The Worker

Combat the anti-popular mindset, which discourages appealing to a majority of the workers on anti-imperialism

What the Ukraine war has done is expose a rift between the types of Marxists who seek to bring back the successes of the 20th century American communist movement; and the types of Marxists who have faith in the insular leftist activism practice which replaced that movement. Prior to February of 2022, these two elements were better able to coexist, as many of them share a pro-China stance. But when everyone in the movement got confronted with the questions of whether we should support Russia in its fight against fascism and U.S. hegemony; and of whether we should build an anti-NATO coalition which extends beyond the “left” circles; a fundamental difference in priorities was revealed.

The mindset behind the insular element’s choosing to break from the pro-Russia stance shared by so much of the global anti-imperialist movement; and to reject all realistic opportunities for reaching those outside the left activist niche; is one of a purity fetish. Of letting secondary contradictions prevent one from working to rectify primary contradictions, which naturally makes one inclined to be convinced by scandal-mongering and see additional “contradictions” which don’t even exist. 

This is the framework of understanding that’s caused elements of the U.S. left to believe the “Uyghur genocide” psyop, and it’s what Carlos Garrido combats in his book from this year The Purity Fetish and the Crisis of Western Marxism. In the months since that work was published, we’ve seen a series of developments that have proven its observations right. It’s not until we saw the U.S. left’s reactions to the emergence of a non-insular antiwar coalition that we discovered exactly how the purity fetish hurts efforts towards building a relationship with the people.

In the short term, the purity fetish mindset—also called petty bourgeois radicalism—discourages attempts at appealing to the workers on the basis of their shared interest in ending the U.S. empire. The types of radicals who’ve embraced this way of thinking see how support for aid to Ukraine has been declining, and view this as essentially meaningless; as not good enough of a reason to stop viewing the people as fundamentally reactionary. The only way a petty bourgeois radical would give up this perception of the people is if a majority of the people were to become as ideologically advanced as themself; an attitude which, in addition to hubristically presuming all of their own present ideas are correct, is simply not realistic. 

We can’t expect most people within a country to undergo a full progression in their social views prior to when a revolution has happened, and when we’ve gained the means to educate everyone within society. Moreover, such a cultural revolution shouldn’t be viewed as a prerequisite for carrying out a workers revolution; that the workers are in need of economic liberation is enough of a reason to work towards their liberation. 

Whether or not the petty-bourgeois radicals are aware of it, they’re operating according to a mode of practice that can only allow them to build a relationship with most people after a full cultural revolution has taken place. What else can we conclude after seeing every major left org come out against the project to unite all the ideological elements of the antiwar movement? As petty-bourgeois radicals always have, they may tell themselves that it’s possible to build an ideologically exclusive movement and still expect to win. But that goal is not deliverable; Lenin clarified this a century ago in his polemic about why socialists should work in reactionary trade unions. 

The practical reality is that we need to navigate our conditions as they are, not expect our conditions to conform to ideals which would make a “pure” movement possible. This is what Gus Hall was alluding to in his polemic against petty-bourgeois radicalism, where he observed something portentous to our present situation: as soon as the workers start mobilizing for their own class interests in a way which the petty-bourgeois radicals can’t control, the petty-bourgeois radicals come to feel threatened; as their influence depends on them being able to monopolize organizing spaces. 

In order to justify holding this monopoly, wrote Hall, they present the class struggle as a task which doesn’t have to involve navigating our conditions as they are; as something that can be won simply by building a movement and nothing more. As a consequence, Hall’s analysis implies, they never think seriously about how to get out of the movement and into the masses:

They believe they can avoid the necessary and unavoidable consistent and sustained work, the work of organizing, educating, mobilizing and leading people in mass, of leading people on the level of their understanding, of their own self-interest, and in this sense reflecting the objective processes leading to a revolutionary struggle against capitalism. For this they seek to substitute radical rhetoric with general slogans, or advanced actions that have no relationship to struggles to which the masses do respond…Petty-bourgeois radicalism as a concept is now in a serious crisis. Masses have moved to new levels of political consciousness and to higher forms of strugle[sic]. Generally, petty-bourgeois radical concepts go into a crisis when working-class concepts of struggle are on the ascendancy.

In the longer term, the anti-popular mindset threatens not just the effort to bring a majority of the people into the class struggle, but the effort to improve the people’s conditions. After we’ve overthrown the state, the upholders of the anti-popular mindset will be opposing the policies that we’ll have to implement in order to solve our living standards crisis; those policies being the initiatives to re-industrialize our society in an environmentally compatible, socialist fashion. 

The only way we can heal the wounds capitalism has created within our working class communities is by utilizing industry to undo the destruction which monopoly capital has brought to these communities. The shipping out of jobs and the lowering of wages; the neglect of the infrastructure; the obliteration of entire neighborhoods due to climatic disasters the government refuses to adequately respond to; industry is the tool required for rectifying these crimes against the people. We need to bring economic vitality back to our neighborhoods; we need to become more domestically self-reliant on agriculture and on factory-made goods; we need to build an American version of the high-speed rails the Asian socialist countries have created; we need to replicate China’s successes on safe and up-to-date nuclear energy, which is an essential part of bringing down emissions without sacrificing mass human wellbeing. 

These things are commonsense, and they’re ultimately compatible with the long-term communist goal of reducing the need for human labor by letting the people share in the wealth produced by automated technology. Yet they’re contentious on the left; because today’s conventional U.S. left is fundamentally guided not by materialist, practical thinking, but by a radical version of liberal dogma.

Hostility towards the PRC—a country that would be a valuable partner in building our new socialist infrastructure—is a big part of this dogma. What even more on the left share, though, is a belief in the “degrowth” dogma. And this is where the conventional left’s ultimate allegiance to finance capital; to the Democratic Party; to the liberal internationalist institutions which seek to implement global climate austerity; becomes apparent. The essential connection between these ruling entities and our conventional “left” forces is in their shared idea about growth being an intrinsically bad thing. 

Whether somebody is advocating for degrowth because they want to preserve capitalism in contracted form, or because they genuinely believe degrowth is necessary for saving the planet, they’re advancing the same destructive idea: that the people must be combated. That everyone outside the elitist circles—whether these circles are the DC beltway, or the supposedly enlightened left activist spaces—represents a malign force which needs to be countered. This is the logical conclusion of the anti-popular stance that we’ve seen the left primarily take in relation to the anti-imperialist movement, in which any element of the workers who assert their class interests outside the approved parameters is viewed as an enemy. 

If the anti-popular mindset wins, our future can only look like further victories for capital and a descent into barbarism. If we don’t let it define the class struggle, the class struggle will be able to bring capital’s defeat.


By Rainer Shea

Combat the anti-popular mindset, which discourages appealing to a majority of the workers on anti-imperialism (

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