When Realism Becomes Capitulation

Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right,
changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary,
and does not consist wholly with anything which was.

–Thoreau

One of the most dangerous aspects of the present cultural and social counterrevolution is the widespread belief that capitalism is here to stay, that it is a “natural” social order, and that attempts to change its basic structure are futile and irrelevant at best and pernicious at worst. This belief, the conventional wisdom of the present generation, is now deeply rooted in the “children of the sixties,” the hell-raisers of 1968, who upon reaching middle age have found new pathways back to the society that they once denounced with insurrectionary theatrics. Nothing is more distasteful than 1960s anarchists and socialists who, roaring with “revolutionary” declamations a generation ago, have now ensconced themselves in the academy, professions, and business–and are currently waging an unrelenting criticism of positions that radically challenge the present social order as “sectarian.”

We have already encountered this message from former socialists who have transformed themselves into so-called “radical democrats” and from former anarchists who have transformed themselves into what Deleuze and Guattari have called (in all seriousness!) “desiring machines,” focused on a Yuppie pursuit of self-expression and a fulfilled “personhood.” If, as refurbished “radicals” now tell us, socialism in all its forms is a lost cause; if liberal capitalism is the best outcome we can expect from humanity’s long journey out of animality; then any hope that people can ever share this planet with one another in a benign, caring, and ecological way–indeed, that reason can shape social development to achieve the historic aim of an ethical society–has been mindlessly jettisoned. Humanity, we must suppose, can no longer attempt of its own free will to produce a cooperative society, and its future must be founded on a variant of the Hobbesian notions of a war of all against all.

No one, to be sure, can deny the right of 1960s socialists and anarchists to embrace the status quo in their various ways or adopt restful ideologies that threaten nothing in the established social order. But the difficulty that former radicals face, alas, is that capitalism will not leave them in peace. Society will not allow them to enjoy the economic and political quietude so necessary for stasis. Like natural evolution, social evolution goes on, and no “end of history” has produced the ideological and psychological certitudes on which to create a world of adaptation and self-satisfaction. Wrong as Marx was about the hegemonic role of the proletariat in transforming society, he was brilliantly insightful in delineating the explosive contradictions within capitalism–to which we today can add the inevitable contradiction between capitalist society and the natural world.

The great tradition, born from past revolutions both of society and of the mind, must be preserved if we are to retain our own humanity and a sense of hope. We hold the conviction that a truly communistic society is not only possible but necessary as the outcome of humanity’s potential for freedom and self-consciousness; that reason can guide human affairs within society as well as our dealings with the natural world; that the hovering shadows of a dismal, fearful, and antirational past, with its mystical appeals to and denigration of the human spirit, can be effaced by enlightenment, secularity, and a commitment to progress.

If libertarian socialism in some form is not to be part of humanity’s destiny, and if reason is to be merely a contrivance for adapting to the status quo or its basically bourgeois permutations, then what passes for consciousness today is adaptive rather than innovative and more animalistic than potentially human. In the face of today’s massive surrender of erstwhile leftists, one is tempted to cry, “If you cannot challenge the foundations of this malignant social order, then have the decency to refrain from calling those who still do ‘sectarian’ and ‘dogmatic.’ Pray, do not lecture those who are still trying to carry on the revolutionary tradition, the centuries-long struggle for a cooperative society and a truly democratic politics, on the need for a new ‘realism’ and ‘pragmatism'”–least of all at a time when social and ecological collision threatens to attain apocalyptic proportions.

To “radical democrats” and lifestyle anarchists, we would like to suggest that they find what niche they can in this increasingly constrictive and barbarous world, and luxuriate in it with all the fantasies they please. But have the moral probity to recognize that in the present time, nothing could be more indecent that to condemn the revolutionary tradition, its visions of a free, cooperative, and ecological society, and its adherents committed to serious social action in a lived public sphere as “sectarians” and “dogmatists.”

If the persistence of radical commitment is troubling because it recalls former ideals worn down by three decades of defeat, and now replaced by an ugly cynicism, then by all means shed these ideals completely, without diluting them into reforms that provide a patina for modern capitalism. But should a future generation emerge that knows nothing of the revolutionary tradition because it has been removed from academic and public “discourse,” the phrase “human spirit” will be a euphemism for cultural barbarism, spiritual death, and a self-indulgent narcissism.

—The Social Ecology Project


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