The Worker

To be “respectable” in the online left is to be imperialism-compatible. Being a serious Marxist requires breaking from it.

There’s a difference between what’s best for gaining popularity within online “left” spaces, and what’s best for advancing the revolutionary struggle. It’s not hard to notice this problem, the members of the left-wing video essay community “Breadtube” have repeatedly observed how there’s an issue with making politics into a fandom. Yet it’s not like merely recognizing this problem makes these creators able to see what the solution is. That solution is to not just become disillusioned with the notion that consuming Breadtube does anything to change the balance of class power, but also give up the ideology that underlies this false solution. To sell the illusion that online politics represents something genuinely offensive towards the existing power structure, the facilitators and spokespeople of these fandoms have to propagate a certain idea: that anybody who deviates from what’s considered the approved narratives within left spaces is an enemy, that to be considered “respectable” you’d better know what not to think and say.

I oppose this left gatekeeping mentality not from a reactionary perspective, but from a Marxist perspective. From the perspective that we must judge individuals, actions, and ideas based not on whether they satisfy a purity fetish, but on whether they advance or could advance the class struggle. Somebody or something doesn’t have to be free of contradictions to represent an asset to this struggle, and if they have or have had regressive qualities, they’re often capable of giving up those qualities. Unless they’re truly a bad actor or have acted unforgivably, they can be accepted. Nothing is static, everything is in a constant process of change. And to always treat someone or something as an eternal enemy because they’ve failed a purity test is not how to build an effective movement.

This is another truth that even those within these spaces have been able to come to, at least when that toxic gatekeeping culture they’ve contributed to has begun to affect them personally. It becomes undeniable at a certain point that the inflated and spurious scrutiny the online left places on people, to the effect that it feels like these spaces are always simply looking for their next target, is not about fighting for justice but about a petty power game. This is a clear way that the practice you gain from getting informed by online politics, and the practice you gain from getting informed by real-life struggle, are distinct. Actual class struggle isn’t compatible with the purity mentality. Lenin effectively said this over a century ago, when he clarified that revolutionaries should work within reactionary trade unions.

It’s the ideological strain that Lenin was responding to, the infantile element which claimed that socialists can only engage in unionism when they’ve built ideologically pure unions, that naturally became the dominant iteration of “socialism” within social media. This strain does the equivalent of what Lenin ridiculed when it comes to every contemporary issue. China’s use of markets to economically weaken imperialism; Russia’s use of military force to further weaken imperialism; serious domestic anti-imperialist efforts like the recent multi-tendency Rage Against the War Machine coalition; all of these are rejected by today’s radical liberals. If the Breadtubers were to ever be prompted to engage with the discourse surrounding those things, they’d no doubt adopt a hard stance against these solutions. And like the radlibs who are presently leading the narrative attacks against such practical anti-imperialist actions, they wouldn’t be able to offer any serious alternatives. In Lenin’s time, the “left-wing communists” who rejected practical options could only present paths that were entirely theoretical, ideas about building immaculate organizing structures which nobody had the resources or time to create. So is the case for their modern counterparts.

To become more effective at advancing Marxism, I had to realize that the problem with the online left isn’t just that it’s insular, toxic, and centered around platforms designed to manufacture division like Twitter. Twitter isn’t the cause of the online left’s gatekeeping culture, the toxicity we see within Twitter’s left spaces is only a symptom of a deeper ideological issue. The real problem is that so many who enter these spaces, including myself up until my recent ideological transformation, have been informed by ideas that make counterproductive gatekeeping appear to make sense. When your political upbringing has consisted of constant affirmations that anybody who doesn’t follow a certain orthodoxy needs to be cast out, you’re incentivized to come to ideas that people adopt only so that they can be accepted into these “left” cliques. Not because these ideas are optimal for being a Marxist. 

For me, one of these ideas was Gerald Horne’s thesis about 1776 being a “counter-revolution,” which I believed until I was made aware that this idea is in opposition towards the historical materialist view. For Peter Coffin, someone who’s gone through a similar ideological evolution, one of these ideas was that China isn’t really socialist. When Coffin was in their Breadtuber form, they were arguing that China can’t be socialist because it has a stock market, an obvious example of when a compatible leftist uses the contradictions within something to justify discarding that thing’s revolutionary value. But I no longer hold this mistake against Coffin, because since then they’ve become pro-PRC. These days, Coffin is praising China for building the roads and airports that U.S. imperialism has made impoverished countries unable to have for so long. Coffin’s come to the correct view of China for the same reason that they’re now regarded by the typical Breadtube audience member as somebody who “used to be respected on the left”: because Coffin decided to take Marxism seriously. Not to have some concept of “Marxism” as being just another critical theory, one which can merely be incorporated into a broader “leftist” perspective. That’s how these leftists tend to treat Marxism. Serious participants in the class struggle recognize that to be a Marxist, you must make Marxism central to your analysis. 

When judging a person, government, idea, or action, you must ask not “is this something the leftists in these online spaces would find respectable,” but “is this something that advances history’s development.” Rely on rigorous investigation of the given conditions, not on social proof. And if your investigation finds something or someone to be counter-hegemonic, discarding them is something you should think twice about. These political fandom spaces depend on social proof, on the psychological phenomenon where our minds can be tricked into believing something simply because others around us believe it. That’s not how a Marxist should think. We should form our opinions based on what the evidence tells us, to the best of our flawed human judgment capacity during a given moment. And when we make a mistake, as we’ll inevitably do, we correct it. 

Using this analytical framework, Coffin has also been able to conclude that “degrowth” is an inseparably liberal pro-capitalist idea, and that “land back” (at least in the iteration that it represents when the left anti-Marxists are talking about it) is in effect a scam. A scam by liberal NGOs to preserve capitalism by promoting land privatization from a “decolonial” angle. In other words, something that pretends to be counter-hegemonic while reinforcing the bourgeois cultural hegemony. For land back to be acceptable to promote as a socialist, you had better make sure you’re promoting an iteration of it that’s socialist, or else you risk promoting liberalism. The effort to maintain the present property relations model under a “decolonial” guise is real, we see it in both the USA and Canada. The way to recognize this scam is by examining what kind of class character a given “decolonial” project has. If it’s not of a proletarian character, it’s a project by these NGOs, and therefore can’t even be defined as revolutionary even through the lens of primary vs secondary contradictions. That framework doesn’t work in this situation. Democrat NGOs are to be trusted by Marxists under no circumstances, they’ll always betray the revolution’s interests.

Anti-colonial Marxism is also real, but that’s simply called Marxism. Marxism, when practiced correctly, is innately pro-environmental, anti-colonial, and otherwise capable of rectifying contradictions. That’s why its essence is the ruthless criticism of all things. When the imperialism-compatible leftists act like Marxism lacks this essence, and do things like try to discredit the historical materialist framework because this framework supposedly isn’t “anti-colonial” enough, they’re presenting a version of “environmentalism” or “liberation theory” that’s fundamentally anti-materialist. 

Be suspicious of anybody who tries to convince you that you’d be wrong for thinking and doing what a dialectical analysis tells you to. In other words, who tells you to doubt your better judgement. Especially when they use emotional manipulation to make their case, acting like you’ve betrayed oppressed people by being a serious Marxist. The truth is that these left anti-Marxists are the ones who’ve betrayed the oppressed, because they’ve discarded the practice which can actually defeat the state. All so that they can fit into a niche online community.

As class conflict intensifies, this is the direction that the imperialism-compatible left is going in: increasingly radical, yet “radical” in a way that makes them even more aggressively opposed to serious anti-imperialism and class struggle. Breadtube’s relative decline during recent years has preceded this evolution in the methods that left opportunists use. These actors who place identity above class, use secondary contradictions to discredit anti-imperialist actions, and reject multi-tendency anti-imperialist coalitions due to purity politics are not the ones Marxists should be taking advice from. And if you feel you share any of these ideological characteristics, but sincerely seek to advance Marxism, I suggest you do what Peter and I have done, and come to question the online left’s wisdom.

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