The American left simply doesn’t have a tradition of honest and robust critical debate and interaction. DSAers and Berniecrats only speak to each other. Revolutionary nationalists mainly talk to other revolutionary nationalists, Greens only talk to other Greens, and so on
Transcript — A couple months ago I attended a gathering at somebody’s Atlanta home. At some point past all the introductions, a couple comrades with whom I was less familiar leveled some particular critiques of Black Agenda Report, and of another person in the room connected with the Green Party, labeling us “ultraleftists.” Our critical evaluation of the Movement For Black Lives, and of many self-described leftists who ended up supporting Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, they claimed, had in their words, “shut them down.” After our public observations on the 2016 and 2018 elections, on intersectionality, on M4BLM’s Electoral Justice Project, and the propensity of nonprofit organizations to reflect the interests of their funders rather than their supposed constituents they said, all due respect they just stopped bothering to read or listen to anything we recorded or printed.
A little surprised by this, I quickly pointed out that we had offered publicly and privately to print rebuttals to our positions on intersectionality, on the M4BL and other matters but so far we’d had no takers. While I and some others would have liked to pursue that conversation, asking how we managed to “shut them down,” that was not the focus of the evening’s gathering, so we moved on to other affairs. Their critique if you can call something with no explanation behind it a critique stung and hung in my mind, unresolved.
Was this real life, real politics and real struggle, or were we living on a big Facebook page? If the comrades with whom you disagree are only able to respond to those differences by name calling, unfriending and ignoring you from that point on, without the bother of exchanging ideas, without discussing and comparing our differences in front of an interested audience of truth-seeking leftists then the left does indeed live in a world where our table manners, our methods of internal discourse are dictated by the norms and the forms of capitalist social media marketing platforms.
If all we gotta do is call somebody an ultraleftist or a tankie or an athletic supporter of imperialism –OK, OK I borrowed that one from 1970s Amiri Baraka, 20 years before the internet, but you get the point – if all we gotta do is call names, draft a few devastating Facebook posts Twitter mic drops and walk away, precisely how do we imagine interested leftists, or even interested people who may not yet BE leftists will discern which if any of our strategic and tactical visions and practices are useful and which are not?
So-called social media, as Jodi Dean and others have explained for years, is NOT our friend. It’s not even social, except in the sense that it hijacks the social interactions of millions and turns them into private property, into marketing data and makes the owners of that data into billionaires. That’s not good. Even worse, we have allowed the parasitic marketing platforms of communicative capitalism to teach us how to interact with each other.
The US left simply doesn’t have a tradition of honest and robust critical debate and interaction. DSAers and Berniecrats only speak to each other. Revolutionary nationalists mainly talk to other revolutionary nationalists, Greens only talk to other Greens, and so on. For years we at Black Agenda Report imagined that by detailing our critiques of those with whom we disagreed, and offering them space in our publication to print rebuttals, we might foster the beginnings of a left culture of lively and robust critical comparison of left strategic and tactical visions, before an audience of interested people.
That hasn’t happened, so we’re stepping up our game. In the coming weeks and months, Black Agenda Report will attempt a series of of live and pre-recorded Facebook chats with other self-described leftists with whom we agree and disagree. Our objective is nothing like the mic dropping one-upmanship that dominates Facebook and Twitter. Our aim is not to make the people who already agree with us on this or that feel good, or embarrass and denounce those with whom we disagree. We’re working out the precise format for this project, and you should see its first iteration of it next month.
It’s worth pointing out that not everybody believes in public discussion our differences. Sister Makana Thembi, in a brief essay Toward Movement Grace: Criticism, Self-Criticism and the Wisdom of Silence likens differences among movement activists to what she calls “beefs.” She asserts that differences between movement organizations must be explored and negotiated privately and confidentially, and that no party to a disagreement should issue public statements about anybody else’s position without the expressed consent of both parties. Black Agenda Report answered this line of thinking way back in 2015 in a piece aptly titled “How To Hold Prominent Movement Figures Accountable, With a Private Phone Call or a Public Discussion.”
The no-public-criticism model is a formula for unaccountability, one suited only for top-down organizations where the leaders make all the decisions. It makes perfect sense in the nonprofit world, where existing and potential grantees may feel the need to present a united front to existing and potential funders. But private conversations between leaders are the opposite of internal democracy and not something that can be employed by internally democratic organizations, or by organizations hoping to earn or to serve a mass base. It’s time to grow a pair, ovaries, balls, whatever, along with thicker skins, and as Mao said about 80 years ago, to “Combat Liberalism .” Go look that up too.
We cannot build anything like a broad-based US left without creating the spaces and the traditions for principled and respectful struggle and criticism conducted in the light of day, for everybody to teach and to learn from. At Black Agenda Report, we’re committed to moving US leftist discourse out of the mic drop world crafted by communicative capitalism (please go look that term up) and into a place that prefigures the new world we all want to build.
For Black Agenda Report, I’m Bruce Dixon. Please visit our site at Black Agenda Report dot com to subscribe to our free weekly email updates. Black Agenda Report is the only African American owned and oriented web outlet alleged by the forces of the national security state to be under the supposed influence of the Russians, so you cannot depend on Google, Facebook or other corporate social media to deliver our content. Our free newsletter delivered to your email inbox is your only guarantee you’ll get the news, commentary and analysis from the black left we’ve delivered 50 weeks a year since 2006. So subscribe, at Black Agenda Report dot com.
Top Photo | Two men debate at the “stop bombing Syria” protest march on 12th December 2015, Regent Street, London. Matthew G | Flickr
Bruce A. Dixon is the founder and managing editor of the Black Agenda Report, where this article first appeared. He is a former member of the Black Panther Party, and long-time activist and community organizer. Reach him on Twitter at @brucedixon.