I’m in a bar in Mexico City with an old friend, watching the man behind the counter muddle powdered turmeric into our tumblers. It’s a few days after the tragic earthquake that claimed 369 lives across the country this past autumn, and he was one of the first people on the scene after wrapping up a reporting trip in Florida for Hurricane Irma. As acquaintances go, we’re on a once-every-three-years rotation, which means we’ve not spoken since the Trump election, and the gravitational pull toward that topic is about as unavoidable as it is unpleasant. We’ve covered all the classic dude chapters — girlfriends, jobs, money — and now it was time to dive headfirst into the gnawing anxiety that colors even the lightest pleasantries in our brave new world.
Fortunately, my friend hit me with the clarion call of neue-bro wokeness, the secret handshake of progressive fuckboidom. As the bartender delivered our scarlet cocktails, my friend looked me dead in the eyes and said, “Do you listen to Chapo Trap House?”
The rest of the conversation will probably sound extremely familiar. My friend told me that for years he identified as a center-left Jon Stewart-type, but was radicalized quickly and efficiently in the carnage that followed Trump’s ascendency. He started listening to Chapo, a comedy podcast recorded by a small group of disaffected Leftists that picked up steam after the election, and now stands as the urtext for this particular segment of acerbic, web-literate, Clinton-debasing socialism. (It’s been featured and codified in everything from The New Yorker to The Guardian.) From there, he started to seriously engage with a revolutionary posture that once seemed beyond the pale. “I’m in my mid-30s, and I’ve become a radical Leftist,” he says, nine months since the election, as the bar’s in-house DJ throws on another chilly house remix.
I’m a cis white man, and I’m friends with a number of other cis white men. Every single one of them has expressed, at the very least, an interest in anti-capitalism over the past year. Most of them are also people who have never held a polemicist interest in politics over the entire time I’ve known them, so it’s been strange to witness such a dramatic shift in our discourse so quickly. The bro-ification of the Left has also gone viral; ground zero might be Chapo Trap House, but it’s long since metastasized. There is, for example, a Pateron for a podcast that advertises itself as the home for anyone “who’s wondered what Karl Marx would have thought about Sonic 3.” It’s bringing in $2,000 a month.
Obviously, America’s renewed interest in socialism isn’t limited to angry white men. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) was first founded in 1982, and since Trump’s election, it’s been in the middle an all-time boom period, now standing at 25,000 members, making it the largest socialist organization in America since the turn of the 20th century. But Bro Leftism is an interesting development — especially in terms of how all those bros relate to the socialists who came before them.
And so, I recently reached out to Chris Riddiough, a longtime D.C. queer socialist who first got involved in the movement in the late 1970s, and joined up with DSA in the early 1980s. (Currently, she serves on the organization’s National Political Committee.) For almost 40 years then, she’s watched the peaks and valleys of the American Left, and she’s had a particularly up-close view of the new millennial white-male insurgency, making her the perfect person to highlight what these new members should keep in mind.
Don’t look down on identity politics.
One of the legitimately concerning parts of the white male wave of socialism is the perceived rejection of the dialogue around race, gender and identity that defined the cultural exchange during the latter Obama years. There was no shortage of cranky thinkpieces announcing the death of identity politics after Trump’s victory, mostly from moderates, but also a few from white men on the Left who could never relate to the conversation, or worse, saw it as childish.
“There’s this thing called ‘class reductionism’ that doesn’t take into account how class affects women and people of color, differently. Intersectionality, as Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw illustrates in one of her first articles, is how black women in legal cases could represent neither African-Americans nor women, while white women could represent all women,” says Riddiough. “I think saying everything is based on class is too simple, and we need to move beyond that. Socialist feminism is one of the ways we can do so.”
The global Left movement is obviously rooted in the grievances of marginalized communities — like the black socialist civil-rights activists James Ford and Edna St. Vincent Millay, or the German pre-war communist legislator Clara Zetkin. Riddiough is concerned that our modern conception of the DSA might seal off access points for women if the base is presented as a compositely white, male organization. “For instance, when you look back to the Women’s March, it was relatively diverse, but most of those women haven’t gotten involved in what I would consider a Left organization. That’s partly because there isn’t a clear feminist perspective in a lot of [those organizations.] A lot of us in DSA consider ourselves socialist feminist, but it’s not dominant, I’d say.”
I ask Riddiough what she’d say to any energized, young male constituent at a local DSA chapter, to help keep the culture inclusive, open and unobnoxious: “I wouldn’t want to say anything to them as much as I’d want to talk with them, and have a conversation with them,” she responds. “About anything from how it’s not always good practice to hit on women at the meetings to anything else. One of the things we’ve done in D.C. is we’ve started a reading group on socialist feminism, which has included some men from the chapter here. It’s been interesting to have that interaction. Even in a discussion group about socialist feminism where there are more women than men, the men tend to talk more than the women.”
Don’t repeat the same mistakes of the Leftist movements that came before you.
If you’ve spent any time on the Left Internet, you’ve witnessed a few angry young men try to out-radical each other over dogma. (Do we really need to be going after DeRay?) This is a dangerous precedent, says Riddiough, one of the things she emphasizes multiple times in our conversation is a fear of modern socialist activists falling into the same pitfalls of those that came before them. The American Left has a history full of frustrations. Riddiough got involved when it was predominantly an anti-war movement in response to the genocide in Vietnam, and she’s watched the momentum give out a number of times. The problem, she says, is factionalism, where a group of extremely like-minded people tear each other at the seams, rather than doing the work to find common ground.
“There isn’t a magic bullet, but there were many different groups from the Socialist Workers Party, to the Revolutionary Communist Party and the Communist Workers Party, who came in because they wanted to either recruit our members to their organization, or they wanted to tell us the correct line,” she said. “The mistake that we made is that we decided to have a debate with them. In my mind, most of those groups were true believers. They believed that they had the truth. And when people have that mind, you can’t really debate with them. We now need to avoid that kind of thing.”
Riddiough describes DSA as a universal organization, a confederacy of Left interests charting a singular path together. That’s the same as any political party, and Riddiough believes there needs to be a certain amount of sacrifice to move forward. “You don’t want one person in a group of 100 to overwhelm everything else that’s going on, learning from that experience would be the biggest thing,” she says. “Try not to get caught up in groups that think they know the correct line, because they don’t. In my opinion, there’s no correct line. You’re always looking for more truth than you have. In groups that are sectarian, sometimes you have to say, ‘You’re not part of the big tent.’ Being a democratic organization, all members’ concerns need to be taken into account.”
Do use socialist jargon correctly.
Riddiough tells me that one of the most malformed definitions on the Left is, simply, “working class” — the pet term used by any young Leftist who wants to sympathize with a very specific, very narrow fantasy of the out-of-work Missouri steel worker. “People have this picture of the working class as a white male, and if we actually look at what the working class is, one, it’s probably 80 percent of the U.S. population, and two, it’s all over the map,” she says. “You have teachers who have been going on strike. You have waitresses, secretaries, all kinds of jobs that have changed over the past 50 years. When we say working class, what do we really mean? What are we really talking about?”
Riddiough also thinks we could do a better job of interpreting some core Marxist concepts. Unsurprisingly, they too have changed and adapted as the centuries have piled on. “Marx always talked about the two classes — the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. People seem to think of middle-managers as part of the bourgeoisie,” she explains. “Marx was talking about the owners. The economy has changed a lot of the past hundred years, and I don’t think middle managers own much these days.”
Do remember that Stalinism is still bad.
Riddiough has a certain wistfulness when she talks about her entry into Leftism 40 years ago. She went to protests, she chaired meetings, she carried a Little Red Book; it is fabulously tantalizing when your worldview is tipped on its axis, and your preceding decades of polite liberalism are dashed from your brain in an instant. But of course, history has proven Mao to be mostly wrong, even the Chinese Communist Party would admit that. It’s important, says Riddiough, for newborn socialists to be realistic about the evils of tyranny no matter the context. “There was a group that said Mao Zedong was a great leader, and Castro was always a favorite, and I think there’s no question that in China, in Cuba and in Russia there’s a history that’s important to recognize,” she says, reflecting on her time as a young radical. “There are other factors obviously, too, in Cuba there was the U.S. embargo, but the regimes in place were dictatorial, and we have to recognize that.”