Skip to main content

The Possibility of Abandoning the Left

The history of the left is replete with its own abandonment.  Abdications, collaborations, betrayals: ways in which different leftist individuals have "sold out", time and time again.  This possibility is one that every leftist must face; at some point in the future, regardless of what we think now, there is always the terrible potential of rejecting everything that we once stood for.

Past failures have, of course, conditioned this abandonment.  Those who lived through the degeneration of the Soviet Union and Communist China, the collapse of anti-revisionism, the end of large and small world historical radical moments either rejected their politics or continued, often isolated, upholding a politics that many of their former comrades had abandoned.  As for those who embraced rejection: some were forced into positions of collaboration and betrayal due to the onslaught of counter-revolution; some became jaded nihilists.

These large-scale failures aside, abandonment is a potential destiny for everyone who gravitates to an anti-capitalist politics.  Individuals drift in and out of movements all the time and it is a sure bet that the composition of whatever organization you belong to will change in a few years, and that you might even lose as many (if not more) comrades as you gain.  (This is supposing your organization lasts longer than five years––these days, after all, many radical organizations implode within half a decade.)  These abandonments are usually not outright collaborations or betrayals but simply banal abdications: someone you once saw as a comrade has decided, for whatever reason, that these politics are not for them and has withdrawn.

Cadre drift in and out of would-be revolutionary organizations all the time; only those organizations' whose growth eclipses the loss of cadre can be said to be vital, but even then it is impossible to know if they will reach a crisis that will reverse this growth.  You will meet people, at least once a year, who will eventually cease being your comrades.  This does not necessarily mean that they will become openly hostile to the praxis of whatever organization they used to be part of, but only that they will drift from political site to political site.  (And if you stay with the left long enough, and do not yourself end up embracing abandonment, you will witness the rise and fall of organizations––many repeating the mistakes of their predecessors since historical memory amongst the left, as we all know, leaves something to be desired.  This problem is a tangental topic worth investigating in the future.)

In any case, there are multiple ways to abandon the movement, and not all of them are tantamount to explicit betrayal: you do not have to collaborate with the pigs or become a reactionary rejecting your "naive" politics to sell out.  As I discussed a couple years ago, for example, left-wing academics have their own particular way of selling out where they can keep their marxism in theory but not in practice, especially if they can build a career based on the former (although, to be fair, there aren't many academic careers available these days).  So it is possible to withdraw without open disavowal––a guilt-ridden abdication––and this might be the fate myself (shudder) as well as others who are in a similar situation as myself will one day face.

The fact that this abandonment exists, however, has served to reinforce liberal, if not outright reactionary, assumptions that a commitment to any type of anti-systemic left politics is essentially juvenile and naive.  Eventually all of us grow up, the common sense adage goes, and we have to abandon the misguided politics of our youth.  Never mind the fact that the vast majority of the world's population, the radical elements of which die in the name of revolutionary politics, cannot afford to be anything but "misguided".  Never mind the fact that history is propelled by those who have aligned themselves with a politics of progressive change whereas those who have remained committed to the normative order, in each and every epoch, have nothing of value to tell us.  One can imagine a staunch monarchist telling the radical democrats in France's bourgeois revolution that they were "naive" for believing that the holy aristocratic order could be smashed.  One can equally imagine a "realist" in nineteenth century USAmerica telling an abolitionist that s/he would eventually grow out of her rebellious anti-slavery politics.

Thus, abandonment on the part of former comrades who have been overtaken by events––who are exhausted, who were never able to overcome the destiny of the bourgeois order, who simply decided that they couldn't believe in the politics of their childhood––is treated as prophecy by those who believe that the current order can never change.  Every leftist-become-realist is upheld as an honest pragmatist; we are constantly inundated with stories of collaboration, which the liberal order wants us to believe is a virtue, and former leftists enjoy telling tales of their misguided and misspent youth.

Giving up your "childish" politics is the height of pragmatism, as this slogan tells us.

Failures are, of course, inevitable.  Perhaps those who were too easily convinced that the imperialist order could be defeated easily, that the movement in which they were involved would change the world, are also those most prone to abandoning their politics.  For if you refuse to accept that failure is always a possibility, and that there will indeed be multiple failures in any attempt to challenge a given reality, then being forced to accept that what you once believed was impossible is in fact the very grounds of possibility in a capitalist state of affairs will probably shatter your political conviction.

Abandoning a politics that challenges the normative order of [bourgeois] reality will be inevitable for many, especially when a given movement at a given time is faced with problems it cannot solve and falls apart, because the normative values of this reality are hegemonic.  The universal insight gleaned from the Cultural Revolution was that the bourgeois order persists even within the proletarian revolution.  In the words of Badiou in 1975 when he was still defining himself as an anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninist (the kind that was short-handed as "maoist"), there "is always the contradictory unity of itself as proletariat and of its specific bourgeois inversion… the combative Marxist core of the working class is determined by the new revisionist bourgeoisie." (Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject, 9.)  When you are conditioned to see certain values as normative it is always difficult to overstep this "common sense" even if you know it is wrong; it affects your very subjectivity and always pulls you back into its comprehensive embrace.  Abandonment, in a perverse way, proves the veracity of what is being abandoned––especially since marxists of various types have long claimed that the ideological instance is difficult to overcome and that many of us will be pulled back into the capitalist way of seeing reality.

And those who champion the abdicators, the disavowers, the traitors, the collaborators––exhorting them for their "realism" and "honesty" (because, in the mind of the ruling class, collaboration with its order is perfect honesty)––are those who are more than happy to ignore and dismiss the remainder of every past revolutionary project that have refused to concede.  Those who still struggle on, finding new movements and projects, are worthy of obscurity.  We are told that they do not exist, that everyone eventually sells out or rots in prison.  The fact that for every failed revolutionary movement there is always a remainder that continues the struggle, that works to transform the failures into the basis of a new procession of resistance, and that this remainder might even, in some contexts, represent a larger population than the official mouth-pieces of abandonment, is actively suppressed.  Better to focus on failure, the supposed naivete that produced this failure, and those whose selling out was merely "growing up".

At some point all of us will be forced to consider the possibility of abandonment.  For some it will be less difficult because the organizations in which they have circulated have already, if only in practice (where it matters the most), abandoned revolution.  For others it will be apocalyptic, a harsh either/or that will cut into their very identity.  For a few the solution will be ultra-purity, a retreat into an ineffective dogmatism contingent upon waiting for the masses to catch up with the "true" doctrine of class struggle.  Whatever the case, a choice will be forced by circumstances and abandonment will become a real possibility––the kind of possibility that we all denied was even possible when we first gravitated towards these politics.

We can always find some measure of theological sanctuary in dismissing the possibility of abandonment by arguing that those who give up this politics must have never truly understood or committed to revolutionary ideology in the first place.  Religious activists, it must be admitted, say much the same about adherents who have "abandoned their faith"––they were never truly committed, they never really believed if they changed their mind!  After all, an authentic faith is premised on the assumption that is only authentic if it is projected eternally into the future: if you change your mind, if you betray the faith, then you were never faithful in the first place.  Hence the compulsion, on the part of a small minority, to adopt dogmatic and sectarian attitudes… it is better to be ultra-orthodox than poisoned with infidelity.  And yet even the ultra-orthodox will be challenged; some of the most faithful will indeed abandon their ideology when faced with the onslaught of bourgeois normality.

Indeed, dogmatists are often the first to capitulate; religious thought is hardly critical, even if it does provide a temporary escape from the enemy order.  More significantly, dogmatic adherence to a tendency may force us into a position of abandonment if a revolutionary rupture is produced by an organization we dislike. Do any of us believe that every member of, for example, the Spartacist League, known for disliking everyone else on the left, would rectify their politics if a revolutionary movement proved their theory and practice wrong? Most likely they would continue to maintain that they were correct, even in the face of historical evidence, and become a counter-revolutionary force––as similar groups have become in various past revolutionary contexts.

We all want to believe that we will escape the challenge of abandonment, that we will never sell out, but many of our predecessors thought the same and look what happened to them.  So many abandonments on the part of those who imagined they were the most faithful––some small, some large, some woefully pitiful: Eldridge Cleaver embracing the CIA and fundamentalist Christianity; Regis Debray becoming an insufferable liberal; Deng Xiaoping commanding the reinscription of capitalism upon a revolutionary context; Christopher Hitchens becoming a mouthpiece for imperialism.  Then there is Kautsky, whose theoretical engagement with marxism heavily influenced Lenin's theory of organization, whose abandonment was a shock for the revolutionaries of the shattered Second International––Kautsky who is remembered largely as an historical cipher of revisionism rather than for his contribution to revolutionary theory.

So we can only hope that we will be part of the remainder if and when the next round of failures calls our political commitments into question.  In light of this future, then, it is better to hope against hope that a new revolutionary order will erupt within the social context where we are active… And to hope as well that we will not end up resisting this order, still caught within the constraints of bourgeois ideology if and when socialism is being built around us.


  1. This is probably the best piece I've ever read on this topic. Thank you for giving it such a sober, realistic treatment.


Post a Comment