OPINION: The left must let go of ideological purity

Three silhouettes are in front of a blue background with stars and a red background with stripes.
(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

In my feminism and gender studies class we often discuss the need to “tear it all down.” We discuss how capitalism, the prison system, policing, nation states, the patriarchy, colonial structures and so many more evil systems cannot be reformed. We must overthrow these systems before any meaningful changes can happen. It seems so final, so faithless, so jaded — and so naive. 

As stated in The Economist, “[The left is] sure real progress is possible only after they have first seen to it that racial, sexual and other hierarchies are dismantled.” 

Superficially, that sentiment has a lot of merit. But, as a pragmatist, I don’t feel like it quite translates to the reality of activism. We can’t wait for systems of oppression to fall before we start the hard work of helping people. People are suffering now, and the left is hindered — or even paralyzed — by the notion of ideological purity. 

These large fantastical goals are often phrased in ways familiar to people who’ve taken college courses dedicated to these subjects — but often not-so-digestible to people without the time or money to take such highly specialized, time-intensive courses (think “abolition feminism” or “transformative justice”). The larger left is losing millions of potential voters by focusing on identity politics instead of practical issues like inflation and crime, as the right is doing. Refusing to engage with practical problems until all the oppressive systems are dismantled is delusional and can be quite harmful.  

Setting a doable goal within an oppressive system does not mean giving up your larger goal. The focus on ideological purity is selfish. Part of the humility and sacrifice needed to make real change is putting the needs of suffering people before the ideological wants of activists. Picky activists waste valuable time and energy floundering around trying to solve insurmountable problems instead of focusing on issues they have the power to affect. 

If leftists want to get anywhere, they need to make compromises. “Overthrowing capitalism” isn’t going to work (and is a relatively meaningless premise anyway). What might work? Getting people more access to healthcare. Abolishing the police all at once won’t work. But reforming them — like scaling up non-police organizations responding to emergency calls — could. Trying to shut down all the prisons at once won’t work. As you work to slowly dismantle the prison industrial system, start by making prisons more like schools to reduce recidivism. Maybe one day activists might be able to reform those prison-schools so incarcerated people can go in and out, just like with a regular school. Incremental steps are the best way to lasting change, and those steps require working through oppressive systems like the U.S. government and capitalism. 

“Abolition. Feminism. Now.” by Angela Davis, Gina Dent, Erica Meiners and Beth Richie discusses how abolitionists don’t like many of these ideas because they give legitimacy to oppressive systems like policing and prisons. They like reducing the number of jails and prisons, the number of incarcerated people and police presence. These are admirable and necessary goals. It’s just that we shouldn’t refuse efforts like making prisons more rehabilitative simply because it doesn’t exactly line up with the massive goal of abolition. 

The fact is that activists can and should do both: help people and think about the repercussions and implications of the help with a larger goal in mind. We just can’t ignore reality in favor of philosophy. 

A lot of leftist activism entails criticism from behind university walls, stuck in a bubble of academics reaffirming each other’s inflexibility. It’s easy to lose sight of the real world. For example, leftists have told me that efficiency isn’t the only way to judge a movement — that some forms of progress just aren’t quantifiable. 

But the reality is that people are starving, locked up in inhumane prisons and being murdered by police right now. Efficiency does matter. It matters more than anything. To say that efficiency doesn’t matter is to show great privilege and a lack of understanding of the urgency of real issues. Sadly, efficiency usually comes at the cost of ideological purity because of the necessity of compromises.

Sometimes, I’ve seen the left take a certain strange pride in how radical their goals are. “Yes, we want to overthrow capitalism.” “Yes, we want to eliminate incarceration,” etc. There are many people out there who would help with more conceivable goals, but they aren’t ready for such radical solutions. The only purpose of attempting to translate that kind of extremism into real-world activism is solidarity with people who already agree. It accomplishes nothing but tying activists to massive, insurmountable goals and making attainable goals fade into ideological impurity. 

History proves that great change can come from activists working within oppressive systems without waiting for them to fall first. Abe Lincoln used the constitutional amendment process to pass the 13th Amendment. Martin Luther King Jr. and President Lyndon Johnson had to make deals with unsavory characters who did not agree with them. Even now, a monumental climate bill passed because the Democrats were willing to give Sen. Joe Manchin some drilling rights

Organizing and leftist ideas spread through capitalist social media apps and publications. Decarceration involves working within the prison industrial system. Abolition might even mean increasing funding for the police so that they can hire non-violent social services experts to join the force. The path to freedom is winding, not straight; we must take it step by step, and we can’t afford to freeze up. 

To spur the change we all want to see, leftists need to let go of the idea that real change can only come when the oppressive structures disappear. People need help right now, and we have the power and privilege to help them. So, let’s stop moralizing, and get to work. 

Margot Rosenblatt SC ’24 is from New York, NY. She spent the past year doing volunteer work through AmeriCorps (the U.S. government) in Florida.

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