How Ideology Can Help—or Hurt—Movements Trying to Build Power

Image of peace sign.

Image by Humphrey Muleba.

An interview with political educator Harmony Goldberg on whether the ideological traditions of the left are helpful for practical organizing.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How would you characterize that process?

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

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

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

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

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