[Marxism] Re: Tracking the evolution of former ex-leftists: Why?

Marvin Gandall marvgandall at videotron.ca
Sat Nov 12 06:43:20 MST 2005

Jim Farmelant wrote:

> ...there are many examples of people who after
> having establishing reputations as left-wing
> thinkers or leaders have defected to the right.
> I think the most obvious answer is that there
> are very significant rewards to be gained from
> a defection to the right, both monetarily and in
> terms of social prestige and access to political
> power...

> There are certainly other factors too.  People
> who are active in struggles for social change
> often burn out after a while.  It requires very
> considerable inner strength to stick it out
> over the long haul.  Participants in such
> struggles often take heart by becoming
> attached to some particular
> country such as the former Soviet Union
> or China to which they develop very idealized
> images that may not correspond to the
> realities of those places.  When these
> people realize the imperfections of
> these idealized models they may become
> very disillusioned and so give up entirely
> on the struggle for social change.
There are also deeper historical factors at work, from which no one is
immune. While high-profile defectors like Horowitz and Hitchens have
profited from their past by defaming it and aligning themselves with the
most powerful and reactionary forces in in the society, it is misleading to
suppose that the vast majority of "people who are active in social
struggles" abandon them because they lack "inner strength" or sufficient

There were three major periods of political upsurge in the advanced
capitalist countries in the last century - the great revolutionary wave at
the end of the First World; the organization of the industrial unions and
expansion of the left during the Depression through World War II; and the
anti-imperialist wars and student rebellions of the 60's and 70's.  All were
followed by downturns and dashed expectations. To suggest that millions of
workers, farmers, and intellectuals over three generations "burned out"
primarily because of psychological or intellectual shortcomings is not a
satisfactory, ie. materialist, explanation of a mass phenomenon which has
been more characteristic of our times than successful social revolutions.
This is a surprising slip from Jim Farmelant whose contributions are
typically very sharp.

My impression is that vast numbers of people retreated from politics into
more private pursuits less from psychological or intellectual shortcomings
than a sober assessment, often based on their own experience, that the
prospect of real change and opportunity for large-scale mass activity had
passed. (In extreme circumstances, as under fascism, terror and fear are
more powerful factors driving people out of politics, but fascism has not
been the normal condition of political life in the advanced capitalist

There's an understandable tendency on the part of those few still
politically active to contrast their steadfastness in "staying the course"
with those who haven't. But this overlooks that people are only really
"tested" during social and national crises, when they are frequently driven
underground or are forced to take up arms against foreign aggression.
They're not tested in relatively stable periods like the present when
belonging to small groups and coalitions, going to demonstrations,
campaigning during elections, and participating in chat groups and other
discussion forums is the essence of political activity - all legal and
accepted and mostly consistent with how individuals enjoy spending their

This is not to suggest that such activity is irrelevant insofar as it
contributes, however modestly, to anti-imperialist struggles abroad and
reform struggles at home, but it is not a sufficient standard by which
others, including many in the past who made greater sacrifices before being
forced to retreat, should be judged and found wanting. We can expect that if
there is a resurgence of class struggle, some now active will move to the
sidelines and some who have been inactive may reenter. I was impressed, for
example, by the number of old friends and comrades I met at Iraq
demonstrations who I hadn't seen since the Central America protests of the
80's and beyond, back to Vietnam days, illustrating again how the rhythm of
political engagement necessarily corresponds to the rhythm of political
developments. (Of course, any new upturn would see many more new faces than
old ones.)

In my experience, those who see political views as fixed and the result of
personal failings rather than as a constantly shifting process dependent on
the movement of history are the most prone to succumbing to the politics of
moral superiority and denuciation - the kind of politics which burns rather
than builds bridges to the broader constituencies at home and abroad with
which they ought to be allied at all times. This kind of self-reinforcing
dysfunctional political behaviour seems to be most pronounced when the left
is small and isolated from the masses.

More information about the Marxism mailing list