The Left has more writers than we know what to do with. Seriously, we’re all opinionated and we all want to express that opinion and have everyone else tell us just how brilliant we are. I think we all secretly imagine that years from now, people will be hosting little reading groups to study our work, just like we pour over Marx and Engels. We think if we could just write convincingly enough, then we’d somehow silence the endless drone of the neoliberal media and awaken the proletariat to rise up against the bourgeoisie. Instead, however, we just end up talking to each other in a small, niche little circle that never seems to expand.
The Left doesn’t need anymore writers. Really, we’ve got more than enough of them. We all want to be writers, but for every one of us who wants to be writers, what we really and truly need is someone who’s willing to do the hard work of organizing. It’s one thing to write about the world and how it should be. Writing is, in that sense, easy. It’s neat and tidy. Construct an argument, get it published by a magazine or website in which the readership will more or less agree with you anyway, and then pat yourself on the back for having supposedly done something to help the world.
In reality, however, nothing is ever that neat and tidy. Organizing people involves crafting a strategy and then figuring out how people fit into that strategy. Organizing involves mobilizing people, encouraging them, thanking them, reminding them, and prodding them. Organizing is messy—people’s feelings get hurt, people don’t want to do what you want them to do, and there are frequent disagreements. Organizing involves reaching out to people who may not agree with you and attempting to work with them anyway. It isn’t always ideologically pure. Organizing also means working toward a desired outcome, and if that outcome isn’t reached, then there’s the risk of failure. The Left doesn’t need writers. It needs people to take on the tiresome, messy, thankless work of organizing.
And yet, here I am, writing.
My excuse is that I’ve done the organizing thing, and I’m absolute shit at it. And if I ever actually publish this article, I know that this is the point at which many of my comrades will disagree. They’ll tell me that I’m a fabulous organizer. They’ll remind me of all the leadership and effort I put into spearheading a Washington, DC, campaign for Bernie Sanders’ presidency. They’ll applaud me for creating flyers and posters and coordinating events. They’ll tell me that I energized the organization and gave it a sense of purpose and cohesion.
The truth is, however, that I’m not. I’m too timid to really push my views on people because I’m afraid of being seen as pushy or fake. I don’t trust people to carry out tasks competently, so I attempt to do them all myself, get overwhelmed, and then flake at the last minute. I procrastinate. I’m dreadful at convincing people to adopt my point of view, so much so that I doubt I could convince a starving person to eat a bowl of rice. I honestly don’t even particularly like people—they can be opinionated and rude and disagreeable and at the end of the day, I’d much rather interact with fictional characters in a book or television show than I would deal with the emotions and desires and needs of real, living people. I’m an awful organizer, but simply because I’ve stepped up and attempted to organize people, when otherwise no one else would have done anything at all, means that something was accomplished rather than nothing at all. In the sense that I did something, rather than nothing, I’m an okay organizer.
My point is, if I can be a somewhat competent organizer, that is, if I can attempt to motivate people and accomplish something rather than nothing at all, then anyone else on the Left can be an organizer. Seriously, yes, you reading this piece, you can be an organizer. I’m telling you that if I’ve done it, you can too. Don’t think that I have some sort of inherent ability that you don’t have or some sort of magical insight that’s not accessible to you. You are just as capable of being an organizer as I am. In all likelihood, you’d be better at it than me! And that’s a good thing!
It’s difficult, of course. I won’t lie and say that it’s easy or fun. Most of the time it’s a slog, and people will be much more likely to criticize you for what they think you’re doing wrong than thank you for what you’re doing right. (Note to fellow organizers: always thank everyone profusely and often for what they do, no matter how trivial it seems. A little “Thank you!” goes a very long way. And if you can make people feel appreciated, they’re much more likely to continue working with your organization and helping you out. Showing appreciation is one of the few aspects of organizing that I am actually good at, and it requires very little effort.) And most of the time, anyone who engages in organizing won’t feel like you are doing much right. Every campaign could have been run better. Ever action could have been better planned. Every event will have some small but vital detail that’s overlooked until the last minute. Looking back on activities and performing a post-mortem on them to see how they could be improved for next time is a valuable exercise, but it can also feel like self-flagellation, especially if you’re already prone to insecurity (like me!).
Being an organizer also means taking risks, the biggest of which being failure. I attempted to organize Metro DC Democratic Socialists of America’s campaign for Bernie Sanders, and Bernie Sanders did not win the Democratic Primary. I also attempted to unionize my previous workplace, and we lost the union vote. Campaigns don’t always have positive outcomes. The good guys don’t always win. And justice doesn’t always rule the day. This demoralized feeling seems especially pertinent to the Left, which has a history of near misses and almosts and has-beens in the United States. We almost had single-payer healthcare—until we got the Affordable Care Act instead. We almost had universal childcare—but then Nixon vetoed it. We almost had the Equal Rights Amendment too, for all its flaws, but it’s still languishing in the ratification process. On the Left, most of our stories are of attempts rather than wins. We often find ourselves waiting rather than celebrating. We’re remarkably hopeful, given our background of being repressed and beaten down, but sometimes that hope can wear thin.
Perhaps we’re all so drawn to writing because it gives us hope. Maybe we think that if we can put our ideals and visions into words, maybe somehow they can become reality.
Writing isn’t enough, though. If we want to actually make all of our utopian writings reality, then we are going to have to act. And we’re going to have to act now, because we are currently living in the darkest era our country has perhaps ever experienced. Even the paltry gains and compromises that we’ve won are threatened. We’ve fought so long to take our government back from the pockets of the One Percent to give it back to the Ninety-Nine Percent, and yet now our Commander-in-Chief is the One Percent, and he’s lining up his Cabinet members to privatize what public goods we still have left.
Just writing isn’t going to save us. It’s not enough anymore to keep our ideas alive in little reading groups and academic enclaves. If we’re going to turn these ideas into policy, then we need action. We need to protest. We need to fundraise. We need to swallow our pride and actually engage in electoral politics to push moderate politicians to the Left and maybe even get some third party candidates elected in safe districts. We need to tell our elected officials what we think, and that means making calls and showing up at local government meetings. We need to have difficult conversations with liberals and moderates and, yes, even conservatives. In short, we need to organize.
It’s going to be hard, and there is the very real possibility that we will fail. But if we do something, then there’s a chance that we might achieve some of our goals. There’s the chance that we could build a movement with real political clout that could implement our agenda. If we act, there’s the chance that we might win, however slim a chance it may be. If we do nothing, however, we’re conceding our country to the wealthy, and we will fail.
I’d much rather sit in front of my laptop and write, but the Left doesn’t need more writers. The Left needs organizers. Will you join me?