The spirit of the militant persists in the Left. The sad, ascetic militant that will sacrifice their personal safety for the greater good, and engage in clandestinity and risk taking. A spirit that developed throughout two centuries of struggle, where a word uttered against God, the King, or the Republic could land the Leftist behind bars or under a gravestone. The world had hardened the old militant of the first, second, and third international, sucked from them the softness of the happy human, and instead made them hard as steel, clear as crystal. The militant endured violence and delivered it, cultivated fealty and secrecy in the name of the central committee, the soviet state, or the anarchist ideal.
Here in the West, with its liberal democracies and freedom of speech, the same spirit persists in a diluted form. From the sacrificial work ethic that demands time and energy organizing, doing something, to the risk taking ethos of facing off the fascists and the police in the streets. It’s always about giving something, whether the free time that would have been otherwise destined to leisure, to the economic security that will be endangered once the employers know the Leftist’s labor organizing profile. Bravery, confrontation and risk-taking are encouraged. Yet, is that spirit relevant in today’s Global North?
The Tzar, Mussolini, and Napoleon III demanded asceticism, discipline and sacrifice, after all the policeman or the blackshirt could spring out from the shadows, robbing the militant from liberty and life for daring to speak up. In many developing countries, the torture chamber is still familiar to the leftist activist. Yet in the Global North, the conditions are different. Although the threat of violence is always implied through the State’s monopoly of violence, through its armed corps of men that deport, kill, and enforce in the name of private property, the liberal democratic state is not the same State confronted by the Parisian Communards or the Bolsheviks. The existence of the liberal State transcends its capacity of violence – its presence extends throughout every molecule of the air. The liberal State heals through public hospitals, speaks through the television and the internet, educates through school, observes and enforces not only through the police, but through the neighbor and employer. Centuries ago, the State was the external force of pure violence that robbed ancestral lands and taxed subjects – a remote office in a far away capital that could only be recognized by its gangs of armed men.
The historical memory of the Left is branded by the image of the State as an armed gang. In the developing world, in the American ghettos, in the Canadian reserve, the State still exists almost solely as an armed gang – as a corps of uniformed men that executes children and brutalizes unarmed people of color. Yet for the majority of the citizens in the Global North, the armed gang is semi-invisible, sometimes barely showing its face through a traffic ticket or the sound of a siren. A minority still knows very well the armed gang – the homeless, the criminals, the antifascists, the people of color; yet for the majority of people in the Global North, the State is schools, hospitals, roads and tax returns.
Once upon a time, one could speak about a society outside the State, outside the armed gang, within which the old socialist, anarchist and communist organizations could operate; radical organizations colonized this virginal space with their own schools, unions, and taverns – a para-legal space that acted as social glue and also prepared the workers so that someday, they could smash the capitalist armed gang and take power. However, as leftists struggled and pushed the State to reform, it slowly but surely grew, colonizing all space and becoming the sole social glue through its hospitals, parks, schools, and pensions. In the span of a two or three generations, the State outgrew its original armed gang, becoming the alpha and omega of society, becoming legitimate.
However, the militant that was created as a reaction to the old armed gang of the State still persists. The militant, enshrouded in semi-clandestinity, hungry for sacrifice and a street fight, projects an image of a war that their audience doesn’t recognize. The tit of the State, with its hospitals, schools, freedom of speech, and public elections, is comforting and familiar. The militant in black or red garb, with a millenarian language that evokes crisis and violence, is foreign and alienating.
The old militant was willing to bleed and die for a softer and brighter world, yet in the process, they hardened. Perhaps it’s time for the Leftist to embody that softness and humanity, a microcosm of that white light promised for the future. Although confrontation and aggression are still necessary, they shouldn’t overshadow making other people feel safe, welcome, and confident. Instead of projecting an image of sacrifice, violence, and danger, perhaps Leftists should engage in welcoming projects – education, building institutional and organizational power, and bringing the concepts of socialism and internationalism into the dominant discourse – in short, trying to carve a space in the mainstream. In the Global North, it used to be that the old militant was necessary, given that the police and paramilitaries killed, exiled, and incarcerated open leftists and people viewed the State as a foreign entity of pure violence. However, liberal democracies have changed the rules of the game, turning the old militant into an antiquated archetype.