How ideology can help (or hurt) movements trying to build power

Political educator Harmony Goldberg discusses whether the ideological traditions of the left are helpful for practical organizing.

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SOURCEWaging Nonviolence

What is ideology? And why does it matter in social movements?

In comparison with their counterparts in Europe, Latin America and other parts of the world, movements in the United States have tended to be relatively non-ideological — or at least  to present themselves that way. Successive rounds of anti-Communist repression, McCarthyism and Cold War hysteria led many organizers to downplay overt commitments to any established system of leftist thought.

Consistent with this trend, community-based groups in the Alinskyite organizing lineage traditionally emphasized staying away from abstract ideology and instead adopting what they saw as a more pragmatic approach: listening to the demands being expressed in a community and organizing around those issues, rather than bringing in any outside agenda. Elements of the New Left in the 1960s — embedded in the civil rights, student power, antiwar and feminist movements — worked to develop a home-grown version of the American radical tradition that aimed to sidestep the rigid doctrinal debates of earlier generations and instead emphasize participatory democratic processes. Meanwhile, groups that adopted more highly ideological orientations, whether Trotskyist cadre organizations or countercultural anarchist communities, were prone to self-isolation and marginality.

For the political opponents of the left, it has been a different story. Right-wing pundits and politicians have hardly been reticent to push a gospel of “free-market” individualism in the public sphere — and also to build up an infrastructure of magazines, think tanks, policy shops and candidate trainings that could translate their ideas into reality. The result has been a marked imbalance in American life, in which once-fringe conservatives ideas have frequently come to define the mainstream.

Recently, however, there have been signs of positive change. Bernie Sanders and the Squad have helped pave the way for open socialists to win elected seats in multiple levels of government at a scale that has not been seen in a century. Moreover, in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, the Movement for Black Lives and the resistance to Donald Trump, many community-based organizations have been moved to embrace bigger ideas and to connect local campaigns to broader visions of justice and liberation.

In other words, many progressives are taking a new look at the importance of ideology, and they are asking how movements today can use it as a tool to win lasting change.

Longtime political educator Harmony Goldberg has been a leader in encouraging this exploration. Currently the director of praxis at the Grassroots Power Project, Goldberg has been training organizers on political analysis and movement strategy for more than two decades. She began her political work in the Bay Area in the 1990s where she helped found the School of Unity and Liberation, or SOUL. Subsequently, she has worked with organizing networks including the Right to the City Alliance, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and People’s Action.

Having completed a PhD in cultural anthropology from the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, Goldberg was a founding editor of the strategy magazine Organizing Upgrade (now known as Convergence) and is author of the primer Hegemony, War of Position, & Historic Bloc: A Brief Introduction to Antonio Gramsci’s Strategic Concepts.”

Recently, we spoke with Goldberg about ideology and its practical uses — and misuses — for social movements today. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start off with a straightforward question: What is ideology? How would you define it?

Harmony Goldberg headshot

I think there are two overlapping meanings of ideology. The first definition, and the one that people are most often referring to when they use the word “ideology,” is an organized body of political thought that gives us frameworks to help us think about making our political work more effective. For example, we might think about Marxism or anarchism or revolutionary nationalism when we are defining ideology in this way. These explicit and often highly differentiated political ideologies can create lines of differentiation on the left.

In their worst form, these ideologies are treated as universal doctrines that are handed down across time, and they can become a limiting factor in our practical work. In this approach, we may think that ideology itself can give us “the answer.” But in their best form, we can treat these kinds of explicit ideologies as the accumulation of historical knowledge from real-world struggles. When we approach ideology in this way, we see ourselves as being part of an ongoing conversation within a specific political tradition, a conversation between people who may be doing their political work in different conditions but who share a set of tools that help them think about that work in a systematic way. I think that’s the more productive use of explicit ideologies.

Now, the other, simultaneous meaning of “ideology” refers to the ideas that are out there in the world, in popular culture. In this sense of the term, ideology is what we find when we ask, “What are the structures of meaning that people use to make sense of their world?” At the Grassroots Power Project, we will sometimes refer to this broader and more public realm of ideology as “worldview.”  

In this second sense, ideology is not a specialized body of thought. It’s ideas that are all around us in our culture.

Yes. And that’s the focus that theorists such as Antonio Gramsci and Stuart Hall have when they are thinking about ideology. The most important question to them was not what was happening within the self-identified left ideologically, but what was happening ideologically in the broader society. In my opinion, this is the fundamental question we should be focusing on when we think about ideology in our movements.

But I think it’s important to say that this is not usually how we’re deploying the term “ideology” in the United States. We’re usually deploying it in a left-facing, in-group, line-drawing sort of way, without paying attention to these structures of meaning in broader society. That’s one reason we end up in strategic impasses when we think about the role of ideology in social movements.

What has your experience doing popular education with movement groups been like? Are there things that you’ve seen work and that people really latch on to?

During my early years in the Bay Area youth movement, when I was helping to build SOUL, I was also a member of STORM, Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement, and that shaped my early radicalism. During that period, I was forming my own political ideology. while I was also training other people politically. And my comrades and I were often focused on, “What is the most correct analysis? And how do we communicate that as broadly as possible?” And when your social movement work is with young people, and particularly with young people from oppressed communities, we can all move very left very quickly.

Now what did we mean by “most correct”? We usually meant, “What is the most accurate critique of the system?” and “What is the most left position?” That focus had some real pay-offs: We worked hard to integrate radical critiques of patriarchy and white supremacy into our critique of capitalism. We worked to develop an analysis that was internationalist in orientation. I still agree with a lot of those positions. They have helped me understand our world in a powerful way.

But I would say that, in retrospect, I look back at that time, and I now see that I had a tendency to think that the job of political education was to help people develop the best critique, either of society or of the rest of the left. It was sort of a “the truth shall set us free” orientation. Like, “if we are correct, then we will win.” So our job was to get people as correct as possible.

Today, I don’t think that is the kind of political education that strengthens the impact of left organizers within social movements or within working class communities. Instead, it can encourage people to work to develop a “purity” orientation that can make them not want to work with anybody who doesn’t agree with them on every question. That makes it incredibly difficult to build power, and it makes it nearly impossible to relate to poor and working-class communities as they really are. 

A Marxist bloc marching in London.
A Marxist bloc marching in London. (Flickr/Socialist Appeal)

What is your perspective now on the purpose of political education?

At the Grassroots Power Project, we’ve actually started to call this area of work “strategic education” to clarify that our work is not to help people develop the strongest critique, but rather to help them develop as strategists. Our job is to figure out how to make people as ambitious and as strategically oriented to building power as possible.

Even when we’re looking at critiques of racial capitalism or patriarchy, for example, our job is to look at those systems from the angle of “How can we increase our peoples’ ambitions and capacities to build more power among poor and working people?”

When we are developing ideological study or political education, we should always force ourselves to start with the question: “What’s the strategic intervention we’re trying to move?” And therefore, “What are we teaching that moves people in that direction, and how are we teaching it?” There’s always a focus on strategy, ambition and impact. That is very different from starting with, “What’s the correct position and the correct analysis? What is the most left stance?” My belief is that those don’t need to be oppositional questions in the end, but the first set of questions will be more effective in strengthening our ability to have impact in the real world.

Let us play devil’s advocate and take the position of those who would say that ideology isn’t necessary or that it doesn’t really matter for movements. I see this coming from a few different places. One is the Alinskyite tradition of community organizing, which focuses on listening to and organizing around the issues that people in the community articulate themselves, rather than having organizers come in with a predetermined set of beliefs.

How would you respond to that sort of baseline position, which might see itself as a bias toward pragmatism over ideology?

I don’t think that pure anti-ideological stance has as much hold today as it did in the 1940s or the 1970s, when it emerged in backlash to left movements. Community organizing has been evolving through its own experience with the changing political landscape. Even very “pragmatic” organizers have moved left over the past decade or so. Because it’s actually pragmatically necessary to address the fact that our enemy has been waging a class war and a racial agenda against us, and they’ve been winning. 

For example, People’s Action is a network that came out of that kind of tradition, and the Grassroots Power Project has worked really closely with them as they’ve gone through a process of change on this front. 

How would you characterize that process?

When we started working with one of their legacy organizations — National People’s Action, as it was known back then — we helped their organizers and leaders to think about the political terrain that they’d been fighting on for the past 20 or 30 years. We heard that they’d been caught in defensive battles to protect gains that had already been won, and that opportunities to make more positive advances were disappearing.

We did trainings about how that came to be: because a set of billionaires and corporate leaders had an explicit ideology and strategy that they have been pushing for the past 40 years, in alliance with social conservatives and white nationalists. Those actors accomplished a radical reorganization of our economy and society — what we usually call “neoliberalism.” And that shaped the political terrain that all these single-issue battles are fought on. They made it so that community groups couldn’t actually win their campaigns in the same way that they did in the 1960s or even the 1980s.  

And central to that strategy was that these neoliberals reshaped the terrain of meaning out in the world, what we called the broader use of the term “ideology.” They’ve made it so that individualism and free market ideas are just overwhelmingly dominant in the public debate.

Looking at this helped People’s Action’s organizers and leaders to see that we’re going to be in trouble if we don’t have a public “ideology” that is a counter to that. That didn’t mean that they were going to adopt an explicit formal ideology and have all of their members start reading groups to study “Capital.”It was more like, “Okay, we need to fight on this terrain of ideas. We need to tell a different story about race in this country, about government, about the relationship between different communities of poor and working people and about our antagonism with the corporations.”

These were ideas that were already in the DNA of People’s Action. But these processes of reflection and training have made them more clear and full-throated. It helped them to commit to entering into the fight to reshape ideology in the public sphere. They call this the “battle of big ideas.” 

What has the right done that is ideological that the left doesn’t do?

The right’s ideological work faces outward, which is different from the left, whose ideology often ends up facing inward. We can see the impact of their work to influence public ideology and reshape public narratives over time. It’s all of Ronald Reagan’s lines: “Government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem.” It’s “trickle-down” economics and the idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” The ideology of neoliberalism had its formal tenets outlined primarily by academics, but politicians and strategic communicators also shaped them. Those tenets provided a guiding structure for what the right pushed as public narrative.

That ideology has a political-economic assessment of the nature of the system. It has political-economic aspirations. And it has a strategic orientation about how to achieve those aspirations. So they have a set of ideas — an ideology — that they’re moving. Not only do they have ideas, but they’ve systematically invested in building a media infrastructure. They have a set of shared, strategic practices that they use to engage with the world.

Getting back to being a devil’s advocate, people who see themselves as more pragmatic still might look at the left and say, “Well, these overly ideological groups on the left come in and they don’t meet people where they’re at.” Or, “They’re bad at forming coalitions, because they have this whole set of litmus tests about their beliefs, and they don’t want to work with other people who might have some disagreements.” So how do you address those kinds of problems with ideology?

I think these are real issues. That’s why I say it’s important for us to be clear about what we mean by ideology — and about what is a functional use of ideology in political work. It’s correct to say that the things you described are dysfunctional uses of ideology in political work. A functional use would be listening to where people are at and figuring out how to make that part of your mission.

Communists in the 1930s listened to what people were wanting and fought on those issues. But they had a framework that they put those issues into, and they had a process that they moved people through over time to understand where those issues really came from. So I think there’s a way to be rooted in popular struggle and also have an ideological framework.

On the left in the United States, we frankly have all kinds of ideological debates without caring about the working class at all. I think an anti-capitalist politic that does not care about the working class is never going to succeed. And that’s dominant on the left at this moment.

What’s an example you see of people having ideology but not caring about the working class?

The language that people use is one example. People learned terminology in college or in study groups, and it is often clarifying and helpful terminology in that context. But instead of listening to where people are at and translating those ideas so that they feel relevant in more everyday contexts, they use that same terminology that they learned in school or in study groups. Another example is all of the political purity tests that take place inside of organizations today. We can also see it in the tendency of organizations to face inwards and engage in endless ideological debates, instead of facing outwards toward communities.

Now that is not inevitable. As I’ve said, I think that we can “do” ideology in ways that are grounded in reality, that are outward-facing and that are impactful on broader conditions. There are methods for that, but they require some real discipline and structure. They require a deep commitment to the difficult spadework of changing the mass nature of politics in this country. And they require the intention to orient towards poor and working people, towards the people as a whole.

Ideology can orient us in either direction, and it depends on how we approach it. There are organizations that are grappling with these tensions in an honest and productive way, even when it gets messy. Dream Defenders has been a good example of that honest grappling with this difficult contradiction. To address strategic questions they were grappling with as they became a leading force in the Movement for Black Lives, they took up a study of more formal ideologies. That helped them answer some political and strategic questions. They then took a breath and looked up and realized, “We have become more alienated from the base that we should be trying to develop. Let’s work to correct that.” That’s the dynamic and mass-facing approach to ideological work that we need to encourage.

Are there other groups beyond the Dream Defenders you see out there that inspire you?

There are a lot of hopeful seeds out there. I’d call them seeds. I think People’s Action has numerous examples of this. They have Alinskyite organizing principles in their history — or you could just call it a “base-building” DNA. That organizing model has historically trashed electoral work, because it saw it as something that would get you to buy into the system as opposed to keeping people as direct action warriors. But they’ve started investing more in political work. Because their analysis of the neoliberal strategy led them to recognize that they want to keep the direct action work alive, but they also want to shape the agenda. And that’s going to require them to take on political work.

So they’re saying, “We’re going to overcome this purist, direct action versus electoral-organizing division, and we’re going to build an electoral program because we’ve gone through a political assessment about what’s needed.” And I think that’s a good example of maturing. I think People’s Action has been broadening their scope of organizing because of what I would consider not so much an explicit ideology, but a functional ideology.

I have also seen many organizers mature through their engagement with LeftRoots which has taken hundreds of organizers — mainly organizers from oppressed communities — through a process of study and reflection on strategy. This has helped to ground people in the bigger picture while they do their organizing in more specific conditions. 

Among these community organizing groups that have shown increasing interest in electoral politics over the past decade, we’ve seen an effort to create models of how we can elect people who will be “movement candidates” or “movement politicians.” Do you think having some sort of explicit ideological program is part of what might make a movement politician behave differently in office than just a standard elected official?

I think this is a good example of why ideology matters. When elected officials go into office, if they know that the dominant approach to governance today is based on a neoliberal ideology, they will be much more prepared to navigate those dynamics than somebody who thinks, “I have good ideas. I’m going to go in and implement my agenda.”

When electeds go into office knowing that they’re up against an opposing ideology, they can understand that this is going to be a long-term project, and that they can’t just put out the right idea and expect to succeed. They’re going to need a real base of people to come along with them, to help expand the edges of what is possible. And elected officials are going to have to use their bully pulpit to promote our ideas and help to bring that larger base into being. Because our enemies have an agenda, and they have institutions that are actively moving that opposing agenda.

When elected officials understand what they’re going to come up against once they’re inside, it helps them and it helps the organizations that they’re allied with to navigate the tensions in a more deliberate way. So the electeds need an “ideology,” and so do the groups that bring them to power. For example, if you have a clear sense of the nature of the state in our capitalist society, you’re not going to have that illusion that one person is going to go in there and just hold their line and succeed because their ideas are correct.

Now I don’t think we have enough of a coherent ideology for electeds to say, “And here’s the thing we’re advancing instead.” Our agenda is more organic right now. It’s nascent, but it’s not systematic. I think we would actually do well to have a clear agenda that we’re all trying to move. But that’s not the state of our work right now.

In terms of your ideal vision for training or popular education, what would it look like if social movements were doing it well?

In my ideal situation, I think there would be clear political interventions that would be intentionally cross-organizational to help systematize and manifest the relationships between issues — in the sense of, “We are all trying to reclaim government for the common good. We are trying to advance this story of race, class and gender in the United States. Now how do we do that in a way that’s owned by multiple organizations that are trying to do real work on the ground?”

It would create an aligned “governing paradigm” that we’re all advancing that takes us beyond neoliberalism. And the training would serve as an inroad for thousands of people to plug into that aligned work, across issues and constituencies. 

As an example of this kind of approach, we can look at the role that Americans for Prosperity plays on the right. Conservatives go into their training programs from across different right-wing issue areas, and they come out fused into unitary warriors for a common paradigm, with shared values and methodologies.

We need our own version of that. The right is doing a different version of class politics that is, frankly, terrifying. We need something else that can speak to working-class people across race and region. The Democrats aren’t going to do it. We need to be out there trying to win people over, not to win the left over.

Research assistance provided by Sean Welch and Sophia Zaia.

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