Socialists have different ideas about politics than everyone else, so it only makes sense that we would think about political groupings and factions differently than they do, and categorize them accordingly. And yet we usually do not! And I include myself here: it’s extremely easy to slip back into popular terminology, even though these terms bring with them all kinds of baggage that socialists ought to object to.
So for the sake of clarity, I thought it might be helpful to lay out how I think about the political labels that we use.
Let’s walk through them.
Since the French Revolution, we’ve often categorized politics as “left” or “right” based on where they fall in a simple binary: do they oppose hierarchies of power and oppression, or not? And while this question does not somehow capture every political distinction you can possibly make, it still captures an important one.
Though it’s become fashionable these days to try to challenge the left / categories, or to somehow transcend them, I still do not understand how one thinks they can escape what in the end is just a basic logical binary. Claims that conservatives are the true opponents of the establishment, for example, do not actually challenge the left or right categories: they simply insist that conservatives ought to be categorized on the left rather than the right.
In the contemporary world there are really only three significant ideologies: capitalism, anti-capitalism, and fascism.
First, the ideology of capitalism. This is just the tangle of beliefs, narratives, unexamined assumptions, framings, etcetera that rationalize the global domination of capitalism: certain ideas about property, meritocracy, freedom, and so on. This ideology is ubiquitous around the world; in the United States, it’s shared by Republicans and Democrats alike. Even people who are “apolitical” in some sense have usually internalized most of the ideology of capitalism; even those who consider themselves anti-capitalist often have difficulty getting it out of their systems.
Marxists occasionally insist that the term “capitalist” should be reserved for people who actually control capital, and not applied to workers who embrace the ideology I’m describing. For that ideology, Marxists often use “liberalism” (in the historical / international sense) or “bourgeois ideology”. But in the US that first term is confusing since we use “liberal” differently, and the second is simply unfamiliar; in popular usage, meanwhile, people usually do use “capitalist” in the way I’ve described here, referring to a person or organization who advances capitalist ideology. So I think it makes sense to accept that term.
Within the ideology of capitalism we can also distinguish between two general tendencies:
A liberal tendency that attempts to level other hierarchies, like race, gender, and so on, within a capitalist framework; and
A reactionary tendency that refuses to level even these hierarchies, for various reasons (libertarian objections to government intervention, conservative valorization and trivialization of these hierarchies, etcetera).
This of course is where 99% of US politics actually takes place; typically, our discourse aligns liberals with Democrats and reactionaries with Republicans, though in practice this can be a simplification.
Having defined the ideology of capitalism, the ideology of anti-capitalism should be easy to understand: it’s just a collection of ideas and perspectives that at least ostensibly oppose it. Since capitalism is the dominant ideology of our age, I think it makes sense to categorize these ideologies together; whether they are all good ideas is a different question.
Note that the division between left and right orientations also happens to be the division between capitalist and anti-capitalist ideology. This should not be at all controversial for socialists, or for any anti-capitalist who sees capitalism as a system of hierarchy and domination. Even if you are inclined to believe that there are occasions when anti-capitalists should ally themselves with capitalists, that doesn’t amount to an argument that some capitalists are actually on the left; it’s just an argument that a left-right alliance would be useful.
Within anti-capitalism there are an endless number of divisions and subdivisions, but here I’ll just talk about the two major ones:
Socialism, which I use with reference to the political tradition emerging from Marx. This includes socialism in the narrow sense, communism, and so on.
Other, which includes doctrines and tendencies that are ostensibly anti-capitalist but that do not align with orthodox Marxism. This includes anarchism, certain varieties of Third Worldism, and primitivism, among others.
Fascism, as understood by socialists (and by most historians for that matter), is such an outlier that I’m still conflicted over whether to classify it as an ideology: in a real sense it is a kind of anti-ideology, a purely opportunistic pastiche of ideas and rhetoric that can change from moment to moment. For this reason, it can’t properly be categorized as capitalist or anti-capitalist; it borrows from both and belongs to neither.
Distinctively, fascism is probably best defined as a kind of mass psychosis that emerges and takes power in predictable stages when capitalism deteriorates but the road to socialism remains blocked.
Having outlined a basic socialist framework for categorizing political positions, let’s look at the second table. Here, I outline four major pseudo-categories that make little sense from a socialist perspective, but that remain popular under capitalism precisely because of their role in justifying it. This is why I think we ought to avoid invoking these pseudo-categories uncritically; let’s look at them in turn.
This category of political labels — which includes the alt-left, as well as tankies, Strasserites, and Nazbols, among others — plays two major roles. The first is not very subtle: to single out anti-capitalists as somehow uniquely prone to reactionary politics. It may seem unremarkable to have a name for such people, but the ideological significance becomes clearer if we ask: where is our special term for anti-racists with reactionary views? What do we call disability advocates who also happen to be misogynists? Why do we go out of our way to single out, with not one but multiple different names, reactionary people who happen to be anti-capitalists?1
The answer is straightforward: political labels that fall into this “alt-left” category exist to affirm so-called horseshoe theory, which just works as a way of villifying anticapitalists. This has been a staple of contemporary liberal discourse in particular, but even anticapitalists themselves will often go out of their way to affirm it by insisting that they are not one of those guys.
The second-role this category of political labels plays is more subtle but just as important. Alt-left, in our discourse, is typically understood in contrast with the pseudo-category “progressive.”
The primary role of this pseudo-category is to rehabilitate capitalism by creating a category of good capitalists who are lumped in with the good anticapitalists. I’ve written about this elsewhere, but here’s a progressive defining himself quite clearly:
At first, Berger acknowledges the basic distinction between socialists and capitalists. Then, he lumps them together as progressives, while conceding this is a coalition. But then, it becomes clear that he does not think of this as merely a coalition: the two have some kind of ideological affinity, because reactionary capitalists, it turns out, are also a part of “the left”. Elsewhere, of course, both the initial distinction and the acknowledgement that we are merely talking about a coalition disappear, and all that remains are words like “progressive”.
So if there are good anticapitalists, are there bad anticapitalists? Of course: the alt-left. Consider how these two categories reinforce each other. If you are an anticapitalist who is willing to align himself with certain capitalists, then you are a progressive; but if you refuse, you are probably one of those alt-leftists who have reactionary politics. A tankie, or perhaps a Strasserite. These two pseudo-categories do not work independently; they directly define each other.
Just as there are multiple terms that fall within the alt-left pseudo-category, there are also multiple terms that fall in this one. For example, “populist” usually plays the exact same ideological role. Populists, we are told, are a coalition of anticapitalists and capitalists (the good kind) who are fed up with the establishment — perhaps because of cronyism, or monopolies, or because it is too woke. If you are willing to align yourself with certain capitalists, populists will consider you one of the good ones; if you refuse, it is probably because you are some kind of sectarian extremist on the alt-left. Here, the roles that populist and progressive here are identical: to dismiss the anticapitalist / capitalist binary as definitive, and to set a politically correct binary in its place.
The pseudo-category of centrists (which includes other labels like “moderates”) plays a deceptively complicated role in capitalist discourse. Consider first how progressives talk about them: not only are centrists the bad kind of capitalist, they are the bad kind of Democrat. This endows progressives with a facade of principle and ideological coherence that seemed absent just a moment ago: progressives may not draw the line at supporting a murderous and destructive system of ruthless exploitation and deprivation — but somewhere along the nebulous border of centrism, there is a line they will not cross.
If the triangulation that progressives are engaged here seems familiar, it should: because this is precisely what centrists do. Progressives vilify the alt-left as a radical, dogmatic faction that is insufficiently cooperative with capitalists (due to the anticapitalists in their ranks); centrists say this about progressives. Progressives insists that there are capitalists who are not reactionary, as opposed to the centrists who are; centrists say the same thing, contrasting their good capitalists with the reactionary ones on our last pseudo-category, the alt-right.
I don’t think that anyone who was alive just twenty years ago should have a difficult time recognizing what has happened here. At the turn of the millennium, centrists occupied a place of relative prestige in our discourse by positioning themselves in contrast to loony Ralph Nader on their left and radical Ralph Reed on their right; even George W. Bush ran for president as a compassionate conservative. After Nader’s historic run in 2000, however, Democrats were forced to make an adjustment: by 2004 they were aggressively working to bring their left-flank back into the fold by running proudly liberal candidates like Howard Dean on one hand, villifying Nader holdouts as spoilers on the other, and pivoting from open support for the Iraq War to skepticism about how it was conducted.
This maneuver set the precedent for today’s effort to corral anti-capitalists — and socialists in particular — into the Democratic party. All of the same dynamics are in place: a rogue candidate who revived a movement of activists and intellectuals at odds with the party; a slate of candidates who are superficially aligned with them (44% called themselves progressives in 2018!), but who valorize cooperation with the Democrats. And who just as importantly vilify members of the movement who oppose them. The primary difference between centrists and progressives is that the latter has specifically emerge to capture anticapitalists.
So we arrive at the so-called alt-right. I’ve already touched on this pseudo-category’s two major ideological roles within capitalism, but they deserve some elaboration.
The first role of the alt-right is to vilify anticapitalists through horseshoe theory. It does this by replacing a distinct and precise concept of fascism — the kind developed by historians, or within the Marxist intellectual tradition — with a concept that is so ad hoc and indefinite that there is no real way to distinguish it from anticapitalists.
To see how this works, consider the theory of fascism I laid out earlier:
…it is a kind of anti-ideology, a purely opportunistic pastiche of ideas and rhetoric that can change from moment to moment…a kind of mass psychosis that emerges and takes power in predictable stages when capitalism deteriorates but the road to socialism remains blocked.
Even if you object to this definition, it is fairly easy to distinguish this notion of fascism from anticapitalism. You look for basic signs of incoherence, for an anticapitalism that routinely flips back to overt capitalist dogma; you look at whether it has any real relationship with a broader socialist movement, or if it is emerging in the absence of one; you look for the peculiar psychological features that Frankfurt School authors associate with fascism, for example an unusually sadistic desire to punish alleged sexual perversions. This is just a broad summary of a large body of literature that doesn’t get into the weeds, but even with these considerations one can easily make some basic distinctions.
Compare this analysis with the situation we find ourselves in when we try to distinguish the alt-left from the alt-right. Where are the definitive historical precedents we can point to? Where is the body of theory and analysis resembling what we have for fascism? And when capitalist ideology works with notions of fascism that are completely ad hoc and unmoored from these conventions and precedents, does it not fall within the pseudo-category of “alt-right” too?
Then we come to the second major function of the “alt-right” pseudo-category: to serve as the ultimate exemplar of bad capitalism, as distinct from good capitalism embodied by progressives and/or centrists.
Once again, the ambiguity is a feature, not a bug. Is there such a thing as a politics that is racist or nationalist — but that just qualifies as good old-fashioned capitalism, rather than falling into the maybe-maybe-not-fascism cloud of the alt-right? Ask a socialist, and she’ll say of course. But ask a capitalist — a centrist, or even a progressive — and he will almost certainly say no.
It is impossible not to see how in popular discourse, the ambiguity of terms like “alt-right”, or of vague notions of “fascism,” consistently works in favor of capitalist ideology. One moment, this pseudo-category damns anticapitalists by association, abetted by the rhetoric of horseshoe theory; the next, it swallows up all of the sins of capitalism, tying all of its social pathology and reactionary history to the encroachment of fascism.
Some final thoughts
I have probably belabored this explanation, and spelled out all kinds of points that a lot of socialists probably grasp intuitively; but since the pseudo-categories of capitalism are still widely used by everyone, I think it’s worth detailing just how rhetorically loaded they are, and how incompatible they are with a basic socialist perspective on politics.
There is also, I think, plenty of room for adjustments to the socialists schema I’ve laid out. For example, I’ve marked the division between left and right between doctrines that are at least ostensibly anti-capitalist and those that are not; one could reasonably respond that since socialism is the only operatively anti-capitalist doctrine, it ought to be distinguished from doctrines like anarchism, which are not plausible vehicles for anti-capitalism and thus belong on the right.
If nothing else, I hope this inspires further reflection on the categories we use to talk about politics. Again, we should not be at all surprised to see socialists and capitalists use these labels quite differently; the most improbable thing would be if we used them in the exact same way.
On this note, it’s also worth pointing out that only one of these terms — “alt-leftists” — can be applied to any anti-capitalist. We do not have special terms for anarchists or Third Worldists with reactionary views, but we have multiple for socialists. It also bears repeating, as I have argued ad nauseum, that as far as I can tell everyone who our discourse routinely labels as a Strasserite or a Nazbol is always either a socialist being defamed or a capitalist being misidentified as some kind of socialist. Since the fascist use of socialist rhetoric is always opportunistic I don’t even think that it is sensible to even talk about historical Strasserites or Nazbols as anticapitalists; but even if one does, there does not appear to be any significant political faction resembling them today.