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Anti-socialism is real, and recognizing this can help socialists cope with it

A while back, I wrote a piece noting that leftists often complain about "ideological sectarianism, social tribalism, and interpersonal feuding". In explanation for this, I argued that "the problem is anti-socialism", which can infiltrate socialist spaces through liberals who are not substantively committed to the socialist project.

Noah Baron has responded with a critique of this argument - you can read it for yourself here. I don't think it would be productive to respond to everything he says in this post, but he does make four major points that I want to respond to.

1. Has socialism's popularity changed?

Much of my original piece asks readers to reflect on "how marginalized and reviled socialists are in the United States." In response to this, Baron heralds "the appeal of socialism in the United States today," insisting that my data is "outdated" since "over the course of the past three years, things have changed significantly."

Have things changed? Here's the data Baron provides:
  • A Gallup poll which reports that Democratic views towards socialism are "little changed from 2010", that millennial views towards socialism are "the same as in 2010", and which concludes that "Despite the increasing prominence of socialism in the public discourse in recent years, little has changed in Americans' attitudes toward the concept at the national level."
I think Baron's perspective is understandable - first because there is, as Gallup alludes to, a lot of hype about ascendant socialism in the discourse today; and second, because Gallup's latest poll was widely misread as evidence for ascendant socialism, when it's really just evidence that support for capitalism is cratering. Look at the overall data on socialism's popularity, however, and what you'll see are fluctuations within the margin of error; a marginal bump in 2016 among a few demographics; and since then, returns to the norm across the board.

2. How does opposition to socialism compare with opposition against other identities?

Baron also takes on a Gallup poll I cited in which respondents said they were less likely to support a socialist for president than a president who identified with any other identity category - such as "Black," "gay or lesbian," "a woman," and so on.

His first objection - that "the results are dated to June 2015," before socialism's supposed ascendance - is not difficult to handle. As noted in point (1), attitudes towards socialism only improved marginally among certain demographics in 2016, and have since then deteriorated back to the norm. That DSA's membership has, since then, grown "by a factor of ten" - from .002% of the population to .02% of the population - does not call those numbers into question. Neither does the fact that some self-identified socialists have won some primaries since then; as it turns out, all of these other categories have won primaries, too.

Baron's second argument, meanwhile, is deeply confused. He observes that the poll would be different if you replaced identities that are more popular than socialist (Catholic, gay) with identities that are arguably less popular (such as Catholic Republican and gay Democrat). He also suggests that it would be different if you added the identities "liberal" and "conservative", which he implies are even more unpopular on the logic that self-identification for those numbers is lower than "would you vote for a socialist president" numbers.

It's not clear to me that socialism would actually come out ahead of these new groupings that Baron has introduced - but even if it did, this does not amount to a case that "the poll is misleading." Socialism as such is less popular than Catholicism as such; that you can make the Catholic less popular by associating her with Republicans doesn't change that. Neither does this argument that anti-socialist opposition is different than opposition against other groups (since it's "an expression of political and ideological belief, rather than animus against this or that identity group"). All this poll suggests is that socialism qua socialism is less popular than Catholicism qua Catholicism; they may face opposition for different reasons, and these reasons may be worth reflecting on, but this does not somehow make opposition to socialism any less real, or the poll any less credible.

3. Is left infighting a problem?

Here, Baron is responding to a post that exists almost entirely in his imagination. He writes that I "decry" and "bemoan" infighting on the left, which I supposedly see as a "crisis", and "as a 'problem' that must be 'solved'" - in fact, not just a problem, but "our fundamental problem, with no cure prescribed but presumably involving purging them or alienating" anti-socialists. 

The picture he's painted of me here is a popular caricature of those of us who insist that some leftists may in fact be opponents of socialism, and who hope that socialism prevails. It also, however, is a completely unfounded view of my position, with zero basis in either the text or my general politics.

I am a radical materialist. For this reason, I believe that support for socialism, opposition to socialism, the emergence of class consciousness, the phenomenon of liberal squishes, and so on - that all of these things express the material progress of history. I emphatically do not believe that it is the liberalism of various activists that empowers capitalism, or that socialists can overcome this supposed obstacle by winning the argument, or by purging and alienating them. This is why infighting is not, as I put it in my piece, a problem "at the level of world-historical politics".

Instead - and as I argue from the beginning - infighting is only "a problem" insofar as it "weighs on the mind of the modern activist left". Though it is not "our fundamental problem," it does create a "strain of anxiety" for many leftists that falls "somewhere on a spectrum between stressful and traumatic". My concern, then, is less political than therapeutic; I want to help activists to understand where a significant source of stress in their life is coming from, not because I think that this is an issue that will make or break socialism, but because I want socialists to be at peace. This is an essential concern of quietism - a philosophical tradition that I identify with closely, and that I have written about a number of times.

4. So what should socialists do about anti-socialists?

Try not to let them drive us crazy! For some people, articulating criticism seems to provide some personal relief; this often works for me, because it helps me pinpoint precisely what bothers me about a certain argument or a certain line of rhetoric. For some people, venting - by dunking on anti-socialists, or by commiserating with friends about them - seems to help. Some socialists seem to get a lot out of trying to mediate and diffuse conflict on the left, and if this helps them cope with class struggle, very well.

But regardless of how one wants to cope with the problem - a problem in the sense that it causes us anxiety - we would do well to recognize that political conflict is baked into our discourse. Anti-socialism has a long and ugly history in the US, and polling generally confirms that it is still with us. As I noted last time, "what would be surprising is if it didn't wreak a massive amount of havoc on the left" - but if socialists can understand their stress and anxiety as an affliction of this havoc, that insight might make their lives a little easier.


UPDATE (9/16): Cohen, responding to this post, notes in passing that "Beijer has provided little for me to criticize". Fortunately, as he demonstrated by fabricating a quote in his last reply, this is no obstacle - if I fail to say anything objectionable, he can always invent positions for me. Thus, he soldiers on:
  • Much of Cohen's reply sets out to prove that "the past several decades have produced significantly greater tolerance of leftists". This is supposedly in response to my "claim that there has not been...any change" - but of course, I never argued that there has not been any change since the Cold War. Things are obviously better than they were in the mid-twentieth century; this is obvious and uncontroversial.
The specific argument I make in (1) above is that attitudes have not significantly changed since 2015. I argue this in direct response to Cohen's claim that my 2015 polling numbers were "outdated".
  • Most of the rest of his reply attempts to debunk my "pessimistic claim that there...likely never will be (at least in the near future) any change in the acceptability, tolerance, or embrace of socialism". Among other things, he singles out as a "reason for optimism" the fact that "Millennials...would be willing to vote for 'a socialist.'"
This "pessimistic claim" of course appears nowhere in my post. And if Cohen were even remotely familiar with my politics and my writing, he would know that I have written extensively on Millennial support for socialism (See I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, etc.) as a reason for optimism. 
To his credit, Cohen admits that he is "not familiar with the rest of [my] work" - but unfortunately, this has not deterred him from repeatedly making wild and unfounded claims about my politics. My impression is that Cohen is interested in optimism vs. pessimism and multi-tendency vs, orthodoxy debates, and would like to use me as the foil for some polemic about hope and ideological diversity; that's why he's even willing to venture all kinds of elaborate armchair psychoanalysis (I have a "pessimism complex" (!) that is "undergirded" in "paranoia" (!!)) of a writer who he has barely even read.

This is not a formula for a productive conversation, which is too bad because there is probably one to be had about our points of actual disagreement. For example, I think it is Cohen who is being too pessimistic when he warns that talking about anti-socialism would have a "chilling effect" and "cast a pall over the movement"; I think that leftists are perfectly capable of discussing the role that bourgeois ideology plays in our discourse without that somehow crippling our fight against capitalism. Whether Cohen thinks otherwise because of some "pessimism complex" or some other ideological affliction, I won't venture to guess.