We’re constantly being told that our problems can be solved by imagination, big ideas, and creativity. It seems that creative new ideas will not only solve the climate crisis but eliminate extreme inequality and even triumph over race hate. Weirdly, this appeal to “think big” and be “imaginative” unites everyone from tech giants to socialist activists, mainstream politicians, and “luxury communists.”
This apparent unity prevents us from seeing how severe the underlying conflicts over capitalism, borders, migration, and resources really are. Division recedes from view, hidden by the fantasy that there could be some idea big enough, creative enough, and imaginative enough to solve all our problems — seemingly instantaneously.
Such is the illusion driving the appeal to imagination. But the reality is that we face fundamental conflicts over the future of our societies and our world. Social change isn’t painless. We need to accept the reality of division, know whose side we are on, and fight to strengthen that side. We don’t need to convince everyone. Rather, we need to convince enough people to carry out the struggle and win.
Big ideas are nothing without cadre to fight for them. Yet too much of the contemporary left, particularly in the UK and US, has failed to develop and sustain strong, committed, organized fighters. The discipline of collective work on behalf of a shared goal has been replaced by an individualist rhetoric of comfort and self-care.
This rhetoric, and the practices it recommends, respond to a real problem — the scarcity of political organizations that are meaningful for their members and supportive of their needs. Absent such organizations, some leftists treat social media as a political outlet. But given the nonstop outrage, going online in order to be a left-winger can be deeply masochistic.
Those supposed to be on our side are the ones who disparage us the most. The same also happens when momentary issue groups form to plan actions or events. Accustomed to the harms and offenses of capitalism’s mobilized bigotries, we are easily offended and slow to trust others. Appealing to self-care addresses the symptom, but not the cause of our political incapacity. It ignores what we are really missing — a political relation built on solidarity.
The history of socialist and communist organization gives us a figure that embodies such a relation — the comrade. As a mode of address, figure of belonging, and carrier of expectations, comrade designates the relation between those who are on the same side of a political struggle. Going beyond a sense of politics as a matter of individual conviction, comrade points to the expectations of solidarity needed in order to build a shared political capacity. Because of our comrades’ expectations we show up to meetings we would otherwise miss, do political work we might avoid, and try to live up to our responsibilities to each other. We experience the joy of committed struggle, of learning through practice. We overcome fears that might overwhelm us were we forced to confront them alone. Our comrades make us better, stronger, than we could ever be alone.
Race Hatred on Trial
Consider an example from the history of the US Communist Party: a massive show trial it staged in Harlem in 1931. The Party put August Yokinen, a Finnish worker, on trial for racial prejudice, upholding white superiority, and forwarding views detrimental to the working class. Some 1,500 black and white workers attended the Party trial, which was held in the Harlem Casino, one of the biggest halls in the area. Clarence Hathaway, the white editor of the Daily Worker, presented the case for prosecution. Richard B. Moore, one of the Party’s most highly regarded black speakers, carried Yokinen’s defense. A jury of fourteen workers, seven black and seven white, delivered the verdict.
Yokinen was one of three white Party members who had been working the door for a dance in Harlem’s Finnish Workers’ Club. Several black workers arrived for the dance and were only reluctantly admitted. Once in the door, they were treated with such hostility that they soon left. None of the white Party members welcomed or defended them.
During the Party’s investigation of the incident, Yokinen’s comrades admitted their error. But Yokinen tried to justify his behavior by explaining that he thought the black workers would go into the pool room and that he didn’t want to bathe with black people.
By the time of the Party trial, Yokinen had acknowledged his guilt and promised to rectify it by concrete work in behalf of the struggle for black liberation. The question before the jury then was whether Yokinen should be expelled from the Party for his racism and “white chauvinism,” or put on probation.
Hathaway’s arguments for the prosecution emphasized that Yokinen not only failed to act in accordance with the Communist Party’s egalitarian expectations but that this very failure put him on the side of lynchers and landlords. Even the slightest expression of white racial superiority undermined class solidarity and strengthened the bourgeoisie. When Yokinen failed to uphold the Party’s commitment to racial equality, he gave black workers good reason to expect nothing but betrayal — from the Party and from any white people.
Hathaway reminded the jury that because the struggle for the equal rights of black people was indispensable to the proletarian struggle, the Communist Party had to prove — in action — that it was committed to wiping out every trace of white chauvinism. Expelling Yokinen would demonstrate this commitment. But Hathaway also offered Yokinen a path back to the Party. If Yokinen fought actively against white supremacy, selling the black newspaper the Liberator and reporting on his trial at the Finnish Workers’ Club, then he should be able to apply for readmission.
Moore’s defense shifted the focus to the real enemy, the capitalist class. The landlords and bourgeoisie were the ones who spread the poison of race hatred — aided by trade union and socialist opportunists. Moore’s point was not that Yokinen should not be held accountable. It was that no one was innocent. Every aspect of capitalist imperialism spreads the corrupt ideology of white superiority.
Moore turned his critique back on the Communist Party, asking whether it had done the requisite educational work to confront race hatred. Had it developed programs for the workers’ movement to explain the importance of the struggle against lynching? Had it made a serious effort to root out prejudice? Moore declared that the answer was “no.” The Party shared in Yokinen’s crime. Moore thus concluded that self-criticism, not expulsion, was the better way. Self-criticism would enable the Party to prove its commitment through its deeds. An added benefit, Moore argued, was that self-criticism would save Yokinen for the struggle, a crucial factor when every worker needed to be brought into the effort to bring the system down.
In his summation, Moore reminded the jury of the seriousness of expulsion from the Communist Party. “I would rather have my head severed from my body by the capitalist lynchers than be expelled from the Communist International,” Moore said. He meant that being cut off from the Party, separated from one’s comrades and deprived of their comradeship, is a fate worse than death. It is the kind of social death where a worker becomes an outsider to his own movement, a person as bad or worse than the capitalists themselves.
Moore concluded that Yokinen should be condemned, but more important is condemning capitalism for the misery, prejudice, terror, and lynching it breeds. The Party needed to save and educate the comrade, to give him a chance to prove himself. The Party also had to engage in ruthless struggle against white chauvinism and anything else that threatened class unity.
The jury found Yokinen guilty, which was not surprising since he had already admitted his guilt. They agreed to expel him but were split on whether the expulsion should last for six or twelve months. They accepted the prosecution’s suggestions for the ways Yokinen could correct his mistakes, selling the Liberator and fighting against white chauvinism. So even though Yokinen was expelled, he remained a comrade. The trial resulted in a decision that affirmed his role in the class struggle, a role focused on building unity between white and black workers. The Party didn’t cut him off. It provided him with a path back.
The day after the trial, Yokinen was arrested and held for deportation. The Comintern-backed International Labor Defense (ILD) defended him during his deportation hearings.
On the Same Side
The Yokinen trial teaches a number of lessons that contemporary socialists would do well to relearn, lessons about comradeship. The first set of lessons concern being on the same side. The prosecution and the defense shared the same principles and goals: working-class unity, the abolition of white supremacy, the necessity of racial equality in action in everyday life, proletarian revolution. Common principles enabled them to discern and name the common enemy — capitalists and landlords promulgating white supremacy and lynch law. Anyone who accepted these principles was a comrade, even when they made mistakes. That they were a comrade meant they were valuable to the struggle. They just needed to be taught, trained. The revolution needs as many recruits as it can get.
The second set of lessons follow from the first: the value of collective self-criticism. If one of our comrades errs, we share responsibility for it. What could we have done to prevent it? What kind of instruction or guidance could we have provided? We are all surrounded by capitalism’s racist ideology all the time. We need to support one another in the fight against it. We must condemn actions that reinforce white supremacy and condemn even more strongly the system that breeds it.
Finally, the third set of lessons involve the path back. In contrast to the toxic identitarianism Mark Fisher dubbed the “vampire castle” and the pernicious “cancel” culture circulating among social media leftists in the United States, in the Yokinen case the Communist Party aimed for unity. It pursued practices that built this unity rather than unraveled it. Even someone expelled from the Party wasn’t completely condemned. In fact, when he came up against the aggressive power of the imperialist state, the Party took the lead in defending him. Yokinen was still on the same side as the Communists. He was still a comrade. He accepted the Party’s decision about the work he needed to do to combat white supremacy and build working-class unity. What was at stake wasn’t moralism — the need for an “apology” — or an individualist judgment regarding his attitude. What mattered was doing the work revolutionary struggle demands.
For some on the contemporary left, discipline has a bad name. Not only do they see discipline as a threat to individual freedom, but they are skeptical of intense political belonging of any sort. Viewing comradely discipline only as constraint and not as a decision to build collective capacity, they substitute the fantasy that politics can be individual for the actuality of political struggle. This substitution evades the fact that comradeship is a choice — both for the one joining and for the Party joined. It also ignores the liberating quality of discipline. For when we have comrades, we are freed from the obligation to be and know and do everything on our own; instead, there is a larger collective with a line, program, and set of tasks and goals that all of us shoulder together. We are freed from the cynicism that parades as maturity because of the practical optimism that faithful work engenders. Discipline provides the support that frees us to make mistakes, learn, and grow. When we err — and each of us will — our comrades will be there to catch us, dust us off, and set us right. We aren’t abandoned to go it alone.
Unaffiliated and disorganized leftists too often remain entranced by the illusion that supposedly “everyday people” will spontaneously create new forms of life that will usher in a glorious future. This illusion fails to acknowledge the deprivations and incapacitations that forty years of neoliberalism have inflicted on the mass of people. If it were true that austerity, debt, the collapse of institutional infrastructures, and capital flight could enable the spontaneous emergence of egalitarian forms of life, we would not see the enormous economic inequalities, intensification of racialized violence, declines in life expectancy, slow death, undrinkable water, contaminated soil, militarized policing and surveillance, and desolate urban and suburban neighborhoods that are now commonplace.
Exhaustion of resources includes the exhaustion of human resources. Lots of times people want to do something but they don’t know what to do or how to do it. They may be isolated in nonunionized workplaces, overburdened by multiple flextime positions, stretched thin caring for friends and family. Disciplined organization — the discipline of comrades committed to common struggle for an emancipatory egalitarian future — can help here. Sometimes we want and need someone to tell us what to do because we are too tired and overextended to figure it out for ourselves. Sometimes when we are given a task as a comrade, we feel like our small efforts have larger meaning and purpose, maybe even world-historical significance in the age-old fight of the people against oppression. Sometimes just knowing that we have comrades who share our commitments, our joys, and our efforts to learn from defeats makes political work possible where it was not before.