What is the relationship between the communist movement and the masses? How ought we as communists relate to the present beliefs and attitudes of the masses? Must communists meet the masses where they are without challenging their current beliefs, or is the task of communists to challenge the often reactionary views of the masses? We might also ask: are the masses mostly committed to reactionary ideology in the first place?
These questions are crucial for the development of a communist movement truly grounded in the masses. Communism cannot be a detached intellectual movement which dictates abstract beliefs to the masses from on high. Similarly, communism is the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. It is the movement which undertakes a ruthless critique of all that exists. Communists cannot simply leave the world as we found it. Our fundamental task is to change it, and that means changing the ideas and beliefs that people hold alongside changing the material conditions in which they live (one can hardly achieve one of these goals without the other).
In trying to find to find the correct relationship to the masses and their beliefs, communists must be careful to avoid both the errors of tailism and commandism. Lenin first described tailism in What Is To Be Done as a description of the way certain followers of economism refused to try to raise the consciousness of the workers, instead tailing behind the ‘organic’ development of the workers in trade union organizing. Mao described tailism succinctly in On Coalition Government when he wrote:
Tailism in any type of work is also wrong, because in falling below the level of political consciousness of the masses and violating the principle of leading the masses forward it reflects the disease of dilatoriness. Our comrades must not assume that the masses have no understanding of what they themselves do not yet understand. It often happens that the masses outstrip us and are eager to advance a step when our comrades are still tailing behind certain backward elements, for instead of acting as leaders of the masses such comrades reflect the views of these backward elements and, moreover, mistake them for those of the broad masses.
For Mao, tailism occurs both as an underestimation of the actual consciousness of the masses and as a form of laziness that rejects the responsibility of communist leadership, instead simply following the lead of the masses. Mao correctly notes that often times communist cadre are surprised to discover that the masses are far more advanced and eager for revolutionary action than they are assumed to be. He also suggests in this quote that the goal of communists should be to find and lead the most advanced elements of the masses instead of falling behind the leadership of the most backwards and reactionary components of the masses.
Tailism is a constant risk for communists, especially those organizing in North America. Anti-communist ideology runs deep here, and the masses have been subjected to a lifetime of indoctrination and propaganda. It can be profoundly difficult to build bridges with the masses while maintaining a Marxist line. We often see the successes of social democrats and liberals in gaining followers and assume that compromising our line might be a necessary step to reach the masses. This makes tailism not only something which we can accidentally slide into, but an alluring strategy for many Marxists.
Dirtbags and Chauvinists
One of the most visible instances of tailism within the North American socialist movement today is the so called “Dirtbag Left.” The term was first used by Amber Frost of Chapo Traphouse, a vaguely DSA affiliated podcast. Amber herself has embraced a particularly chauvinist line, insisting on the use of slurs and general edginess in place of revolutionary political content. The Dirtbag Left extends beyond Chapo Trap House, with other podcasts such as Red Scare, Dead Pundits Society, and Cum Town often being associated with the term.
Unsurprisingly, the only organizational correlate to this largely online subculture exists within the Democratic Socialists of America. While the DSA is highly internally fractured, there are certain right wing elements which associate to varying degrees with the Dirtbag Left. Chapo Trap House is a nominally DSA affiliated podcast, and Red Scare has some popularity among the right of the DSA. Furthermore, the Dirtbag Left subreddit /r/stupidpol is primarily centered around opposing “identity politics” within the DSA from a right opportunist and chauvinist position.
More concretely, the recently formed Class Unity caucus within the DSA has positioned itself as a representative of “Normie Socialism” within the organization. Normie Socialism is itself a term coined by the Dead Pundits Society podcast. While Class Unity is correct that the DSA is dominated by petty-bourgeois individuals and rejects mass struggle against capitalism, they ultimately only offer more tailist and opportunist solutions to these problems.
Class Unity frames their article as a response to certain events that transpired at the DSA national conference. In particular, their article title Let Them Clap is a reference to a now infamous clip from the conference in which a speaker requests that people not clap (instead using ASL clapping) because the noise from it can be difficult for people with sensory processing disorders or autism to deal with. This clip received mockery from both the right and the “left,” with Tucker Carlson mocking it on his show and former Dead Pundit Society cohost Aimee Terese claiming that Tucker had successfully made a critique of DSA “from the left”.
Aimee and her fellow chauvinists associated with the Dirtbag Left (including Aimee’s former DPS cohost Adam Proctor) have pointed to the video in question as evidence of an out of touch “radical liberal” subculture obsessed with social justice at the cost of alienating workers. In essence, the problem they see with the video is that it is weird and out of touch.
On the one hand, it is true that there is an activist subculture focused on reproducing organizational projects totally disconnected from the masses. This subculture does often opportunistically weaponize identity in order to silence opposition, and it does often alienate those who are not familiar with its insular norms. This is a real problem that needs to be addressed.
On the other hand, questions of accessibility are important. Many of our comrades are disabled in various ways, and disabled people have a vested interest in organizing around the overthrow of the capitalist system which treats bodies as productivity machines with an accompanying set of expectations regarding ability. Our organizing meetings must be open to and built to accommodate the needs of disabled comrades.
Given that both these concerns are relevant and legitimate, we must ask if the Dirtbag Left is correct that they are at odds with each other. The Dirtbag Left assumes that the discussions of accessibility are an example of out of touch subcultural fixations on identity, but this is not the case. In fact, many disabled workers would likely be particularly excited to see their needs being considered at a socialist meeting. The proof that the Dirtbag Left points to in order to substantiate their claim that these concerns alienate the masses is the response of certain right wing social commentators. Chauvinists like Terese look to Tucker Carlson’s mockery of the DSA as evidence of this, as if the opinion of fascists ought to be used as a gauge of the left’s connection to the masses. Another popular chauvinist associate with the Dirtbag Left is Angela Nagle, who went a step beyond Terese and actually went on Carlson’s show to mock the DSA convention. Why exactly would socialists not only look to the opinions of fascists, but go a step further and collaborate with them when trying to demonstrate that concerns for accessibility are alienating to the masses?
The simple answer is that the Dirtbag Left and the various opportunists who orbit it are plagued by the cancer of tailism. They assume that the masses themselves are mostly dominated by reactionary sentiments, and that fascist figures like Tucker Carlson somehow speak for the masses. These same opportunists often argue that the working masses constituted the social base for the rise of Trump, and must be one over to the left by appealing to their reactionary attitudes. There is of course no evidence of this. Most of the marginalized masses in our society do not vote for either republicans or democrats, and many are fed up with the political system of capitalist democracy and are in search of something better. Furthermore, we know that the idea that the Trump election somehow demonstrated that the working poor was by and large invested in fascism is based on a misreading of polling data. There is no reason to think that Trump or Carlson speak for the masses today, and there is no reason to think that the masses are irreparably steeped in reactionary ideology.
The assumption that the masses are by and large reactionary, and that we must tail them by failing to challenge their reactionary ideas and attitudes is exactly the phenomena Mao warns us about. How can we not think of the Dirtbag Left when we read Mao’s complaints that “our comrades are still tailing behind certain backward elements, for instead of acting as leaders of the masses such comrades reflect the views of these backward elements…” The Dirtbag Left looks to the most backwards and reactionary workers (mostly white settlers) and argues that we must center them in our organizing. This leads them to conclude that fascists like Carlson do in fact speak for the masses. They assume that attempts to address other forms of oppression on the basis of race, ability, or gender will necessarily drive away workers, because they assume that the most reactionary workers are representative of the masses on the whole. This is a huge mistake and a cancerous idea that infects all segments of the American left.
This tailist position assumes that disability issues are a side concern which should be separated from socialist organizing because they distract from class issues and make workers feel uncomfortable. This is a huge mistake as The American Community Survey estimated that over 1 in 10 (12.8%) Americans is disabled. The median income of disabled Americans is “$22,047, about two-thirds of the median earnings of people without disabilities,” meaning that disabled people also have a vested interest in opposition to our current capitalist system. Disabled people are a crucial population for organizing. This is a sizable chunk of the population that cannot be mobilized if we do not pay attention to accessibility in our organizing. It would be a mistake grounded in the most crass chauvinism and tailism to ignore the needs or disabled people in our organizational spaces because fascists and reactionaries think its weird and make fun of us for it.
This analysis is equally applicable to questions of race. The dirtbag left has consistently opposed an emphasis on race and decolonization as instances of “radical liberalism.” Again, the assumption at play is that these issues decenter class struggle and alienate workers. This claim that an emphasis on race alienates workers of course must assume the default worker to by white, as black and indigenous workers would be more likely to be attracted to our organizing if their needs were specifically addressed. This assumption reveals the fundamental mistake of the Dirtbag Left and their particular brand of tailism: they assume that the segments of the masses which are most reactionary in their outlook (white settler men) represent the default worker we must organize around, as if the movement against capitalism in the Americas has not been led by black and indigenous movements mobilizing against white supremacy and settler colonialism. The future of socialist organizing does not lie in appeals to the most reactionary and backwards workers but in organizing in solidarity with oppressed nations, disabled people, and all the most marginalized who have the most interest in seeing the capitalist world system overthrown.
It is true that the American left is trapped in the reproduction of an insular left wing activist subculture that alienates many, but this is because the American left does not actually serve the people, instead opting for organizing projects that build new NGOs, create new front groups, and endlessly lead protests. The American lefts insular subculture can only be addressed through direct connections with the masses, by hearing their needs and meeting them, and by educating them in scientific socialism. The mass line must be studied by all American socialists so that we can build real connections that transcend our subcultural insularity.
We cannot, however, build connections with the masses by refusing to challenge reactionary ideology and attitudes or by ignoring the needs of our disabled or racially marginalized comrades simply because meeting their needs might make white settlers uncomfortable. We will never build connections with the masses of oppressed nations who daily fight against white supremacy and settler colonialism if we decide that Tucker Carlson’s opinions ought to guide our approach to organizing.
There is much to criticize the DSA for. While it has many internal factions, it mostly functions and the national level as the left wing of the democratic party, and pulls in radicals who attempt to change it from the inside instead of engaging directly with the masses through mass work. I do not write this to defend the DSA or their convention, but to point out the cancerous ideology that has infected their critics on the Dirtbag Left.
The future is not with reactionaries and tailists, it is with the masses. Leave the Dirtbag Left in the past. Isolate them and combat their tendency. They have nothing to offer us, and will only lead us down the road of chauvinism and opportunism.
A HUGE THANKS TO MY PATRONS
HN , Al Ostapeck, Josh Bohde, Declan Patrick, das chunk, Cassandra , Feli Citas, Kara Black, Rohan, silverwilt, Nate Stott, Judith Cylon, Communist Histories, Gregory Kikola, Klara, Cody J Miller, Houston Noble, Layne Lebahn, Always your comrade, Josué Casillas, Bradford, d-lang, Sarah Hennessy, Jonathan reasor, Jason, Claire Valentin, Trace Marsing, Izzy Demmon, Nicole Woodruff, Lynn Avery, Andrew Medina, Matthew Thurman, Liam Kelly, Max Harley, jordan hoxsie, Faustyn, Nicholas Sorg, Cassandra, Stephen A. Goss, beatrice, seл, Virginia kerr, Johannes , jen m.m., Winter Amygdala, Devin Fitzpatrick, alex baldwin, Edith Lagos, Shelly Carpenter, Z9, Nabilah Nor Shahrin, Vicky Zhuang, EVV, Charles shropshire, Ryan W, Nicky Clark, Kaylee Forge, Kasmira Stockton, Hannah Cheeto