a sociopath.) The traditional left would not close its mind to radical police reform. But we'd never have taken up the cause of “Defund the Police” under the conditions in which that happened last year, because the vast majority of people (of all kinds) rejected the idea. Does that mean that we could never move to end policing as we know it, or embrace other unpopular ideas? No. It means that we can win such a fight only if the people lead, if there is sufficient gravity within the country to achieve such a thing. We must slowly educate and gradually mobilize; no skipping steps. The Defund the Police impulse never fully committed to educating and mobilizing in this way; it was seen as sufficient to suggest that everyone who wasn’t already on board was a racist. Inevitably, it collapsed, as there is no left politics that is not a mass politics. Populism is not optional for us. It never has been.

A mass politics remains alive to the actual concerns of the people and so a committed leftist doesn’t, as most liberal journalists do, roll their eyes at any mention of crime as a serious issue. Instead we work for reform of policing and prosecution, with a distant goal of total transformation of these fields, in a way that affirms the very legitimate fear of crime that the masses hold. And we recognize that to succeed we cannot be a moral aristocracy, that to win we need all hands on deck and thus can’t afford to constantly shun people for not having every last right opinion, as demanded in social justice spaces.

There have been many more changes but I’ll spare you. How did we get here? To a depressing degree, it’s because a lot of people feel insecure about their lack of knowledge and experience in left politics (which is fine) and deal with that insecurity by acting like they know everything (which is not).


I never know what to call this leftist turn from the past decade or so. It’s hard to name because it’s had several distinct starts and phases, from the Great Recession and Occupy to the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign to DSA to BlackLivesMatter and the general embrace of what was once far-left rhetoric by the kinds of people who own a Subaru. It’s also hard to discuss intelligently because for all of the heated rhetoric and fundamental change in how left-of-center people talk there’s been precious little in the way of tangible results. Occupy never coalesced into anything meaningful; Bernie lost, and numerous predictions that his organization would transform into a muscular grassroots socialist organization didn’t really come to pass; DSA does some good work but their membership growth stalled out and many local chapters have been gripped by typical leftist infighting; BLM captured righteous anger and inspired the most positive press for a radical street protest movement I can imagine but in concrete terms mostly became a make-work program for the young Black educated class.

There has been something very weird, and quietly destructive, about this whole period: many people began to be radicals, but we had no beginners. Many thousands of people were awakened to a new political consciousness, but none of them were willing to admit that they were once asleep. We had converts who seem to have converted from nowhere. The number of self-identified socialists swelled dramatically, emblemized by those swiftly-multiplying DSA membership numbers, and for years there was a steady flow of people getting radicalized by Bernie or Teen Vogue or Chapo Trap House or whatever. Many more moderate or conservative types have lamented how elite conversation in spaces like Twitter have become dominated by left values. But while the socialist conversation grew far more crowded, the voices all seemed to sound the same. Nobody represented themselves as newcomers. Quite the contrary; everyone seemed intent on letting it be known that they knew everything that there was to know about socialist politics, that the answers to all political questions were easy, and that they had always occupied this place of supreme knowledge. And, as always, it was essential that everyone be told lol lol lmao lol lol lol.

Though I will be accused of gatekeeping or similar, the problem is not that people didn’t pay dues or shouldn’t have been making decisions. I don’t care about any of that shit. In fact the problem was something like the opposite: the past decade should have been a particularly fertile time as throngs of new converts, empowered and open-minded, pushed against what socialism was and could be, asked sincere questions about what our values are in a way that would have benefited everyone, and brought the unique energy of the beginner - if we’d had the debates that might have resulted in a particular political evolution, a guided, intentional, communal evolution, or if we reaffirmed traditional values through consensus. If people had done the work.

Instead I have spent the last ten years watching socialist spaces grow only more sclerotic and closed-minded even as some within them have attempted to radically redefine our values without knowing they were doing so. Nobody knew things were changing because everyone was afraid to ask questions and appear ignorant! An exhausting “community” where everyone competes to appear the most world-weary and superior, where every last idea is delivered with rolled eyes and condescension, is not my idea of either a socialist movement or a good time. That so many of the people affecting this pose of sneering boredom are transparently ignorant of basic socialist texts and principles just makes it more aggravating. I think that the left, the left-of-liberal left, the socialist left, has been infected with the disease of knowingness, and that it has hurt us in myriad ways.

You can read this Jacobin piece I wrote years ago about the curse of knowingness if you’d like. It’s the terrible modern condition where everyone seems compelled to act at all times as if they already know everything, as if nothing is surprising, as if they anticipated your question and not only know the answer but are deeply unimpressed with you for asking. The singular obsession is to be savvy, an insider. As I say in that essay the commitment is not to knowing but to appearing to know. I find this condition uniquely destructive to the effort to achieve a socialist politics in principle. It forecloses on possibility and kills debate. And, relevant here, it prevents people from being honest about their level of knowledge and experience, which in turn leaves us with people who don’t know that things have changed but can’t admit that they don’t know how they’ve changed because they weren’t here.

The point I was trying to make awhile back about antifa is a good example. Explore socialist online spaces now and you will find close to literal unanimity: antifa are our brave antifascist soldiers and anyone who does not unwaveringly support them is a cop or a conservative. But I’ve been in left protest movements my whole life and so know that many people on the radical left have had conflicted or worse feelings about antifa, going way back. I won’t rehash everything I said in that previous post, but it’s enough to say that antifa were often a headache for leftist groups putting on protests, such as during the anti-Iraq war movement. This was not a matter of moderates vs. radicals but of tactics and messaging, as well as of privilege and positionality. (Indeed, a common complaint back then was that antifa was a preoccupation of affluent white anarchists.) There were people who passionately defended antifa as well, which meant that there was a debate where there is now unanimity. That debate was generative; I can’t tell you how many times I chewed it over with other protesters in a meeting or in a van on the way to some demo somewhere, and these debates were caught up in fundamental questions about what and who a protest is for. But now we not only have a left culture where most people think that antifa must be supported unthinkingly at all times but also where no one knows that this is an entirely new phenomenon. Everybody thinks the left always defended antifa because they don’t know any better. We have no history.

The tragedy, to me, is that the socialist left has no history not because no one is willing to teach but because leftist social culture makes the young and inexperienced believe that it’s shameful to need to be taught. So they peacock around, recite rhetoric they learned on Tumblr, and remain profoundly ignorant of the basic history and philosophy they pretend they always knew. It should go without saying that this confusion has worsened as journalism, media, and academia have been flooded with people who self-identify as socialists or Marxists as a branding exercise. 90+% of them have never organized a day of their lives and have never read, written, or argued in the socialist tradition. I am confident that this will all go out of fashion eventually, at which point they’ll become libertarians or whatever.


The point is not that the left can’t ever change, even less that newcomers have any less right to determine how it does change than I do. We have to evolve or die. For the record, some changes to left values and priorities I agree with. Take immigration, another issue where the contemporary left insists on simplicity when the history is complex. Nowadays, the average lefty thinks that to be left-wing is to believe that more immigration is better, period. In common with Marxists generally, I myself am an open borders guy, though as a distant goal that will require decades of committed organizing. Either way, there hasn’t been anything like unanimity on the immigration question within the left, historically. Pretending otherwise does us no good.

Take Bernie, who has always sat in an awkward place as an old-guard social democrat who became a symbol of youth politics. He has gotten himself in trouble in the past for arguing against open borders. In fact, he specifically argued that open borders was a policy position historically associated with the libertarian right - a claim that is indisputably true. Labor unions have frequently, but far from universally, been sites of immigration skepticism. Hispanic-American labor heroes Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta were virulently opposed to undocumented immigration. Huerta has since changed her tune, and there are a lot of activists who are working busily to whitewash this bit of history away, but it remains a historical fact. Is the point that people thought this before, therefore we have to believe it today? No. And someone like Debs shows that some historical socialists (even white male socialists!) have been staunchly pro-immigrant. I think the embrace of immigration within socialism has been a righteous evolution. But it’s essential that we as a movement know that things have changed, in part because changes in the assumed politics of the left remind us that it’s hard to figure out what the right thing to do is, and we shouldn’t pretend like all political questions are easy and have already been answered.

You have to do the work. You can't skip steps.


On a personal level I find this all exhausting and dispiriting. The popularization of socialism has come packaged with a suffocating culture of jokes and irony, which are good for appearing clever but bad for winning the future. There are many leftists who would like to achieve more tangible progress but who seem entirely unwilling to let go of their juvenile commitment to “dunking,” using social ostracism as their only political tool. But outreach and education entail the recognition that people who have not already converted came to their previous beliefs sincerely, ignorant and misguided though they may have been. This violates the rule that all politics must be obvious and morally simplistic, I’m afraid. Meanwhile a culture that insists on appearing savvy at all times, under the threat of mockery, is one that chases away those potential converts that would not bother to perform knowingness about that which they do not know. A lot of sympathetic people are put off by the culture of socialism, and much of that is tied up in this affected condescension that, to my immense unhappiness, has become so common to online socialist spaces2.

And of course I am frustrated by the fact that I am so frequently called a contrarian or “post-left” or whatever, given that I have simply occupied my own space as a traditional civil liberties-defending, moral universalist, class-fixated socialist, while ultras3 with Stalin avatars advance a caricature of socialism based entirely on what they have absorbed from social media. I don’t claim to be an expert on anything, including socialism, and I remain profoundly alive to the possibility that I’m wrong about everything. But I have been organizing and protesting in radical left spaces since I was a teenager, I have diligently done the reading that was considered an essential part of socialist practice for most of our history, and I have written and thought through the left’s issues my entire adult life. I do not mistake these for reasons that I should get to dictate the future of the left. But they are reasons that I will not be pushed off of my spot by people embracing whatever flavor-of-the-week left politics is popular. I paid my dues, and I will keep my own counsel about what the left is and should be. The fact that a bunch of keyboard warriors on Twitter have recently pretended that the left is something it’s never been does not move me.

You don’t have to have a deep and intimate knowledge of the left or any of its manifestations to be part of its future. If you disagree with my values, if you think the left should change from what it has been, the path is simple: do the work. Convince people. Convince me. Organize. Get off of social media and into real-world spaces, otherwise known as your actual community. Do the shitty grunt work that real activism entails, the boring, dispiriting, exhausting trudge to slowly winning over one convert at a time. Lose and actually experience losing, by which I mean experience the pain and humiliation without dulling it with the numbing poison of irony. Organize with people who are not like you, people who you have fundamental disagreements with, passionate disagreements with, but who you recognize as sharing a significant degree of self-interest with you. Articulate your values and why they’re superior. But don’t show up online, sneering at everyone else as a way to hide your lack of confidence, and snidely make assertions about a history you know nothing about. And stop fucking asking “what happened to you?” like you know or care how people used to be. That’s just bullshit internet social control and I have no patience for it.

I love newcomers to socialism and organizing. I always have. But I also know my history, and ours, and will not let myself or my movement be defined by anyone else. Sorry. Not here, not about this. I am a leftist, a socialist, a Marxist, and will remain so. I was born here, and I’ll die here.

1

Contrary to what a few annoying liberals decided in the past decade, the term “censorship” has never referred only to government action. That meme was simply made up for rhetorical convenience at some point in the recent past. As a matter of historical linguistics the idea that only the state can censor is an absolute nonstarter, a lie.

2

Though I obviously know little about most local DSA chapters, in my experience the IRL work they do is very welcoming and friendly, which is another credit to the organization.

3

While “ultra-leftist” may sound like a generic insult, it’s actually a term with a lineage in Marxist spaces. To call someone an ultra is specifically to accuse them of advancing a vision of political purity so exacting that it precludes the possibility of success. The ultra-leftist, in other words, is too pure for this world. The irony is that this is primarily an intra-Marxist insult, but the critique is one liberals have made of Marxists for forever. Your faithful servant here was sometimes accused of being an ultra-leftist by other Marxists, in my youth. Self-described Marxist-Leninists on Twitter would certainly argue that they can’t be ultras, but would need a moment to look at the Wikipedia first.