Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Left: Secular, Spiritual, Utopian and … Pragmatic

I was quite moved upon reading the following passage yesterday from Vincent Geoghegan’s persuasive and profound book, Utopianism and Marxism (Methuen, 1987): 

“In moments of despair [Rosa] Luxemburg was driven to conceive of happiness in terms of a rejection of politics: 

‘I cursed the damn “politics” that stopped me from answering father’s and mother’s letters for weeks on end. I never had time for them because of those world-shaking problems…. And my hate turned against you because you chained me to the accursed politics…. Yesterday I was almost ready to give up, once and for all, the goddamn politics (or rather the bloody parody of our ‘political’ life) and let the whole world go to hell. Politics is inane Baal worship, driving people—victims of their obsession, of mental rabies—to sacrifice their entire existence.’ 

Part of this is clearly the inevitable degree of hardship and sweat associated with any conceivable form of political activity—but it is also testimony to the deep psychic wounds inflicted on many militants by the constrained, positivist politics of the Second International.” 

Luxemburg’s agonizing thoughts on her political experience will resonate with many activists on the Left whose personal lives have often experienced considerable turmoil or neglect as a result of their devotion, as we say, to the cause. Indeed, it is such “accursed politics” or politics as “inane Baal worship” that Gandhi hoped to transform with his creative and arduous attempt to introduce the “āśrama” ideal into political life, in his case, as a form of karma yoga, of a piece with the larger endeavor to “spiritualize politics.” Identical or analogous attempts to overcome the tensions, contradictions, and divides between the values and identities cherished in everyday life and political work are found, for example, among “engaged” Buddhists, Deep Ecology Greens, the praxis of Liberation Theology, as well as the prefigurative politics and integrative education found in the history of anarchism. It also a “central theme” animating a book by one of the founders of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), the sociologist Richard (‘Dick’) Flacks, who today remains active in local politics. Flacks devotes a considerable portion of Making History: The Radical Tradition in American Life (1988) to exploring the “disjunction experienced between making history and making one’s own life.” 

Over at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog* there is a Roundtable on Leilah Danielson’s American Gandhi: A.J. Muste and the History of American Radicalism in the Twentieth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014) that provides us with a peak into the life of an activist who seems to have more or less finessed and perhaps transcended the aforementioned “disjunction” in an exemplary manner, with provocative implications for activists on the Left. I’ll be writing more on this in the near future, inspired in part by a recent issue of the journal Rethinking Marxism. I hope to explain why and how the contemporary Left in this country should and can be a social movement at once secular, spiritual, (non-pejoratively speaking) utopian, and pragmatic as part of the global struggle for liberté, égalité, fraternité and our national variation on this struggle in the fight for racial justice, socialism, and a non-violent (anti-militarist) society.   

* The latest post in the seven-part series, part 5, is here.            

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