From “bread-and-butter issues” to “the end of history.” From NGOs to those “not-political” people to confederate generals…We’ve got a problem and all the solutions end with -ism.
Imagine for a moment that you’re stranded on a desert island. You’ve been shipwrecked, washed ashore. You have your health and you have supplies for the time being but your vessel is smashed and there is no shelter from the glaring sun. You have all the wood, nails, saws, know-how, everything you need to make a sturdy little abode — comfortable even. You could make it big or small, simple or complex, you could paint it if you want. You’ve got options. Except every time you look at a hammer you can’t help but throw it into the waves. This simple, elegant, necessary tool provokes such fear and disgust, that you can’t even look at it. It drives you mad to the point where you’re trying to slap nails into 2x4s with your bare hands until your palms are bloody and useless. Days later you’re found. You’ve succumbed to exposure looking like a lobster, sunburned to a crisp with mangled claws where your hands used to be.
You don’t hear people expressing whole-sale rejections of “all the -isms” as much as you used to. That particular phrase may have had its heyday in the 90s. But all too often it feels like those folks won. While there has been a moderate surge in people identifying themselves as some form of socialist or abolitionist or anarchist (or capitalist) over the past year, and feminist for a little while longer, most talk of these kinds of -isms is derisive and many see them as mere labels to either low-key avoid or collect like playing cards, to supplement their identity, without really engaging with what they mean or god forbid organizing collectively to make them manifest. Broad, derisive and often purposefully obtuse terms like “woke” and “tankie” hinder necessary conversations by obscuring and lumping together all kinds of ideas, with these terms often meaning different things to different people in our fractured discourse.
But if we are to radically change the world for the better, with all the force urgently required by our circumstances, we need to bring all the positive force of -ism back into everyday discourse. Bring it back with a vengeance. The point isn’t that all -isms are good, but that we need to bring back the descriptor in its full meaning. Not as a way to dismiss an idea or shove it in a box, but as a way to collectively dig into ideas and have any real kind of constructive social conversation. In this sense, not only do we have to bring back old -isms but we need to make new ones! We need to rid ourselves of the *individualism* (and use that term to effectively dissect that phenomenon) that claims every idea as something original and outside categorization, and that prevents us from seeing meaningful patterns on every scale minuscule to global, every day to epoch-shaping.
Let’s dissect why Twitter promotes “lefter-than-thou-ism,” how thats a particular reflection of the individualism and the lack of vision and the low sights of American liberalism and leftism, how it brings people down without any positives, and how destructive it is on organizational and ideological levels, rooted in the notion that the world can’t be changed and we just have to carve out our personal brand or lucrative niche. Let’s talk about racism — not *only* as an accusation and conversation-ender, a way to dismiss or shun something that is racist (all of which is often necessary) but to deepen our collective understanding and see how it fits together with the broader picture of white supremacy, national oppression, and capitalism-imperialism. Lets talk about communist internationalism — what it means that we are bound together, the morality of that, even discussing the competing notions of that between Connely-ism and Lenin-ism or, dare I say it, Avakian-ism or even the eclectic muck that is Marcy-ism. Let’s nail down Chomsky-ism and Davis-ism, which many, many people follow no matter what they think they’re doing (and which I’ll return to later in this piece). The fact that public intellectuals may develop -isms about them (whether they like it or not) isn’t a commentary on the essence of these people as individuals. Nor do they have -isms because all their ideas are original, or because they’ve brainwashed their followers; but because they put together certain ideas with certain methods in ways that either offer deep insight into how the world actually works or that obscure it, often some of both. They may uniquely connect to how many people see the world or they may be ignored, and either way they may be consequential. And if we want to have meaningful conversations about that, accurately defining and portraying their -isms can contribute enormously to that.
Sometimes personal -isms may have an advantage over constructed -isms. Angela Davis professes abolitionism but if you take on the entirety of abolitionism by dissecting Davis-ism, someone can come out of left field with a revolutionary or anarchist interpretation of “abolition” or something that Gilmore or almost any academic left of Bernie Sanders has said in the last few years. They might be mutually exclusive to Davis’ work but still fall under the name abolitionism and instead of debating ideas to find the truth you end up aimlessly throwing around ideas that sound half-good. Especially when dealing with liberal ideas, prominent individuals are forced to have somewhat more consistency than their broad schools of thought or vague terminology. And we have this beautiful, simple three-letter tool with almost endless possibilities that can help us navigate these abstractions like nothing else.
These examples just scratch the surface of what we can constructively talk about — and do — if we unleash the -isms.
-Isms are modes of thinking, worldviews, theories, ideologies, the different logics that we use to make sense of the world and if we are lucky, to create the world anew. -Isms can be wildly out of sync with reality, leaping off the edge of evidence and facts and critical thinking, hoping that the bungee cord of society is strong enough to keep one from hitting the rocks and smashing their head wide open, and maybe even to reel one back in. Or an -ism can correspond with reality, providing structure so that correct ideas are able to make sense and function in the world, taking society itself to new heights, even reshaping the -ism itself in light of new evidence or better methodology.
And let’s talk about what happens if we keep this tool locked away.
With the demise of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, the American empire-sanctioned thought-leader Francis Fukuyama declared the “end of history.” This framed the new age of unchallenged empire in the imaginations of millions. And it helped usher in a new wave of anti-ideological thought (wrap your head around that). “At the end of history,” he wrote, “it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society.” He said that any attempt to improve upon his favored liberal society — a hegemonic empire reigning over a world of slums and preventable disease, faceless oppression and exploitation, with extreme wealth concentrated in the hands of a few backed by enormous military might with absolute poverty stretching over huge sections of the globe — was merely pretentious, using “ideology” as a scheme to cover the same selfishness that capitalism openly bases itself in.
But this was not an original idea. Similarly (though not the same), every fascist movement claims that they are merely returning to the natural order; that outside, novel ideas are what has messed everything up. Look at the fascist attachment to conspiracy theories for starters. Systems are never the problem — merely conniving conspirators and once they are exterminated the worthy can live happily ever after. Or go even further back. The defeated confederates rarely framed their struggle as a fight to create or advance something, only as a return to what they framed and may well have understood as the natural order free of outside ideas. Any notion of Black humanity was alien, an imposed -ism, and any rebellion on the part of Black people was due to outside agitators. Ta-Nehisi Coates has collected key statements of the confederates in their own words in his article “What This Cruel War Was Over” for the Atlantic. Let’s take a walk through this history and marvel at their references to “an imperious law of nature (that) none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun,” that an attack on slavery was an attack on civilization on the one hand while on the other what the union demanded was nothing less than “submission to the mandates of abolition.” Writing on behalf of the confederate governor of Alabama, Stephen Hale explained “among the Republican party, the election of Mr. Lincoln is hailed, not simply as [a] change of Administration, but as the inauguration of new principles, and a new theory of Government…”, one which the north had declared war in the pursuit of. If you believe that your ideal society is simply the natural state of things, it follows that any consciously developed frame of thought is alien, invasive, at best something to use defensively. But if you see that there is no human nature, that we are all in this together without a rule book but with the tools to figure things out and create something worthy of our children, then clearly such -isms are vitally necessary and really fucking exciting. The confederates’ self-proclaimed anti-ideology is echoed in those who later attempted to reframe “the war of northern aggression” as an attack on states rights and who today fly the confederacy’s flags and defend their monuments but, of course, aren’t doing so to promote white supremacy and racism. No, they have no agenda. They are merely “celebrating their heritage.”
What’s behind the fear of -isms?
Capitalism-imperialism provides the structure to the lives of billions of people on this planet. It is alienating and atomizing in every regard from survival to culture to philosophy, all enforced by brute force. It compels people first this way and then that and then both at the same time without any kind of warning or guide, or even acknowledgement. The notion of people consciously and voluntarily changing things is alien to all of this. The notions of appreciating the ideas that most closely correspond to reality, ideas that serve humanity as a whole, wherever they come from, and regardless of profitability, are anathema. When we take -isms seriously, we go beyond irrational fears of outside agitators, beyond the marketplace of ideas, into the scientific clash of ideas to get to the truth.
What happens when -isms are taboo? In these situations we see three dynamics.
- Intellectual discourse is squashed, dreams for a better future become only that — dreams disconnected from current reality.
- Political action focuses on individuals rather than systems, becoming punitive, accusatory, with an endless search for all-but-literal superheroes.
- World views are reduced to competing claims of ‘Blood and soil.”
What can happen when -isms are embraced?
In and of itself, this doesn’t solve much. It gives us a chance. “-ism” isn’t synonymous with idea but when we take isms seriously, what we’re doing is taking ideas seriously. Isms are after all a certain kind of idea. They are ideas with some level of consistent logic. They’re ideas that advocate for one thing over another, whether that’s an understanding, an action or a whole society. Without isms, knowledge becomes a set of facts to collect and horde, creating a false dichotomy between “experts” given authority by the system on one side against marginalized people whose authority can only stem from “lived experience” on the other. What isms provides is the notion that the imperialist-sponsored “experts” could just be wrong, and the marginalized people have the capacity to objectively understand the world.
When we embrace -isms without reserve we have the tools we need to struggle with each other on the level necessary to create change in the real world. When we organize around -isms we can win real power and make new worlds. Without them the best we can do is defer to power and beg for change from the outside, scratching at the doors even though no one’s home to hear us. Dismissing -isms precludes the possibility that we could construct something new. Until we recognize this tool that we have, an abstraction that reflects something fundamental about how ideas work, we’ll just be stuck in willful ignorance and self-induced helplessness, at very best trying to pull down a house with our bare hands til our palms are mangled and bloody and time runs out for us all.
The basis to move forward
These may sound like some good ideas that everyone can agree on. It may sound like an attempt to even the playing field for different kinds of ideas. But if we follow this logic through even a little bit it hopefully becomes clear that those would be illusory goals and not worth chasing in the first place. Because you can’t escape it — any idea to get from one place to another is based in one ism or another.
In writing and revising this I’ve had to come to grips with the fact that the chances of publication on any “left” website or forum are pretty low but they drop significantly lower if I follow this argument through to its clear conclusion. Namely that this argument is not for some neutral ground or “unbiased” perspective, nor does it grow straight out of the earth, but this conception has in fact developed from my erstwhile application of and commitment to the new communism developed by Bob Avakian. This is a cohesive theory with a lot of answers in its own right, but it’s also a theory that embraces the kind of explicit discussion and disagreement and searching for the truth that I’ve been talking about throughout this piece. The epistemology of the new communism — the basis of truth in this -ism — is “both partisan and objective,” which is a phrase taken from Marx himself but given new life by Avakian who states that “everything that is actually true is good for the proletariat… all truths can help us get to communism.” He’s posing our means and ends in opposition to the commodification of and utilitarian approach to truth and ignorance under capitalism. This methodology explicitly grapples with the relationship between certainty — necessary for decisive life-or-death action and necessary to build from one conclusion to the next — and doubt, and the role evidence, power, history, coercion, and the very fabric of society play in that relationship. This is an epistemology and overall ideology that, once in power, can set a framework for a society where people using a broad array of -isms can work productively together towards a deeper collective understanding of reality while also collectively contributing to developing theory amongst the most advanced.
One place this has been laid out is in the “Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America” which goes deep into how that new society could function. This piece of speculative non-fiction stands out sharply against our current reality and even current conversations about “change.” But to be blunt, to imagine getting anywhere near the seizure of power, people need to begin taking up elements of this approach now en masse. The more the new communism is taken up, the more every positive element in society can contribute to real liberation.
Our species has an amazing gift to be able to recognize reality, learn from what we see and hear as well as from others and abstract all that into whole systems of thought. It’s an elegant tool, one which itself reflects something about how the world works. We are capable of doing it in different ways, some of which correspond closer to how reality actually is and some further afield. We have the capacity to get it right or to get it wrong, or to use it for small-minded purposes, or to see what actually exists so clearly that we can imagine and collectively consciously create a different better way to be. Either way, each and every one of our actions are determined by the worldviews we subscribe to. It’s not simply that people often disagree over how to understand the world but that the very nature of our society, divided into exploited and exploiting classes, historically evolved out of ignorance, creates, molds, and reinforces those differences, giving us every reason to deeply interrogate our understanding of the world. In such a world, what legitimate reason could there possibly be to not openly and explicitly discuss how to understand the world? In such a world, how is it even imaginable that we could really enact fundamental change without struggling over what worldview is driving our actions and those changes?