November 4, 2011
How Liberals and Radicals can work together

I had a conversation late in September at Liberty Plaza that both pointedly stung me and represented a big part of the problem we have with building coalitions. I, a Marxist, and Eve, a progressive (RE: liberal), were having a conversation. Initially, it was my intention to have us place our distinct ideologies on the table, and our distinct analyses and visions, and then find those junctures at which we would meet along the way. To me, this is the best and most honest way to for liberals and revolutionary socialists (Marxist, anarchist or otherwise) to figure out how to function together where there are shared interests, and to respectfully and temporarily part at those moments where we disagree.

I think the conversation was going well, until a camera and some young impressionable activists encircled us. Then my conversant partner opportunistically shifted the direction away from coalition building, and toward division, speechifying for those present rather than responding to me. It was demagogic. And once our conversation had derailed toward disagreement, she put up her main defense, which is sometimes common among liberals. She would refuse to define terms like capitalism and violence, thereby preempting any real discourse on why I believed capitalism is a system to be opposed and why she thought a nebulus understanding of violence was something to always be opposed. The conversation had lived out its usefulness, so I moved on.

In the seventh week of OccupyWallStreet, I noted a sign that read “Not anti-capitalist, just anti-corporatist.” In a liberal’s hand, the sign would have been a personal declaration, but sitting in Broadway sidewalk, it seemed to claim to be an official position. So I dutifully said to my friends “Not in Liberty Plaza, Just in the Garbage,” and trashed the sign.

Because I think clear definitions are required for discourse, allow me to attempt a simple distinction between the two groups. By radicals, I generally mean anti-capitalists, both socialist (Marxist or anarchist or autonomist or Leninist) and more nihilistic radicals. By liberals I mean the self-professed progressives and moderates who believe that reforms to the United States political system are ends in themselves rather than means, and/or that capitalism is not a fundamentally exploitative system. To some extent, a great number of left wing nationalists, so-called socialists, social democrats, queer activists and others can be grouped in one of these two tents. An imperfect binary isn’t necessarily an inaccurate one.

So I will attempt to elaborate a methodology of coalition between (real) radical socialists and liberals, two groups that are fundamentally opposed in analysis of the world today and vision of the world they’d like to build for tomorrow.

It seems simple to me. First, we don’t waste time trying to convert each other. Some people will change their positions. They will switch from one to the other. We will have healthy conversations where we debate our points of contention. That’s good. It can be fun. And healthy. But as a general rule, I don’t think it should be our respective ambitions to win a stalwart over to one or the other side. Radicalization usually comes from more than just conversation, and people who become moderate will do so for their own reasons, not because a liberal puts them on the defensive.

What is healthy, on the other hand, is for us to be clear where we are each coming from. Let’s be willing to state it outright. If you’re a liberal, say so. “Communists disdain to conceal their views.” I’ve rarely met an anarchist who doesn’t jump to put it into the conversation. If we are discussing our analysis of Wall Street, or labor unions, or the eventual goals of OccupyWallStreet, it helps the conversation immensely if we know where each other is at. That can help us avoid the roadblocks of a healthy dialogue.

Once we begin to put our cards on the table, we should give our respective analyses of the particular question at hand- say, how to deal with permits, or the Community Board, or the police, or property destruction by an OWS participant, or what kinds of organizing we should be doing outside of Lower Manhattan. Again, we don’t discuss the particulars in order to persuade each other, but simply to know where each person is at.

Then we look at our goals, short term and long term. From there we begin to discern shared elements of our goals.

And here we come to the two practical questions. In which tactics do we advance our respective or shared goals. At one point do we have to work separately for our goals. And how to we operate so our respective tactics and language don’t put us into conflict, foment division or the image of division, or engage in work that disrupts the other’s work.

As an example, say we are interested in working on protesting a bank. The liberal wants to promote ethical business practices and government regulations. The radical doesn’t believe in ethical business practices, does support government regulations as a short term goal, but is more interested in taking down the power of the banks and promoting total opposition to the financial system that the banks are integral to. The two people agree to rally outside a meeting which the bank CEO is keynoting. They perhaps are both interested in disrupting the meeting. Rhetorically, they agree to message on questions of the bank’s crimes and the need for government regulation. Tactically they agree to get into the meeting and then disrupt it. The radical, perhaps, wishes to spray paint anti-bank stencils at all of the bank branches in a two block radius. The liberal thinks that is going too far, and wants to promote people buying shares in the bank to gain a seat at a shareholder meeting. They agree to engage in these latter tactics in geographically separate locations and not trash each other to other activists, on social media, or the news media. They also agree not to promote the entire movement as based on their particular ideology, but only to promote the general agreements of the movement, and their respective ambitions as their personal opinions.

It isn’t always easy. But it’s been done time and again. And playing up a theme that OccupyWallStreet is monolithic is dishonest and hinders our capacity to have tactical and strategic conversations. We have differences. We will engage in different overall political projects. But we have come together at Liberty Plaza. Let’s try to keep that going as functionally and creatively as we can.

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