The Left in the United States has been marginalized for over five decades, which has forced leftists to develop tactics and strategies within the constraints and context of that marginalization.
One development has been the fostering of various Left identities premised on ideological leanings, opinions on tactics and strategies, spheres of work (anti-war, environmentalism, feminism), positions on the use of violence, etc. These identities commingle and co-define one another.
The formation of these in-groups served a number of vital purposes. Personal relationships and coordinated communities enabled strong ties to develop among organizers, providing them with moral and technical support. In-groups helped bolster accountability and responsibility and provided much needed emotional support for marginalized leftists who felt entirely at odds with the very structure of the world around them and alienated from the majority of their peers.
The legacy of COINTELPRO as well as personal experiences with law enforcement aided in the formation of in-groups as a means of protecting ourselves and others. Small, tight-knit organizations and friend groups enabled vetting new participants and created an intimacy that at least felt more secure than having random people filter in and out.
In-groups also served the practical function of streamlining organizational activity. Trying to coordinate activities with people from various backgrounds with differing politics, different priorities, and various experience levels while maintaining a sense of participatory democracy within the organization means that a lot of time is spent getting everyone on board. Being selective about who participates enables organizations to enlist only those people who are either already on board or are near enough. This enables organizations to narrow the focus of internal education – as everyone is at a similar level with already established mutual aims – and to get right down to the work of organizing.
Here I should note that though I reference organizations, in-group formation has also developed on a more general level as an identity, especially for those leftists fully immersed in social media.
The establishment of in-groups has spawned a number of issues that are detrimental to the Left. Insularity, defensiveness, and the distortion of self-perception/understanding. These three are actually abstractions of one totality. Briefly – we are over-critical of those who do not meet the litmus test for claiming our identity as their own, we are overprotective of our identity and lash out at good faith criticism, and because we have so carefully demarcated the difference between ourselves and everyone else we operate under the false assumption that we are unaffected by the same neo-liberal influence as everyone else and that, in fact, our infection might be all the more pernicious for our unwillingness to admit that it exists.
Firstly, this is not the same as when some smug rightwing dick claims that the Left is a “cult”, that leftists are ideologues, or that we are hypocrites. This is not an external attack with the aim of spreading soundbite critiques among the masses (look at this blog, I’m clearly not leaning toward mass appeal). I am implicated fully in all of these criticisms and the impetus for starting this blog was something in the vein of criticism/self-criticism.
Secondly, identity formation on the Left has occurred reflexively, in reaction to the conditions we have been organizing under. I’m not interested in assigning blame, and we should not be much interested in guilt or its ugly defensive friend.
What we should be looking toward is maturation. An acceptance and understanding of the phases we have already gone through, questions and anxieties about what tomorrow will bring, and one firm footstep forward regardless of our preparedness for the next phase.