Libertarian Socialism and the LSC: An Introduction

by the Boston Libertarian Socialist Caucus

Introducing the Libertarian Socialist Caucus

Members of Boston DSA are currently working to form a Libertarian Socialist Caucus (LSC) chapter. The central goals of the caucus include ending capitalism, horizontalizing power structures, and replacing vanguardist, centralist approaches to organizing and ideology with decentralized, consensus-oriented decision-making systems.

The LSC advocates a radical, revolutionary approach to anti-capitalism. For libertarian socialists, the revolutionary counter-power against the capitalist class and bourgeois political system must be directly controlled by the totality of the working class—not representatives, and not party leaders. The revolutionary movement and the future modes of organizing must always put power into the hands of those affected by the decision-making process.

Creating structures and cultures of direct control over our lives through cooperative and mutual decision-making is both the goal and the general strategy. We strive for a world without bosses and a revolutionary movement without party leaders or self-appointed political visionaries.

The final major goal of the LSC is to broaden the appeal of the DSA in order to increase membership and build more anti-capitalist power. Our socialist comrades oriented toward libertarian socialism and similar tendencies may not feel that there is a space for them in DSA’s big tent. Our hope is to prove that there is a definite place for libertarian socialists within this organization.

Libertarian Socialism and the DSA

Libertarian socialism is an umbrella term that covers various political philosophies, including syndicalists, anarchists, cooperativists, council communists, and libertarian Marxists. One unifying feature is a total rejection of authoritarianism, especially in the structure and culture of the revolutionary movement. Power is always distributed as widely as possible, to every person affected by it. The emphasis is always on giving the working class and ordinary people direct power over their lives.

The most famous contemporary libertarian socialist, Noam Chomsky, claims that libertarian socialism rests on two fundamental principles. First, no form of power or authority can be legitimate without both the real consent of those affected by it and the possibility of immediate revocability of that power. The second principle is a skepticism of all ideas propagated by any system of power whatsoever, from the capitalist system, to bourgeois governments, to hierarchical and authoritarian attempts at replacing those systems.

Rosa Luxemburg, one of the most influential thinkers historically associated with libertarian socialism, advocated spontaneity of organization. This emphasizes the grassroots nature of real class struggle. The proletariat will not follow some abstract revolutionary science handed down from above. They will engage in class struggle, and “learn to fight in the course of their struggles.” The working class will organize themselves according to the revolutionary needs that they recognize at the time. No esoteric law of history can tell them what the battlegrounds of their political life will be like. They must use their own eyes and minds. And power.

We have seen again and again that no cadre, no party can be trusted to lead the working class. It is worth noting here, though, that libertarian socialists sometimes do pragmatically endorse engaging in party politics to end immediate harms that would not otherwise be promptly stoppable and to foster solidarity with anti-capitalist allies who have different political visions. This goes especially for supporting marginalized groups here and elsewhere, who face forms of oppression that we may not ourselves face — far would it be from libertarian socialists to impose a revolutionary vision on a group who is marginalized or dominated in ways that we are not. With maximal care to respect extant power relations (especially those of which we might be unaware, as privileged people of one sort or another), libertarian socialists endorse the principle that only the working class can ultimately lead the working class, toward a world without bosses without bosses.

Liberal capitalism has ingrained deeply into us the counter-revolutionary notion that we need leaders to organize society. We must excise this lie from our thoughts and practices.

The LSC hopes to realize these principles of direct self-organization both within the DSA and in the broader society through principles of freedom, solidarity, and democracy. The National LSC website defines these terms as such:

FREEDOM refers to the positive capacity of all individuals and communities for self-determination. We believe that the freedom enjoyed by individuals is an inalienable social good and can only be strengthened through solidarity and democracy.

SOLIDARITY refers to the understanding that all oppressed people—both the economically exploited and the politically marginalized—share a common struggle towards a free and equal society. We aim to organize our movements accordingly, providing mutual aid and support to one another and deferring to the initiative of those most affected by decisions, on the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all.

DEMOCRACY refers to collective decision-making free from hierarchy, domination, and coercion. Democracy is a social relation between free individuals that should not be reduced solely to institutions or elections. We believe that democracy is always a “work in progress” to be altered or improved by communities according to their needs.

Our particular vision of a libertarian socialist society—and the specific path we intend to take to get there—will emerge out of the discussions and activities of the LSC itself. We believe radical democracy is an ongoing participatory process of deliberation, renegotiation, and collective self-determination. It is for the people themselves to decide what the world they wish to live in is to be. Our inability to describe the precise contours of the liberated society is rooted in the simple fact that democracy is inherently a work in progress, continually created and recreated by its participants.

In short, wherever domination exists, we seek to replace it with equality, cooperation, and mutual respect. Ours is a vision of total liberation, not just in some far-flung revolutionary future but here and now.

Want to Learn More? Come Meet Us!

We will be holding an ice cream social for anyone curious about libertarian socialism or the newly forming Boston DSA-LSC chapter. Please join us at Joan Lorentz Park (in front of the Cambridge Public Library) on Saturday, September 22nd from 2pm to 5pm. See the event here.

Our first official meeting will be the LSC Convention, where we will begin to vote in our system of bylaws, set an agenda for the group, and get this chapter off to a running start toward creating a world based on common ownership of the means of production and total self-determination. The LSC Convention will be held on Saturday, October 14th, from 12-2pm, at the Democracy Center. See the event here.

To join the caucus, please email with your DSA dues-paying receipt email from National or your local DSA chapter. If you no longer have the email, let us know if there’s someone already in the LSC who can vouch for you. The welcoming email from National DSA to your address is enough for us to make sure that all our members are DSA members.

For more information, feel free to find us on Twitter, email us, or follow us on Facebook.

Toward Radical Democracy: A Proposal for Internal Voting Reform in Boston DSA

by Kit C., Treasurer, and Evan L., Steering Committee

Democratic Socialists of America is an organization founded on the idea that socialism is inseparable from democracy. The democracy we envision is not one founded on the hollow institutions of liberal-democratic representative government, but a direct, radical democracy grounded in true collective liberation. We demand that each person has a fair say in any decision that affects them. In keeping with these ideals, the highest governing body in Boston DSA is our membership: When we must decide the direction of our chapter, all of us together set the course.

In practice, we determine our chapter’s direction by voting. But we also know that voting in itself does not necessarily produce truly democratic decision making — and that, unfortunately, is exactly where we stand at present. Our reliance on in-person and proxy participation at general meetings has led to the exclusion of many of our comrades from our deliberative process and votes. By failing to enfranchise all of our members, Boston DSA has fallen far short of the radical democracy to which we aspire.

We can and must do better. In response, we have proposed a bylaw amendment that will allow Boston DSA to develop a robust system of integrated online and in-person deliberation and voting. Only by ensuring that each and every one of our comrades in Boston DSA has the opportunity to fully participate in our internal democracy can we live up to our own socialist ideals.

Our Current Voting System
With a handful of exceptions (such as officer elections), all of Boston DSA’s chapter-wide collective decision making takes place at general meetings (GMs), usually held in the late afternoon on the third Saturday of each month. Members can either attend the two-hour meeting in person or participate via livestream by designating a proxy ahead of time who will vote on their behalf. If participating by proxy, a member must watch the livestream and, once the question is called, inform their representative of their vote via email or text message. Combined attendance at these meetings usually falls between 100 and 200 members, roughly 10% of our 1,500 member chapter. The general meeting reaches decisions by a ballot of those in attendance after an in-person debate governed by Robert’s Rules. Debate is generally limited to two speakers for and two against a proposal. Extensions to debate are possible through a motion, second, and majority vote. Each speaker has two minutes maximum to make their case.

Failures of Inclusion Are Failures of Democracy
Our current system bars anyone who is unavailable for those specific two hours — for any reason — from having any say in decisions that affect the trajectory of the organization as a whole. Each month we inevitably disenfranchise many of our comrades. Even worse, members whose time is most dominated by the demands of survival under capitalism — those whose schedules are the most inflexible due to their deprivation from so-called leisure time — are most likely to be excluded. Not all of us get to stop working after clocking out on Friday evening. Moving the time of our general meetings cannot adequately fix this problem, as it will merely shift the burden to other members who will not be able to attend the new timeslot.

Some have argued against implementing online voting on the grounds that if you aren’t “dedicated enough” or “active enough” to show up at a specific meeting, you don’t deserve a voice or a vote. We reject both the factual basis and prescriptive conclusion of this argument. A person’s availability during a specific two hour block is a totally arbitrary measure of their level of involvement in or dedication to our work. We know for a fact that many highly involved organizers have missed out on the chance to vote, many repeatedly. Other members, many of whom do participate in working group activities, have been unable to become as involved as they want to in chapter-wide decision-making because they have been consistently disenfranchised. (You can hear from some of them in their own words here.) Perhaps more importantly, we believe that we have no right to ask for anyone’s labor or commitment unless we remove barriers to their full and equal participation in our decision-making.

As socialists upholding ideals of radical democracy, we must do right by these and all of our comrades and ensure we are all truly enfranchised.

Shift workers whose bosses control when they work; tipped workers who rely on more lucrative weekend and evening shifts; other workers (including organizers) who must travel frequently or work evenings and weekends; people who care for children or other loved ones; anyone surprised last-minute by an emergency, such as a funeral or sudden illness; people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, or forms of neurodivergence that disrupt their ability to use the proxy system: the current system of proxy and in-person voting disproportionately silences them all. As socialists upholding ideals of radical democracy, we must do right by these and all of our comrades and ensure we are all truly enfranchised.

The State of Our Debate
We also must ask ourselves how deciding everything solely by in-person and proxy voting at general meetings affects how we deliberate. Based on what we have observed over many months, we have concluded that constraining our formal debate to a period of less than an hour per issue — rigidly structured and artificially confined by the binary adversarial framework of bourgeois parliamentary procedure — does not facilitate substantive, considered, and comradely deliberation.

Those who object to absentee voting assert that the General Meeting should be our most important forum for deliberation, and that in-person debate is our most reliable medium for ensuring the broader membership is sufficiently exposed to a wide range of views on any given matter. We reject this premise. In fact, relying exclusively on in-person oral debate excludes many of our comrades and deprives all of us of the time and context required to make a fully considered decision. By limiting our official deliberation to oral debate in the format of two speakers for, two speakers against (or even four or six speakers for and against) and carefully worded points of information, we necessarily limit both the time available for deliberation, the range of views represented, and the depth and quantity of information presented.

Oratory is certainly lively and exciting, but as a medium it is not well suited for conveying complex arguments and the full context around them. Two to four minute speeches cannot provide sufficient room for speakers to make nuanced arguments, present in-depth information, or suggest alternative methods for accomplishing our chapter’s goals. The short-form debate format also unfairly amplifies the voices of those members who are already insiders in the chapter (by virtue of having access to unofficial discussion channels, and therefore having already explored the issue at hand) and those blessed with the ability to think on their feet and quickly and forcefully convey their ideas in speech.

How could it possibly be the case that time-limited in person debate is the best way to make sure all views on an issue — especially less widely-shared ones — are heard?

As it stands, the majority of our members are reduced to spectators as a handful of chapter insiders dominate the stage. Those whose strengths lie in other areas, or who simply do not feel comfortable or prepared enough to put themselves on the spot in front of a hundred or more other people, are effectively shut out of the discussion. Even if a member wants to speak, they are unlikely to get the opportunity to do so because there simply isn’t time for more than a tiny fraction of those attending to participate. Most members are silenced; they must satisfy themselves with hoping one of the few speakers recognized by the chair will represent their point of view. How, then, could it possibly be the case that this format is the best way to make sure all views on an issue — especially less widely-shared ones — are heard?

Even if enough time were available for wider-ranging and more in-depth oral discussion, our current process still unacceptably limits the time we’re allotted in which to come to fully considered and informed decisions. Most members must deliberate solely within the period for debate and voting — usually fifteen to thirty minutes. They lack the the time to verify the facts presented, seek out alternative views, self-educate on the broader context and history of an issue, ask questions, discuss the matter in more searching or open-ended manner, “sleep on it,” or use any number of other strategies they use to come to an informed decision in all other areas of their lives.

All of us deserve more time and space to fully consider the decisions we’re called upon to make. But right now, we force many of our comrades to make snap judgments about critical and complex issues based on brief speeches forced into a simplified binary framework of “for” or “against.” We certainly don’t give most members a chance to form a deep enough understanding of an issue ahead of time to propose their own alternative solutions or contribute amendments to existing proposals. Our reliance on general meetings as venues for collective decision-making has meant that most of our members are deprived of the opportunity to fully participate in our internal democracy. This failure demands our urgent action as comrades to repair it.

Our Proposal: Voting Reform for Full Inclusion
In response to this untenable situation, we propose creating an official online forum for both discussion and voting in order to create more a deliberative, inclusive, substantive, and therefore more fully democratic process for chapter-wide decision-making. We propose instituting a seven day window during which members have the opportunity to deliberate and vote. This new process would complement (not supplant) oral discussion at the general meeting with ongoing online discussion and online voting.

  • Three days before the General Meeting: Discussion online (summarized for GM)
  • Day of General Meeting: Oral discussion (recorded and shared online)
  • Three days following the General Meeting: Discussion and voting online

We do not propose a specific technical approach or detailed process here because doing so is both beyond the scope of this piece and would also be presumptuous. Any voting system must be democratically developed by our members. Doing so will require input and labor from multiple working groups, committees, teams, and individuals. In particular, we will need to prioritize designing an online space and voting process that fully accounts for the accessibility needs of disabled comrades (for example, compatibility with screen readers) and provides for full participation by members who lack consistent access to broadband internet, comfort with following web-based discussions, or voting online. We will need to find ways to share the substance of online discussions with those participating mainly in oral debate, and vice versa. We’re confident, however, that together Boston DSA members have the experience, skills, knowledge, and drive to build an effective, inclusive, and accessible process.

Any solution we devise should encourage considered, long-form, asynchronous discussion; maximize deep and broad participation by our members; and be easily discoverable by all members yet private enough that they feel comfortable speaking freely under their own names without fear of surveillance. All of the formal and informal discussion channels on which substantive debate currently takes place in this chapter lack at least one of these critical features. For example, both Medium and the Political Education Working Group blog are highly public and do not allow for back and forth discussion by multiple parties. Substantive discussion of pieces published in either venue almost always instead take place on Twitter or Facebook. In order to even become aware of these informal discussions, you must be friends with, or at least follow, the right people. Many members eschew these platforms entirely out of concern for their privacy or aversion to the sound-bite focused discussion style they encourage. Similarly, while Slack is useful tool for quickly organizing practical plans of actions, that’s exactly because it facilitates a rapid, short form, and relatively synchronous chatroom-style conversation.

This proposal, if implemented, will provide members unable to attend (in-person or online) a particular general meeting with the opportunity to fully and substantively participate in our democratic decision-making, not just to cast a vote. By extending our deliberative process into a flexible week-long asynchronous discussion and voting period, we will allow many more of our comrades the opportunity to educate themselves and each other and come to decisions they can be confident in. Instead of missing out if they happen to be unavailable during a specific two-hour period, members can log on during a break at work, once they’ve put the kids to bed, or simply whenever they’re feeling up to it. And when they do, they’ll have far more time to fully review others’ arguments, join the discussion if they wish, and seek out further information. A dedicated online forum will also help to level the playing field by surfacing perspectives from members who would otherwise go unheard. Instead of gambling that they’ll be lucky enough to get the chance to speak at the general meeting, each member has the opportunity to share their views when and how they see fit.

Here’s the root of the question before us: do you trust your comrades to make informed decisions based on their values and beliefs given the information available to them? If we do, we have the responsibility to fully enfranchise each and every member.

Toward Radical Democracy
Tinkering with the terms of our internal democracy cannot by itself fully resolve the central contradiction of socialist organizing: that those who need socialism the most often have the fewest resources (time, money, energy) left over to work towards its victory. Indeed, nothing short of abolishing capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and other systems of oppression can resolve this contradiction. But implementing an asynchronous online decision-making process is something we can do, right now, to help our organization better reflect our own values and the future we’re all fighting for.

If we fail to ensure that every member has the opportunity to participate fully in our work, how can we ask them to offer us their labor, time, and solidarity?

Is it right to say that if a member has a last-minute emergency, scheduling conflict, or health crisis, they forfeit their right to participate in collective decision-making in a socialist organization? If we want our fellow members of Boston DSA to deepen their involvement in our shared work, we must first show them that their involvement matters to us — that they are our comrades. If we fail to ensure that every member has the opportunity to participate fully in our work, how can we ask them to offer us their labor, time, and solidarity?

We’re presented with a choice. We can perpetuate a system of decision-making designed for a much smaller body of socialist organizers that fails to facilitate substantive, participatory discussion and prevents large portions of our membership from having any say in decisions which affect us all. Or we can take the opportunity to enfranchise vastly more of our comrades in Boston DSA. All that is required is the will to build a better system together and the courage to trust our comrades. To us, the choice is clear.

If you would like to sign on in support of this proposal, please click here. To date, over 100 members of Boston DSA have endorsed it. We also welcome support from DSA comrades in other chapters.

This piece was republished from Medium. Co-signatures, as well as a note regarding earlier drafts of the piece, can be found at the original post, which is being continuously updated as signatures are added.

Boston Radical History Walking Tour

On July 29, nearly 100 people joined the Boston Democratic Socialists of America for our first ever Radical History of Boston Walking Tour. This tour involved the collaborative efforts of many comrades the day of and in the weeks prior.

Everywhere you go, there is a people’s history waiting to be unearthed. This history is often hidden or otherwise repressed, but it represents the real living experiences of generations of working-class people.

We hope to see other DSA chapters experiment with this format of free and accessible walking tours to help root themselves in the radical history of their communities. Boston DSA intends to put on further radical history tours, both of this route and covering other neighborhoods. If you are interested in participating, volunteering, or organizing your own, please message us at

e089a5aa0f3c74fe3e7a101d766be469A. Philip Randolph Statue – Back Bay Station

A. Philip Randolph was a leading union activist, civil rights leader, and socialist during the 20th century. He was a member of the Socialist Party and helped found the magazine The Messenger in 1917 to promote socialist ideas in the African-American community and give a progressive voice to the Harlem Renaissance. The Department of Justice called The Messenger “the most able and the most dangerous of all the Negro publications,” which is clearly a good sign. In its initial mission statement, Randolph said, “Our aim is to appeal to reason, to lift our pens above the cringing demagogy of the times, and above the cheap peanut politics of the old reactionary Negro leaders. Patriotism has no appeal to us; justice has. Party has no weight with us; principle has. Loyalty is meaningless; it depends on what one is loyal to.”

Some of Randolph’s greatest successes came as a union organizer. He was elected in 1925 to president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which under his direction achieved a 51% unionization rate among the nearly entirely Black workforce of sleeping car porters within a year. Hence the statue of him in a train station.

He always saw a connection between racism and sexism, and saw racial issues as class issues and class issues as race issues. He said, “Look for the enemies of Medicare, of higher minimum wages, of Social Security, of federal aid to education and there you will find the enemy of the Negro, the coalition of Dixiecrats and reactionary Republicans that seek to dominate the Congress.”

During WW2 he fought hard against continued discrimination in the war industries and the military under FDR’s control. It was only after he threatened to call a mass march on Washington D.C. against discrimination that FDR relented in ending discrimination in the war industries, but not the military. The march on Washington was called off for the time being, but when Martin Luther King Jr began to plan his own over 20 years later, the now-elderly Randolph was brought in as a principal organizer for the famous march. This was actually a big deal, because Cold War Red Scares had pushed Randolph out of the mainstream Civil Rights Movement, but MLK, to his great credit, didn’t care.

tent-city-apartments-boston-ma-primary-photoTent City Apartments – 130 Dartmouth St.

This is the site of one of the most successful protests against “Urban Renewal” in Boston. This is a theme we will be coming back to multiple times during this tour. With the backing of significant federal subsidies, Boston city leaders launched a massive campaign of demolishing whole neighborhoods deemed “slums” to build high-income housing and highways during the ’50s and ’60s. Most famously, the West End neighborhood, roughly around where TD Garden is now, was completely wiped out and its working-class residents were displaced.

It was here on April 27, 1968, that hundreds of local residents occupied what was then an empty parking lot where once was housing to protest the continued destruction of their communities in the name of this “Urban Renewal.” Hundreds camped out here for four days, demanding better affordable housing and an end to displacement. It would take 20 years of continued pressure, but eventually that mixed-income apartment block was built and named Tent City in honor of the protesters.

Metro Boston Citizens Coalition on Cleaner Air – 131 Clarendon St.

The building we are talking about here no longer exists. But roughly where this bank is was a smaller office building where the Metro Boston Citizens Coalition on Cleaner Air (big name) had its headquarters.

Air quality in Boston, like all US cities, is a class issue. The placement of highways, trash incinerators, factories, and other major causes of poor air quality have always been disproportionately put near the poor, people of color, and the otherwise marginalized. The powerful get to breathe easily under capitalism in more ways than one. Asthma rates in Boston today are nearly four times higher for Latinos than whites, and over five times higher for Blacks than whites.

This was even worse in the 1970s when the Metro Boston Citizens Coalition on Cleaner Air was campaigning for enforcement of the Clean Air Act. While it was a small group, it did important work to demand city officials to act to improve air quality, mostly around vehicle traffic and fuel standards.

imageDaughters of Bilitis / Gender Identity Services – 419 Boylston St.

This building is awesome, or at least it used to be. This building contained a super high concentration of leading feminist, gay, lesbian, and trans rights organizations during the 1970s, all apparently on the same floor. So let’s list them:

There was the Gender Identity Service, which provided medical counseling and help for trans people looking for gender affirmation medical procedures.

There was the Boston office for the Daughters of Bilitis. Founded in 1955, it was one of the nation’s first open lesbian organizations. Later lesbian organizers would rebel against its more conservative approach of integration of lesbians into mainstream heteronormative US society through lobbying efforts for equal rights legislation, but it was the first and it remained active till 2000.

Focus: A Journal for Lesbians, the journal for the Daughters of Bilitis, had its office here. This journal ran from 1970 through 1983. Focus’ focus (haha) was geared around the promotion of lesbian rights and lesbian visibility in the US. One writer stated that Focus allowed its lesbian readership “to unite and to feel more confident about their own self-worth” and that it was “one of the most supportive lesbian publications in the early gay rights movement.”

The Homophile Community Health Services provided supportive therapy services for LGBTQIA people during the 1970s at a time when most of the psychology and therapy professions still considered any form of queerness a mental disorder.

The Gay Speakers Bureau, now renamed to SpeakOUT, had their first office here. They provided speakers to schools, churches, and community centers to raise the visibility of LGBTQIA people and answer questions. This was very important and dangerous work at the time.

And last but certainly not least, the Boston Women’s Abortion Action Coalition had its offices here. Formed in 1977 originally to oppose the Doyle-Flynn anti-abortion amendment, which proposed cutting state funding for abortions, the Coalition organized community activities and held discussion forums and educational meetings. The Coalition also worked with local unions and community groups to create a wider action network around abortion rights.

Freedom Center – 355 Boylston St.

Not as high a concentration of good groups as the last building, this one still had some great organizations. So there was the Freedom Center, which provided free counseling for people who wanted to avoid the Vietnam draft or had already been drafted and wanted out. There was the Reservists Committee to Stop the War, which, as the name states, was for military reservists who were also against the Vietnam War and didn’t want to serve. And lastly there was the Taxes for Life Center which provided what it called “free information on how to legally divest your funds from the war machine.” We will talk more about Boston and the anti-Vietnam war movement later in the tour.

Occupy Boston – Dewey Square (Not a stop, just pointed out) 

About a half a mile down that way on the Greenway, right in front of the Federal Reserve Bank, Occupy Boston had its encampment. Occupy Wall Street was a mass movement, arguably the first great mass movement post the Great Recession, that quickly spread across the whole US in the fall of 2011. Inspired by revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa and slogans calling out the gross inequality and injustice in America, tens of thousands of people set up protest encampments not just at Wall Street, but in every major US city. These encampments would eventually be crushed by coordinated police raids organized by the Obama administration and largely Democratic mayors, but for a time this mass movement gave expression to a deep feeling of class anger and hope for a better sort of society.

While we walk I am going to briefly read some of the words Noam Chomsky said when he spoke at Occupy Boston: “Well, now the world is indeed splitting into a plutonomy and a precariat, again in the imagery of the Occupy movement, the 1 percent and the 99 percent. The plutonomy is where the action is. It could continue like this, and if it does, then this historic reversal that began in the 1970s [with Neoliberalism] could become irreversible. That’s where we’re heading. The Occupy movements are the first major popular reaction which could avert this. It’s going to be necessary to face the fact that it’s a long hard struggle. You don’t win victories tomorrow. You have to go on and form structures that will be sustained through hard times and can win major victories.”

250px-firstcorpscFirst Corp of Cadets Armory – 130 Columbus Ave.

Today you can spend $11,500, plus a $2,000 deposit, to have a really fancy wedding reception in this building. 100 years ago this was a display of pure class power and repression. This was the Armory of the First Corps of Cadets, built in 1891 as a direct response to the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and symbol of “order” versus “the mob.”

The unmitigated plunder of the working class and rise of the robber barons after the Civil War created a deep pool of resentment and class anger. This combined with what was then called the Great Depression, that began with a financial crisis in 1873 which saw 65 continuous months of economic recession, the longest in US history, a 14% unemployment rate by 1876, and overall wages dropping to 45% of their previous level.

The strike was triggered on July 14 in Martinsburg, West Virginia, in response to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad company cutting the wages of workers for the third time in a year. Strikers refused to let any trains move, and the strike quickly spread to Maryland, New York, Illinois, Missouri, and Pennsylvania, where it reached near-insurrectionary levels. In Pittsburgh, hundreds of trains and train cars were destroyed and whole city blocks were burned. Socialists, largely German and Jewish immigrants at this point, made their first organized intervention into this mass strike, especially in Chicago, where they provided speakers and support. The response from the forces of capital was intense. The robber baron of the Pennsylvania Railroad company commented that the strikers should be given “a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread.”

While the strike wave never had a big impact on Boston, the fear of the strike did for the city’s rulers. In Boston and across the country, local state militias and the federal army built up new fortifications and armories in preparation of the “Paris Commune come to America.” And this building is one such example.

National Women’s Trade Union League headquarters – 7 Warrenton St. (Not a stop, just pointed out)

About a third of a mile down that was is a small, nondescript, residential building that I am pretty sure is being used now as a bed and breakfast. A hundred years ago it was the headquarters of the National Women’s Trade Union League. Founded in 1903 with very token support from the male-dominated American Federation of Labor, it became the first nation-wide association dedicated specifically to organizing women workers. While open to middle-class woman reformers, the League’s primary goal was to “assist in the organization of women wage workers into trade unions and thereby to help them secure conditions necessary for healthful and efficient work and to obtain a just reward for such work.”

The League’s first president was the Boston-based reformer Mary Morton Kehew, who had previously worked on a number of more charity-based working women’s educational campaigns before moving to labor unionization. The League would see its greatest successes in supporting the Uprising of the 20,000, the great New York City and Philadelphia shirtwaist workers’ strike, and the Bread and Roses strike.

The League, in New York and Boston, was also instrumental in pushing for work safety laws after the devastating Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911 which killed 146 workers, mostly Jewish women immigrants. League member and socialist Rose Schneiderman said, “Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death…. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”

This same Rose Schneiderman would also coin the phrase “Bread and Roses” during the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence Massachusetts, when she said, “What the woman who labors wants is the right to live, not simply exist — the right to life as the rich woman has the right to life, and the sun and music and art. You have nothing that the humblest worker has not a right to have also. The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”

Boylston Street Fishweir – Boylston Train Station

We are standing on stolen land. It’s easy to forget it, as we go about our days or even look at the history of this city from a white working-class view, but we shouldn’t. This is stolen land. The Moswetuset, whose name as well as whose land was stolen for this state, were and are a Eastern Algonquin nation that lived on the islands and waterways around here for centuries. In the summer they would live on islands around this bay and fish, and during the winter they would go further inland to the hills to the south. Moswetuset means “people of the hills.”

What became Boston was known to the Moswetuset as Shawmut, a peninsula with a thin connection to the mainland and a large tidal bay to it’s back. It is here, right around here, they built truly massive fishing weirs, essentially giant fishing traps. We know this because when they were digging the T tunnel for Boylston Station in the early 1900s, they discovered dozens of trees trunks used as this fishing weir across an acre of land.

In 1616, when the English traders first made contact with the Moswetuset in this area, it was estimated that 3,000 people lived here. In 1619, when more permanent English settlers started to arrive, there were only 500 left alive after plagues had ravaged these islands. In a way this was the first case of something we have seen time and again in Boston, displacement by force.

Boston Common

We are here on Boston Common, which has been host to hundreds upon hundreds of mass rallies over the years. It was here where we held the Women’s March in 2017, and where thousands rallied on May Day 2006 on the “Day Without a Immigrant” for the rights of the undocumented. It was here in 1912 that over 100,000 people rallied in support of the International Association of CAR MEN’s attempt to unionize the L, the predecessor to today’s T. And it was here nearly 1 year ago that 40,000 Bostonians rallied to drive the Nazi scum huddled in that gazebo out of our city.

I am going to talk specifically about the October 15, 1969 rally that saw 100,000 people protesting against the Vietnam war. At that rally, Peter Camejo of the Socialist Workers’ Party said, “Watch out for the politicians who turn up now. They’ll never march with you in the streets. There are people sitting in jail today because they were against this war. Let some politicians say something about that. We’re tired of rhetoric about ending the war that is really designed to keep this war going. The National Liberation Front of Vietnam are the most beautiful people in this world. They’re giving their lives for all of us. Seventeen million Vietnamese are counting on you to end this war.”

Howard Zinn, then a B.U. professor, also spoke, saying “We have been fighting against a basically decent revolutionary movement in Vietnam. The people of Hanoi have fought a long war for independence from foreign control. Forty thousand American men have been killed because someone threw the word Communist at us.”

lsManufactory House – 129 Tremont St.

So there are only going to be two references to the American Revolutionary War on this tour, because I find it boring with not-so-revolutionary politics in retrospect. But also its been overplayed enough here in Boston and if you want to learn more about it there are plenty of opportunities from other tours we can suggest.

For now I want to direct you to the Capital One Bank slash Peet’s Coffee over on Winter St. Where that is now was once the Manufactory House, which was essentially a poor workhouse in the 1700s where the Boston poor could work long hours at a mill for lower rent. The mill never really worked out, so it just became a place with cheap rent.

In the winter of 1768, the British troops that were stationed in Boston to put down rising troubles needed a place to sleep during the winter months. They had been camped here on the Common but obviously that wasn’t going to cut it through a Boston winter. Seeing a nearby tenement house of poor folk as easy pickings to get pushed out, the British called in the local Sheriff to evict the Manufactory House’s residents. To the surprise of the Sheriff, the Royal Governor, and the whole company of redcoats, the tenants told them no, they wouldn’t let them in and they weren’t leaving, and they barricaded the doors. The British attempted to surround the House and starve them out, but local Bostonians surrounded the surrounders and threw loaves of bread through the windows. The British even attempted to break in through the basement but became trapped down there. This lasted for two weeks before the Governor and Sheriff had to give up and let the tenants stay.

This was the first successful anti-British resistance action by colonists and a very great example of anti-eviction organizing.

54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial

(This is a good rest area, be sure to encourage folks to sit down)

This is the memorial commemorating the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, which was the first African-American regiment organized in the northern states during the Civil War. It was an all-volunteer regiment that included two of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s sons, and saw extensive combat action in the war to free their brothers and sisters from slavery. Despite their obvious dedication and skill, the Union wouldn’t allow Black soldiers to be commanded by Black officers, only white officers. The first being Robert Gould Shaw, son of a famous abolitionist, who died along with his men during the Battle of Fort Wagner in South Carolina, where the regiment bravely seized the fort under intense fire — a battle that also saw the earliest African-American to be awarded the Medal of Honor, William Harvey Carney, though he wouldn’t get it till 1900.

On top of their often honored bravery and heroism, the 54th Massachusetts were also principled in their resistance to the racism they saw within in the Union Army. While white soldiers in the Union Army were paid $13 a month, the black soldiers of the 54th regiment were paid $7. The State of Massachusetts offered to make up the difference, but the Regiment refused to accept a cent of pay. Refusing their reduced pay became a point of honor for Regiment. At the Battle of Olustee, when ordered forward, the men did so while shouting, “Massachusetts and Seven Dollars a Month!” Eventually, Congress had to step in to raise their pay through a series of acts, but that didn’t happen until well into the war in 1864.

nhm_395x429Massachusetts Civil Liberties Committee – 55 Mount Vernon St.

Over there is the Nichols House Museum, which is the founding location of the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Committee in 1920, later to become the Massachusetts chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. It was founded in the home of Margaret Nichols Shurcliff and her husband of less importance, which became the organizing hub for the early Mass ACLU. Random side note, Margaret Nicholas is also responsible for the popularization of caroling handbells in Boston during the 1920s, so that’s something.

Regardless, the Mass ACLU was formed and its early work was directed against the Red Scare of the late 19-teens and 1920s. This was a time after the Russian Revolution and the US entry into the human meat grinder of World War 1, when anti-war activists were being jailed, socialist and labor organizers were being forcibly deported, and the reactionary fearmongering techniques that would be utilized during the McCarthyist Red Scare 30 years later were being perfected.

The Mass ACLU helped to put together defense committees for victims of the Red Scare and put up a legal fight against Mayor James Curley’s censorship of birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger’s right to speak on the Boston Common. This particular early case points to the often contradictory and problematic role that the ACLU has played ever since. While Margaret Sanger was a pioneer for birth control and abortion rights, she was also a flagrant proponent of eugenics, going so far as to speak before the KKK in order to “reach more people with her message.”

2010_georgemiddleton_house_pinckneyst_bostonGeorge Middleton House – 5–7 Pinckney Street

This is the second and last time I am going to mention the American Revolutionary War, but also the first time I am going to mention the African Heritage Trail, which is something you should all check out and this is a stop of. This is the home of George Middleton, who was one of only about 5,000 Blacks who served on the American side during the Revolutionary War, and who was a Colonel in an all-Black Massachusetts militia regiment.

Not much information remains from his time in the Massachusetts militia, but his time after the war as an advocate for the rights of Blacks in Boston is well documented. He helped found the African Benevolent Society, which provided job placement and financial relief for widows and orphans in the Black community. He penned a denouncement of slavery for his Masonic Lodge in which he said that, “Freedom is desirable, if not, would men sacrifice their time, their property and finally their lives in the pursuit of this?”

On one occasion later in life he helped turn back a racist white mob. It was the anniversary of the end of the legal slave trade in the early 1800s, and the Black community of Boston was having a small festival on the Common. A gang of white youth showed up and started pelting them with rock and sticks, leading the families to flee up Joy Street and past George’s house. As the white mob crested that hill, a very elderly George Middleton exited his home, stood in the middle of the street there, and aimed his blunderbuss at the mob while shouting, and they immediately turned tail and ran away.

img_0181Museum of African American History – 46 Joy St.

This is the African Meeting House, built in 1806. This was the center of the Black community of Boston for the whole 19th century. Today it is the Museum of African American History, which you should all visit when you have time. It’s also the ending stop for the Black Heritage Trail, a very excellent history walk you should all check out.

This building is the oldest still standing Black church or meeting hall in the US. Built with predominantly Black labor and community-raised money, this building became a symbol for the community for over a century, hosting many important historical meetings and occasions. In 1832, William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England Anti-Slavery Society here. The 54th Massachusetts regiment, which we mentioned earlier, was recruited here.

And it was here that the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered a speech after he and his supporters were forced out of another venue by a racist mob of “Boston gentlemen.” The speech was in support of John Brown, then recently executed for fomenting rebellion in Virginia. It included, “I say, sir, that I want the slaveholders to be made uncomfortable. Every slave that escapes helps to add to their discomfort. I rejoice in every uprising at the South. Although the men may be shot down, they may be butchered upon the spot, the blow tells, notwithstanding, and cannot but tell slaveholders sleep more uneasily than they used to. They are more careful to know that the doors are locked than they formerly were… This element will play its part in the abolition of Slavery… We only need the fact to be known in the Southern States generally, that there is liberty in yonder mountains, planted by John Brown.” A great statement against “civility politics.”

Gay Community News – 22 Bromfield St. (Not a stop, just pointed out)

Also down that block, above what’s now a nail salon, was the headquarters for the Gay Community News, the earliest and longest-lasting weekly newspaper for the LGBT community in Boston. Beginning as just a newsletter in 1973, over the rise of the Gay Liberation movement and the ActUp Fight AIDS movement, it became a paper with national and international scope.

In its first issue, the newsletter stated its purpose as, “There has been a long-standing need in the Boston gay community for improved communication between the various gay organizations and gay individuals. The lack of coverage in the ‘straight’ press has added to this problem of getting necessary information to our community. Gay groups have attempted to overcome this problem by newsletters to their members, but this has led to duplicated efforts, with vast portions of the community left uninformed of events until after they have passed. The Gay Community Newsletter is meant to solve this problem.”

One of its earliest campaigns was the Prisoner Project, in which the Gay Community News raised money to send books and newspapers to Massachusetts prisoners, pre-figuring current work by groups like Black and Pink here in Boston. Part of this campaign was a successful 1980 lawsuit against the federal prison system for prisoners to gain access to gay literature.

omniparkerhouseOmni Parker House – 60 School St.

This is the Omni Parker House. Nothing too special about it on its own, though it is unionized by UNITE HERE Local 26. The really cool thing about it is that by happenstance both Malcolm X, the Black revolutionary, and Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese revolutionary, worked here. Ho Chi Minh as a baker in the 1910s, Malcolm X as a busboy in the 1940s. So that seems like a good excuse to read off some quotes from the two; how about it?

This is Ho Chi Minh in 1930: “The French imperialists’ barbarous oppression and ruthless exploitation have awakened our compatriots, who have all realized that revolution is the only road to survival and that without it they will die a slow death. This is why the revolutionary movement has grown stronger with each passing day: the workers refuse to work, the peasants demand land, the students go on strike, the traders stop doing business. Everywhere the masses have risen to oppose the French imperialists.”

And Malcolm X, in his famous “The Ballot or the Bullet” speech of 1964: “The same government that you go abroad to fight for and die for is the government that is in a conspiracy to deprive you of your voting rights, deprive you of your economic opportunities, deprive you of decent housing, deprive you of decent education. You don’t need to go to the employer alone; it is the government itself, the government of America, that is responsible for the oppression and exploitation and degradation of black people in this country. And you should drop it in their lap. This government has failed the Negro. This so-called democracy has failed the Negro. And all these white liberals have definitely failed the Negro.”

King’s Chapel Burying Ground – 58 Tremont St.

The main thing to note as we walk by this cemetery is that this is where Elizabeth Pain is buried. She was a poor woman in Boston who had a child out of wedlock, which died. She was charged with murder of the child in 1692, but that crime was reduced to just negligence. Her ill-treatment by the patriarchal Puritan state and her gravestone here is considered an inspiration for the novel A Scarlet Letter.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOld State House – 206 Washington St.

This street here is State Street, which used to be called King Street, and for centuries it was the main artery of Boston, for it connects to Long Wharf, the primary shipping pier for the city then. Many great historical events happened here, including the march off to the Civil War by the 54th Massachusetts Regiment while singing “John Brown’s Body.” One case to highlight is the story of Anthony Burns, who escaped slavery in 1853 but was captured and tried here in Boston under the Fugitive Slave Act. His forcible deportation back to slavery infuriated the whole city, turning many Bostonians who were lukewarm on slavery into fierce abolitionists. When he was marched down this street to the awaiting ship, the whole street was lined with silent angry protesters and every building was draped in black mourning banners and upside down American flags.

City Hall Plaza

Like many places we have visited, there was once a neighborhood here before it was all bulldozed during Urban Renewal in the ’60s to build the new City Hall and this plaza. The old City Hall, as an aside, is now an overpriced steakhouse. But since its construction, this plaza and City Hall itself has been the site of countless protests, sit-ins, demonstrations, and actual riots.

It’s the latter we are going to talk about because it was here that one of the most shameful incidents in Boston history occurred, which helped to cement this city’s reputation as one of the most racist and racially segregated cities in the country. I am talking, of course, about the Busing Riots. Between 1974 and 1988, the Boston Public School system was under court mandate to forcibly desegregate its heavily segregated schools. The method they chose was busing students between the racially segregated neighborhoods to different schools, though it has been often noted that more white working-class neighborhoods than white middle- and upper-class neighborhoods were impacted.

This class dimension aside, the reactionary opposition to busing took on a full-throated racist and pro-segregationist form, which quickly turned violent. It was here, literally right there that Ted Landsmark, black civil rights activists and lawyer and now member of the Boston Planning and Development Board, was violently attacked by white teenager Joseph Rakes wielding an American flag. This moment was captured by photographer Stanley Forman, who would win a Pulitzer for the photo. Rakes served two years for assault with a deadly weapon, i.e., the American flag, and is apparently now a hazardous waste worker.

Fort Hill Plaza (Not a stop, just pointed out)

While we walk to our last stop I wanted to mentioned one more place that’s not directly on our tour. Deep in the Financial District, at the corner of High St. and Oliver St., is Fort Hill Plaza. There used to be a community there of predominantly Irish working class. But in one of the first consciously planned acts of “urban renewal” and displacement, the predominantly anti-Catholic city leaders of the time had the whole neighborhood raised to the ground. The Irish resisted but to no avail. All across this city there are the buried bones of neighborhoods and communities that were destroyed, bulldozed, re-zoned, or just priced out. Where we are crossing now is one such example, as the I-93 highway that would eventually need to be buried during the Big Dig cut through the homes of thousands and separated the North End off from the rest of the city.

Sacco & Vanzetti Defense Committee – 256 Hanover St.

We end our tour with one of the great miscarriages of American justice, as well as one of the first great international solidarity defense campaigns. As this plaque states, this was where the Sacco & Vanzetti Defense Committee had its offices. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian-born anarchists who, despite another person confessing to the crime and a complete frame-up of a show trial, were falsely charged and executed for a murder during a robbery. Their frame-up and execution came within the larger context of the First Great Red Scare mentioned earlier, where political dissidents, especially of foreign birth, were being rounded up and deported, while radical organizations like the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, and the Industrial Workers of the World were faced with intense police repression.

While awaiting execution, Vanzetti defended his anarchist politics and his revolutionary organizing, saying, “If it had not been for these things, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have died, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man as now we do by accident. Our words — our lives — our pains — nothing! The taking of our lives — lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish-peddler — all! That last moment belongs to us — that agony is our triumph.”

An international campaign formed to defend and demand clemency for Sacco and Vanzetti, all organized from this building. The campaign involved everyone from the Soviet Union, anarchists all over the world, American radicals of every stripe, and such more mainstream luminaries as Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells. The day before their execution on August 21, 1927, over 20,000 people protested on the Boston Common. After their executions, there were massive and violent protests in Geneva, London, Paris, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Germany, and Johannesburg, and wildcat strikes in Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro. Their funeral in Boston is estimated to have been attended by over 200,000 people, so many that Will H. Hays, head of the motion picture industry’s umbrella organization, ordered all film of the funeral procession destroyed, lest it become further political propaganda against American justice and capitalism.

A map of the walking tour in PDF form can be found here

Psychology for Socialists, Part 2

By Jonathan K.

“Psychology for Socialists” is a three-part series designed to introduce people to findings and theories in psychology that are relevant to socialism and activism. The things I will be presenting aren’t exclusively relevant to those topics; in fact, they apply to almost every facet of our lives. What I will be doing is presenting them in relation to the work we do as socialists.

Let me start with a couple of disclaimers. The first disclaimer is that findings in psychology are (almost) never absolute. We can capture general patterns or describe the most likely behaviors or reactions, but there will always be exceptions. So, for everything I’m about to describe, remember that it doesn’t apply to everyone or every situation. The second disclaimer is that psychology is an imperfect science. Like many sciences right now, it is struggling with a replicability crisis. The findings I will present will be ones I have confidence in, or I will be clear that they are still unsettled. However, even the ones I have confidence in could be overturned at some point in the future.

Psychology is imperfect in another sense because, like many sciences, it has suffered from a lack of diverse perspectives, and more than other sciences it has suffered from a lack of diverse data. Many of the findings I will discuss are based on studies of mostly upper-middle-class and mostly white college students, and conducted by mostly white researchers (though somewhat less overwhelmingly cis-male than other fields). In the last two decades the field has become more aware of this and made efforts to self-correct, but it will take some time for us to be confident that these findings apply to all of humanity.

Part 2: Know your comrade
In Part 1, I wrote about how we misunderstand our own minds. Here, I’m going to look at how we misunderstand our comrades.

The Boston DSA code of conduct instructs us to “assume good faith” from our comrades. To be blunt, there have been a number of times when that hasn’t happened. However, in assuming good faith of my comrades, and being a psychologist, I’m going to argue that our disagreements and strife are not (usually) out of any intent or malice, or at least they don’t start that way.

Why do we so often fall into arguments and infighting? It breaks down into a few specific issues. Some don’t require explanation: Living under capitalism sucks, we’re all busy people, we get stressed and overwhelmed. Others are more subtle, and require us to re-examine our thinking and how we interact with each other. The two issues I’m going to point out here are a somewhat controversial idea from social psychology called “attribution errors” and a toxic drive to “save face.”

I. Attribution
Imagine you greet someone with “Good morning!” and they say “Fuck off.” You’re going to dislike that person. Now imagine, as you are having this exchange, that the person is having a broken arm set by a paramedic after tumbling down a hillside and hitting two yellowjacket nests on the way. You could maybe find it in your heart to forgive them for being a bit unfriendly.

A more talented writer could string together some analogy here about tumbling down the invisible hillside of life, but the basic idea is that we cannot always see why someone might act the way they do. This is at the core of one of the more contentious debates in social psychology. For many years, social psychologists argued that people were prone to something called the “fundamental attribution error,” or FAE. The “error” part of the FAE is that people tend to attribute the behavior of others to internal or “dispositional” factors about the other person, who they were, when in fact the behaviors are due to external “situational” factors. The error, in other words, would be thinking that the person in our example was an asshole, rather than attributing their response to the fact that they had just gone through an extremely unpleasant experience.

It is the nature of DSA that people have disagreements. It’s part of being a multi-tendency organization. Sometimes those disagreements get heated. It’s easy for a political disagreement to become a personal one. Sometimes that’s intentional. Sometimes it’s because people interpret what people say as reflecting who they are versus how they are at that moment.

The controversial part of the FAE is how often it’s actually an error:[1] Sometimes the attributions to a person’s disposition are fully justified. Nobody denies that people prefer to make dispositional attributions; that’s been a point of agreement in this debate for well over 30 years.[2] The question for researchers is: Do we make dispositional attributions when there are clear situational alternatives? Ultimately, that uncertainty is a part of the problem. We don’t always know when it’s an error and when it’s not.

This uncertainty is even worse when we don’t have any idea about other people’s situations. This is especially the case in online discourse: We don’t have any context for the people we’re talking to, and it’s easy to read the same post in many different ways. When we read something negative, it’s easy to assume that it reflects something intrinsic about the person who posted it. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it’s someone having a bad day. Sometimes it’s a little of column A, a little of column B. Uncertainty!

Now, let’s consider what it means to assume good faith in your comrades.

To me, it means that, when I see something I read as negative or hostile, I try to make the situational attribution first, especially with people I don’t know well. Whether or not it’s accurate, it is the more generous option. If it keeps happening I will end up deciding that it’s not situational, but it takes some time to tip the scales. To me, assuming good faith means making the default assumption that people aren’t assholes, but that anyone can have a bad day. That means I don’t go into my future interactions with them thinking that they will be the same. In general, I try to avoid attributing hostility to others whenever I reasonably can. This is not easy or simple: From childhood, we find it very easy to attribute hostility to others when they do something we do not like[3], whether they meant it to be hostile or not.

Of course, sometimes it’s us having the bad day. We say things that other people take badly, and then we get defensive. But defend what, exactly? Here, we run into the deeply ingrained problem of saving face.

II. The problem of face
Whether or not it’s accurate, the FAE applies only to our judgments of other people’s actions. When it comes to ourselves, we go almost exactly the other way. Whenever we do something that we’re not proud of, or that we are criticized for, we push the causes onto external factors. We try, as much as possible, to say “that’s not who I am,” and make excuses. Our concept of “who I am,” our self-concept, is complicated and multifaceted. One aspect is referred to by social psychologists as “face,” defined as “the positive aspects of character that a person lays claim to (or is treated as having laid claim to) in a particular interaction.”[4]

We are very protective of “face.” When it is challenged, by our own actions or by what someone else says, we get embarrassed. If you are around people you want to think of you as smart and you try to push a pull door, you feel embarrassed. Most people have a powerful drive to avoid embarrassment. We work very hard to save face.

Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t a good thing. In fact, I think it’s toxic, especially for activist organizations, and even more so for socialists that must ultimately trust each other to accomplish real change.

Let’s take a (minor) recent example from my own interactions with my local DSA chapter. I got into a discussion about a candidate who the chapter was considering talking to and endorsing, who had, as part of their platforms, police body cameras. I hadn’t worked out the intrinsic problems with body cameras (surveillance state, in short), and so I was confused when this got a strong negative reaction from some comrades. When I asked questions about this, I briefly found myself on a platform arguing about whether body cameras were a problem or not.

It took about four comments for me to realize that I was doing it exclusively to avoid being wrong, and for no other reason. So I stopped. Even then, I couldn’t bring myself to admit, publicly, that’s what had happened, and found myself trying to make excuses until I forced myself to stop. Eventually I just managed to put together “I didn’t think it through” and left it at that.

This isn’t the event that made me think face is toxic, by the way. I worked that out a while ago. But even with that in mind, I couldn’t stop myself. Saving face is practically reflexive. Maybe more for me than for some people, but research has concluded that saving face is nearly a cultural universal, with some variation in how far people will go to protect someone else’s reputation versus their own.

In any case, my anecdote is just an example of why face is bad. Why couldn’t I just say up front that I hadn’t thought it through? Why is it so difficult to even write about now? Because I hate being embarrassed. Kind of a lot, in fact. If this post makes it to the public eye with all of this intact it’ll be the greatest success I’ve had yet fighting the impulse to save face.

Now let’s think about this in a broader context of our organization: Callouts, arguments, and how people respond to being called out.

Let me start with a very important disclaimer: I’m not talking about callouts for personal harassment or extensive abusive behavior. There are such things as unforgivable actions, real harms that cannot be repaired by simple apologies. That’s not what I’m talking about here. You’re not “saving face” if you’re making excuses for deliberately hurting someone, you’re just an asshole. There is no situational justification for actions that cannot ever be justified. When someone causes real, serious harm, they should admit they’re wrong, but just admitting they’re wrong doesn’t absolve them. Nothing I’m going to say here applies to those kinds of cases.

I’m talking about the kind of day-to-day squabbling an organization like DSA generates. In our chapter we’ve seen public arguments about political education programs, electoral work, technology infrastructure, accessibility options, and the general internal political structure of the chapter. I don’t want to dismiss the importance of any of these issues, but I hope it’s clear that there is a difference between public arguments about these issues and public callouts for extensive individual harassment and abusive behavior. For one, when you’re dealing with what I’ll call “political” callouts (for lack of a better term), there’s some expectation that you will be working with the people involved in the future. That’s the kind of case I’m talking about here.

With that in mind, political callouts are sometimes justified, and sometimes it turns out they are not. However, when people are called out, more often than not the response I see is some kind of self-justification. Sometimes it’s an admission that something isn’t right and a situational excuse, sometimes it’s a doubling-down on the justification for whatever they are being called out on, to the point where they will express pride in it. Either way, the goal is clearly the same: to save face. The most awful forms of this are the non-apology (“I’m sorry you were offended”) and the outright denial.

The intended outcome of (most) callouts is a correction. Saving face doesn’t do that. Most face-saving responses will drag the problem out, or make it worse, or at best ultimately correct the issue but leave some lingering resentment from the parties involved.

What if we didn’t try to save face? What if we fought the impulse to protect our self-image with excuses, and simply said, “I was wrong, and I feel bad about it”? It’s hard to say because it so rarely happens, but personally, I think it would usually work out a lot better for everyone involved. If you are the one making the callout, it would address the issue they wanted addressed. If you are the one being called out, it would feel bad, in the short term. Embarrassing, of course. But, ultimately, if you’ve made someone mad enough to call you out, it would do a lot to repair that relationship, it would let you work together moving forward, and in the context of advocacy, it would help you Do Things That Work.

The above only applies to justified callouts. Sometimes callouts aren’t justified, due to incomplete information, misunderstanding, or just failing to assume good faith. Once you’ve made a callout, in a public sphere, you are committed to something that can become a threat to your face. If you discover that your callout wasn’t justified, what do you do next? Well, one option is to admit you were wrong. The other is to try to save face. The pattern of saving face here is generally to double down, or dial back by half-measures. The end result is the same: It accomplishes nothing except to build acrimony. In making a callout, if we expect those we are calling out not to try to save face, and to admit when they are wrong, we must be willing to do the same if it turns out we were wrong.

There is also a third possible situation, which is less of a callout and more of a straight-up argument: when both sides feel, truly feel, they are justified, not because they are saving face but because they really believe in their actions or their positions. Neither of the above points apply to those cases. This isn’t a call to simply give up your position when challenged. This is a call to examine why you want to defend your position. Is it because you really are justified? Or is it because you want to save face? You will almost always think you are justified, at least at first, but that assumption is part of the impulse to save face, and you shouldn’t simply accept it without questioning it.

My advice? Whenever you call someone out, or are called out, challenge yourself on your position. If you think you’re right, really challenge your own position, really think about why someone might feel justified calling you out on it (or why they would feel justified holding the position you are calling out), and if you still think you’re justified, well, then you might be. If you find your position isn’t as strong as you thought, then maybe it’s time to try not saving face. Even if you can find a situational justification for your behavior, let it go. You can know, for yourself, that it wasn’t “who you are,” but making that excuse doesn’t help anything except your own self-image, and so often sounds like an attempt to avoid responsibility. Making a situational attribution for yourself is a way to save face rather than resolve the concern, and even if you can make that attribution, it doesn’t mean that you should.

The earlier you make that determination, the better. We’re no strangers to chapter or national drama. It ramps up. People get entrenched. Even when one flare-up subsides, it leaves lingering distrust and acrimony, which fuels the next flare-up. If you can save months of arguing and bad feeling by not trying to save face, don’t try to save face.

And as a comrade, make it easier for people to make that decision. Do not hold grudges. If a comrade admits they were simply wrong, respect them for it, and remember the problem of attribution. Embarrassment is just a feeling, but disrespect is a punishment. Even if they admit they did something wrong, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a situational factor behind it. They just don’t want to make excuses, and that is a quality we should appreciate in our comrades. Let me emphasize again, there’s a class of action that this advice does not apply to, and never should, but for most of the arguments and disagreements we have, there’s no need to hold a grudge, and no benefit.

III. Being comradely
The message I’m trying to get across here is not that you have to agree with all of your comrades, or even that you have to like them. The goal here is to treat them, and yourself, fairly. Assume good faith by asking, when someone says something you react negatively to, whether it is a reflection of who they are, or a product of their situation. Be willing to accept when you are wrong, and be willing to accept others when they admit they are wrong. Sectarianism is the death of any activist movement, and sometimes that is built on deliberate strife. However, in assuming good faith of my comrades, when it rears its head in DSA I see it as more of a product of failing to assume good faith by the participants, and a desperate need to save face. If we can learn to assume good faith, and if we can be less selfishly attached to our own self-image, we can accomplish more. We can get more done. We can more effectively make the world a better place.

So this is a call to examine yourself and your interactions, to think about what you are attributing to others and what positions you truly need to defend. This is not advice aimed at any one person, but at every member of this organization. Some disagreement will touch all of us sooner or later, and we must all individually be prepared to deal with them in a constructive and comradely way. The common good is greater than any of our egos or our personal dislikes. While we can disagree on valid, principled grounds, we must spare ourselves unnecessary fights, unnecessary drama, and above all unnecessary hostility. Disagreements that start as these simple misunderstandings or mistakes can lead to deliberately hostile actions later. A little hard self-examination now can save a organization-shattering fight later.

[1] Sabini, J., Siepmann, M., & Stein, J. (2001). The really fundamental attribution error in social psychological research. Psychological Inquiry, 12(1), 1-15.
[2] Harvey, J. H., Town, J. P., & Yarkin, K. L. (1981). How fundamental is the “fundamental attribution error”? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40(2), 346-349.
[3] van Dijk, A., Poorthisu, A. M. G., Thomasse, S., de Castro, B. O. (in press). Does parent-child discussion of peer provocations reduce young children’s hostile attributional bias? Child Development.
[4] Sabini et al. (2001), pg. 2.

Psychology for Socialists, Part 1

By Jonathan K.

“Psychology for Socialists” is a three-part series designed to introduce people to findings and theories in psychology that are relevant to socialism and activism. The things I will be presenting aren’t exclusively relevant to those topics; in fact, they apply to almost every facet of our lives. What I will be doing is presenting them in relation to the work we do as socialists.

Let me start with a couple of disclaimers. The first disclaimer is that findings in psychology are (almost) never absolute. We can capture general patterns or describe the most likely behaviors or reactions, but there will always be exceptions. So, for everything I’m about to describe, remember that it doesn’t apply to everyone or every situation. The second disclaimer is that psychology is an imperfect science. Like many sciences right now, it is struggling with a replicability crisis. The findings I will present will be ones I have confidence in, or I will be clear that they are still unsettled. However, even the ones I have confidence in could be overturned at some point in the future.

Psychology is imperfect in another sense because, like many sciences, it has suffered from a lack of diverse perspectives, and more than other sciences it has suffered from a lack of diverse data. Many of the findings I will discuss are based on studies of mostly upper-middle-class and mostly white college students, and conducted by mostly white researchers (though somewhat less overwhelmingly cis-male than other fields). In the last two decades the field has become more aware of this and made efforts to self-correct, but it will take some time for us to be confident that these findings apply to all of humanity.

Part 1: Know yourself

The goal of this series is to help us be aware of things in ourselves and in others that affect our behavior, our interactions, and our work. The intuitive starting point is an introduction to yourself: features of your own mind that you might not be aware of. I’m specifically going to focus on issues about what we think we know, what we think other people know, and how wrong we can be.

I. Illusions of knowledge

Off the top of your head, without looking anything up, how well do you understand how a toaster works? Just give yourself a quick rating on a 1-7 scale, where 1 is “not at all” and 7 is “completely.”

Now try to explain to someone else how a toaster works. Include things like, how does it “pop” at the right time? How does the knob control how toasted your toast gets? I’ll wait.

Odds are good that you just discovered that you overestimated your knowledge. This is called the “Illusion of Explanatory Depth” (IOED)[1] and is one of several related examples of ways in which we overestimate what we know. You may have heard of the “Dunning-Kruger effect,” which is a more general statement of the same idea: The more you know, the less you think you know. It often gets used in classist or ableist arguments, but the underlying idea is neither of these things. It’s extremely difficult to measure the depth of our own ignorance.

As socialists, we are often required to explain complex concepts like capitalism, the difference between socialism and communism, the carceral state, and more. We also have to advocate for complex social support systems, like single-payer healthcare, to say nothing of ideas that are excluded from mainstream political outlets, like prison abolition. Going into a political discussion, you may feel like you deeply understand these issues, that you have comprehensive arguments to make, and that you are ready for the most common rejoinders. Unless you’ve actually tried to explain these concepts to someone, you might not understand them as well as you think.

These effects have been the focus of a fair amount of research, and so we know a few things about how they work. As with everything in psychology, there are multiple things going on. One major piece is that we confuse knowing where to find information with knowing the content of the information. There have been some very good studies showing that, for information that we can look up, we will remember how to find that information, but we won’t remember much of the information itself.[2] Now that we can look up everything on our pocket-sized internet machines, that’s probably even more true (though I don’t know of any studies looking at smartphone usage specifically).

Second, there is the difference between “abstract” and “concrete” information. Think again of the toaster. There are some things you really do know about it — it uses electricity to create heat, and there’s some kind of spring for pop-up toasters. That’s “abstract” knowledge. There are no real details there, just general principles or descriptions of behavior. If you found you had trouble explaining things about how a toaster works, it probably wasn’t those things. The difficult pieces are the “concrete” details — things like how electrical resistance in the material of the heating coils creates heat, how thermocouples control the temperature of the toaster and when it pops, or how the latch on the pop-up mechanism works. One evidence-backed account of the IOED and other, similar effects is that we recognize that we have abstract knowledge, and we confuse that for having concrete knowledge.[3] So, when you feel like you know something, you should ask yourself whether you know only the abstract part or really have the concrete details. For example, when we talk about single-payer, how would it address funding medical education? How would we deal with existing medical debt? How would we deal with malpractice insurance? People have offered answers to all these questions (which I personally don’t know off the top of my head, but I know where to find them), but when you say you understand a single-payer, you should make sure you know what you think you know.

Finally, these effects persist because of a strong desire to “save face” (something I will talk about a lot more in a later post), combined with a negative cultural attitude toward ignorance. In mainstream U.S. culture, there are few more humiliating things than “looking stupid” by being ignorant. Our self-image and self-esteem suffer if we demonstrate ignorance. So, we are motivated to avoid that. One way to avoid that is to simply ignore our own ignorance, perhaps because we so rarely get called on it. You probably spent most of your life until today thinking you knew how a toaster works, because you were never really challenged on it. We can get very far with very little knowledge, as it turns out, and so we can safely assume (most of the time) that we know things we really don’t. (There are no studies of this, by the way. It is just one theory as to how we manage with such frequent ignorance.)

As socialists and individuals, all we can do about the first two issues is be aware of them. They are internal to our own minds, and we must simply be vigilant about monitoring our own knowledge. However, tying ignorance to self-esteem and social scorn is something we can, and should, attempt to combat. As socialists, we should value the act of learning, and be clear that learning starts with admitting ignorance. I like to use the XKCD example of the “lucky 10,000,” which makes the point that for something that “everyone knows” by age 30, there are (if you assume a constant rate of learning) 10,000 people learning it every day. An expression of ignorance should not be a source of shame, but a source of excitement. It is an opportunity to learn, and for others, an opportunity to teach. Indeed, some studies have reported that, in Japanese culture, that is exactly how ignorance is treated[4], and (by some measures) it makes for a much better educational experience.

In thinking about this, we should be careful not to fall prey to a different individualist attitude that ultimately leaves the same problems. Socrates is famously quoted as saying, “I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know”[5]. This is an expression of scorn for overconfidence, but it does not welcome expressions of ignorance. At the same time, we should not start treating ignorance as being good in and of itself. Remaining ignorant by choice is something we should not accept. To accept ignorance without elevating it, we must value the act of learning, and be explicit that the first step in learning something is admitting ignorance. We must all become comfortable with saying “I don’t know this, can you teach me?” When we say “there are no stupid questions,” we have to learn to mean it.

II. The “Curse of Knowledge”

Not only do we think we know more than we actually know, we also have trouble figuring out what other people don’t know. An expert in any field will have years of experience and accumulated knowledge, but to be a good teacher, they have to recognize how much of their knowledge is due to experiences that their students have not had yet. How often have you been in a class where a teacher talked about something for three seconds as if you already knew what it meant, and you felt completely lost? The teacher, most likely, assumed you already knew that information because they already knew that information, and forgot it had to be taught to them.

This is called the “curse of knowledge.” There are many examples of it throughout psychology. The classic example is a study in which a group of participants were told to tap the tunes to various popular songs (e.g., “Happy Birthday”), and estimate how easily someone listening to their tapping could figure out which song it was. The tappers, who heard the song before doing the tapping, estimated that listeners would be able to recognize the song based on their taps alone about 50% of the time. In reality, listeners only managed to identify the song successfully 2-3% of the time. There are many other examples of this kind of effect. It starts early, too, peaking in young (3-5-year-old) children, who assume that other people know everything that they do[6].

This is a big problem for teaching. It’s a big problem for me, right now, as I’m writing this. I’ve read over a thousand research articles in psychology over the course of the last ten years (according to my reference library), and I have to try to put myself in the shoes of a reader who might not even have taken an introductory psychology course. If there’s something in here that I talk about like it’s obvious when it really isn’t, it’s because I failed at understanding what you do or don’t already know. It takes constant, conscious effort to avoid making those mistakes.

The implications for advocacy should be clear… or perhaps they are not. In any case, there are two contexts where the curse of knowledge can be a huge problem for us and our work. The first is in internal political education. It is the flip side of being willing to admit our own ignorance: Avoid stating things as if they are obvious, though it can be difficult to strike a balance between that and being patronizing. Communication is key. “Do you know what X is?” is a valid and useful question to ask when engaging in political education.

The second context is when advocating for our ideas in the public sphere. Here is where the curse of knowledge can truly bite us in the ass. We might know that the weekend exists because unions fought and died for it, that single-payer is cheaper and more efficient than private insurance, that health-care reform requires as much work on cutting costs as it does on providing access, but everyone we are talking to may not. They may even have been actively misinformed. We typically refer to this as “meeting people where they are,” but the curse of knowledge can make it harder than you might have expected. Be sensitive to the fact that you might need to re-evaluate what is or is not “obvious,” simply because you learned it so long ago.

III. So what can we do about it?

So, our own minds are working hard to sabotage us. What has the science of psychology given us to counter these bad habits?

I have good news and bad news.

Let me start from the top. Consider the following math problem:

“A ball and bat cost $1.10 together. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

For most people, your immediate, intuitive answer will be $0.10. This is incorrect, and a little arithmetic will show you why: If the bat costs $1 more than the ball, then the bat costs $1.10, and the total cost would be $1.20. The correct answer is $0.05, but the question is worded in a way that’s designed to lead you to a different answer at first.

This is a question from an early version of the “Cognitive Reflection Test” or CRT. It measures a cognitive “style,” for lack of a better term. As with many things in psychology, people were able to describe this before we were able to measure it. I’m particularly fond of Terry Pratchett’s description of it in the Tiffany Aching books: “First sight and second thoughts.” First sight is the ability to see the world as it is, without letting your expectations get in the way. Second thoughts is the ability to look at your own thinking and ask yourself, “Is this right?” In psychology, we call these second thoughts “cognitive reflection.” The more “reflective” you are, the more you check your own thinking for errors, and the more likely you are to catch them before you act.

The good news about cognitive reflection is that it can be learned and practiced. The easiest way to develop it is to start by slowing yourself down. Researchers have designed training tasks for preschoolers that increase cognitive reflection. It’s very simple: They are given a difficult (for them) question, but after seeing the question, there is an enforced two-second delay before they can answer. That alone makes them much better at other, unrelated tasks that benefit from cognitive reflection. For adults, we can do this to ourselves. Whenever you are about to make a decision, or answer a complicated problem like the one above, before you answer, deliberately stop yourself and re-examine your answer again. Do this enough and it can become a habit.

The other piece of good news is that cognitive reflection does seem to affect the IOED. People who score higher on the CRT are less prone to the illusion of explanatory depth. However, we have a correlation, but not a causal link. There are no training studies yet that show that increasing reflectiveness makes people less susceptible to the IOED, but in principle it could help quite a bit. Sadly, nobody has looked at cognitive reflection and the curse of knowledge, but based on our best understanding of them, the worst it can do is nothing.

The bad news is that the only training studies I’ve found don’t look at long-term benefits or real-world applicability. How well you can reflect on your thinking in a psychology lab after an intensive training could be very different from how well you can do so when you’re about to run a political education session coming off a long work day. My completely intuitive guess is that it’ll be very difficult to actually apply outside the lab. But it’s still one of the better solutions we have.

Ultimately, the most we can say about the IOED and the curse of knowledge is that you need to know about them to be able to counteract them. The best I can do is introduce them to you. For some readers, this might feel like old news. For others, it might be a revelation. I don’t know, but that’s fine. I can find out by sharing this with all of you.

[1] Rozenblit, L., & Keil, F. (2002). The misunderstood limits of folk science: an illusion of explanatory depth. Cognitive Science, 26(5), 521-562.
[2] Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science, 333(6043), 776.
[3] Alter, A. L., Oppenheimer, D. M., & Zemla, J. C. (2010). Missing the trees for the forest: a construal level account of the illusion of explanatory depth. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(3), 436-451.
[4] Heine, S. J., et al. (2001). Divergent consequences of success and failure in Japan and North America: An investigation of self-improving motivations and malleable selves. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(4), 599-615.
[5] Plato, Apology 21d, tr. Tredennick, 1954.
[6] Birch, S. A. J., & Bloom, P. (2004). Understanding children’s and adults’ limitations in mental state reasoning. Trends in Cognitive Science, 8(6), 255-260.