Mourning becomes the Left

Earlier this week I came across a couple of pieces on Richard Seymour’s blog Lenin’s Tomb that I can’t get out of my head.  A long, meditative piece on “The Great Federation of Sorrows. Mourning and militancy in the age of Trump,” and a much shorter piece on the suicide of the blogger’s friend, Mark Fisher. Both pieces dealt with mourning, melancholia, depression and the Left.

For the last few years, I have had a really hard time engaging politically, even in the last two months, with the “all hands on deck” imperative of the looming Trump presidency. Most distressingly, it is precisely the aspects of political engagement that used to fire me up the most – gathering with comrades at local or branch meetings, taking collective action in the streets – that are most likely now to sour my mood.

In fact, I have shorthanded it sometimes as “political depression” — but haven’t really taken that diagnosis seriously. I have developed certain strategies and habits that help me function when my depression is triggered by events in my personal life — thankfully, my depression is mild and infrequent enough that I haven’t required medication. But in our society, where political engagement is not only not mandated but actively discouraged, it is far easier to simply disengage when this “political depression” looms.

The Lenin’s Tomb pieces, though, made me think that this may be an even deeper problem. Seymour notes that “[c]lassically, depression is linked to mourning, in a way that most modern therapies (drugs or CBT) have tended to forget or repress,” and asks:

[W]hat happens to a defeated class, a class that is what it is because of historical defeats? A class that is made by loss and separation? To the extent that we can speak of the working class as a subject, it must be a melancholic subject. Its self-harm and self-medications those of a defeat which cannot be mourned, raged about, because it can’t be experienced as such.

In addition to depression, I have also experienced a lot of sudden and sometimes uncontrollable anger (though fortunately for my family, friends and comrades, I am a good New Englander and mostly suppress my emotions and turn them inward). And in many ways my withdrawal from political life over the past few years has been a form of denial – denial that it was necessary, or would make any difference. Denial, anger, depression … sound familiar?

The organization that has in many ways been my organizational and political home for most of the past decade and a half, the Vermont Workers’ Center, suffered an historic defeat a couple of years ago, and in the aftermath of that defeat went through a fairly bitter organizational split. At around the same time, the worker coop that I had spent several years trying to build into a successful business collapsed.

I’ve spent a lot of time, individually and with comrades, analyzing these defeats. But probably not enough time mourning them.

As Seymour points out:

[D]efeat should not be disabling. The history of the Left is a history of defeats. It is the history of the vanquished, necessarily. Marxism, Enzo Traverso reminds us, is a science of defeat. “The whole road of socialism,” said Rosa Luxemburg, “is paved with nothing but thunderous defeats”. In the traditions of the left, defeat is recognised as a vital pedagogical process, even as its tragic dimension overwhelms us.

The novelist Jules Valles dedicated The Insurrectionist, on the Paris Commune, “to the dead of 1871” and all who “formed, under the flag of the Commune, the great federation of sorrows”. But from the crushing of the Paris Commune came, thirty years later, an age of mass socialist parties all over Europe. From the demolition of the internationalist left in 1914, came the electrifying revolution of 1917.

Even the brutal murder of left leaders from Che Guevara to Victor Jara summon mass funerals, not as a symbol of “the end of a communist hope” but as “one of its expressions”. Defeat formed part of a texture of collective memory, a strategic factor in struggle.

But few of our organizations, parties, trade unions, or intellectuals – at least in the U.S. – do this any more. We have subscribed to the gospel of positive thinking, that organizers especially must model hope and optimism, that we must frame everything as a victory. “Don’t mourn, organize!” In the wake of traumatic events like the recent election, we are sometimes urged as individuals to take time to mourn, but our organizations don’t really have a structure or practice for collective mourning.

My entire political life has been filled with assurances that we should have hope, that we are entering a new dawn of movement-building, that, for example “[f]rom Standing Rock, North Dakota to Ferguson, Missouri; from San Juan, Puerto Rico to Oakland, California and across the globe; together, and taking the time to build genuine connection and solidarity, we can build sustainable coalitions that will not only resist empire but also continue working towards creating a better world.” (this latest from Eroc Arroyo-Montaño, in United for a Fair Economy’s State of the Dream 2017 report, released this week).

I can’t read them anymore, not without some real, collective emotional reckoning with our historic defeats – and not just obvious defeats like the election of Trump but the subtler defeats of how successful the Clintons and Obama have been at subordinating much of the Left to the project of building a mass party of the center.*

I think we need to reclaim mourning as one of our practices on the Left, as a political and communal practice (or, rather, reclaim it more broadly – the incorporation of mourning is certainly one of the things that gives the Black Lives Matter movement such power – and in a way that allows us to mourn the defeat of our hopes as well as the loss of lives).

Otherwise, no matter how much our bodies are in streets and workplaces and neighborhoods with the good word of hope, we are shutting our souls alone into a house full of ghosts.


*While Van Gosse was obviously wrong about how successful this project would be in dominating American politics, I think he was spot on about the intent.

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