Pain on the One Side, Fear on the Other

Retaining Members in Socialist Organizations

The greatest challenge facing socialist organizations is learning how not to split. A veteran socialist said that in the 1970s. If we had we learned this lesson, the socialist left would be much, much larger today. But we have not learned it, and we remain relatively tiny. Since our primary goal is to grow, we need to examine what are we doing wrong, and what we must do differently.

The following is a contribution to preventing unproductive conflict that compels comrades to leave socialist organizations. It does not apply to productive conflict that clarifies differences and moves things forward. And it does not apply to disputes with opportunists whose primary aim is to get their way.

A pattern

Long-standing socialists give different reasons for leaving their organization, contributing to the belief that these losses are an individual problem. However, too many have left for this to be an individual problem. It is a pattern. And if we want to change it, and change it we must, we need a more effective explanation.

In theory, socialists welcome conflict as a means to learn and grow. Sometimes we manage to do this. However, too often, we fall into the classic conflict pattern that predominates under capitalism; we allow minor disagreements to fester or escalate to the point that members leave, followed by a more or less prolonged pissing contest over who was right. The failure to resolve the conflict diminishes the organization in size and credibility.

This same conflict pattern predominates within couples (evidenced by the high rate of separation and divorce), between doctors and patients (evidenced by the high rate of law suits), and I have personally witnessed it repeated in different socialist organizations in different countries over different issues. I can only conclude that the problem is systemic to capitalism.

Capitalist social relations not only block us from seeing our common interests, they also prevent us from learning how to fight respectfully and how to stop unproductive conflict in order to preserve our relationships and organizations. As I explain below, a toxic soup of competition, social insecurity, and distrust combine to spark inter-personal conflict over the smallest disagreements. As a result, most conflict under capitalism is divisive and unproductive.

Immersed in competition

Capitalism arises from the irreconcilable conflict between the capitalist class and the working class. This primary conflict spawns a multitude of other conflicts. The capitalist social hierarchy emphasizes differences and ranks them in order of presumed value. Light skin is preferred over dark skin, men over women, straight over gay, more education over less, youth over age, religion A over religion B, nation C over nation D, etc. As a result, people find themselves in perpetual struggles over who and what is better/right/superior. Such conflict is experienced as ‘normal’ in a society of one-ups and one-downs.

Throughout our lives, the mantra “only one can win” is drummed into our brains. We all compete for position at school, at work, in our families, among our friends, and in our organizations. If only one can win, then the rest of us must be losers, and no one wants to be a loser, or associate with losers. So everyone keeps score. Whoever loses the first round (of whatever is being fought over) will set up the next one in the hope of regaining position and saving face. When winning becomes impossible, losers may discard, destroy, or replace their opponents. In the case of an organization, losers may launch a competing organization.

Social distrust

Distrust is directly related to inequality. More unequal societies are characterized by more competition, more emphasis on individual status and success, less social security, more envy of those above and more disdain for those below. Americans, who live in the world’s most unequal nation, are six times less likely to trust others than people living in more equal nations.  ((The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, by R. Wilkinson & K. Pickett. (2009/2011).))

Social distrust prompts suspicion of those who are different, proving lethal for Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell, Renisha McBride  ((Black Americans Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell, and Renisha McBride were murdered by suspicious White people who misread their behavior and them shot them in fearful distrust.)) and many others. Social distrust compels us to warn our children about strangers, install security systems, view the poor and unemployed as ‘cheaters,’ support more spending on police and prisons, and call for harsher penalties. Social distrust keeps us isolated and unable to recognize our common interests.

Logic is not enough

It is a tradition on the left to contemptuously dismiss any discussion of emotions as touchy-feely psychologizing. Yet emotions play a central role in human struggle. Feeling disrespected is commonly cited as the reason for striking. Feeling unjustly treated pushes people to protest oppression. So socialists are foolish to dismiss the role of emotion in our own conflicts.

Capitalism disregards the importance of human emotions and needs because it is more profitable to treat people like working machines. In turn, dehumanizing social conditions cause us to relate to each other in a mechanical way. However, a mechanical approach cannot resolve inter-personal conflicts, because human beings are more than thinking and talking machines.

In every conflict, both sides believe they are right. The mechanical approach says that if I am logical and rational and explain my position well enough, then the other person will accept my perspective, the conflict will be resolved, and everyone will be clearer. This approach can work only when discussion remains relaxed and friendly. However, when people feel strongly about their positions, as they usually do, emotions are aroused and conflict becomes heated. Strong emotions inflate differences and eclipse common interests so that nothing can be resolved, and everything gets muddier.

Understanding the threat response

Because social connection is the key to human survival, our brains interpret conflict as a threat. When we feel threatened, the amygdale  ((The amygdala is an almond-shaped structure located deep in the brain. It is presumed to govern strong emotions.)) releases powerful stress hormones that compel us to fight, flee, or freeze (submit). These stress hormones also ‘turn off’ the parts of our brains that govern logical thought, because a thoughtful response to danger could take too long. Adrenaline floods the body, the heart pounds, and blood pressure rises, which explains why the ‘heat’ of conflict is typically so much greater than the issue seems to warrant.

Once the threat response has been activated, there is only one way to resolve the conflict; the sparring parties must repair the rupture in their relationship by returning to their common goals. This is difficult to do because conflict generates so much distrust. The longer a conflict persists, the more likely it will be registered in long-term memory and resurrected during the next conflict. For example, the key distinction between successful and unsuccessful couples is not how much they fight, but how quickly they resolve (and therefore forget) their conflicts.

Once the social connection has been re-established, the threat diminishes. As combatants cool down, the thinking parts of their brains come back on line. At that point, they are commonly surprised at how manageable their disagreements actually are. But as long as they feel disconnected, the threat response will remain active, no one will be listening, and the conflict will continue.

You’re mad at me. No I’m not.

If you enter a room after a quarrel, as the saying goes, ‘you can cut the tension with a knife.’ Like all social species, human beings are highly sensitive to body language. We can sense how comfortable people are with each other and how warm and close, or cool and distant, other people are to us.

When we sense that someone is annoyed with us, and we ask what is wrong, we are fortunate to get an honest answer. Most of the time, people won’t admit being angry. They may not be aware of feeling angry; they may not know how to explain their angry feelings; they may believe they shouldn’t be angry; or they may fear open conflict. The result is covert conflict – also called emotional distancing, social exclusion, snubbing, silencing, sidelining, and the cold shoulder.

New members of a socialist organization experience a honeymoon period of general agreement, warmth, and receptivity. As members become more confident, they start asking more difficult questions, and they may challenge the way things are done. In theory, socialists welcome this. In practice, we can feel threatened, and people tend to distance themselves from whatever feels threatening. Distancing is a form of covert conflict, because we cannot openly admit being angry when someone does what we have encouraged them to do – think critically.

Covert conflict can be subtle: not choosing someone for a task; excluding someone from a discussion or activity; not acknowledging someone’s contribution; being more critical of mistakes; and so on.

Like all social species, human beings are acutely sensitive to social position (status). To protect their communities, primitive societies developed rules and customs to ensure that everyone was valued and that no one rose too high or fell too low.

Capitalism profits by systematically undervaluing people, which makes most of us insecure about our value to others. Without a word being spoken, we all know who is up and who is down, who is in and who is out. When members of a group observe other members being snubbed or sidelined, they also distance themselves for fear of being sidelined. The targets are never told why they are getting the cold shoulder. Should they question it, the usual response is denial because this is not supposed to happen, especially in a socialist organization.

Social exclusion is very painful, and so is having one’s experience denied, and members who are persistently sidelined will eventually leave.

Covert conflict is far more difficult to tolerate than open, heated conflict. To break the tension, someone may pick a fight. The resulting quarrel may have nothing to do with the original issue; it is a sideshow.

We can disagree over what a person’s experience means (why it is happening), and we can disagree about what to do about it. However, we must never deny what people feel and experience in order to protect the status quo. When we negate a person’s feelings, we negate their integrity. Capitalism negates human experience all the time, and socialists must not reproduce such dehumanization inside our organizations.

The need to belong

Because socialists feel especially alienated from capitalism, we need to belong in a socialist organization. As one veteran socialist was fond of saying, “The world is very cold, and the organization must be very warm, welcoming, and inclusive.” The desire to remain inside a socialist organization is powerful indeed, and committed socialists will put up with a lot of bad treatment before they leave in complete discouragement.

Being sidelined in a socialist organization was the most painful experience of my adult life, rivaled only by the death of my brother. It became so painful that, after 20 years of continuous membership, I left. That was 16 years ago, and I continue to grieve the loss. At the time, I didn’t understand why I was being sidelined, and I didn’t know what to do about it, because no one would acknowledge that anything was wrong. So I hid the truth about why I was leaving.

To perpetuate social inequality, capitalism systematically disregards how people feel and what they need which, more than anything else, is to contribute, feel valued, and be included. To justify systemic dehumanization, individuals are shamed for feeling disregarded, excluded, and of no value. To admit such feelings is considered ‘weak’ and socially unacceptable.

No one wants to be ridiculed for being weak. How many other comrades have given a false reason for leaving in order to hide the excruciating pain of wanting to give their all, and being pushed to the side, while everyone denies the problem?

You hurt me. No I didn’t.

Seeking to lower the cost of litigation, a group of insurance companies studied why some doctors are sued repeatedly, while others are rarely sued. They discovered no significant difference in the number of mistakes made by both sets of doctors. The primary difference was how they handled mistakes. The doctors who were repeatedly sued typically denied any wrong-doing, expressed no concern for the patient’s suffering, and generally dismissed their patients’ complaints. In contrast, the doctors who acknowledged their mistakes, expressed remorse, and showed concern for their patients were rarely sued. Their injured patients were also more likely to continue in their care. The study concluded that patients are more inclined to sue doctors who abandon them emotionally, compelling these patients to seek acknowledgement of their suffering through the courts.  ((Communication gaffes: a root cause of malpractice claims, by B. Huntington & N. Kuhn (2003). Proc (Bayl Univ Med Cent). 2003 April; 16(2): 157–161.))

We all have experienced the intense pain of loss and rejection. Science informs us that social pain (from rejection) and physical pain (from a broken bone) are registered in the same place in our brains. Rejection hurts so much because human survival depends on our connections with others. Being told that our pain isn’t real or significant amplifies it a thousand-fold, which explains why patients go to such lengths to seek validation of their pain from doctors who have been uncaring.

We all have been in conflicts where we denied hurting someone or the other person denied hurting us. We deny behaving in a hurtful manner or minimize the hurt in order to make a complaint go away and to maintain position (save face) at the other person’s expense. This is the equivalent of saying, “I don’t care about your pain. I am right (blameless), and you are wrong.” This tactic always backfires. Nothing enrages people more than being told they were not treated badly, when that was what they experienced, or being told that they only imagined being treated badly, implying that they are ‘too sensitive,’ delusional, or crazy.

Surely socialists wouldn’t do that, would they? Sadly, when it comes to conflict, socialists behave no differently from anyone else. In response to complaints that long-standing members of the ISO were unfairly marginalized or pushed out for raising disagreements, ((A letter to comrades in the International Socialist Organization)) the steering committee responded with a flat-out denial,

First, it must be stated, counter to what the various authors of articles critiquing the ISO have stated or implied, that none of these former members were expelled, forced out, silenced, denied the right to air their views or victimized by campaigns against them.  ((“The challenges facing socialists today.” Socialist Worker (US), November 20, 2013.))

No explanation was offered as to why these comrades might feel so aggrieved, no invitation was offered to explore what happened, and no remorse was expressed for the loss of these previously valued comrades. They and their grievances were simply dismissed. In any context, such behavior will deepen the hurt and prolong the conflict.

Is the ISO leadership composed of heartless people? Of course, not. They are responding defensively, from a place of threat. The accusations of dissidents threaten the years of work they have invested to build the organization, and they want that threat to go away. And they don’t know how to make the threat go away without making the dissidents go away. This pattern is common to all organizations.

That’s why it is so much easier to recruit new members than it is to retain more seasoned ones. Socialists say we want members to become confident enough to think critically. However, we feel threatened when they become confident enough to criticize us. And when we don’t know how to resolve the conflict, we dig in our heels and defend our position. The political issues get lost in the resulting power struggle and, regardless of who is right, everyone loses.

Let me emphasize that there is nothing wrong with thinking you are right and holding your position. Everyone benefits when the most useful way forward can be revealed. That is very different from insisting on being right, which is more about achieving or sustaining a superior position over others at the cost of sacrificing valued relationships, turning comrades into opponents, and undermining the growth of the organization.

Tactics versus strategy

As long as members commit to the organization’s goals (strategy), they should be free to have their own ideas of how to meet those goals (perspectives and tactics). Uniformity is essential when it is time to act, so that many can move as one. At all other times, uniformity can be a liability. The greater the diversity of views, the more adaptable people can be in response to changing conditions.

Socialists debate perspectives in order to understand current political conditions and anticipate what tactics will work best to take the struggle forward. Since none of us can know the future, we can never be sure that we are right ahead of time. We can only debate the matter thoroughly, make the best decisions we can, evaluate what happens in practice, and make course corrections as needed. This makes sense in theory, but is difficult to do in practice.

Most of us are not equipped to tolerate differences of opinion for long periods while remaining on friendly terms. We are more inclined to keep explaining our position. However, differences over perspectives and tactics cannot be resolved through discussion alone. Once members vote to act, discussion on the matter must end, so that all energy can be focused on implementing the decision. Of course, a reasonable time limit must be set to evaluate the decision. However, until the matter is reopened for discussion, members must ‘agree to disagree.’

Agreeing to disagree requires tremendous discipline. We all are more comfortable with people who agree with us, and we tend to distance ourselves from people who don’t agree with us. We also tend to get into conflicts with them. Such conflicts are less about politics and more about position – who is right (and therefore has the right to stay) and who is wrong (and therefore should shut up or leave). Continued conflict over perspectives and tactics puts the need to be right above the need to learn what works best in practice.

Socialists must do more than tolerate differences; we must enthusiastically embrace them as opportunities to grow. Actually doing this is incredibly difficult, because it requires us to think and behave opposite to what we have learned under capitalism; it requires us to put our common goals above our personal desire to be right.

Why “getting it right” is so wrong

Academia, by its very nature, prioritizes knowledge over action. The demand to “get it right,” to the very last detail, before moving forward, defines the academic mind set.

The purpose of academic argument is to establish one’s position, not to clarify the way forward. Academic argument only clears the way for more academic argument. Endless debates over details drain the energy of activists with no interest in the verbal one-upmanship of academic competition. And because academic debate maximizes differences, it creates unnecessary conflict.

Academics see themselves as knowledgeable experts, and they dismiss the practical approach of non-academics as being too simplistic, too abstract, not understanding the complexities of the situation, etc. In recounting his experience of the Russian Revolution, John Reed describes a verbal confrontation between a student and two worker-soldiers. The student parades his credentials and taunts the workers for being ignorant about the finer details of history and politics. The conversation concludes:

The soldier scratched his head. “I can’t account for it at all,” he said, grimacing with the pain of his intellectual processes. “To me it seems perfectly simple — but then, I’m not well educated. It seems like there are only two classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie — .” “There you go again with your silly formula!” cried the student. “— only two classes,” went on the soldier, doggedly. “And whoever isn’t on one side is on the other…” ((Ten Days that Shook the World, by J. Reed. (1919) Penguin, pp.174-175.))

Simple truths fit the experience of ordinary people, and the marxist classics are filled with them. However, academics value complex explanations over simple ones, so that endless argument becomes a substitute for action. This makes academics quite conservative.

Having been indoctrinated by authoritarian institutions, academics tend to carry authoritarian methods into social activism. They do not see it as their mission to develop other people’s confidence and skills. On the contrary, they elevate themselves by subordinating others, as they were subordinated in their training. The result can be two-tiered organizations composed of experts and their subordinates.  ((Professional Poison: How professionals sabotage social movements, and why workers should lead our fight, by Susan Rosenthal. (2009).))

All who question the social order are rebels, and rebels won’t put up with authoritarian leaders in the movement. They will challenge the lack of democracy, or they will leave. Leaders who enforce top-down control are left with only submissive members who challenge little of anything. Explaining how society shapes professionals, Jeff Schmidt writes:

Individuals who call themselves radical professionals, but who think of themselves as professionals first, are in essence liberals. Such people make the social reform movement unattractive by bringing to it the same elitism, the same inequality of authority and ultimately, the same hierarchy of ‘somebodies’ and ‘nobodies’ that turns people off to the status quo in the first place.  ((Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes Their Lives, by J. Schmidt (2000). Rowman & Littlefield, p.266))

All capitalist institutions treat social problems as if they were individual ones. Academics and other professionals, who are trained to become managers of the system, learn to respond to problems the same way. Professionals will begin by denying there is a problem, or they will blame the person who has the problem. When they do acknowledge the problem, they will insist that it be solved through “proper channels” that do not challenge the system itself. Such blame-and-shame responses only contain problems; they do not solve them.

In contrast, a working-class response to problems goes more like this:

1. If even one person has a problem, there is a problem.

2. If anyone has a problem, then everyone has a problem.

3. Do whatever it takes to solve the problem.

Pre-class societies lived by these principles because they understood that pulling together was more important than any social structure. If we want to build a classless society, then we must do what we can to promote these principles.

The 2-choice dilemma

People often say one thing and do another. For example, smokers will insist they want to quit while, at the same time, they reach for another cigarette. This is called a two-choice dilemma, because the person wants two choices (in this example: to quit smoking and to continue smoking) when they can have only one.

Becoming an academic is an arduous and expensive process, and one must continue to prove oneself by publishing papers and books. Left academics gravitate to socialist organizations where they can build their reputation as intellectuals and sell their books. Academics can also be committed socialists. For a time, they may be able to straddle the world of academia and the world of socialist activism; however, wanting to be a successful academic and wanting to destroy the system that employs you is a 2-choice dilemma. At some point, one of those choices must be sacrificed.

Rachel Carson and Daniel Ellsberg sacrificed their professional careers for their beliefs. More recently, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning sacrificed their careers to do the right thing. Eventually, radical professionals must choose between being committed socialists and being career opportunists.

The power of apology

Under capitalism, people hurt each other all the time over minor matters, including in socialist organizations. Understanding this as a systemic problem, rather than an individual one, and quickly repairing relationship ruptures will enable us to hold onto our members and patiently have the arguments we need to have, while continuing to work together.

When quarrelling members have the same basic goals, then effective apology is the best way to repair a relationship rupture and restore a good working relationship.

I actually teach a graduate course on how to apologize because capitalism makes us experts in verbal combat while leaving us unequipped to repair the resulting inter-personal damage.

When I ask my students to practice an apology, they typically resist by saying, “Why should I apologize when I don’t think I did anything wrong?” It is extremely difficult for them to think beyond who is right and who is wrong to see that the purpose of apology is to repair a relationship, not to establish blame.

An effective apology restores respect and dignity. Apology says, “You matter to me, and your pain matters to me.” Effective apology restores the primacy of cooperation over competition. Apology says, “Our relationship is more important to me than being right.”

Here are two examples of apology:

“I apologize for treating you as though you were a threat. I was mistaken not to value what you were saying. You deserve better than that, and I am truly sorry for the pain I caused you.”

“I apologize for not recognizing how threatened you were by my disagreements. I was mistaken not to reassure you that my goal was not to diminish you in any way. You deserve better than that, and I am truly sorry for the pain I caused you.”

Effective apologies conclude with a commitment to handle things differently in future.

Only after sincere apologies have been given and accepted can we explore why we did what we did. Most people mistakenly begin an apology by explaining, justifying, and defending, which is perceived by the other as a way to minimize the harm done. Ineffective ‘apologies’ usually launch another round of conflict.

It is also a mistake to expect conflicting parties to ever agree on who said and did what, and in what order. Stress hormones disrupt the ability of our brains to create coherent memories, so that we can’t remember stressful events in logical sequence. However, once a relationship is repaired, this no longer matters. What matters is preventing conflict from becoming so prolonged that it feels impossible to set aside the bitterness.


Human beings are not thinking and talking machines. We do not live exclusively, or even primarily, in our heads. All of our thoughts and feelings are permeated with emotion. Committed socialists feel the pain of our lives and the world, we are passionate about the need for liberation, and we hold strong opinions. Yet we have completely ignored the role of emotions in creating unnecessary conflict – the open, heated kind and the covert, cold-shoulder kind – that drive valuable members away.

Today, masses of people are yearning for a different world and a way to get there. Socialists have the answer, but internal power struggles and inter-personal hostility are a complete turn-off.

We are all indoctrinated in competition, distrust, and unproductive conflict. However, there is no excuse for perpetuating that behavior in our organizations. We should tolerate it no more than we tolerate racist, sexist, and homophobic behavior.

Socialists believe in the power of cooperation to change the world. We also have courage and determination. That is important, because it takes courage and determination to remain warm and friendly in the face of ongoing disagreements. Our reward will be our growing ability to build respectful, welcoming, and truly democratic organizations that ordinary people will beg to join and in which they will remain.

We can be supremely confident in our political foundation. The challenge is to trust the good intentions and dedication of all members. Then we can handle non-strategic disagreements with the confidence that they can and will be resolved among those who share the same goal – bringing the working class to power.

Susan Rosenthal is a life-long socialist, retired physician, union member, and the author of POWER and Powerlessness (2006). Sick and Sicker: Essays on Class, Health and Health Care (2010), and Rebel Minds: Class War, Mass Suffering, and the Urgent Need for Socialism (2019). She can be reached at: Read other articles by Susan.