A line of criticism that’s popular in the discourse these days goes something like this:
Some socialists smear their critics by pointing to a handful of reactionaries — the worst bigots, the most dangerous militants, and the most deranged conspiracy theorists — and pretending that all of their political opponents are like that. They will call you a fascist, even if you do not plausibly resemble actual fascists. They will lump you in with horrible racists and sexists and homophobes and the like, even if you have not said or done anything to warrant the comparison. If you dare disagree with them or say something too uncivil, they will compare you with a militant terrorist so that they can insist that you should be silenced.
There is truth to this critique, I think, except for one word: the very first. The popular line is not that some socialists do this. The popular line is that all socialists do this; that throwing around spurious accusations of fascism, bigotry, and militancy, usually as a pretext for “cancellation” (whatever that means), is just what it is to be a socialist in 2021. Sometimes this generalization is quite explicit, even emphasized: we are reminded not to be fooled by people who pretend like they are not doing this, that we should never entertain “not all socialists” type objections. In more respectable quarters, meanwhile, the generalization is usually implicit: there is no “some” qualifier, just a sweeping reference to “socialists.”
This phrasing is no accident. When you do not see “some,” you can be sure that the speaker is not interested in a precise and direct critique of things like identitarian rhetoric, fascist-jacketing, or censorship; what they want is to use these critiques to bring down socialism as a political project. You know this because the speaker, in his very critique, is reminding us of the dangers of hasty generalization, of tarring large and diverse political movements by its worst defenders — but then, in the same breath, they suggest that all socialists are guilty of this crime.
Consider the claims about a left “monoculture” that have recently become fashionable in right-wing circles. Fancy new terminology aside, anyone who pays attention to discourse on the right should instantly be able to recognize this as a superficial variation on a line of criticism that has been in circulation for years: that Democrats, socialists, communists, liberals, progressives, and so on are basically all the same thing. This is not some groundbreaking new insight; it’s what your grandpa has been posting on freerepublic.com for decades.
So we should not be surprised that the standard responses to criticism of the DemoCommies still apply to the new “monoculture” phrasing: liberalism and communism are in fact very different and oppositional ideologies and it is just a game of semantics to conflate them. More to the point: there are millions upon millions of people who would fall into this super-category, and it is both unfair and unreasonable to take all of these individuals with their idiosyncratic perspectives and ideas and shove all of them into the same box. If it’s wrong to say that everyone on the right is (for example) a fascist, then for the exact same reasons it’s also wrong to say that everyone on the left is guilty of fascist-jacketing.
If you are offering a principled critique of political stereotyping and unfair generalizations, of reputational smears, and of ad hominem; if you insist that we have to judge people individually, and that our critiques should be careful and specific; if this really is the basis of your polemic, then you will be just as concerned with giving a fair shake to leftists as you are with folks on the right.
But obviously, we aren’t seeing that. What we are seeing is a persistent effort to insist that everyone on the liberal-left — from Joe Manchin to Gloria La Riva — are somehow part of the same political project. And often, the generalization goes even further than that, and drifts back to yet another bog standard right-wing line of rhetoric.
The new hippie-punching
For decades after Vietnam, the right insisted that the entire liberal-left shared the same basic ideology — and not just the same ideology, but the same basic culture, the same basic lifestyle, and even the same basic personality. At heart, they were all just weird countercultural hippies. They were all atheists, or into New Age mysticism. They were obsessed with “political correctness”, a radical code of conduct being ruthlessly imposed by the schools and the media on normal decent Americans. They wore their hair funny and dressed strangely. They didn’t have real jobs, though often they had cushy jobs in Hollywood or in the universities. They ate exotic foods like arugula and tofu.
Sound familiar? Now let’s look at the 21st century right’s innovative new take on leftists:
They’re hipsters and/or basement-dwelling losers
They’re atheists, or basically anything other than Protestant
They’re obsessed with “wokeness,” a radical code of conduct being ruthlessly imposed by the schools and the media on normal decent Americans
They have blue hair, the men wear onesie pajamas and the women wear clothes that aren’t sufficiently feminine;
They’re all PMCs with cushy office jobs, often in the media or the schools
They love soy
In the discourse, this archetype is typically presented as a new one, or at least new to socialism: the burgeoning socialist renaissance that began just a few years ago has now been fully co-opted by “wokeism”, by “cancel culture”, by some alien clique of W̶o̶o̶d̶s̶t̶o̶c̶k̶ Brooklyn weirdos. But anyone who was even dimly aware of politics before (say) the Obama era should easily recognize this as a hilariously flimsy rebrand of the same old hippie who has haunted right-wing rhetoric since the dawn of time.
And the same general objections still apply. There is the political objection, which just asks “so the fuck what?”; it is to the credit of socialists, not some kind of strike against them, that they count among their number all kinds of people who don’t correspond with a rigid set of sociocultural norms. Any minimally functional working class movement is going to have to include all kinds of people who only have in common their oppression by the bourgeoisie. This plainly means tolerance of so-called “normies” — and it also means tolerance of people who fall outside of these norms.
But there’s also a simple factual objection: this stereotype does not actually describe all socialists. It just isn’t even remotely true! And this isn’t some obscure secret that you only discover if you search through some inaccessible world of offline socialism and find some hidden sect of outliers who don’t have blue hair; it’s obvious wherever you look. Go to a DSA meeting and you will find people who work blue collar jobs. Look through the articles and the literature and you’ll find socialist critiques of identitarian rhetoric all over the place. Spend a minute online and you’ll find socialists who cannot by any stretch of the imagination be described as hipsters or basement-dwellers.
Some of the more self-conscious critics of the left are at least dimly aware that they are painting it with a broad brush. That’s why Angela Nagle, for example, ends up wrestling with her conscience in a recent critique:
First, for those who might wish to explain away what I am about to say, the call for abolition of the family is not a fringe demand…
Reader, I know what you’re thinking. This must be cherry picked…
I’m not particularly interested in defending the other groups that Nagle looks at, but let’s consider the evidence for her suggestion that family abolition is anything more than a fringe position among socialists.
She notes that “The official Black Lives Matter organization, which has received vast sums in corporate funding, has listed the abolition of the family among its demands.” This talking point has been extremely popular on the right for years (see the hardline capitalists at Mises and The Foundation for Economic Education, the dark-money funded Federalist, and The Republican National Convention), but it takes about two seconds of Googling to see that this is a pretty cynical misrepresentation of what they actually said. More to the point, it would be odd to associate socialists with some “official” organization just because Tides gave it the same name as a broader social movement.
One of an endless parade of DSA / Jacobin panels that are often, contrary to what the author seems to think, wildly controversial among socialists. See also literally panel they ever do on foreign affairs.
Socialist academic Sophie Lewis, who was published by Verso.
Now, there’s no denying that there are indeed some socialists out there who entertain some of the old communist / feminist ideas about family abolition. You could even try to argue this is something believed by socialists who are powerful — the ones who make decisions and who command all of the funding. But Nagle has not even successfully made that argument — and she hasn’t even come within radio-telescope distance of establishing that family abolition is anything more than a fringe priority among socialists writ large. A line of easily debunked reactionary agitprop, a panel, and an academic does not a mainstream socialist position make. Even this grossly unscientific Twitter poll I just ran is more plausible evidence than anything she’s given, and the results are pretty solid: the fraction of people who think that socialism requires family abolition doesn’t even reach double-digits.
Nagle’s argument about “family abolition” (as she defines it) is illuminating. Though some of her reasoning is suspect, it is not wrong to oppose family abolition — certainly not in the same way that it is wrong to ridicule people for having blue or red hair. That’s not what these critiques have in common. What they have in common is that it is just factually inaccurate to pretend that family abolition is anything more than a fringe position among socialists, just as it is factually inaccurate to pretend that most or all socialists have blue hair.
This is, in other words, just a modern rebrand of the same old “they’re all hippies” rhetoric. The point is to take advantage of the socialism’s tolerance for diverse ideas and cultures by holding up those that are outside the norm and saying “You see, normies? This is what most of these people are like — your kind simply isn’t welcome.” Its function is not just to foment bigotry and intolerance, but to present socialists as uniquely bigoted and intolerant: a coalition that is actively hostile to huge swaths of the population, be they workers, people who oppose family abolition, or people who don’t like soy.
That’s why, in addition to making the case for tolerance and pluralism, socialists also have a stake in insisting that these hippie-punching attacks are just completely unhinged from reality. Pointing at pictures of Angry Feminist and Pajama Boy — at intellectuals like Sophie Lewis, Saul Alinsky, or Herbert Marcuse — and saying “all leftists are like this” will always be an easy dunk for folks who are more interested in seeing socialists as aliens than as fellow workers. But contrary to what the right would have you think, almost everyone in the world is a worker. Even those dreaded socialists.
UPDATE: I appear to have missed one of the pieces of evidence Nagle points to: a quote by another socialist. Fortunately for me, there are some major problems here for Nagle’s argument. The quote:
“Socialism is about democratizing the family to get rid of patriarchal relations,” Jared Abbott, a national steering committee member of the Democratic Socialists of America, has told Vox.
First, Abbott has not been on DSA’s steering committee since 2017. IE, when the Vox article she is referring us to was published.
Second, I’ve asked Abbott if he supports family abolition. His reply? “Absolutely not.” In an email, Abbott explained to me that when he called for getting “rid of patriarchal relations,” what he meant is that he does not want the family to be “a male dominant relationship in which women are less free and less autonomous than men.”
I’ll leave it to the reader to decide why Nagle assumed that Abbott was still among the socialist leadership, and then read what seems on its face as a banal call for egalitarianism as a radical demand for family abolition.