I have been a leftist at least since college about 12 years ago. I still remember when, after much thinking, I decided that I was an anarchist. To this day, I still think capitalism is a fundamentally flawed system that should be replaced with something better. However, I have had some thoughts lately that seem to go against everything I have stood for as a leftist, yet I can’t help but thinking there is some truth to it. The past year I have read a lot of existentialist philosophy and psychology, especially Nietzsche and Rollo May. While May has influenced my thought a great deal, the main influence for what I will address here has been Nietzsche.
Nietzsche saw a difference between what he called “master morality” and “slave morality” in his The Geneology of Morals. He claims that the traditional powerful classes differentiated between “good” and “bad,” with “good” being associated with their own mastery and accomplishments and “bad” as that which was associated with the weaker social classes. Nietzsche goes on to claim that the weaker classes developed resentment against the powerful, jealous of the weak classes’ inability to have what the masters did. Thus, the weak labelled everything the masters were as “evil” and wealth, power, and prestige were seen as vices. This dichotomy of good vs. evil he labels as “slave morality,” which he sees as the basis for Christianity. He sees a similar dynamic with socialists and democrats of his day, with the agitators for equality being a form of jealous resentment. As a historical analysis, I think Nietzsche is extraordinarily simplistic, especially since it fails to address the anxieties and fears that drive the “masters” to cling to power.
Nonetheless, I have been wondering if many on the left are not really as morally righteous as they claim, but are actually coming from a selfish sense of resentment when they express anger at the moral evils of capitalism (or racism/sexism/pick any “ism”). This is not something I can prove and it is honestly mostly speculative, but I think there is some truth to it given how angry people on the left can be. To be sure, there is much to be angry about and much social injustice that makes me angry, which a glance at my blog posts here will demonstrate.
However, I am more concerned about activists who are so consistently angry that it seems to be the basis for their identity. For emphasis, I will repeat that there is much to be angry about, but there is a difference between being angry about specific things and having anger as the basis for your worldview. I speak as someone who absolutely used to be in the latter category and in many ways is still struggling to be angry at the right things, as opposed to generally resentful. From my own self-introspection I think my anger was based in a sense of alienation and feeling that I didn’t belong in a world where accumulating wealth was the top priority. I’ve come to realize I face three choices: (1) I can leave my leftist beliefs behind and accept the values of mainstream capitalist society, (2) I can become angry at mainstream society for not sharing my values, or (3) I can be angry at the cruelty that is part of capitalist society and yet affirm my own ability to exist in it without feeling alienated or letting anger be the basis for my worldview. Rollo May, in Man’s Search for Himself, discusses how rebellion is important but is the adolescent stage on the way to full maturity. In full maturity, one goes beyond just saying “No” to what one does not like but says “Yes” to one’s own values and creativity. I honestly feel that much of the left is still in the adolescent stage.
For an extreme example, take ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and Racism). They are angry about the right things, but all they are is angry. Their webpage lists off all the things they hate: violence against women, opposition to war, FBI domestic surveillance, right-to-work laws, among other things. Their site has a number of images of their protests. Another example (admittedly more extreme) is the International Socialist Organization, which I worked with in college in anti-death penalty activism. Even back then I could see that these people were at most allies of convenience since their whole identity is based on anger at capitalism. If there were some kind of revolution I wouldn’t trust ISO members to lead it since they are angry and dogmatic, which is an extremely unhealthy combination.
Even a site like ZNet, which to be fair often has posts about positive vision, usually contains post after post about how this or that oppressor is hurting this or that oppressed person. I find myself having more respect for the work of one of ZNet’s founders Michael Albert, along with Robin Hahnel, for their focus on developing an alternative vision of a future economy, Participatory Economics. They clearly have no love for capitalism and are part of activists circles, yet they are informed by a positive vision. Or even someone like Hugo Chavez is a good example. As angry as he is at the US government, he has tried to advance (rightly or wrongly) what he sees as a better society for Venezuela.
These words may be hard for people to relate to and I find myself having trouble expressing them as articulately as I would like. Nonetheless, I cannot help but think that much of leftist anger says as much about the angry person as it does about the injustice he or she is angry at. I have chosen for myself that I am not going to make opposition to capitalism or other forms of injustice the center of my identity. Do I do enough to help those suffering from social injustice? Surely not, as this blog is presently my only current attempt to promote dialogue and educate people as much as I can about the workings of power. But I find myself caring more for people who suffer than when I was consistently resentful.