“How does it help...to make troubles heavier by bemoaning them?" – Seneca
There is a propensity amongst those on the left to discuss revolution in the context of physical violence. I do not know of any communist who has not, at one time or another, spoken feverishly of toppling the old order with brutal excess. Of guillotines and street mobs. Of destroying landlords, capitalists, and petty shopkeepers alike. I am certainly not above and beyond talking in this way. When one observes the world through the lens of class struggle, it is easy to succumb to emotional reactions. Oftentimes, that reaction is one of despair, frustration and anger. For many of us, to be a communist is to be furious, to be constantly broiling with an anger that bubbles away just under the surface. Without sufficient means to channel this anger in a healthy way, it can so easily develop into blind hatred. A hatred for the capitalist system; a hatred for the capitalist himself. A hatred, even, for our fellow working people who have not seen the light that is so blinding to us.
The working class has been broken. It is shattered into millions of pieces. We are forced to sell off exorbitant amounts of our lives for paltry recompense. A single job does not ensure a comfortable home, nor good health, nor sufficient food. We can dedicate sixty hours a week to making money for capital and still find ourselves drowning in debt. We have watched COVID-19 sweep the globe, stealing away the lives of our loved ones. We have seen the excruciating contradiction of ‘key workers’ forced to work on minimum wage, with no promise of pay rises, or even better working conditions. We have seen the British government funnel the disease through care homes, where it festers away, swelling in size to devour those most vulnerable within our crumbling society. None of this is fair. To add insult to injury, we have all been rendered impotent by capitalism. Forced to scrabble in the dirt for table scraps, we have little time for organising or educating, let alone revolution.
So, without recourse, we turn to the power fantasies of the oppressed. We swaddle ourselves in anger and a righteous sense of hatred for those who are stronger than us. We engage in masturbatory victim sessions online, crooning over videos of masked protestors punching the police, over news articles about day traders battering hedge funds, over music inciting violence against politicians that we know we will never actually carry out. There’s an important question that goes unasked despite all of this: who do these fantasies serve? Do they make you feel better about your lot? Does the constant feeble rage give you a sense of purpose and energy? Do you find community in the acquiescence to suffering?
Or does it make you feel tired?
I have essentially unplugged from my Twitter account because I came to the realisation that my every waking moment was spent angry. Angry that I have to work in a job with no moral imperative. Angry that I’m underpaid. Angry that I can’t afford the renovations my home needs. Angry that climate change is getting worse. Angry that the pandemic shows no signs of slowing. Angry that a year of my life has been spent huddled and fearful indoors. Angry that we’re slipping deeper into an economic depression. Angry that critical thinking and the development of our civilisation have been sacrificed on the pyre of ‘freedom of speech’ as an offering to liberal capitalism. And yet, I wake up certain that I will go to work today and spend another eight hours making spreadsheets. My house will be a little more time-worn than it was the day before. The pandemic will grow worse, as will our economic decline. The world will continue on its path whether I’m angry about it or not. So I choose to succumb, and therein lies the real catharsis that I have never found as a voice of fury.
I accept that I have no power. I accept that I will not bring about any more change than that which has been predetermined for me by the ongoing development of a system that transcends a mere economic paradigm. I accept that suffering underpins existence: it is the very essence of life itself. I cannot escape it; communism cannot not resolve it. The only power I or anyone else has, for now, is how we react to this fact.
I don’t want this essay to be seen as a sermon. I am not particularly invested in what I am saying. I am not trying to sell you anything. I am simply offering my perspective, because I do enjoy writing, and because our blog needs more content. So, here is the crux of the essay:
What if your reaction, your emotional response, to the ongoing tragedy of your existence, is the only control and power you will ever hold? What if denying our mutual situation anger, hatred, and other negative emotions, is the only way you will ever find liberation? Have you tried it? You can call it a victory if you want. It certainly feels like a victory at first. After spending so much energy worrying about pain, finding that this was all optional has been one hell of a relief. You don’t have to sacrifice knowledge that things are bad, or that injustice continues to permeate our lived reality, just the hope that it will all get better. As Seneca said, “whoever has nothing to hope, let him despair of nothing.”
Communists, especially statists, spend an awful lot of time worrying about the future. They prepare for the day when the working class has awoken so that they can guide us like benevolent shepherds towards the promised land. Again, I have perpetuated this trope all too often in the past. Only two months ago I wrote about the need for a "New Left" and the noble task of striving for progress. The danger in this line of thinking is that we sacrifice the present for a mythologised future: one that is unlikely to ever be realised. Moreover, we unwittingly allow communism to become a part of, and consequently the majority of, our Selves. To be a revolutionary without revolution around you is a depressing existence.
I think it’s important to note at this point, that this is not meant to be an anti-intellectual position. By all means, we should constantly be striving to expand our knowledge. I will continue to read economic and political theory. I will continue to debate the merits of communist ideology with my close friends. I do not intend to simply give up on my convictions, however I only intend to indulge them insofar as I can live them out. Viktor Frankl, the Austrian Neurologist and Holocaust survivor said this: “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.”
What is communism without kindness? What is socialism without compassion? All too often we discuss our ideologies in the macroscopic sense, in broad histories and with dispassionate statistics. We are eager to eulogise the failures of our predecessors, and in doing so we overlook the essence of inhumanity that often underpinned their existence. Perhaps that is due to a sense of constant need to defend the USSR, Cuba, Vietnam and China from the poor faith arguments of dishonest detractors. Ask yourself: why am I defending these regimes? You must see something idealised within them, or perhaps you see something of your Self within these states? The problem is that you cannot separate the USSR from the Tambov Rebellion, Cuba from the Grey Years, Vietnam from the Khmer Rouge and China from Tiananmen Square. Even in the so-called workers' states, we have suppressed, tortured, and murdered ourselves. Lao Tzu said, “Because wise rulers love the people, they lead without using force…While protecting the people, they do not control them.” A state with the workers’ interests at heart will not have to resort to purges, terror and destruction to achieve their liberation. Through good action and loving kindness, a harmonious state will arise from out of each community, and the whole shall grow stronger. If you give up guarding these governments, and separate your sense of Self from their ideologies, you will find more peace. What use is there in defending the USSR to someone who has no interest in an impartial, objective truth? Moreover, are you interested in the objective truth? Are you as interested in acknowledging the tragedies carved out in the name of communism as the successes? Or is it possible that your Self has become so entwined with the history of communism that you cannot stand to hear communist regimes denigrated without also feeling denigrated yourself? Know when to abandon emotional connexions and yield for your own sake. You can be the People’s Republic of China if you want to be, but it’s an awful lot of effort for not much reward.
Lao Tzu said “True goodness is like water; it nurtures everything and harms nothing. Like water, it ever seeks the lowest place, the place that all others avoid.” In fostering compassion for all living beings, you can nurture the peace within yourself and improve the world around you. It is easy to love your fellow worker. It is easy to find brotherhood amongst the oppressed. It is more difficult to extend compassion and understanding to our oppressors. The capitalist exists purely at the expense of the worker, and yet he suffers under capitalism just like us. In his obsession with ownership and control he has severed his connection to humanity. In his desperate pursuit to consume he has become utterly numb to bliss and true happiness. He will never derive joy or satisfaction from any Thing or Sensation without an excessive price tag (and even then, the enjoyment will be fleeting). He will never understand that community with kind and honest people is the ultimate source of blessedness.
“Wealth on Earth cannot compare to the treasures of Heaven. In order to gain heavenly treasure, an individual has to forgo temptations on Earth, and if they are wealthy then their riches should be given away and used to help those in need and not stored up.” So said Jesus.
In this context we can see that the capitalist, despite all the evil he unleashes upon the world, is perhaps more in need of understanding and compassion than anyone else. After all, what a miserable creature he is.
The communist hates the capitalist because the capitalist deprives the worker of the fruit of their own labour and forsakes them with poverty. Yet the communist could not exist without the capitalist. For the communist who has succumbed sleepily to the ego, the capitalist is central to the existence of the communist’s Self. Love your enemy, the capitalist then. Not because in loving them you hope to one day bring them around to your side, or to foster within them some realisation of the misery they impose upon us. Love the capitalist because without the capitalist You would not exist in the very literal sense. As Alan Watts said, we “depend on the nasty people in order to know that [we] are nice. [We] are as a matter of fact highly indebted to them.” The fact that the most dedicated communists amongst us have not taken our ideology to its most extreme yet logical conclusion, suggests that the preservation of their Self is more important than acting on all the sabre-rattling guillotining-nonsense that they are so want to indulge in. If they won’t become the revolutionaries that they pretend to be online, or in their little organisations, why bother at all? Moreover, why should you?
To put it another way: we are all actors. We all play roles over the course of our existence, which is itself a grand opera that never ends. If you go away and think about this and conclude that I’m right, why satisfy yourself with being an extra? And if you can’t or won’t take on a main role, why not find a new part to play? You can always reprise a similar role in the next act if things start to get more interesting, and your old role becomes more relevant to the central story. Maintain communism as a part of yourself but deprive it of an emotional attachment, and you will find catharsis despite the ongoing decline of our civilisation. Be ready and willing to extol its virtues to the receptive if you wish, but do not take on the role of the preacher and expect to retain an unattached happiness and comfort.