Getting rid of isms and ists

You: "I'm a Democrat."
Me, an intellectual: "I am an Anarcho-Syndicalist."



Interactions like this have played out for me a couple of times in the last year. And, for a while, the eye rolls annoyed me. "Do you even read?" I would sometimes think.

I've come around to the idea that for the left to communicate our dreams for a better world, we need to drop the "-isms" and the "-ists" in favor of specific, actionable goals.

Here's why:

1. Not everyone has read political philosophy, and reading dense, early-20th-century tomes should not be a prerequisite to joining the movement.

2. Labels encourage tribalism and conflict.

3. Self-identifying as specific "-ists" closes us off to new ideas in favor of group purity.

1. Not everyone has read political philosophy

Leftists groups, while mostly welcoming and friendly, can have a patronizing vibe to newcomers. It is a mix of assumed baseline knowledge, advanced leftist jargon, and complete disdain for anything "mainstream." As a newcomer, you become painfully aware of how everything you like and everything you do to survive in our capitalist hellscape is problematic. I can't speak for everyone, but I felt that after my first couple DSA meetings, I could never be as hip or counter-culture as many of the other members.

Over time, I realized that my first impressions were wrong. Everyone I met was pleasant and welcoming. They wanted me to be there and most met me where I was on my journey towards radicalization. 

I believe we can streamline radicalization of mainstream Americans if we alter the language we use. To most Americans, the figures of the left have been portrayed as boogeymen their entire lives. That prejudice is challenging to overcome. A potential newcomer will think Anarchism is just blowing shit up and that Communism means bread lines and poverty. I hope that by shifting our public facing language towards specific goals, we can get more people in the door. And the more people we get in the door, the more people start their journey of radicalization.

The DSA has already started this effort. They are campaigning hard for "Medicare for All." I think branding socialized medicine as "Medicare for All" shows how we can package leftist ideas for mass consumption in a society where we are conditioned to hate the left. The IWW also manages to do this, to an extent. We focus on labor organizing directly, and the organization eschews associations with leftist alignments and political parties.

We can continue to embark on efforts that bring more people in the door and work to make the entry into leftist thought as seamless as possible by abstaining from overwhelming newcomers with leftist jargon.

2. Labels encourage tribalism and conflict.

Humans are tribal creatures. When faced with complicated or confusing situations, we retreat to the safety of our community. When an outside actor threatens our belief systems, we seek affirmation from our community.

Belonging to a tribe isn't inherently wrong. I believe that the comfort, security, and solidarity provided plays a vital role in furthering group goals. However, when groups refuse to work together on shared interests because of different over-arching philosophies, we put focus on our differences rather than our goals.

I don't claim that this "take" is new. We talk about "left-unity" so often that it has become a meme. I'm not proposing a general "can't we all just get along" sentiment. Instead, I want us to focus on how we talk about our group outwardly. By pushing specific agenda items publicly, I believe we can find common ground. Instead of saying, "here is what we believe," we should say, "here is what we are doing."

3. Self-identifying as specific "-ists" closes us off to new ideas in favor of group purity.

Leftist focus on idealistic purity is a particular bugaboo of mine. I want a society with no money, no police, no prisons, and no private property as much as anyone. But we live in a world with all of those, and I can't fight all of them at once.

The insistence on revolution as the only possible transition from capitalism feels like a useless proclamation, even if it is theoretically correct. The revolution isn't starting today, and I want to build a better tomorrow, starting now. Insisting on revolution allows us to do nothing. It provides a convenient excuse for inaction.

Insistence on ideological purity also alienates us from people who just want to survive. Many people, consumed by the demands of living under capitalism, find the cognitive step of imagining a completely different world simply too big. This is who we must reach. We must meet those who bear the brunt of capitalism where they are and address their immediate concerns. Preaching a distant, seemingly unattainable future will just lose us support.

Another reason purity arguments bother me is that they close us off to new ideas. Our ideological forebears lived in different worlds than we do. Their writing inspires us and provides us with excellent frameworks for building a better future. However, Marx could not have envisioned the future we live in now. If we try to pretend that the only acceptable future is the one laid out by these thinkers, then we close ourselves off to other, possibly better, futures. By labeling an idea as "bourgeoisie nonsense," "tankie bullshit," or whatever the latest Chapo burn is, we close ourselves off to whoever the modern philosophical leaders might be. And we will get stuck revisiting the ideas of the past without contextualizing them to the 21st century.


I acknowledge that within a group, identifying with a political alignment can be a useful shorthand for communicating values. 


This might be a consistent topic, but it is a new effort for me. I want to focus much more on action and much less on what my political alignment is. However, I encourage you to change your language from "I am a ______ist" to "My beliefs most closely align with __________ism." As I've changed my language, I noticed that my feelings towards those who disagree with me also changed for the better.