Not so very long ago, a matter perhaps of seven or eight years, I was a devoted socialist. From the moment I read The Dispossessed at age fourteen, until I was roughly twenty-two or twenty-three, I regularly described myself as an anarcho-communist, and this was something of which I was immensely proud. I’m still proud of my anarchist roots, actually: freedom is my highest political value. Spare me from being so narrow-minded that it is my only one.
These days I hold some ideas that my fourteen-year-old self wouldn’t have been able to formulate clearly, and among them are the following:
- People are more important than ideas
- Curiosity is an essential virtue
- There are many measures of things’ value
- There is no single criterion or technique that can be called upon to resolve all problems or questions
Today I had an encounter that reminded me what a frightening creature I became in the name of freedom and equality, a person who transgressed these values. I’ve been wanting to write a post called “Why I left the left” for a few years, and here I have just the story I need to illustrate it. Thank you, Socialist Alternative.
The evening’s mission was to buy a card for a friend who will be married tomorrow, and two disposable ponchos in case rain hits on the bike ride I have planned for Sunday. On the corner of Bourke and Swanston I’m approached by a guy from Socialist Alternative (SA) who wants to recruit me to a protest against Max Brenner, a chocolate shop that has outlets in inner city Melbourne.
Max Brenner is owned by an Israeli. I am to understand that this person is donating money to the Israeli military. I do not know if this is true. Apparently these donations support genocide. I find that rather hard to believe, though I freely admit my ignorance on the matter.
On the other hand, I’m fairly sure that the protests that have been going on against Max Brenner disrupt the lives of the chocolatier’s workers and customers, and I’m clear that this displeases me. I’ve told the protesters I find their action inappropriate, to their face.
The SA guy asks me to take a flyer. I tell him I don’t agree with it. Thing is, I recognize him: he’s attended a session of a thing called Philosophy Jam. At Philosophy Jam, a group of people of all ages, mostly students of philosophy or creative writing at RMIT, gather at a bar called Madame Brussels to drink and discuss everyday philosophical problems.
I introduce myself, he gives his name.
”You’re that right-winger,” he says.
”I’m not sure I’d agree that I am.”
I say I’ll see him around, possibly at the jams.
”No, I don’t think so,” he says.
”Because it’s bullshit.”
”Oh, really? Why do you say that. I’m not disagreeing with you, just curious.”
”Because people like you go.”
I don’t remember everything we said. I’ll admit to being a bit riled, but these days I view such incidents mainly with amusement, and I kept my cool as I never would have at twenty-two.
By the time we part, I’ve been called a right-winger several times. I’ve revealed that I expressed my disapproval to the Max Brenner protesters when I encountered them at QV, and as a result I’ve been called a Zionist, a fascist, and a supporter of genocide. It’s blackly comical, given Judaism’s encounters with genocidal fascism in the past century.
I get the SA guy to hear me out on just one thing before I go.
”A long time ago,” I say, “I felt just like you did. I used to hang around with Socialist Alternative and people like that. And you know, when you are older, you might wish that you had shown more curiosity about other people and their beliefs.”
The thing was, I too used to greet people I knew nothing about with animosity because I thought I knew something about what they believed. I’d shout obscenities in the street at protests, as I’ve recounted fictionally in the second volume of my series No More Dreams (out early next year, I hope). And I believed that anyone who didn’t share my exact views was evil, stupid, or more probably both.
In time I saw myself for what I was: an ugly, rage-filled zealot. It’s why I left the left. For a while I thought I could make this better by turning around and being a rage-filled free-market zealot and defender of Western ideals.
I’m no longer into being a rage-filled zealot.
In my analysis, the reason socialism lends itself so well to rage-filled zealotry is because it holds to Marx and Engels’ insistence in The Communist Manifesto that class warfare is the paramount, immediate necessity. In this view, all other values are subordinate to the one, political goal of putting workers in control of the means of production, eliminating capitalism and instituting a communist utopia.
So for the dogmatic Marxist, anything goes in the name of politics, even, as Camus would point out, murder. But I love life and pleasure, so I cannot advocate murder and strife, and I cannot advocate incivility and hatred.
SA guy had the last word this evening: “You believe in behavioral economics, so how could I have anything to say to someone like you?” As if believing in behavioral economics was a knockdown argument, the final, unassailable indictment of someone’s intellect and character, the basis on which we finally deem them irrevocably unworthy of notice.
I don’t believe in behavioral economics, although I’m interested in it. I’m not sure what about that is supposed to condemn me.
In fact, I try not to believe too many things at all these days. I like to doubt and ask questions, although I must admit I am quite happy to have uncomplicated certainty about everyday things like that the person I see in front of me is a real person and not a solipsistic illusion.
There’s something I wish I’d thought of saying to SA guy tonight, one of the snarkier things I could have said, but I’m very confident of it. “You believe yourself an advocate of freedom and of critical thinking, but your mind is closed.” As mine was once closed.
I don’t know if I’m right-wing. I don’t think so. I prefer not to belong to a club if it means subscribing to a set of views instead of thinking my own thoughts. On the left I knew, I was expect to believe certain things and never to question or disagree. Certainly my analysis that Marxism held the roots of our ugly incivility was not acceptable in that milieu. I left the left so I could keep ownership of my own mind.
I know there are other kinds of left. In my very wide circle of acquaintance, there are civil people who enjoy reasoned debate and call themselves left-wing. No problem.
I believe in freedom and respect for human beings. Maybe one day I’ll be a zealot about something again. Anything can change.
Until then, I’m going to keep being an advocate for civility; for being curious about people’s beliefs and the reasons for them; and for treating people with respect, as more important than the ideas they hold.
Ideas, after all, are only things, and ephemeral things at that.