I’m done with criticizing how other leftists engage politically. I’m done with making general comparisons about which is the better form of political praxis (the practice of one’s political beliefs, as opposed to theory). I’m done with the phrase “waste of time.”
This doesn’t mean I can’t be critical of people who behave like jerks. I just choose to separate their personalities from their approaches.
Take this one leftist I know. A real nitpicker, especially when women are leading a local action or campaign. He’ll argue against a proposed plan by emphasizing a single detail he finds morally problematic. His collaborators’ vision never seems to live up to the revolutionary ideal in his brain, yet he offers few alternatives. Ya know, that guy. I’ve joked with friends that he’s secretly a cop because his main motivation appears to be shooting down every new idea before it can take form. But really, I suspect he’s just that common leftist white guy combo of arrogant and awkward, and this is his version of being helpful. Or perhaps that’s me being generous, because I can afford to think he’s harmless. I decided ages ago I’d never work with this person under any circumstances.
Fellow comrades who get frustrated with this guy sometimes point out that his main form of political engagement is standing on street corners waving signs for far left causes. “He doesn’t DO anything.” While I feel their exasperation (“Who the hell is this guy to judge me?!”), I don’t agree with this specific analysis, and here’s why: as far as I’ve seen, most people in this country don’t willingly engage with politics at all. If they do anything, they vote (and most eligible voters don’t vote). The majority abstain, which I find very sad, but my point here is not to attack them. Rather, I must give credit to the guy who waves signs on street corners because at least he is doing something. It’s not the something I generally choose to do. Nor is it the only thing I do. It’s not enough to change the world in itself, but it’s not nothing.
And if I’m being completely honest, none of the ways I engage with politics are going to change the world either. There is no perfect praxis. There is no magic bullet that solves the big problem all at once. You can sit in meetings with your comrades all day, trying to devise that perfect action or campaign that will fix your fucked up corner of this fucked up world and you will never succeed. At some point you must determine to do a thing, and hope to sway others to your cause. You and your comrades can work very hard at that thing. Maybe you’ll even get others to show up. Perhaps when it’s done you’ll call it a “win,” but you can trust others outside your circle are saying the same thing you yourself said about some other activist or group in your community – “what they’re doing is a total waste of time.”
I’ve definitely been subject to that criticism. My preferred praxis is door-to-door canvassing. I believe in the power of one-on-one conversation to facilitate social change. Sometimes I canvass on behalf of political candidates, but mostly I canvass for Medicare for All. Many people in my community and in my political organization believe the work I do is a waste of time. I’m past feeling hurt about that. And at the same time, I also question the efficacy of my work on a regular basis. There’s no chance of enacting single-payer health care under the current North Carolina legislature. Our Republican U.S. Senators and House Rep sure as hell aren’t going to rally for it. What’s the point? Well I happen to be passionate enough about single-payer healthcare and canvassing that I’ve been able to convince comrades to work on this project anyway. And they in turn recruit other canvassers. We’ve gotten used to talking to strangers in neighborhoods most of us have never visited before. And to a few hundred people in this town, our campaign’s been the first they’ve heard about Medicare for All. The work we do isn’t going to institute single-payer healthcare. But we’re contributing to a movement that will. I refuse to call that a waste of time.
Perhaps it’s not the best use of someone else’s time. I respect that. We’re all busy, especially us comrades who engage with left politics. But I also have enough respect for the comrades that I will not call whatever they choose to do instead “pointless.” At various times, I’ve been told by other organizers that the following forms of praxis are wasted time:
- running for office
- phone banking
- calling representatives to complain
- speaking out at city council and school board meetings
- letter-writing campaigns
- mutual aid
If everyone is correct, then there’s no point to any kind of engagement. I tend to believe, on the contrary, that ALL of these approaches are useful in some context
I don’t think I know any activist who believes all these approaches are useless, but they do tend to think that some forms of engagement are way better than others. I often find that an activist’s preferred praxis is whichever one best fits their personality. People who love leading chants with a bullhorn often prefer marches and demonstrations, people with strong organizational skills might prefer planning actions behind the scenes, while introverts like me might be more inclined to do one-on-one calls or canvass. And I think all of that is just peachy. Every one of us who engages with progressive politics takes risks in putting ourselves out there, and it makes sense that we tend toward the praxis that feels most comfortable. Doing what feels natural helps us build the confidence we need to do all the necessary work that makes us uncomfortable.
So why are we inclined to criticize each other’s methods so harshly? In my experience, the criticism either comes from an unwillingness to do that specific work (because it’s tedious, scary, requires too much planning, etc.) or — more often, I suspect — it comes from hurt feelings and banged-up egos. Of course we want to shit on the guy who who shits on all our new ideas, and make fun of him for only waving a sign on a street corner instead of doing something more helpful. But the problem with that guy isn’t his praxis. His problem is that he’s a jerk. If he were a kind soul who simply could not bring himself to do anything beyond waving a sign (because maybe, for whatever reason, that’s all he can give), I’d have no ill will toward him.
This distinction matters because once one person or group starts criticizing another person or group for having “bad” praxis, it just leads to a domino effect of competitive back-biting that is poisonous to solidarity. So that’s why I’m done trashing other good faith leftists’ various forms of political engagement. As long as you and your group work on good causes, you don’t abuse people or abet abusers, and you don’t collaborate with fascists, you’re probably a-okay with me. I may not work with you on this one campaign. But I hope we can work together later. And if you think what I’m doing is a waste of time, I can live with that. Just use your pre-mouth filter when you’re around me and we’ll be just fine.